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Song Bird Part 2 » Part Two

Part Two

Written by Louis W. Rodenburg
In the Journal: Outlook For The Blind,
Vol. 26, Pages 42-47, March, 1932.
Link to Part 1
Part 2. Her Later Life and Work

Image of Crosby How did Fanny Crosby become the world's most prolific hymn-writer? An unfounded and, no doubt, quite false rumor has it that her greater work began after a sudden conversion from a life of peccancy. However, concerning this mysterious enlightenment of soul she herself gives absolutely no intimation in her autobiographies. But she does tell use of a vision that came to her in a dream. She beheld a heavenly panorama of the "Blessed Homeland" beyond the "Beautiful Waters of Eden." This glorious picture remained indelibly with her and gave her many inspirations when writing songs.
Image of Fanny Crosby
Hers could hardly have been a quick metamorphosis, but was in all probability a gradual growth into spiritual and artistic power. Her development was inevitable; it could not easily have been otherwise with her rich endowment of talent and personality. These gifts, like buds thirsting for rain and dew, blossomed into fullness as she imbibed the greatness exhaled by the eminent men and woman of her time, who found in her, long before she was famous, the fine nectars of Parnassus. "I seem to have been led," she says, "little by little, toward my work; and I believe that the same fact will appear in the life of anyone who will cultivate such powers as God has given him, and then go on, bravely, quietly, but persistently, doing such work as comes to his hands". So it was indeed a rich, seminal period of her life, from 1840 to 1860, during which time she not only radiated the charm and vigor of young womanhood, but cultivated within herself powers whose force for good she could never have dreamed.

No poet, we think, has ever lived but has yearned to sing at least one song to gladden the heart of his country, to add one song to its lore; and Fanny Crosby was no exception. During the 'fifties and 'sixties, she wrote the words for several secular songs which became popular, such as "Rosalie, the Prairie Flower," "Glad to Get Home," "Proud World, Good-bye," and the rare old favorite, "There's Music in the Air." George F. Root, a teacher of music in the New York Institute for the Blind, collaborated with her in many of these songs, producing the cantata "Flower Queen." With Lowell Mason she wrote another cantata, "The Pilgrim Fathers."

She was entering now on a higher and wider plane of effort. She did not obscure herself in her new home, but went forth, or rather was called forth, to join her artistic forces with other in larger literary-musical enterprises. And, too, she was being drawn, may we say, by the unseen Welder of His Tools into a tempering of her religious nature by inspiring her to undertake social and evangelical work in churches and missions, most remarkable for a blind woman.

In 1864 she met W. B. Bradbury, a noted composer of hymn-tunes, who suggested that they collaborate in writing a song on a theme which he had in mind. Thus was written her first hymn, the lines of which are still known far and wide:

We are going, we are going,
To a home beyond the skies,
Where the fields are robed in beauty
And the sunlight never dies.
Mr. Bradbury's health was failing. In the four years which remained before his death in 1868 he published dozens of her hymns. Perhaps the best of these was the missionary song, "There's a Cry from Macedonia." Mr. Bradbury brought her into close touch with the Bigelow and Main Company, who published most of her works, and about whom clustered a galaxy of famous writers of sacred songs.

It was also in 1864 that she met Mr. William Doane. With his she wrote the first of her hymns to receive world-wide favor, "Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior." In these lines she expressed, as she very many times expressed thereafter, her infinitely tender and beautiful conception of the personal relationship with Jesus, which is the vital essence of her song-theology:

Pass me not, O gentle Saviour,
Hear my humble cry:
While on others Thou art smiling,
Do not pass me by.

Let me at a throne of mercy
Find a sweet relief;
Kneeling there in deep contrition,
Help my unbelief.
Many interesting episodes are related of the writing of her hymns. For instance, one day in 1868 there was a hurried knock at her door. It was Mr. Doane, who said he had only forty minutes before the train would leave for Cincinnati. He had a melody all fresh and vibrating, and he wished her to hear it. "What does it say, Fanny?" he asked. To her it was a beautiful message, as it has been to millions of hearts ever since. In an instant her trance was broken, and she sang:

Safe in the arms of Jesus,
Sage in his gentle breast,
There by his love o'er-shadowed,
Sweetly my soul shall rest.
And a moment later she continued:

Hark! 'tis the voice of angels
Borne in a song to me,
Over the fields of glory,
Over the jasper sea.
Twenty minutes later Mr. Doane hurried to his train with the penciled verses of the finished hymn in his pocket. Fanny Crosby had lived, in that short period, the supreme moment of her life. Never did she sing more inspired lines. The Maker of His Tools had tempered the strings of a lyre whose notes could bring peace to the anguished hearts of men. Sung on all occasions, this hymn has been used especially at countless child-funerals; and could there be a more healing solace to a mother's breaking heart than, "Safe in the Arms of Jesus?"

