February 11: Frances Jane (Fanny) Van Alstyne Crosby, Hymnwriter, 1915

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.

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Fanny Crosby

About this commemoration

Fanny Crosby was the most prolific writer of hymn texts and gospel songs in the American evangelical tradition of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She wrote more than eight thousand sacred texts in addition to other poetry.

Frances Jane Crosby was born in Putnam County, New York, on March 24, 1820. Although not born blind, she lost her sight as an infant as a result of complications from a childhood illness. At the age of fifteen, she entered the New York Institute for the Blind where she would later teach for a number of years. In 1858, she married Alexander van Alstyne, a musician in New York who was also blind. Crosby was a lifelong Methodist.

Crosby’s texts were so popular that nearly every well-known composer of gospel music of the period came to her for words to accompany their melodies. In most hymn writing, the words come first and then a composer sets them to music, but for Crosby the words came so quickly and naturally that composers would often take her their tunes and she would immediately begin to shape words that fit the music.

Perhaps the best example of this process led to the creation of Crosby’s most well known hymn Blessed Assurance. On a visit to the home of a friend, the composer Phoebe Knapp, a newly composed tune was played for Crosby. After listening to the tune several times, the text began to take shape, and in a very short time one of the world’s most popular gospel hymns was born.
The American gospel song is a unique genre of sacred music that combines words expressive of the personal faith and witness with tunes that are simple and easily learned. Fanny Crosby’s contribution to this genre is unequaled. Dozens of her hymns continue to find a place in the hymnals of Protestant evangelicalism around the world.

Fanny Crosby died on February 12, 1915, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where she is buried.

Collects

I    O God, the blessed assurance of all who trust in thee: We give thee thanks for thy servant Fanny Crosby, who, though blind from infancy, beheld thy glory with great clarity of vision and spent her life giving voice to thy people’s heartfelt praise; and we pray that we, inspired by her words and example, may rejoice to sing of thy love, praising our Savior all the day long; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God in perfect harmony, now and for ever. Amen.

II    O God, the blessed assurance of all who trust in you: We give you thanks for your servant Fanny Crosby, who, though blind from infancy, beheld your glory with great clarity of vision and spent her life giving voice to your people’s heartfelt praise; and we pray that we, inspired by her words and example, may rejoice to sing of your love, praising our Savior all the day long; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God in perfect harmony, now and for ever. Amen.

Lessons

Isaiah 42:10–12,16

1 Peter 1:3–9

John 9:35–39

Psalm 108: 1-6

Preface of a Saint (3)

Text from Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

Additional link: Fanny Crosby’s best-known hymn “Blessed Assurance”: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/b/l/e/blesseda.htm

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We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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18 Responses to February 11: Frances Jane (Fanny) Van Alstyne Crosby, Hymnwriter, 1915

  1. Sarah V. Lewis says:

    Two points of interest:

    1) No hymns of Fanny Crosby are included in either our 1940 or 1982 Hymnals.

    2) Fanny Crosby’s hymns are known & sung & treasured by nursing home residents
    of just about all Christian traditions, including many who are Episcopalians .

    • Michael Hartney says:

      However, five of her hymns are available in Lift Every Voice and Sing II:
      # 29 – Near the Cross
      # 122 – Close to Thee
      # 129 – I Am Thine, O Lord
      # 139 – Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior
      # 184 – Blessed Assurance

      IMO we have more than made up for her absence in The Hymnal 1982.

  2. Michael Hartney says:

    Collect. Were the phrases ‘blessed assurance’ and ‘praising our Savior all the day long’ really necessary in this collect? We shall almost be required to sing it to Fanny’s hymn. This collect is just so different from others in HWHM that it needs attention and a rewrite.

    Bio. Nice ‘who is she’ and ‘why is she important’ statement; and, ‘She died on February 12, 1915 …’ statement. Thank you.

  3. John Morrell says:

    In the RC kalendar, today is the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. This seems more appropriate to me. I am sure Fanny was a devout and holy woman, but why to we need to celebrate a creator of saccharine drivel?

