In an era filled with prominent Gospel song composers, Fanny Crosby (1820-1915) became the world’s premiere hymn writer of her day. A number of her hymns are still sung and appreciated by Christians around the world today. The fascinating story of how God used the seeming tragedy of Fanny going blind as an infant as part of developing her for her primary lifework is briefly related in my December 13, 2013, Perspective on “God’s Constructive Use of Misfortune.” In this Perspective we’ll explore other remarkable aspects of Fanny’s phenomenal hymn writing career.
During the course of her songwriting career, which stretched out for more than fifty years, Fanny composed the lyrics for some nine thousand songs. The vast majority of those were hymns. Nearly two-thirds of those songs were written for the Biglow and Main Company. Of the 5,959 poems she submitted to that New York firm, only about 2,000 were actually published. Often when the publisher requested works on a certain subject, she would submit three or four possible pieces on that theme. Normally only one of that grouping would be selected for publication.
For two decades Fanny composed between one-third and one-half of the selections included in the various hymnals published by Biglow and Main. She contributed large numbers of hymns for the works produced by other publishers as well. Most of her poems appeared under the name of ‘Miss Fanny J. Crosby’. But to make the massive volume of her contributions less conspicuous, she also employed an extensive array of pen names, initials and even symbols. The use of pseudonyms was a common practice by hymn writers in that day. But no other hymnist came anywhere near the whopping total of 204 different self-designations that Fanny employed.
Among Fanny’s best-known hymns were: “All the Way My Savior Leads Me”; “Blessed Assurance”; “Close to Thee”; “I Am Thine, O Lord”; “Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross”; “My Savior First of All (I Shall Know Him)”; “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior”; “Praise Him! Praise Him!”; “Rescue the Perishing”; “Safe in the Arms of Jesus”; “Saved by Grace”; “Savior, More than Life to Me”; “Take the World but Give Me Jesus”; “’Tis The Blessed Hour of Prayer”; “To the Work! To the Work!”; “When Jesus Comes to Reward His Servants.”
Virtually all the songs destined to become Fanny’s most prominent works were composed in the first decade of her hymn writing career. Scores of others gained varying degrees of popularity for a time but not in the same abiding fashion. Interestingly, one other of Fanny’s most famous hymns, “To God Be the Glory,” did not gain widespread popularity until it was commonly used in Billy Graham crusades in the mid-twentieth century.
Fanny wrote so many hymns in her lifetime, in fact, that more than once she forgot that she was the author of a song that she heard and was blessed by. Once, many years after first meeting Dwight Moody’s famous song leader, Ira Sankey, she attended a Bible conference where he led the congregation in singing “Hide Me, O My Savior, Hide Me.” She afterward revealed, “I did not recognize this hymn as my own production, and therefore I may be pardoned for saying that I was much pleased with it.”
“Where did you get that piece?” she asked the song leader. Supposing she was merely joking, he did not respond to her question. But after the song was used again in the afternoon service, she insisted, “Mr. Sankey, now you must tell me who is the author of ‘Hide Me, O My Savior’.” “Really,” he replied good-naturedly, “don’t you recall who wrote that hymn? You ought to remember, for you are the guilty one.”
Fanny did not become wealthy through her voluminous hymn writing. She was commonly paid a dollar or two for each of her poems, the standard fee with which publishing companies normally compensated their poets. She did not share in the considerable profits that her poems helped bring to the companies that published her songs. She seems never to have resented this arrangement or to have thought of it as anything other than normal music publication procedure.
During the final two decades of Fanny’s life, various Christian acquaintances made definite efforts to insure she would not live in impoverished circumstances. These well-intentioned friends may have failed to realize fully that Fanny’s financial condition was due in large part to her own generosity and outlook on money. She never expected to be paid more than the minimal going rate for the many hymns she produced for various publishers. She frequently refused honorariums for her numerous speaking engagements. Often she gave all the money in her possession to help some needy individual, then asked the Lord to provide what she needed for her own food, rent and other basic necessities of life.
# # #
Fanny Crosby’s fascinating life story is related more fully in my book Women of Faith and Courage (Christian Focus, 2011). The story of her life is shared in her own words in Fanny J. Crosby, An Autobiography (Baker, 1995, and Hendrickson, 2015). A more comprehensive account of her life and ministry is provided in Edith Blumhofer’s Her Heart Can See, The Life and Hymns of Fanny J. Crosby (Eerdmans, 2005).
Copyright 2017 by Vance E. Christie