Fanny Crosby, the most prominent hymn writer of the nineteenth century, composed the lyrics for some 9,000 songs over the course of her songwriting career, which stretched out for more than fifty years. Through the years a number of fascinating true stories were preserved about how some of those songs came to be written or how they were used of the Lord to bring spiritual benefit to individuals.
Fanny composed over 1,000 hymns for William Howard Doane, a hymn writer and publisher from Cincinnati, Ohio. Not long after Fanny and Doane first met, he stopped by her New York apartment with the declaration, “I have exactly forty minutes before my train leaves for Cincinnati. Here is a melody. Can you write words for it?”
“I will see what I can do,” Fanny replied. She later related: “Then followed a space of twenty minutes during which I was wholly unconscious of all else except the work I was doing.” At the end of that time she recited the words to “Safe in the Arms of Jesus” to Doane, who quickly copied them down before dashing off to catch his train.
Probably more real-life incidents came to be known involving that hymn than any other song Fanny ever wrote. One of the most touching involved a pastor, Dr. John Hall, who went to see the ailing daughter of one of his parishioners. When the girl’s father came downstairs in tears, the clergyman asked, “My dear friend, what is the trouble? Has the little girl gone home?”
“No,” the father answered, “but she has asked me to do something that I cannot do. Anything that wealth might buy she may have. But I cannot sing ‘Safe in the Arms of Jesus’ for I never sang a note in my life.”
“Oh, I will go up and sing it for her,” the minister responded reassuringly. He did, and the child slipped into eternity just as he sang the hymn’s last two lines:
Wait till I see the morning
Break on the golden shore.
The words from another of Fanny’s best-known hymns, “My Savior First of All,” were once used of the Lord to safeguard a number of people from spiritual deception. A man suddenly appeared in London, claiming to be the Messiah. Charismatic and persuasive, he drew large crowds for many weeks. But one evening as he was speaking in a public square, a small Salvation Army band passed by singing “My Savior First of All” with its closing lines, “I shall know Him, I Shall know Him, By the print of the nails in His hand.”
The sizeable crowd spontaneously joined in singing that chorus. Presently someone pointed at the self-proclaimed Messiah and challenged, “Look at his hands and see if the print of the nails is there.” When no such marks were revealed, the man promptly lost his following.
Money meant little to Fanny. She normally lived in simple apartments, sometimes in a rather poor part of town. She was extremely generous. 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.
One day someone said to her, “If I had wealth I would be able to do just what I wish to do, and I would be able to make an appearance in the world.”
“Take the world but give me Jesus,” Fanny instantly replied. That remark led her to write one of her most famous hymns, which bore those words as its title.
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These and other remarkable hymn stories of Fanny Crosby, along with her fascinating life story, are related 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