  4. Dale McNeill says:

    I was happy to see Fanny Crosby in Holy Women, Holy Men and hope she stays. I do think the collect needs work. I rather liked the “blessed assurance” in the collect, but that was enough without “praising our Savior all the day long”. I don’t think that “though blind from infancy” belongs in the collect. If necessary to mention her blindness, at least omit “though”. I have worked with (as my colleagues, I mean) several people who are blind, and and I think that it’s necessary to say “though John is blind, he does a good job”.

  5. Cynthia Gilliatt says:

    Our Lady of Lourdes? No way. I have an RC friend whose wife has spent a lot of money on pilgrimages to Lourdes in hopes of miracle cures for others., I presune, bringing back Lourdes water for them. Her husband is retired and this is seriously draining their resources. Husband is also a devout RC, but is seriously upset by this. “Can’t she see it’s a pious tourist trap?” That’s what he says. I would agree.

  6. John Dews says:

    Where are these coming from? My Aunt Minnie was a Methodist. Should we put her in too?

    • that John LaVoe says:

      Aunt Minnie aside, I agree 100% that this is a serious issue for us! Thank you, John. You say things with an admirable brevity. Someday I’ll have to try that! 🙂

    • There are many people remembered in Holy Women, HOly Men who were not Anglican. Many were RC; some were Protestant. I think it important that we are now remembering artists and musicians and hymnwriters. Fanny Crosby’s contribution to Protestant hymnody is unparalleled in this country the way the Wesley’s were in England. your comment about your aunt was unncesseary. THose of us trained in hymnody have a better appreciation even if our own preferences are more traditioanally “Anglican.”

  7. Philip Wainwright says:

    As an Evangelical, I treasure many of her hymns and have found much inspiration in her life, the story of which I have told many times in parish ministry. But like so many of the new names in HWHM (and a few already in LFF), her story doesn’t rise to the standards for liturgical commemoration, moving as it is. The more of these commemorations I consider, the less comfortable I am with them. By the time we’ve gone through the whole year, I may well have reached the ‘red letter days only’ stage.

  8. that John LaVoe says:

    Frances Jane (Fanny) Van Alstyne Crosby, Hymnwriter, 1915
    .
    I find here a sympathetic and talented person who contributed an astonishing number of hymn lyrics to the Christian repertoire. What I don’t find here is a description of holiness. I hope and expect to find the latter when I turn to these commemorations, and it does not necessarily follow that if someone composes 8,000+ hymns she is therefore a holy person.
    .
    Looking for that “missing” story, I found a somewhat extended account about her, and about the circumstances of her composing some of the hymns she composed, in the web site, http://www.believersweb.org/view.cfm?id=83 . Some of these accounts were very moving emotionally, and offered insight into her religious viewpoint and her character as a person. In my opinion we haven’t done her justice in our write-up, but we need to accept, critique, or reject what we have in HWHM, and on that basis I’m afraid we don’t have enough to include her. For instance we don’t know what her “lifelong membership” in the Methodist Church really meant to her; how she kept her religious duties; or what disciplines of prayer and charity she observed. We don’t know her understanding of the church’s mission, the Christian’s calling, or the role of Christ (beyond people’s avoiding hell, escaping sin, and securing a place in heaven).
    .
    Being a 19/20th Century Methodist, it may be difficult for 21st Century Episcopalians to appreciate the parameters of her kind of “holiness,” but that is part of the challenge of including other branches of the Christian community in our calendar. While not wanting to be “provincial” about my own church’s ethos, it’s the one I find “right” – and so I am put to the test when called upon to make judgments about aspects of other branches of the church in which I would not, in good conscience, belong. This is not to disparage Fanny Crosby, Methodists, or the kind of devotion and spirituality she lived. Rather, I want to say to the SCLM, once again, that having the approved list of “desiderata” — with no corresponding guidelines about boundaries and no idea of how extensive a book (or calendar) we’re trying to end up with — is an open invitation to confusion and arbitrariness regarding the judgments that are required of us as a church.
    .
    Back to the write-up, if I may be so impertinent, it reads in part more like a lesson in music appreciation on hymn production than about the holy life of Fanny Crosby – something I suggest may be the result of having more to say about hymn writing than about either holiness or useful understandings of what a good liturgical calendar should be in the 21st Century Episcopal Church.
    .
    THE COLLECT tries too hard to use phrases and details from “blessed assurance.” I may be alone and far out on this flimsy branch, but I don’t think they fit the thought structure or the word flow in a natural and prayerful way. (Nothing against the hymn – I’m talking about a collect, not a hymn.) Our collect also “uses” her blindness to emphasize her “vision,” which feels forced and awkward to me. (From what I read elsewhere, she was nothing short of heroic and devout in accepting her blindness in a positive way, but that seems like something proper and admirable for her to do, and for others to stand back and respect.) I’m not sure what “example” we pray in this collect to emulate – she wrote 8000+ hymns, but how many are really called to do that? I find the double verb in the petition problematic: I can “rejoice” and I can “sing,” but “rejoice to sing” sounds confusing and redundant – surely it’s a poetic way of expressing joy, but I like a prayer that is beautiful, theological, pastoral, and sensible. I don’t want to stop in the middle to puzzle over how to “rejoice to sing.” I get the impression of a cobbled patchwork in us – not necessarily her.
    .
    THE READINGS: I found myself looking for better selections. Ours seemed preoccupied with blindness and singing without any larger theological mooring. The ISAIAH passage lacked contextual rootage, seeming content with its reference to singing in verses 10-12 (in no particular connection with anything), and content with “vision” keywords as the only apparent reason for the leap from verse 12 to 16 (“lead[ing] the blind” and “turn[ing] the darkness … into light”). Why? Apparently, it doesn’t matter whether God’s grace is meaningfully proclaimed, so long as some keywords are present.
    .
    Psalm 108:1-6 will work, but only by ignoring the psalm as a whole, and the connection of these six select verses to the psalm’s overall thrust. Since the psalm functions as a response to the prior reading, and not as a reading in its own right, no rational comment can be given about the psalm if an OT lesson has only keywords as its rationale instead of its own integrity as scripture. This psalm has real good musical keywords in its disembodied ad hoc state. (That’s not a recommendation.)
    .
    1 Peter 1:3–9. This lesson actually makes sense. It expresses a message of thanksgiving to God, eschatological hope, and offers inspiration for meeting the challenges of faithfulness as the people of God in Christ. That, no doubt, is a vital and important awareness for anyone observing Crosby’s commemoration, even though the bio doesn’t mention it (nor any other spiritual themes) in connection with Crosby . (I was tempted to say, “…gives us not one blessed assurance….” I can’t write that, though; the groaning would be distracting.)
    .
    John 9:35–39. Once again, blindness seems to be the “obsession du jour,” and this excerpt from the story of the “man born blind” revolves around his deliverance from blindness – and without any introduction built in for hearers floundering to pick it up “in media res.” The unidentified pronouns are particularly exasperating for an opening verse: (“35 Jesus heard that THEY had driven HIM out, and when HE found HIM, HE said, “Do YOU believe in the Son of Man?” This, before we have a chance to “place” the reading in any story context). More serious yet is whether this is the proclamation of Good News our commemoration calls forth! To answer that, the biography needs critical scrutiny — to see if it is really presented as a commemoration of a holy person, or as a music appreciation lesson featuring a token blind person. I found these selections (except the NT lesson) patronizing.
    .
    As is, this is not a commemoration of a holy person at all. It could be, and depending on the results we’re working towards with this calendar, possibly should be. At present, however, it does not seem to rise to the level of what I look for in HWHM.

  9. Nigel Renton says:

    It would be much better if the title simply read “Fanny Crosby”. Her full name could then properly be shown in the text.

    It is usual when showing names of married women to put the name acquired in marriage last. Why does “Van Alstyne” appear before her maiden name?

    Once again the start of the printed bio has adopted the journalist’s style of starting with a summary of her career. The material in the first paragraph should be incorporated into the body of the article.

