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  • Writer's pictureShari House

HSS - Fanny Crosby {What'd You Say?}


Fanny Crosby was born on March 24, 1820 in Brewster, New York, and was the only child of John and Mercy Crosby. At six weeks old, she was blinded for life by a doctor who put hot mustard poultices on her eyes in order to cure an infection. Her father passed away when she was only six months old, and since her mother had to go to work to provide for the family, she was left in the care of her grandmother. Fanny couldn’t go to school like other children, but her grandmother took great care to describe the world to her in acute detail and teach her about the things of the Lord. She had a love of nature and the Word of God that showed in her many writings. Fanny never saw her blindness as a hindrance and at the age of 8 wrote a poem about it.

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 she was around 10 years old, her family relocated to Connecticut, and she continued to learn under the tutelage of her grandmother and their neighbor, Mrs. Hawley. By her early teens, Fanny could recite from memory all four Gospels, the Song of Solomon, the Pentateuch, Proverbs, and many Psalms. In 1835, just before her 15th birthday, Fanny had her prayers answered and was able to enroll as a student at the New York Institute for the Blind where she learned everything from mathematics to literature. It was there her love of writing flourished. She learned to sing and had a lovely soprano voice. She also mastered the guitar, piano, organ, and harp. In her early twenties, she published her first book of poems entitled, “The Blind Girl and Other Poems.” In 1847 she joined the staff at the Institute and taught English and history for many years.

A few years later in 1850, there was a cholera outbreak at the Institute, and Fanny chose to stay to nurse the sick and dying instead of retreating to safety outside the city. Although she had been reared in a godly home and grew up loving the Lord, it wasn’t until after this somber time in her life that she made a profession of faith in Christ while attending a revival meeting. Her writings took on a more religious tone after that. Fanny remained at the school until 1858 when, at the age of 37, she married Alexander van Alstyne who was also a blind teacher and considered one of the finest organists in the New York area. A year later they had a daughter they named Frances, who sadly died in her sleep soon after she was born.

Fanny published her first hymn, “There’s a Cry from Macedonia” in 1863* with composer William B. Bradbury. For the next 40 years, she continued to write hymns for many different composers using nearly 200 different pseudonyms since publishers were reluctant to publish multiple hymns in one hymnal from the same author. She was commissioned by Bigelow and Main to write three hymns a week for their Sunday School publications, but sometimes she would write six or seven a day. As Fanny couldn’t write her hymns down herself, she would compose them in her mind and then dictate them to others to write down. So good was her memory she would often be working on several hymns at a time, and on one particular occasion she composed 40 hymns in her mind before she had a chance to dictate them to someone. God surely gave her a keen mind and an amazing memory.

Fanny was often criticized by her contemporaries for her lack of style and formal approach to music, but Fanny wrote not to show off her literary talents, but to reach the hearts of those who wouldn’t listen to preaching. She went against the traditional hymn writing style of the day that focused on negative descriptions of the sinfulness of people and instead focused more on the relationship between the believer and Christ. Her simple style touched the emotions of singers and listeners alike. She testified that she prayed over each hymn and asked the Lord to use it to bring souls to Him. Her prayers have been answered thousands of times over again. Besides hymns, Fanny wrote over 1,000 secular poems, had 4 books of poetry published, and wrote 2 best-selling autobiographies. She also wrote at least 4 cantatas and various patriotic songs. Her last book of poems was published in 1897 at the age of 77. During her lifetime Fanny wrote over 8,000 hymns with more than 100 million copies printed. Many have gone by the wayside, but hundreds still remain to this day and can be found in our hymnbooks. Probably her most famous and most widely known hymn is “Blessed Assurance” which has been translated and sung around the world.

"Blessed Assurance" has been translated into these languages and many more:

ทรงสัญญาให้พรแก่ข้า (Thai)

L'hymne Assurance bénite (French)

Благословена увереност (Bulgarian)

Wohltuende Vergewisserung (German)

La Bendita Seguridad Himno (Spanish)

Ndiyo Dhamana Yesu Wangu (Swahili)

有福的確據 (Chinese)

Besides seeking to bring others to the Savior through her hymn writing, Fanny had a desire to reach the individual through her life. For the better part of her adult years she lived in and around very poor urban areas. She devoted her time, money, and life to rescue work, and began working in the Water Street Mission in Manhattan in 1880 at the age of 60. Many times throughout her life, she testified of God’s goodness in letting her be blind, for in her blindness she could truly see the needs of others.

