Frances Jane Crosby was born on March 24, 1820, in her parents’ small gray single-story clapboard Cape Cod farmhouse, that was built in 1758 near a brook of the East Branch Croton River, and standing just back from a quiet country road, Gayville Road, Gayville (now Foggintown Road, in the village of Brewster)in the township of Southeast, Putnam County, New York, about fifty miles north of New York City, near the Connecticut border. She was the only child of her father John Crosby a poor widower, who had a daughter from his first marriageand his second wife, Mercy Crosby.
In May 1820, when six weeks old, Crosby caught a cold and developed inflammation of the eyes. As the family physician was out of town, an unschooled traveling doctor who came in his place applied mustard poultices to treat the discharges coming from her eyes. According to Crosby, this procedure damaged her optic nerves and blinded her. Many physicians today, however, “suggest it is much more likely that her blindness was congential”, and that “at such an early age her sightless condition may well have escaped her parents”.
In April 1825 Mercy Crosby took Crosby to New York City to be examined by Valentine Mott, then “America’s premier surgeon”, hoping that he might be able to operate and restore her eyesight. After consulting with ophthalmologist Edward Delafield, a co-founder of the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary, Mott concluded that Crosby’s condition was inoperable and that her blindness was permanent. At the age of eight Crosby wrote her first poem, which described her condition:
- Oh what a happy soul I am,
- Although I cannot see;
- I am resolved that in this world
- Contented I will be.
- How many blessings I enjoy,
- That other people don’t;
- To weep and sigh because I’m blind,
- I cannot, and I won’t.
About her blindness, she said:
It seemed intended by the blessed providence of God that I should be blind all my life, and I thank him for the dispensation. If perfect earthly sight were offered me tomorrow I would not accept it. I might not have sung hymns to the praise of God if I had been distracted by the beautiful and interesting things about me.
What faith! Her faith comes from the environment in which she grew up in. Her home environment was as sustained by “an abiding Christian faith”. “At its center stands the Bible in the classic rendering of the Authorized Version. Crosby frequently admitted its centrality in her childhood home, where the family altar found a regular place. Although she could not read for herself, she memorized Scripture under the patient tutelage of her grandmother. Evidence suggests that this Crosby family pegged its understanding of duty, community, and family to the biblical text.
Shaped by the Calvinist reading of Scripture that years before had prompted the family’s migration to the New World, the Crosbys of Southeast understood that God had a purpose for whatever happened; they clung to the certainty that God was in control. They knew God as the source of true pleasure and believed that all they had—meager or abundant—came from God’s hand. … As lived out at home — at least in [Fanny] Crosby’s recollection — the Calvinism of these sons and daughters of Massachusetts Bay was serious without being dour, joyous without being frivolous. It refreshed the soul while sustaining the body, and so it seemed particularly suited to those who, like the Crosbys, eked out hard, meager livings from the land.”
Encouraged by her grandmother and later by Mrs. Hawley, her family’s landlady, from the age of ten, Fanny had memorized five chapters of the Bible each week, until by the age of fifteen Crosby had memorized the four gospels, the Pentateuch, the Book of Proverbs, the Song of Solomon, and many of the Psalms.
On Saturday, March 7, 1835, just before her 15th birthday, Crosby became the thirty-first pupil of the year to enrol at the New York Institution for the Blind (NYIB) (now the New York Institute for Special Education), a state-financed asylum that had been founded in April 1831, and opened on March 15, 1832. At the time of her enrolment, there was 41 pupils, Crosby was one of the 28 “indigent blind” who were funded by the state of New York, at the rate of $130 a year.
Fanny remained at the Blind Institution for eight years as a student, and another two years as a graduate pupil and it was during this time that she learned to play the piano, organ, harp, and guitar, and became a good soprano singer. Even as an old woman she “would sit at the piano and play everything from classical works to hymns to ragtime. Sometimes she even played old hymns in a jazzed up style.”
Fanny joined a group of lobbyists in Washington, D.C. in 1843 after she graduated from the New York Institution for the Blind. They argued for support of education for the blind. Fanny was the first woman to speak in the United States Senate when she read a poem there. When Crosby appeared before a joint sitting of both houses of the United States Congress, she recited these lines:
- O ye, who here from every state convene,
- Illustrious band! may we not hope the scene
- You now behold will prove to every mind
- Instruction hath a ray to cheer the blind.
On January 24, 1844, Crosby was one of seventeen students from the New York Blind Institution who gave a concert for the Congress in the US Capitol, and she recited a thirteen stanza original composition that called for the creation of an institution for the education of the blind in every state, which “drew calls for an encore”, and earned the congratulations of John Quincy Adams.
