Fanny Crosby was blinded, while only six weeks old, by a quack unlicensed doctor. He permanently scarred her corneas by applying hot mustard poultices to her mildly infected eyes. When her father died while Fanny was only 12 months old, her mother had to become a maid to support little Fanny.
Despite these tragedies, Fanny never fell into self-pity. “Don’t waste any sympathy on me”, she said. “I’m the happiest person alive.” Fanny went on to become one of the best known women in North America. She taught for 23 years at the New York Institute for the Blind, becoming the personal friend and confidante of every sitting American President during her lifetime. As the first woman to ever address the U.S. Congress, Fanny left a lasting impact wherever she went.
One of the keys to her becoming so well-known was her partnering with the famous ‘DL Moody/Ira Sankey’ team. Sankey (who was also blind for his last five years) would often provide the tune, and Fanny Crosby would write the words. After the infamous Chicago fire that burned down Moody’s premises, Moody and Sankey went to England, speaking and singing their way into the hearts of the British people. Even Queen Victoria and the Princess of Wales came to hear Moody preach and Sankey sing Fanny Crosby’s songs. As one writer commented, Fanny Crosby ‘set more hearts and voices to praising God than any other women who ever lived. Fanny’s approach to life and music was “Live in the moment and make it so beautiful that it will be worth remembering.”
Fanny Crosby had a photographic memory, memorizing five chapters of the Bible every week. She knew by heart the first five books of the Old Testament, the four Gospels, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, and many of the Psalms. Some of her most well-known songs were “To God be the Glory, Great Things He hath Done”, “Draw Me Nearer, Precious Lord”, “Blessed Assurance”, and “Praise Him! Praise Him!”.
Fanny lived until age 95. When she was 83, she said: “I believe myself to still really be in the prime of my life.” When asked about her longevity, she said that her secret was that she guarded her taste, her temper, and her tongue.
Fanny actively supported the Water StreetMission in New York, the first Rescue Mission in North America. It had been founded by Jerry McAuley who himself had recovered from alcohol and prison. She did not focus on pointing out other people’s faults. “You can’t save a man by telling him of his sins. He knows them already. Tell him there is pardon and love waiting for him. Win his confidence and make him understand that you believe in him, and never give him up!” One of her best known songs “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Saviour” was written specifically for a prisoner who cried out at her meeting: “O Lord, Do not pass me by!”
Fanny was married for 44 years to Alexander Van Alistine, her former student and fellow instructor at the New York Institute for the Blind. With Alexander being a top organist and Fanny an accomplished harpist, they must have been quite a duo. Sadly their only child, Frances, died as a baby. It was this tragedy that inspired the writing of one of Fanny’s most famous songs: “Safe in the Arms of Jesus”.
Her song “Safe in the Arms of Jesus” even reached Uganda in 1885. The Anglican Bishop James Hannington was captured by King Mwanga and put for a week in a filthy rat-infested hut. Bishop Hannington’s last words in his diary were: “Go tell Mwanga that I have purchased the road to Uganda with my blood.” As they speared him to death, Hannington was joyfully singing “Safe in the Arms of Jesus”. His courageous death inspired 32 servants of King Mwanga to accept being burnt alive rather than renounce their faith and moral convictions. Such sacrifices have produced the second largest Anglican Church in the world, with over eight million Ugandan Anglicans attending church each Sunday.
I thank God for Fanny Crosby, the world’s most prolific songbird, who has shown tens of millions in every continent how to be ‘safe in the arms of Jesus’.
The Rev. Dr. Ed Hird, BSW, MDiv, DMin
-previously published in the Deep Cove Crier/North Shore News
-award-winning author of the book Battle for the Soul of Canada
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