First Congregational Church
August 29, 2021
Fanny Crosby Hymn Festival
Isaiah 42: 6–8, NRSV
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Fanny Crosby Hymn Festival. Whether you are a music fan or not, credit is due to this person who wrote over 9,000 hymns over her 94 years; so our service today being shaped around her life and hymn texts.
Though she lost her sight as a new born in 1820, she was a contented person and well educated. As can often happen, a great deal of personal hardship inspired her lyrics, which affirmed her reliance on Jesus as Savior.
It’s an interesting “connect” that Fanny was in her prime when this church was built. And singing a tune from the 1800s is not the top goal of most modern Christians. And yet, God used this remarkable woman to turn her trials into compelling stanzas that, when paired with the power of music, found their way into the heart and onto the tongues of Christians across the globe, decades and centuries. This year marks the 201st anniversary of her birth, so it is an occasion for us to give God the glory for all God has done, is doing, and will do - through her, down to us, and on out through us. So we raise our voices in praise of our God, knowing that the same words have been sung for almost 200 years around the world, and they still have all their power today.
As we enter into our opening hymn, let us be reminded that the Light of Christ is with us as we are gathered in Christ’s name, as it will go with us when we leave.
Let us stand and sing #572 in the red hymnals. “Blessed Assurance” (all three verses)
One of the central elements of worship around the world is music. Where else can you sing in a group setting, generally with live accompaniment during any given week? Scripture is full of references to music and Psalms is the hymnbook of the Jews. We know that Jesus sang as did the disciples: at the end of Christ’s last supper, the writer of Matthew concludes, “When they had sung a hymns, they went out” (Mt 26:30).
While Paul and his companions were imprisoned for their faith, they sang hymns. This would have amazed the other prisoners - Paul and his friends having been severely beaten before this impromptu hymn sing! The book of Revelation offers images of heaven in which joyful music is continually heard by all. The styles of music change, but the song continues.
The story of Fanny Crosby is remarkable as she is one of the most prolific North American hymn writers, a woman of the 19th and 20th centuries. The great Congregational hymn writer, Isaac Watts, got to just 750 hymns, and the Methodist writer, Charles Wesley is her only real equal at 8,989 hymns.
When she was six weeks old, mis-treatment of a mild eye infection with a hot mustard poultice by a visiting physician resulted in losing her sight. Shortly after, her father died, leaving her 21-year-old mother to fend for the two of them. Fanny’s grandmother was her primary caregiver while her mother hired herself out as a maid. Both women were strong Christians and passed their faith on to Fanny.
There were few services for those with visual impairments in the 1820s, but Fanny’s grandmother had no intention of her granddaughter missing out on life. She taught Fanny to memorize Scripture, up to five chapters each week, and Fanny developed a remarkable memory. In spite of losing her sight and her father before her first birthday, Fanny was surrounded by love in her childhood and didn’t feel as if she lacked for much.
When Fanny was 18, her mother, Mercy Crosby, remarried, and the couple had three children. One can imagine Fanny’s delight at having three very young half-siblings after a quiet life with her mother and grandmother. However, six years and three young children later, Mercy’s husband abandoned the family, adding a tremendous burden to Mercy and her 24-year-old daughter. This time it was three generations who worked together to compensate for the loss of another husband: Fanny, her mother and grandmother, Eunice. Life was challenging all over again.
When Fanny was 38 she married Alexander van Alstyne, considered one of the finest organists in the New York area. Alexander, too, was visually impaired. The two met at the New York Institute for the Education of the Blind, where Fanny taught for 23 years. One year after they married, they had a baby daughter, Frances, who died in her sleep soon after birth. Some believe that Fanny’s hymn, “Safe in the Arms of Jesus” was inspired by her young daughter’s death.
Fanny seldom spoke of this daughter, and the couple never had another child. Fanny carried with her through life the brief joy of being a mother and the tremendous grief of losing her daughter. Sadly, Fanny’s marriage struggled after this loss, and she and her husband moved apart. Neither remarried, and they remained friends until he died. Through her own trials, Fanny clung to her faith as expressed in the worlds of her hymn “Near the Cross”: Jesus, keep me near the cross, There a precious fountain, Free to all, a healing stream, “Flows from Calv’ry’s mountain.