On January 29, 1844 Crosby and nineteen other Blind Institution students gave a presentation to Daniel Haines, the governor; and the council and New Jersey General Assembly at Trenton, New Jersey, where she recited a twelve-stanza original poem calling for the aid and education of the blind. When President James K. Polk visited the Blind Institution in 1845, Crosby recited a poem she composed for the occasion that praised “republican government”.
Fanny was a woman of action. She travelled to Washington, D.C. and again spoke before a joint session of the United States Congress, with delegations from the Boston and Philadelphia Insitutions for the Blind, “to advocate support for the education of the blind in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York”, she spoke to the Congress on April 30, testified before a special congressional subcommittee, and sang a song she composed in the music room at the White House for Polk and his wife. Among the songs she sang as she accompanied herself on the piano was her own composition:
- Our President! We humbly turn to thee –
- Are not the blind the objects of thy care?
In 1846 Fanny was an instructor of the younger children at the New York Institution for the Blind, and was listed as a “graduate pupil”. In September 1847 she joined the faculty at the New York Institution for the Blind, teaching English grammar, rhetoric, and Greek history, Roman history, and American history, where she remained until three days before her wedding on March 5, 1858. By 1848 there were 60 pupils enrolled at the Blind Institution. While she taught at the institute in New York, Fanny studied music. She befriended future US president Grover Cleveland who was 17 at the time and the dean of students; an assistant teacher of writing, reading, and arithmetic; and a bookkeeper and secretary to the administrator of the Institution from 1853 to 1854. The two of them spent a lot of time together. Cleveland often transcribed the poems Fanny dictated to him and he wrote a recommendation for her which was published in her 1906 autobiography.
Fanny began writing poetry from eight years old. Her earliest published poem was on the theme of a dishonest miller near Ridgefield, Connecticut, which was sent without her knowledge to P.T. Barnum, who published it in his The Herald of Freedomof Danbury, Connecticut.
Despite a serious illness that resulted in her leaving the Blind Institution to recuperate, Fanny’s first published book, A Blind Girl and Other Poems was published after encouragement by the Blind Institution in April 1844 by Putnam & Wiley. It contained 78 of her original poems and addresses, including what Fanny described as her first published hymn, “An Evening Hymn”, based on Psalm 4:8.
Fanny was reluctant to have her poems published, but she eventually agreed to have them published as it would both publicise the Institution and raise funds for it.
On a personal note, Fanny met her future husband, Alexander Van Alstyne, Jr in the summer of 1843. Alexander was legally blind and it was his mother (a widow) who convinced Fanny to recommend him to be enrolled at the NYIB, and to take him under her personal charge. During his four years at NYIB, Alexander and Fanny were casual acquaintances of Crosby and sometimes a student in her classes.
In 1848 Alexander became the first NYIB graduate to attend a “regular college”, when he enrolled at Union College in Schenectady, New York, where he studied music, Greek, Latin, philosophy, and theologyand earned a teaching certificate. He and Fanny married on March 5, 1858. Sadly, they lost their only child–a girl, Frances who died in her sleep soon after she was born. This loss made Fanny reclusive and she hardly ever mentioned that she was a mother. It was in a few interviews toward the end of her life that she said, “Now I am going to tell you of something that only my closest friends know. I became a mother and knew a mother’s love. God gave us a tender babe but the angels came down and took our infant up to God and to His throne”
Fanny Crosby was one of the best known women in the United States. She was probably the most prolific hymnist in history. Though blinded by an incompetent doctor at six weeks of age, she wrote over 8,000 hymns. What an achievement! To this day, the vast majority of American hymnals contain her work. One of my favorites is Praise Him, Praise Him.
Fanny was a rescue mission worker. She and her husband lived in a small, cramped apartment in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. It was situated near one of Manhattan’s worst slums, just a few blocks from the notorious Bowery, a well-known “haunt for hopeless alcoholics and the main artery of a thriving red light district and pornographic center.”
Being so close to this needy area, Fanny became zealous in her efforts to help the people around her. She became a great fan of Jerry McAuley, a former convict who was converted after hearing the testimony of a friend. Jerry founded the Water Street Mission, America’s first rescue mission, to minister to those enslaved to alcohol and violence as he once had been. She often mingled with McAuley’s audiences, conversing and counseling with those she met. She did not believe in pointing out people’s faults to them. “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!”
We salute this remarkable woman, dubbed America’s Hymn Queen, who did not spend her life in bitterness and defeat, but instead dedicated her life to Christ. She reached out to the needy, showing them the love and compassion of her Savior. She rescued the perishing.
“When I get to heaven, the first face that shall ever gladden my sight will be that of my Savior.”
“Oh, what a happy child I am, although I cannot see! I am resolved that in this world, contented I will be!”