Fanny died on February 12, 1915 at the age of 94. Although she and her hymns were known the world around, Fanny had no desire for fame. Her hymns were written out of a heart of love for her Lord and her desperate desire for others to know Him like she did. Before she died Fanny made her sister promise not to erect a large grave marker for her like those of other famous people that could be seen in the cemetery where her family plot was. So, at her request, they gave her a small stone with the following words, “She hath done what she could.” Later on, a group of friends erected a slightly larger tribute to her and on it they included the first stanza of “Blessed Assurance” in memory of her and with grateful hearts for the inspiration she was to them and to the world. She truly was a woman of whom it could be said, “She hath done what she could.”

Her Story/My Story:

Words have power. I am always amazed at how words strung together eloquently can stir my heart and move me to action. Most all of Fannie’s songs have this effect on people. You can’t listen to the words Fanny wrote in “He Hideth My Soul” without feeling like God can help you no matter how big your problem is or listen to her words in “Rescue the Perishing” without feeling like you need to tell the next person that crosses your path about the Savior’s love. You can’t sing the words to “Redeemed, How I Love to Proclaim It!” without gratitude welling up in your heart for all that God has done for you or not find yourself in joyous praise as you sing the words of “Praise Him, Praise Him.” Fannie’s words have literally touched thousands of lives in innumerable ways. They have bolstered a saint on their deathbed getting ready to enter Heaven’s gates the same as they have stirred the hearts of a crowd of thousands at a revival meeting. The story is told that one time the words from “My Savior First of All” protected a number of people from spiritual deception. There was a man who suddenly appeared in London, claiming to be the Messiah. He was charismatic and persuasive, and for many weeks large crowds were drawn to him. One evening as he was speaking in a public square, a small Salvation Army band passed by singing “My Savior First of All.” The large crowd that had gathered to hear from the “messiah” joined the small band in their singing, and when they sang the final words of the song “I shall know Him, I shall know Him, by the print of the nails in His hand,” someone in the crowd shouted out, “Look at his hands and see if the print of the nails is there.” When they saw he had no such marks, they knew the truth that he was not the Messiah and they followed him no more. Words have meaning and impact lives.

On a lighter note, but still proving my point that words should be chosen and used wisely, I remember the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college, I worked as an office clerk at the company where my father was the CEO. One of my jobs was that of the “shredder.” Every day there would be a stack of papers on my desk that I was to take back to a room down a long hallway that contained a large paper shredder. I never paid any attention to what the papers were about, but assumed they were secret documents that needed destroyed for some reason or another. Of course, my father was a CEO of a toy company, so what kind of secrets they would need to be shredding, who knows, but in my young mind I thought they must contain something important that no one was supposed to know about. Fast forward to the end of the summer and a few weeks into my sophomore year where I started a new job as a radio dispatcher for campus security at the Bible college I was attending. I had been assigned the graveyard shift, and it was an interesting new world for me of codes and signals and super important things like recording when a security guard had to leave his squad car for a bathroom break. One day, though, I was asked to work in the office for a morning shift. I was nervous because it meant I would probably be seeing Chief, our head of security or Unit 1 as he was called. He was a bit of a scary and intimidating guy, and everyone knew you didn’t want to cross him. So, there I was just sitting at the office desk, trying to make a good impression when Chief came bounding down the hallway into the office, placed a large stack of papers upside down on my desk and said rather abruptly, “Tear these!” I answered, “Yes, Sir” and he proceeded to enter his office quickly and shut his door forcefully. I thought to myself, “I wonder what kind of secret information is on these security papers.” I didn’t take time to look at them since I was afraid he might come out of his door at any moment. I looked around the office everywhere for the paper shredder but couldn’t find it. I could have asked his secretary, but she was a bit scary as well, and since I was new and keen to impress the Chief, I took the initiative to just hand shred them. So, there I was tearing the pages into little shreds with my bare hands, and I proceeded to throw it all in the trashcan next to the desk. Feeling quite accomplished I smiled at him when he exited the door and walked to my desk until he said to me, “Where are the tests?” I gave him a puzzled look and said, “What tests?” He was not known to be one for patience and so with a bit of sternness said, “The tests I just handed you.” My heart literally sunk as I realized those were not secret documents he had handed me, they were tests for his students for his next class that he was running late to. I pointed to the trash can again as the feeling of excitement that a praise would be coming my way quickly turned into dread. He looked at me in confusion and said, “No, where are the papers I gave you to tear?” I pointed to the trash can again. You can imagine the back and forth then as he realized I had just torn up all his tests and they were sitting in the trash can in small strips. My words tumbled out about how I thought they were secret security papers and that when he said “tear” I thought he meant “shred” when in fact he meant “separate.” The tests had been printed on one of those old printers where the pages were connected together, and he needed me to SEPARATE the pages not SHRED them. I was completely mortified while Chief could do nothing but stand there laughing in disbelief. Like I said, words are powerful. They can cause someone to do something no one else would dare to have done. Having said that, I’m sure his students were singing my praises that day.

