The Blind Poetess

Mike Mazzalongo

I'd like to tell you the story of a remarkable woman whose songs we all sing every Sunday. Her name was Fanny Crosby. She was a prolific writer of poetry and sacred music having produced over 9,000 gospel hymns in her lifetime, and she only began writing them after the age of forty. This is her amazing story.

Frances (or Fanny as everyone called her) Crosby was born in 1820 to a devout Christian (Puritans) family. At the age of 6 weeks she caught a cold and as a result she suffered from a slight inflammation around her eyes. The regular doctor was away so a man posing as a physician came to treat her. He applied hot mustard poultices to her eyes and as a result she became blind for life. The phony doctor disappeared and was never heard from again.

Although she had lost her sight, Fanny was never bitter towards the man who caused her handicap. Later in life she even wrote that her blindness was a great advantage to her and without it may have not been able to write all the great songs she did. Fanny's great mentor was her grandmother who came to live with them after her father died. Her grandmother would take her out into the fields and describe in meticulous detail the beauty of the world around her. Her grandmother also introduced her to great literature and spent long hours reading to her from the Bible.

From an early age Fanny demonstrated a talent for memory work. It is said that before she was ten she could repeat from memory all 4 gospels, the Pentateuch, the book of Ruth, many Psalms, Proverbs and Songs of Solomon.

As a young girl she attended the Institute for the Blind in New York City and later became one of the instructors having a lifelong relationship with this institution. During her long career as a teacher and poetess she came into contact with powerful and famous people being a celebrity herself. Among her friends and supporters of the time were US Presidents Van Buren, Harrison, Tyler, Polk and Grover Cleveland.

Her reputation as the blind poetess grew as she published her material for distribution. Her first book of poetry was entitled, "The Blind Girl and Other Poems." At age 37 she married Alexander Van Alstyne, a fellow teacher, and they had one child who died at infancy. Many credit this experience as the influence behind the song, "Safe in the Arms of Jesus" she wrote later in her life.Between 1840-1860 Fanny's reputation as a poetess spread as she published several more books of her work. It was not until 1864, however, at the age of 44 that she wrote her first gospel hymn at the suggestion of musical composer William B. Bradbury. To his music she wrote:

"We are going, we are going
To a home beyond the skies
Where the fields are robed in beauty
And the sunlight never dies"

This was a turning point in her life, from that point on she wrote only gospel hymns. She believed that God had led her little by little into the work of her lifetime. Fanny entered into an arrangement with the Biglow & Main publishing company to provide 3 hymns per week for $2 each. She often composed six or seven per week and had over 200 pen names to avoid the appearance that Biglow & Main published only her hymns. By 1906 they estimated that they had published 5,500 of her songs.

Her writing style was very unusual. She never mastered Braille and did not write her hymns down on paper. She would compose in her mind and work out all the lines in her head and maintain them from memory. When she was finished she would then dictate the final work to a secretary to copy on paper. Many times she would simply listen to the music first and then fit the verse to the notes. This is how the song "Blessed Assurance" was written.

A Mrs. Knapp, wife of the founder of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., came to her with a song. She played it on the organ and asked Fanny what the music said to her. Without hesitation Fanny wrote the song "Blessed Assurance" to the melody. At the age of 60 she began personal evangelistic work in the Bowery district of NYC - the poorest and roughest area in New York at that time.

It was at this time she was moved to write the words to the hymn "Rescue the Perishing." In her final years she was much sought after as a speaker and she travelled extensively.

At one point a Scottish minister, wishing to be sympathetic said to her, "I think it is a great pity that the Master did not give you sight when He showered so many other gifts upon you." Fanny quickly replied, "Do you know that if at birth I had been able to make one petition, it would have been that I should be born blind?" "Why?" exclaimed the preacher, "Because," she said, "When I get to heaven, the first face that shall gladden my sight will be that of my Savior."

On February 12th, 1915 at the age of 94, Fanny Crosby dictated a cheerful letter including a poem to a bereaving friend. That night she passed from this life.

At her funeral it was said that there was no end to the flowers that were sent from all over the world. On her headstone is the inscription: "Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine. Oh what a foretaste of glory divine. Aunt Fanny - She hath done what she could."