Though most of Fanny’s hymns were written more than 150 years ago, they have lasting value. As we sing our way through her life today, may we draw even more closely to the God Fanny loved and served.
You may remain seated as we sing the first two verses of#319 in the red hymnals. 3
“Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross” (verses 1 & 2) #319
Fanny never felt sorry for herself. She wrote her first poem when she was eight years old - evidence of the positivity and love of her upbringing: “Oh, what a happy child 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! So weep or sigh because I’m blind, I cannot - nor I won’t.”
When Fanny was about 14 years old she learned of the New York Institute for the Blind. She knew this was the answer to her prayer for an education. She was a student there for twelve years and taught in the Institute for twenty-three years. She became the face of the academic institution and was asked to write poems for all sorts of occasions. The school became the locus of efforts to promote the cause of the visually impaired. Consequently Fanny often met with dignitaries including presidents, generals and other important figures. When Fanny was 31 years old she addressed the New York State Legislature to bring attention to the school and its important work. Her sensitivity to the sightless shows up in the wording of many of her hymns.
Her hymn, “All the Way My Savior Leads Me” came from Fanny’s grateful heart after she received what she understood as a direct answer to her prayer. She once was in a desperate need of five dollars. As was her habit, Fanny prayed and placed her need in God’s hands. Within a matter of minutes a man appeared at her door with the exact amount. She said, “I have no way of accounting for this except to believe that God put it in the heart of this good man to bring the money. My first thought that it is so wonderful the way the Lord leads me. I immediately wrote the poem and Dr. Lowry set it to music.
That hymn was first published in 1875. As we sing it, we can hear how Fanny gave praise to a Savior who guided her steps and gave needed grace for every trial. May Fanny’s testimony also be ours.
You may remain seated as we sing the first verse of #680 in the red hymnals. 3
“All The Way My Savior Leads Me” (1st verse) #680 4
While Fanny has been best remembered as a hymn writer, her greatest passion was for those struggling with poverty. She willingly gave away the few assets she had for the support of the New York City missions. Fanny stated, “From the time I received my first check for my poems, I made my mind up to open my hand wide to those who needed assistance.” She earned only one or two dollars per song, with all future royalties going not to her, but the composer of the melody. This small income never went toward her own home; she always rented modest apartments and had very few possessions. Her willingness to place the needs of the poorest city dwellers above her own became her trademark. Her concern for the marginalized often shows up in her hymns.
When Fanny couldn’t be found at one of the downtown missions, she might have been presenting at one of her many speaking engagements, perhaps in the company of famous people, her published poems and countless hymns putting her in the spotlight. At age 21 Fanny wrote a poetic eulogy on the death of President William Henry Harrison that was published in The New York Herald. Fanny’s poems were often published there or in The Saturday Evening Post.
One of her music students was 17-year-old Grover Cleveland. He often transcribed the poems that Fanny dictated, and the two became good friends. Cleveland wrote a recommendation for her in a 1906 autobiography, and she wrote a poem for his inauguration.
Fanny wrote the text to several cantatas, one of which comprised some 35 songs. She wrote choruses for music pieces that were performed at large churches and concert halls. She was asked to write poems of welcome for visiting dignitaries and songs to support Abraham Lincoln in the agony of the Civil War.
But in the midst of this busyness and notoriety Fanny never waved in her commitment to the poor, choosing to live frugally so she could give to others. One day, when she had returned from a visit to a mission in one of the poorest districts in New York City, her heart was particularly attuned to the neglected poor, and in response she penned the words to the hymn “Rescue the Perishing.” She tells the story in these words: “I usually tried to get to the mission at least one night a week to talk to “my boys.’ I was addressing a large company of working men one hot summer evening, when the thought kept forcing itself on my mind that some mother’s boy must be rescued that night or he might be forever lost. So I made a pressing plea that if there was a boy present who had wandered from his mother’s home and teaching, he should come to me at the end of the service. A young man of 18 came forward - ‘Did you mean me, Miss Crosby? I promised my mother to meet her in heaven, but as I am now living, that will be impossible.’ We prayed for him and suddenly he arose with a new light in his eyes -
‘Now I am ready to meet my mother in heaven, for I have found God.” With each remarkable story of faith, Fanny always gave God the glory!
You may stand as we sing the first verse of #56 in the red hymnals. “To God Be the Glory” (1st verse) 4
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.