During the ensuing years she collaborated with many song writers, among them Ira D. Sankey; his son, (page 44) Ira Allen Sankey; George C. Stebbins; Theodore E. Perkins; Philip Phillips; Sylvester Main; his son, Robert P. Main; Dr. Robert Lowry; Mrs. Joseph Knapp; Mrs. Currier; Dr. Sherwin; Reverend Sweney; and many others. In these paragraphs we cannot find space for the details of her work and association with these composers. She wrote hymns, not by scores, but by hundreds and thousands. In 1906 the Bigelow and Main Company estimated that they alone had published 5,500 of them. Sometimes she wrote as many as six hymns a day, which to a reserved artist would seen nothing short of vulgar profligacy. She did not force verses, but very often she made them. They came, often spontaneously, and she had them recorded.

Many of the hymns were composed after experiences in missions and other gatherings such as those held by the Young Men's Christian Association and the Christian Order of Railroad Men. After one of these she wrote:

Rescue the perishing, care for the dying,
Snatch them in pity from sin and the grave.
Care for the erring one, lift up the fallen,
Tell them of Jesus and how he can save.
Her memory was one of her greatest gifts. Her retention of Scripture, her remembrance of persons and events, and her ability to quote poetry, not only her own but that of others, gave her most enviable ease of delivery when addressing audience. When eighty-six years old she wrote: "If I were given a little time in which to do it, I could take down from the shelves of my memory hundreds if not thousands of hymns that I have written in the sixty years during which I have been praising my Redeemer through this medium of song."

She seems not to have used embossed print, but relied entirely on her memory to work out and record her verses. She would compose a poem or group of poems, and let the lines lie in her mind several days before recalling them to be finished and then recorded by her amanuensis. It was her belief that everyone may and should cultivate memory since it is a necessary faculty in unhampered mental activity.

Fanny Crosby understood verse-making. She had studied prosody under one of the best authorities in New York when she was a young woman. Her genius discovered rhymes and accents that carry her thought lifting along in untrammeled ecstasy. There is as much music in her words as in the notes when we sing:

Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine,
Oh what a fore-taste of glory divine!
She tells of her technique: "In successful songs, words and music must harmonize not only in number of syllables but in subject matter, and especially in accent. Thus melodies tell their own tale, and it is the purpose of the poet to interpret the musical story into language. If the melody says nothing to the poet, his words will never agree with the music."

And, too, she writes of the secrets of inspiration: "The most enduring hymns are born in the silences of the soul and nothing must be allowed to intrude while they are being framed into language. Some of the sweetest melodies of the heart never see the light of the printed page. Sometimes the song without words has a deeper meaning than the most elaborate combinations of words and music." (page 45)

It seemed obvious and real to her that inspiration was actually and divinely inspired, for she wrote: "That some of my hymns have been dictated by the blessed Holy Spirit, I have no doubt. That others have been the result of deep mediation, I know to be true. But that the poet has any right to claim special merit for himself is certainly presumptuous. I have sometimes felt that there is a deep and clear well of inspiration form which one may draw the sparkling draughts that are so essential to good poetry. At times the burden of inspiration is so heavy that the author himself cannot find words beautiful enough or thoughts deep enough for its expression."

Like many another genius, Fanny Crosby had her peculiar little idiosyncrasies. We read her own confession: "Most of my poems have been written during the long night watches when the distractions of the day could not interfere with the rapid flow of thought. It has been my custom to hold a little book in my hand; and somehow or other the words seem to come more promptly when I am so engaged." Pictures of her quite often show her with the little book in her hand as she sat composing or stood addressing gatherings. The talisman seemed indispensable when reciting special poems, as she did many years in succession at the famous festivals at Chautauqua, N.Y.

Her accomplishments in actual music were of the practical kind, especially in her hymn work. Frequently she would improvise a melody at the piano, when a theme had been given her for words. She had received excellent instruction in vocal and instrumental music, but we find no record of her performing publicly to any great extent.

Only a few of her hymns were entirely her own, both words and music. Among them were, "Jesus, Dear, I Come to Thee," "The Blood-washed Throng," and "Spring Hymn." But it is not fore theses that we may class her among makers of song and music, but for her perfect melody of language. Her wonderful syllables are so intimately associated in universal experience with the peal of the organ and the devout sonorousness of congregational singing, that to think of Fanny Crosby's hymns out of the domain of religious music is as difficult as to separate the rose from its fragrance.

It would take a volume to name and evaluate all of her hymns. Concerning their merit, suffice it to say that she knew, as we know, that many of them must be judged trite, while many will ever be esteemed as exalted. In her most prolific years, even as now, so many of her hymns entered hymnals that nom de plumes became necessary to avoid the appearance of a "Crosby" edition. She employed upwards of one hundred pseudonyms. But our account would be incomplete without listing a few of her more useful hymns:

"We Are Going, We Are Going," "Safe in the Arms of Jesus," "Rescue that Perishing," "Blessed Assurance," "Hide Me, O My Savior, Hide Me," "I Am So Glad That Jesus Came," "Speed Away on Your Mission of Light," "No Sorrow There," "God Leadeth," "Jesus My All," "Lord, Abide with Me," " Welcome Hour of Prayer," "Jesus, Thou Art to Mr," (page 46) "Jesus Is Calling," "The Bright Forever," "Yes, There Is Pardon for Me," "Nearer the Cross," "Good-night Till We Met in the Morning," "Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior," "Jesus, Dear, I Come to Thee," "Sing with a Tuneful Spirit," "Saved by Grace," "Faith" "Only a Little While," "On the Banks Beyond the River," "Hold Thou My Hand," "All the Way My Savior Leads Me," "More Like Jesus," etc.

