Sermon at Saint Mark’s Church, Borris in Ossory on Wednesday, 25th May 2011
A friend who lost the sight of both her eyes at the age of three regards blindness not as a disability but as part of the person she is, shaping her life and character. As someone who is a graduate of Trinity College in Dublin; who learned to ski before I did; who travels across Dublin each day to go to work; who enjoys reading and trips to the theatre in her spare time; she lives a life more full and more active than many sighted people. Blindness is a fact with which to cope, it is not an inhibition to doing things.
Fanny Crosby was blessed with that sort of indomitable spirit, but, being born two centuries ago, did not have the sort of technological assistance that would be available to her if she had lived today.
Born in 1820, she developed an eye inflammation at six weeks old which prompted her family to call a doctor to their New York home. Whether it was incompetence on his part, applying to her eyes poultices that were later claimed to have caused the blindness, or whether there was a congenital blindness that had not been noticed, Fanny Crosby was blind from infancy.
Life was not going to be easy for Fanny Crosby, when she was eight months old, her father died at the age of 23, leaving Fanny in the care of Mercy, her 21 year old mother and her grandmother, Eunice. Eunice Crosby was to be a major influence in Fanny Crosby’s life.
When Fanny was five years old, doctors advised her mother that the child’s blindness would be permanent, and by the time she was eight Fanny Crosby seems to have come to a developed awareness of being unable to see, writing a poem declaring that she would be content with her blessings and not be bitter at what she did not have. Writing later in life, Fanny Crosby discerned a purpose in her blindness. “It seemed intended by the blessed providence of God that I should be blind all my life, and I thank him for the dispensation. If perfect earthly sight were offered me tomorrow I would not accept it. I might not have sung hymns to the praise of God if I had been distracted by the beautiful and interesting things about me”.
Unable to see the words of Scripture for herself, Fanny Crosby nevertheless had an extraordinarily retentive mind. Her grand mother would read passages of the Bible to her and Fanny would memorize them, they would work at this daily and Fanny would learn five new chapters each week.
Eunice Crosby died at the age of 53 when Fanny was just eleven andher days of learning might have drawn to a close. However, in 1834, she attended school and in 1835 there came the breakthrough when she was enrolled at the New York Institution for the Blind. Because her mother was poor, Fanny Crosby’s fees were paid by the state of New York.
Fanny Crosby spent ten years receiving instruction at the institution, eight as a pupil and two in graduate study; they were years that gave her musical skills to add to her great knowledge of the Bible. Crosby became a lobbyist, calling on the US government to devote proper resources to the education of blind people. From 1846 until 1858, when she was 38, Fanny Crosby was one of the staff of the New York Institution for the Blind, including refusing to leave those in her car when a cholera epidemic hit the city in 1849.
Grounded in a word for word knowledge of Scripture and surrounded by devout people, Fanny Crosby still felt there was a lack in her life of a true sense of assurance from God. Attending a meeting during the 1850 revival in New York, Fanny Crosby finally found the sense of God’s presence for which she had searched. “My very soul was flooded with celestial light. I sprang to my feet, shouting ‘Hallelujah'”, she was to write, “the Lord planted a star in my life and no cloud has ever obscured its light.”
In 1843, Fanny Crosby met Alexander van Alstyne, a visually impaired young man who was studying at the New York Institution for the Blind who was to go on to study at a mainstream college. They were married in 1858, but unhappiness was to follow: their baby daughter Frances died whilst in infancy and they were never to settle to married life, living in a succession of rented houses, each for only a short time, and gradually drifting apart, and living completely separate lives as the years passed.
A poet since her childhood days, published in many newspapers, and writer of political songs in support of the anti-slavery movement and in support of the Union side in the Civil War, Fanny Crosby’s hymn writing really took off in years when she might have become introspective and embittered.
Crosby sought to write hymns from the heart, hymns that appealed to people’s sentiment rather than just their intellect. The rigid Calvinists amongst the American evangelicals are said not to have liked Crosby’s work, thinking it sugary sweet and lacking in substance, but tens of thousands of ordinary people sang the words with gusto. Crosby is said to have written almost 9,000 hymns, at the request of her publishers many were published under pseudonyms so it would appear that the bulk of some hymnbooks was the work of a single writer.
In 1880, Fanny Crosby made a new commitment to Christ. Her desire had been that she would remembered not as a writer, but as a ‘rescue’ missionary, someone who had devoted her life to bringing children and women and men off the streets of late-19th Century New York. Her hymn ‘Rescue the perishing’ was to become a popular song amongst the city missions. Crosby not only worked at the missions, but spoke at public meetings about the needs of the urban poor. Her closing years, until her death in 1915, were devoted to speaking engagements and campaigning on behalf of those whom she met on the streets of the city.
Crosby’s Christianity was very much of the heart and hand variety. Her popular appeal, despised by those who would have wished for a more rigorous, intellectual faith; and her social engagement, which would have been annoying to those who would have regarded faith as something private and personal; were part of the extraordinary person Fanny Crosby was.
Crosby’s writing can evoke many responses. It is said that ‘Safe in the arms of Jesus’ drew its inspiration from the death of her baby daughter, her only child. Whilst it has been dismissed as mawkish and sentimental by some who would perhaps look for more literary writing or clearer doctrine, what matters is the comfort and strength the words have brought to countless people down through the decades. I know of a little headstone standing by itself in a churchyard that commemorates a child who dies at three months old, at its base are inscribed Crosby’s simple words. Intellect and doctrine are of little use to someone who has lost their baby.
In college days, there was a very learned academic who particularly disliked Fanny Crosby’s work, ‘Blessed assurance is the wrong song’, he would declare, as though his opinion were a statement of fact. Who said it was the wrong song? It did not fit with his definition of salvation, but who gave anyone the right to claim they had the right to say how God saw things? It is a question that should be particularly asked of the church. Fanny Crosby’s writings found particular popularity amongst those who had little, if any, connection with any church.
In school days, ‘To God be the glory’, was our school hymn. A hymn that was entirely about God’s grace, about what God had done for us. Yet the version of Christianity preached to us was not about grace, but about being ‘good living’, whatever ‘good’ might mean; it certainly did not mean being concerned for the poor or seeking justice in our world.
Fanny Crosby’s hymns have an enduring appeal because they cut out the middle man; they are about a personal relationship with God, who is concerned with individuals. To those whose confidence is in the institutional church, her words are troublesome; to those who look for something they can trust in the midst of this dishonest world, they are assurance.