Retrobituaries: Fanny Crosby, America’s Greatest Hymn Writer

Wikipedia // Public Domain
Wikipedia // Public Domain / Wikipedia // Public Domain

One of the more memorable parts of the Kennedy Center Honors last December was watching a gospel singer and children’s choir serenade actress Cicely Tyson with the hymn “Blessed Assurance.” In 2013, Tyson had knocked ’em dead night after night when she sang the song while starring in The Trip to Bountiful on Broadway.

“Blessed Assurance” was written by a woman who was once a household name in the United States. Fanny Crosby published thousands of hymns, song lyrics, and poems, was a noted public speaker, and promoted education for the disabled and the poor.

She was born Frances Jane Crosby in 1820, to a poor family near Brewster, New York. Within a few weeks, she came down with a bad cold and inflamed eyes that a quack physician treated with hot mustard poultices. The cold went away, but she was blinded. A few months after that, her father died and her mother went to work as a maid, leaving Fanny and her siblings to be raised by her grandmother.

Crosby’s devout grandmother set out to make sure her blind granddaughter was as well-educated as possible. By age 8 or so, Fanny was writing poems. Her grandmother had her memorize chapters of the Bible, and by the time the girl was 15, she had memorized more than 10 of its books. At that age, she enrolled in the New York Institution for the Blind, where she learned to play several musical instruments. She stayed at the school for many years, first as a student and then as a teacher.

In the 1840s, Crosby and others made trips to Washington to promote education for the blind. She is said to have been the first woman to speak in the U.S. Senate and addressed a joint session of Congress, where she recited patriotic poems and discussed the need for schools for the blind in each state. From her twenties on, she met with several presidents, but was especially friendly with Grover Cleveland, who had worked at the institute as a secretary.

Crosby and Alexander van Alstyne, Wikipedia // Public Domain

Crosby resigned her position at the school a few days before she married Alexander van Alstyne, a pupil at the institute, and who insisted she keep using her maiden name on her songs and poems. Not that her name mattered, because within a few years she was writing so many hymns that publishers gave her more than 200 pseudonyms. She is said to have written nearly 9000 hymns, many of them used widely in congregational singing in Methodist and other Protestant churches.

Poems and song lyrics pretty much flew out of Crosby. Her work now might seem stilted and overblown, but it in was the style of the times, and her work was very popular in 19th-century America. One popular song, “The Hazel Dell,” is reported to have sold more than 200,000 copies of sheet music.

Crosby could come up with lyrics with incredible speed. The composer William Doane once came to her unannounced with a new composition, but had to leave almost immediately to catch a train. He played the tune for her once and she came up with lyrics on the spot for “Safe in the Arms of Jesus,” one of her most famous hymns.

Although Crosby could write several hymns or other lyrics per week, she never made a lot of money. At that time, the composer of the music was often considered more important and the lyricist was given a set amount with no royalties. For most of her career, she was usually paid a dollar or two per song.

In her later years, she also worked with rescue missions, helping the poor in the New York’s notorious Bowery neighborhood and in Connecticut, where she lived in her old age.

In honor of her 85th birthday in 1905, churches around the world celebrated Fanny Crosby Day by singing her hymns.

Fanny Crosby died at the age of 94 and is buried in Bridgeport, Connecticut. In 1975, she was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.