As age came upon her, her powers did not soon fail. At seventy-one she wrote the beautiful lines of "Saved by Grace":

Some day the silver cord will break,
And I as now no more shall sing,
But oh, the joy when I shall wake
Within the palace of the King!
Her mother, who lived to be ninety-one, died in 1890. In 1900, Fanny Crosby left her Brooklyn residence to live with her devoted sisters in Bridgeport, Conn. Their home was the shrine of many a pilgrimage, and the venerable old singer continued to work and to shed the light of her influence about her.

In 1897, when she was seventy-seven, a collection of her best works was published under the tile Bells at Evening, and Other Poems. In 1903 she wrote her Life Story, and in 1906 that remarkable autobiography, Memories of Eighty Years. These literary productions, created with clear thought and purpose after she had advanced well into her eighties, are indeed an inspiring climax to her long life of extraordinary service. Such vitality and power of mind and memory are seldom to be found. When reading her autobiographies, one is conscious that she is leaving in the reader's mind an optimism which has a reviving freshness-a truly wonderful freshness, too, that seems to flow from a fathomless depth. But let us read a few of her own sentences:

"None of the infirmities incident to old age have touched me as yet" (1906); "and my active labors still continue."

"At eighty-three I am content with what I know of life through the four senses I possess, which are practically unimpaired."

What vitality and optimism there was when, at the age of eighty-five, her enjoyment of beauty was still so real that she clapped her hands and cried: "Glorious!" as the sunset was described to her. She always said she wished to live to be one hundred and three years old, as her grandmother had been.

Fanny Crosby seems to have considered her blindness of advantage to her. "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."

We are apt to think of Fanny Crosby as she was seen in advanced age-small of stature, somewhat wrinkled and bent, seated in her chair interviewing visitors and quite likely to be knitting wash-rags for her friends, which was her favorite diversion. We hear her discussing philosophy, religion, or the times, and we feel, as one of her biographers [page 47] it, "that we are in the presence of one of the greatest women of the age." Delegations of children bring her tokens and sing her songs. At ninety-two we see her taken in a great parade along the streets of Cambridge, Mass., while the band plays the martial strain of "Rescue the Perishing." And when the parade has dragged its long march by us, we think that surely the charming young poetess who recited her poem before the nation's law-makers sixty-five years ago in behalf of her fellow-blind, has become a saint in behalf of humanity.

What faith this great soul had; In 1874, one night while meditating on her blessings, she burst out with:

Thou, My Everlasting Portion,
More than friend or life to me,
All along my pilgrim journey,
Savior, let me walk with thee.
Her two favorite hymns were not her own, but "Faith of Our Fathers," composed by Faber, and "O Love That Will Not Let Me Go," written by George Matheson, a blind minister of Scotland.

"Mine has been an experience that has ripened into faith as strong as the hills; it has given me a hope that admits me into the room called "Beautiful." And her faith bore fruit. With eight thousand hymns to her credit, it is probable that no other gone forth in the earth and from their proclamation has some help, solace, and peace to millions." With her faith came generosity. It is said that she might have been rich had she not shared every gain with the needy. She said, "There selfishness is, there happiness cannot be found." If she suffered, she did not complain. "Suffering," she said, "is no argument of God's displeasure but a part of the fiber of our lives. "I am constantly writing of hope for downcast souls." "When I look down the avenue of these ninety years, I find that I have been interested in everything advanced for the welfare of mankind. "I have made up my mind never to become a disagreeable old woman, and always to take cheer and sunshine with me." "Thus life become one grand choral song, sweetest at its close."

On the evening of February 11, 1915, when she was almost ninety-five years of age, she dictated a letter to cheer a bereaved friend, including a poem which she recalled perfectly. Before the next dawn, she had passed quietly to be "safe in the Glory Land."

Never was there such a funeral in Bridgeport. The services were held in the First Methodist
Episcopal Church, and there seemed to be no end of flowers and tributes from all parts of the earth. Elisa Edmunds Hewitt, author of "Shall There Be Any Stars in My Crown?" wrote the memorial poem:

Away to the country of sunshine and song,
Our songbird has taken her flight,
And she who has sung in the darkness so long
Now sings in the beautiful light.

"Fanny wrote for the hearts of the people and she wrote even better than she knew," said one of her friends; while another wrote: "Her name and influence are among those things which this and succeeding generations will not easily let die."