Are you familiar with these words?
Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine;
Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.
This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Savior all the day long.
That verse begins the hymn “Blessed Assurance,” one of over 8,000 hymns Fanny Crosby wrote in her lifetime. If you’ve opened a hymnal, you’ve probably sung some of her verses. But if you only know Fanny Crosby for her hymns, you don’t know the whole story. You don’t know how she overcame blindness to become a prolific songwriter and poet, a political activist, and a dedicated servant of God.
Fanny Crosby was born in Brewster, New York in 1820. She had a challenging childhood. Her father died when she was just six months old. And when she caught a cold as an infant, a poorly-trained doctor “treated” her by placing mustard poultices over her eyes. This “treatment” left her blind for the rest of her life.
Other people might have been daunted by this fate, but not Fanny. Her lifelong attitude toward her condition was expressed in her very first poem, which she wrote at age 8:
Oh, what a happy soul I am,
Although I cannot see!
I am resolved that in this world
Contented I will be.
At age 15, she entered the New York Institute for the Blind. She remained there for most of the next two decades, first as a student and then as a teacher of grammar, rhetoric, and history.
Fanny first gained fame in 1841, when the New York Herald published her eulogy for President William Henry Harrison. In the years that followed, she used her fame to lobby in support of education for the blind. In 1843, she was the first woman to speak before the US Senate. She spoke to national and state leaders in support of her cause, often reciting poems she composed for the occasion.
In 1849, a cholera epidemic struck New York City. Ignoring advice to leave the city, Crosby stayed at the Institute to nurse the sick. In the wake of that plague, she decided that she needed to shift her life’s focus from social and political reform to her love for God.
In 1864, Crosby published her first hymn. She was a tremendously prolific writer, producing as many as 6 or 7 hymns in a day. In fact, she was so productive and popular that some publishers were reluctant to fill such a large portion of their hymnals with one person’s work. To get around this, she wrote under nearly 200 pseudonyms.
She composed entirely in her head, dictating the finished lyrics at the end. The top gospel composers of her time brought her melodies they’d written; after hearing the tune once or twice, she came up with the words practically on the spot.
Crosby preferred to write simple, homey, sentimental verses; she believed this style best expressed her heartfelt love of God. According to the American Dictionary of Religious Biography, her hymns placed “heightened emphasis on religious experiences, emotions, and testimonies.”
She set a goal of winning a million people to Christ through her work; with over 100 million copies of her hymns and songs in print, it’s safe to say she met that goal many times over. She was so revered that in 1905, churches around the world celebrated Fanny Crosby Day to honor her 85th birthday.
Yet for all her fame as a hymn writer, Crosby considered her true vocation to be helping the poor. She spent decades living in some of New York’s roughest neighborhoods, and had deep sympathy for immigrants and the urban poor. In fact, she gave away so much of her money to aid those in need that she frequently found herself on the edge of poverty.
In addition to money, Fanny gave her time to serve those in need. At age 60, she decided to focus her life on mission work, and she spent the next three decades serving rescue missions throughout New York City. She provided support and counseling to alcoholics, homeless people, and unwed mothers. In spite of declining health, she kept up her mission work almost until her final days.
Crosby’s service to the poor continued even beyond her death at age 94. In her will, she directed that her money be used to provide shelter to homeless men. Her bequest was used to establish the Fanny Crosby Memorial Home for the Aged, when opened in 1925.
At her request, her grave was marked with a small tombstone bearing this inscription: “Aunt Fanny: She hath done what she could.” Indeed she had. Fanny Crosby’s remarkable life shows just how much one person can do when inspired by the love of God.
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