Bible Study: What'd You Say?

Studies show that a normal person speaks at least 7,000 words a day. That totals roughly 153 million words in an average lifetime which is equivalent to speaking the words of the Bible 195 times or the words of an average romance novel 2,190 times. Those 7,000+ words you speak a day leave an imprint on the hearts of those around you. When you talk, is it just to hear the sound of your voice, or just to participate in the conversation, or is there purpose and meaning behind the things you say. It is easy for us to be careless with our words and use them to be critical, lift ourselves up, or speak vain things as opposed to looking for opportunities to use our words to be thankful, build others up, or speak the truth. Matthew 12:36 says, “But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.” The Bible has much to say about our tongue and the words we speak, but here are 3 ways to make sure you use the majority of your words wisely:

1. Be slow to speak.

Proverbs 13:3 tells us, “He that keepeth his mouth keepeth his life: but he that openeth wide his lips shall have destruction.” In a conversation, it is human nature to assume that it is more important for the other person to hear what you have to say than it is for you to hear what they are trying to say. The Bible tells us in James 1:19, ”Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.” Listen more than you speak, and when you do speak, make sure you remember that your words reveal your heart. If your words are impatient, you have an impatient heart. If your words are loving, you have a loving heart. If your words are angry, you have an angry heart. Luke 6:45 “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh.”

2. Say what you mean and mean what you say.

It is all too common for us to try to use sarcasm, wit, and jesting to get our point across, but often when we speak in this manner, what we say is misunderstood. One of Satan’s greatest tools to disrupt the harmony in a home or in the church is misunderstandings. Proverbs 26:18-19 says, “As a mad man who casteth firebrands, arrows, and death, so is the man that deceiveth his neigbour, and saith, Am not I in sport?” In modern terms that is the equivalent of the words, “I’m just kidding,” “I’m just joking,” or “I didn’t really mean it like that.” Ephesians 5:3-4 admonishes us this way, “But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient: but rather giving of thanks.”

3. Use your words for eternal value.

Obviously, there is much talk we do throughout any given day that is rooted in earthly things, but we should make sure that every single day, we’ve said something to someone that has eternal value . . . a kind word, an encouraging note, an explanation of a truth from the Word, or sharing of the Gospel. If you would get into the habit of every morning evaluating your words from the day before, it will help you to be more mindful of your words as you go throughout that day. Ask yourself these 3 questions about the words you used yesterday:

  • Did the words I used reflect that I’m a Christian and follow Christ?

  • Did the words I used show anyone the love of God?

  • Did the words I used make a positive difference in anyone’s life?

Fanny Crosby chose to use her talent with words to honor the Lord and to draw others to Him. It is interesting to note that she and Bing Crosby are actually related. Don’t get me wrong, I like me some Bing Crosby for sure, and it isn’t like he used his talents wickedly or anything, but if I look at both of their lives . . . both talented musicians . . . both talented singers . . . both talented song writers . . . and I evaluate which of them used their gift with words for the better purpose, it is an easy answer.

I hope it is your desire today to use your words wisely and with eternity in mind.

Serving the Master joyfully,



* Some accounts list it as published in 1867.


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