    Last line, second paragraph: The five words in this line seem out of place in this paragraph. I suggest that they be moved, maybe as the initial words of the next paragraph.

  10. Steve Lusk says:

    We seem have fallen into the Roman trap of having to add “saints” for balance. In the Church of Rome, they can’t add a Jesuit to the calendar unless they also add a Franciscan, and they can’t add a Franciscan without adding a Dominican, and so on. We seem to be doing the same thing, only with musical genres rather than monastic orders. I assume Bach and Handel and Crosby were conventionally pious Christians, but judging from their HWHM bios, they’ve been added simply because they were very good (or very prolific) at what is essentially a secular occupation (song writing). Shouldn’t we also add Eliza Snow and Augustus Montague Toplady (who’s even an Anglican, or is that bad?), and save a date for the Louvin Brothers (they could share). And what about jazz, folk, and rock composers?
    Historically, the feast of church music has always been St. Cecilia’s Day, which has also (at last!) been restored to its rightful place by HWHM. As St. Cecilia’s connection to the organ is entirely fictitious (organs have been around since the 3rd century BC), she’s not only time-honored but genre-free. So musicians of every tribe and nation can claim her as their own.
    The legend of Cecilia’s martyrdom may be equally fictitious, of course, but that’s actually a point in her favor, given our penchant for ordaining women. Her church in Rome’s Trastevere district dates to at least the 4th century, but as the gens Caecilii owned a lot of property in the area, it’s likely that the name of the church originally honored its founder or benefactor rather than an early martyr. Nicola Denzey (The Bone Gatherers: The Lost Worlds of Early Christian Women, 2007) says that in 499, Cecilia was reimagined as an early martyr. So the church built by the Lady Cecilia became the church named in honor of the martyr Cecilia. Over the next century, the same fate befell the churches named for Sabina, Susanna, Eugenia, Anastasia, Passede, and Pudenziana. Thus were the ranks of the virgin martyrs augmented, and the record of the female founders and sponsors of Rome’s early churches erased.
    Regardless of where you come down on Cecilia’s legend, her festival is an ancient one, and considerable indulgence must be granted to a fable which has inspired the chisel of Maderno, the brushes of Raphael and Botticini, the pens of Chaucer and Dryden, and the melodies of Purcell, Handel, Gerald Finzi, Benjamin Britten, and Paul Simon.

  11. Celinda Scott says:

    To quote HWHM again: yes, balance is one of the nine “Principles of Revision” (see pp. 742-743). “Range of Inclusion” recommends the following: “Particular attention should be paid to Episcopalians and other members of the Anglican Communion. Attention should also be paid to gender and race, to the inclusion of lay people (witnessing in this way to our baptismal understanding of the Church), and to ecumenical representation. In this way the Calendar will reflect the reality of our time: that instant communication and extensive travel are leading to an ever deeper international and ecumenical consciousness among Christian people.” Added to that understanding of “inclusion,” I imagine, is the range of worship styles in TEC, which includes quite a few parishes with “Lift Every Voice” among the hymnals in the in pew, in which some peoples’ “dreadful saccharine” hymns are other other peoples’ deeply meaningful expressions of faith. What I don’t see in the “Principles of Revision” is what “that John Lavoe” says above: “What I don’t find here is a description of holiness.” Perhaps someone else can point out elsewhere in HWHM where that is a mentioned and defined. It was interesting that John LaVoe found in other accounts of her life indications of the holiness. If that were very clearly one of the “Principles of Revision,” perhaps the writer of the bio would have been more careful to include those references. –About Lourdes, in the sense that this is the date Our Lady of Lourdes is commemorated: I have to agree with Cynthia. I visited it once, and found it to be very commercial. I’ve heard that the film “Song of Bernadette” gets the miracle across very well–but I think the Protestant part of our religious nature really balks at the massive sale of things connected to religious experience. There are plenty of things for sale in Anglican cathedrals, but somehow that seems different. The things aren’t sold as “charms.”

  12. Pingback: February 11 – Hymnwriter Fanny Crosby : St. Paul's Episcopal Church

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