Our English songbook contains 19 of Fanny Crosby's hymns - all of those sung today in English - written by her. She was a woman who did great things despite her handicap and her work provides us with inspiration each time we meet for worship. Her life also teaches us some valuable lessons for our own lives.

Lessons from the Blind Poetess

1. Life can be beautiful no matter what

Here is a person, born to a poor family. Limited because she was a woman at a time when there were few opportunities for education and development for women. Wrongfully handicapped from the very beginning of her life.

Few of us can say we have had to overcome so many obstacles in life. And yet because of these obstacles Fanny Crosby learned to see life as beautiful for several reasons:

A. She learned early on to be content with what she did have. A powerful memory. An insatiable curiosity. A gift for words. She didn't focus on what she did not have: wealth, position, sight - she focused on the gifts that God had given her.

B. She focused on what was beautiful in her life. Early on as a poetess she delighted in expressing thoughts and images that had been sewn into her heart by her loving grandmother. In her career as a hymn writer she continued to devote her creative energy to describing in song the beauty of God's love and the graciousness of His promises.

By grace, she learned to see through her suffering, what others could not - that even though there is suffering and ugliness, life could still be beautiful.

Brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence, and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things.
- Philippians 4:8

Fanny Crosby practiced this in her sightless world and thus came to see and write about the beauty she saw in everything.

2. You can serve God from where you stand

This woman was not always a religious person. She began her career as a secular writer and poetess and because of her blindness she became famous for her poetry. However, after she began teaching at the Institute for the Blind and had a fairly well advanced career as a writer, an epidemic swept through New York and half of her students died as a result. She was moved by this incident to commit her life to Christ.

But what could she do? Couldn't preach, teach. Couldn't go as a missionary. She was a blind woman who wrote poetry.

As I have already mentioned, beginning at the age of 44 she started writing hymns which are among the most widely used and loved even today. She didn't ask for new gifts, new opportunities. She simply turned her talents over to the Lord and like the fish and bread, Jesus multiplied them to minister to countless others.

3. You can grow old without growing bitter

Here's a person who could have really wallowed in self pity and bitterness in growing older - but didn't. She was blind from the beginning. She married late in life. She could not see her only baby and it died before she could even know it. And yet she refused to allow the circumstances of her life rule the quality of her character.

Advanced in years, she summed up her life with the following words, "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 becomes one grand choral song, sweetest at its close."

She focused on the things which come from above (as James says in James 3:13-18) and in doing so produced the fruit of these heavenly things in her life: Things like purity, gentleness, mercy, good works. Our golden age should be golden indeed - filled with the fruit that we have cultivated for a lifetime of living in Jesus' love and grace. If we are bitter and angry and loveless in old age, what does that say for a lifetime of Christian living?

Fanny Crosby demonstrated that when one's roots are firmly planted in the word and we draw in the nourishment of God for a lifetime - we will be, as David the psalmist says,

14They will still yield fruit in old age;
They shall be full of sap and very green,
15To declare that the Lord is upright;
He is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in Him.
- Psalms 92:14-15

Summary

This has been an unusual sermon for me, most of my lessons are based on texts or characters in the Bible. But the Bible does say to,

so that you will not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.
- Hebrews 6:12
Beloved, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good. The one who does good is of God; the one who does evil has not seen God.
- III John 11

Fanny J. Crosby leaves all of us with a great example to imitate and that's why I wanted to tell her story. She teaches us that through the eyes of faith:

We can see the beauty of life and rejoice in that beauty even while accepting that there is ugliness and sorrow. The free will God gives us enables us to choose what we will raise up - the ugliness or the beauty. Her life shows us that through the grace of God:

We can give our lives over to Him and He can do something wonderful with it. I hope her story has been a blessing for everyone here, I hope we've been inspired to:

It doesn't matter if we arrive there without health or family or money or even dignity. So long as we arrive with the praise of Jesus on our lips - He will receive us. Finally, I hope that if any here need to confess His name and be baptized/or need to be restored/or need prayer or any other ministry - please respond as we sing one more song by this faithful Christian lady.

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