Alstyne, Frances Jane Van (Fanny Crosby)


b Southeast, Putnam County, NY, USA 1820, d 1915. Born into the extensive Crosby clan, the 17th-c founders of Harvard College, in a single-storey cottage in a rural community, Puritan in faith and culture, she was blinded when 6 weeks old. This was due to a disastrous misjudgement by an unqualified doctor who prescribed a hot mustard poultice for her inflamed eyes which destroyed her sight. Her father died that same year; widowed at 21, her mother entrusted Fanny’s upbringing to the child’s godly and sensitive grandmother. Fanny soon developed a keen ear and extraordinarily retentive mind, memorizing the Pentateuch, the Gospels, Proverbs, the Song of Songs, Ruth, and many Psalms. At 12 she entered the New York School (or Institution) for the Blind, remaining until she was 24 and learning to love classic poetry as well as writing comic verse, and to which she later returned aged 27 as a teacher. In Nov 1850 came a decisive moment of commitment during the Broadway Tabernacle’s ‘revival’ meetings, when the ‘something missing’ in her busy religious activities was fully met as they sang Alas, and did my Saviour bleed (411). In 1858 she married her fellow-student and Braille instructor, the blind musician Alexander van Alstyne. Their one baby died in infancy; they lived briefly on Long Island before returning to Manhattan in 1860, but later came to live largely separate lives. Fanny’s home from 1900 was in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and ‘Van’ died in 1902.

Beginning to write verse when she was 7 or 8, Fanny began her ‘real writing of Christian hymns’ as an adult, prompted by Wm B Bradbury. She went on to write several thousand (according to Grove, 9000) gospel songs and hymns, in regular metre with a straightforward, experience-centred message, usually set to simple, instantly singable tunes, which often outsold the secular chart-toppers of the day. For many years she wrote 3 or 4 a week, usually at night, which were then copied from her memory in the morning. Some were first published anonymously or using up to 200 other names; the bulk of them date from 1864 to 1889, the 1870s (by which time she was well-known) proving a specially productive decade. From her first text onwards (We are going, we are going, to a home beyond the skies) heaven was a frequent theme. But the first to gain worldwide use was Pass me not, O gentle Saviour (1868) on a topic suggested by Wm H Doane, which was very popular in the Moody and Sankey missions as in London in 1874. Ira Sankey sang her hymns in public for some time before they met, and then became a great friend, notably after he too lost his sight. She gave away most of her earnings, to further the work of the gospel particularly among New York city’s alcoholics and homeless people in whom she also took a practical and generous interest. Though she was the guest and even personal friend of 6 US presidents, her own urban lifestyle remained simple. Among varied biographies are Fanny Crosby’s Story by S Trevena Jackson (a devotional memoir, 1915); Fanny Crosby by Bernard Ruffin (1976); Fanny Crosby speaks again (a useful summary plus 120 texts, edited by Donald P Hustad, 1977); Fanny Crosby by Bonnie C Harvey (1999) and Her Heart Can See (a major biography by Edith L Blumhofer, 2005); see also the notes to Frances Havergal. Although many of her hymns have now passed out of fashion, 10 were chosen for Hymns of Faith (1964) while GH had 12 and CH, 7. The N American Worship and Rejoice (2001) has 6. Nos.328, 670, 676, 869.