When commemorating National Women’s History Month, the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Archives could celebrate any number of extraordinary women represented in its collections: author and missionary Elisabeth Elliot, evangelist Helen “Ma” Sunday, prison preacher Rev. Consuella York, Mission Aviation Fellowship pilot Betty Greene, Holocaust-survivor and author Corrie ten Boom, faith-healer and evangelist Kathryn Kuhlman, and many others. But this March, the Archives remembers poet, hymnist, composer, social reformer, and public speaker, Fanny Crosby (1820-1915), born two hundred years ago this month.
Although she could print little more than her name, Fanny Crosby became the most prolific American hymnist of the nineteenth century, writing thousands of sacred songs, sometimes composing up to six or seven hymns a day. Her most famous works include “Blessed Assurance”, “To God be the Glory”, “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior”, and “Safe in the Arms of Jesus.” A household name in her lifetime, Fanny Crosby’s compositions still litter hymnals across American Protestant denominations today. Crosby’s enduring popularity is a testimony not only to the extraordinary volume of her musical corpus but also to the simplicity and power of her lyrics to convict, comfort, and inspire audiences around the globe.
In addition to photographs, song books, and memorabilia, the Archives holds nearly 2,400 original manuscripts of Crosby’s hymns and poetry, composed between 1862 and 1915. The majority of the manuscripts are numbered and dated, a helpful guide for researchers tracing Crosby’s immense literary output. The finding aid for Collection 35: Papers of Fanny Crosby provides more details about these materials.
Frances Jane Crosby was born on March 24, 1820 in Putnam County, New York, the only child of John and Mercy Crosby. In her memoirs, dictated late in life, Crosby recounts the decisive moment that changed the trajectory of her life, an event she had only heard narrated. At six weeks old, she developed an eye infection, a common malady, but was treated by an inexperienced visiting doctor, whose mustard poultices seared Crosby’s optic nerves and permanently damaged her sight. For the rest of her life, Fanny Crosby could only see shades of light and dark. John Crosby died four months later, and Fanny was raised solely by her mother and maternal grandmother. In keeping with her New England Puritan heritage, Fanny’s upbringing included rigorous religious devotion. The lengthy scripture passages she devoted to memory anticipated her later poetry recitation performances before the US Congress, the New York State legislature, and a myriad other audiences.
From 1835 until 1858 Crosby lived at the New York Institution for the Blind, first as a student and later as a teacher of English and history. Crosby became well known while at the institution, partially because of her poetry (her poetry volume, The Blind Girl and Others, was published in 1844) and partially because of her cheerful, buoyant personality. Crosby married fellow teacher Alexander Van Alstyne in 1858, though in her public ministry she retained her maiden name for the rest of her life.
Another turning point in her life occurred in 1850 when Crosby attended the fall revival meetings at Thirtieth Street Methodist Church (later Broadway Tabernacle) and found herself walking the aisle to the “anxious bench” and experienced a life-changing conversion. For the next sixty-five years, Crosby freely collaborated with Protestant denominations of various stripes, but was ultimately associated with Methodist, Wesleyan, and the growing Holiness movement, not surprising given their strong tradition of hymnody.
Crosby wrote her first hymn in 1864 at the request of song publisher William Bradbury, whose operation was acquired by Lucius Horatio Biglow and Sylvester Martin. Crosby remained associated with Biglow and Main for the rest of her life, although she also collaborated with other publishing houses.
The sheer volume of Crosby’s literary output is staggering, especially given her disability. A team of transcribers, including Crosby’s husband Van and her personal secretary Eva Cleaveland, worked to keep pace with Crosby’s immense productivity. While Crosby was notably musical, often singing hymns along with reciting her poems for audiences, she did not compose the melody for any of her lyrics. One frequent musical collaborator was William Doane, who crafted the music for hundreds of Crosby’s hymns. Doane’s papers are also held in the Archives.
Fanny Crosby died on February 12, 1915 at the age of 94 after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage. She is buried in the Mountain Grove Cemetery near her family’s home in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Her original tombstone, erected by her family, bears the modest inscription: “Aunt Fanny: She Hath Done What She Could,” a distinct understatement considering not only her tremendous impact on the development of American sacred song, but also her significant contributions to rescue mission work in New York and vociferous advocacy for the city’s burgeoning immigrant and homeless populations. Her experiences as a social reformer are directly reflected in much of her later hymnody, especially her famous “Rescue the Perishing.”
Crosby’s posthumous popularity remains unabated. She was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1975, and her hymns continue to inspire congregation singing around the world.
In addition the Papers of Fanny Crosby, the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Archives also holds related materials in the Papers of William Doane, a businessman and fellow hymn writer who composed the music for hundreds of Crosby’s works. Doane’s collection is notable not only for containing his own sacred song lyrics, but also for his correspondence with other significant figures in American hymnody, including Ira Sankey and Philip Bliss. Another Collection, Ephemera of American Hymn Writers contains letters, memorabilia, and photographs tracing the careers of musicians such as Cliff Barrows, Gipsy Smith, George Stebbins, Homer Rodeheaver, and Ira Sankey, among others.