Finding uplifting, theologically sound music for worship is a complex task! We’ve had many conversations in our congregation in recent years about how to mix up our singing. Our annual fee for a copyright license (CCLI) opens up thousands of songs to us. But then we have to figure out which ones we want to learn. Who will teach the congregation new songs? Or will the song leader just sing them for us? Which ones will become beloved and familiar? Sometimes I end up writing Didn’t go over well or Don’t use in the margin of the office copy of my hymnal. Of course there are crowd favorites such as “Holy, Holy, Holy” Heber and “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” Chisholm that take people back to an earlier stage in their faith. But as a worship planner I have to continually search for new expressions of music that will send people home with a melody in their hearts.
I’ve discovered that sometimes a story of faith can bring some forgotten Christian music to life. I had heard a few stories about Fanny Crosby (1820–1915), so I dug up some resources to learn more about her. I found myself pulled into the world of one of the most prolific hymn writers of her time. Though she lost her sight as a newborn, she was contented and well educated. She is credited with writing nearly 9,000 hymns in her 94 years! As is often the case, a great deal of personal hardship inspired her lyrics, which affirmed her reliance on Jesus as Savior.
I put together a worship service that interspersed chapters of her life with some of the texts she wrote, many of which are still sung to the tunes they originally appeared with. Singing a tune from the 1800s is not the goal of most worship leaders, but God used this remarkable woman to turn her trials into prayerful stanzas that, when paired with the power of music, found their way into the hearts and onto the tongues of Christians across the globe. This year marks the 200th anniversary of her birth, so it could be an opportune time to invite Fanny Jane Crosby to lead your worship team!
Five stories from Crosby’s life were woven together with her hymns during the service. I got these to the narrators well in advance of the service so they could be comfortable with the text. They were touched to learn about Crosby’s life and read their lines with meaningful emotion.
There were lots of opportunities for the congregation to sing Crosby’s songs. Additionally, the choir sang anthems using Crosby’s lyrics set to familiar tunes that would bring to mind her texts when the music was played during reflective times in worship (prelude, offertory, postlude). This made for a moving participatory experience for both those in the pews and those in leadership roles.
While this service honored the memory of a remarkable woman and brought her words to life, more importantly it was an occasion for us to give God the glory for all God has done, is doing, and will do. What a joy it is to raise our voices in praise of our Lord knowing these same words have been sung for almost 200 years around the world. Indeed, to God be the glory!
Editor’s Note: Contemporary arrangements of Crosby’s hymns are noted with links to their arrangements on CCLI and/or YouTube.
Celebrating A Life Of Faith: Fanny Crosby
God greets us with these words:
I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people.
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
I am the LORD, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.
—Isaiah 42:6–8, NRSV
It is that God we have gathered to glorify today,
for this is our story; this is our song.
“Blessed Assurance” Crosby, arr. Thygerson
Call to Worship
Friends in Christ,
we have this blessed assurance that Jesus is ours!
To God be the glory for the great things he has done;
loving us so much that he sent us his son!
All the way our Savior leads us.
How can we doubt his tender mercy since,
through our lives, Christ has been our guide?
Praise him! Praise him!
Jesus, our blessed Redeemer!
Sing, O earth, his wonderful love proclaim!
For our sins he suffered and bled and died.
Near the cross we’ll watch and wait, hoping, trusting ever,
till we reach the golden strand just beyond the river.
Great things God has taught us,
great things God has done,
and great our rejoicing through Jesus the Son;
but purer and higher and greater will be
our wonder, our transport, when Jesus we see.
Praise the Lord!
Meeting Fanny Jane Crosby— Difficult Losses in Family
One of the central elements of our worship is music. Where else do you sing in a group setting with live accompaniment during the week? Scripture is full of references to music. Psalms is the hymnbook of the Jews. We know that Jesus sang. When the last meal Jesus ate with his disciples concluded, Scripture states, “When they had sung a hymn, they went out” (Matthew 26:30). When Paul and his companions were imprisoned for their faith, they sang hymns. This would have amazed the other prisoners—Paul and his friends had been severely beaten before this impromptu hymn sing! The book of Revelation offers images of heaven in which joyful music is continually heard by all. The people of God have always sung as part of their worship. The styles of music change, but our song continues.
I’ve always been moved by the story of Fanny Crosby, one of the most prolific North American hymn writers. Our service today is shaped around her life and hymn texts.
Fanny was born in 1820 and lived to be 94. When she was six weeks old, mistreatment of an eye infection by a visiting physician resulted in her losing her sight. Shortly after, her father died, leaving her 21-year-old mother to fend for the two of them. Fanny’s grandmother was her primary caregiver while her mother hired herself out as a maid. Both women were strong Christians and passed their faith on to Fanny.
There were few services for those with visual impairments in the 1820s, but Fanny’s grandmother had no intention of her granddaughter missing out on life. She taught Fanny to memorize Scripture, up to five chapters each week, and Fanny developed a remarkable memory. In spite of losing her sight and her father before her first birthday, Fanny was surrounded by love in her childhood and didn’t feel as if she lacked for much.
When Fanny was 18, her mother, Mercy Crosby, remarried, and the couple had three children. I imagine Fanny’s delight at having three very young half siblings after a quiet life with her mother and grandmother. However, six years and three young children later, Mercy’s husband abandoned the family, adding a tremendous burden to both Mercy and her 24-year-old daughter. This time it was three generations who worked together to compensate for the loss of another husband: Fanny, her mother, and her grandmother, Eunice. Life was challenging all over again.
When Fanny was 38 she married Alexander van Alstyne, considered one of the finest organists in the New York area. Alexander, too, was visually impaired. The two met at the New York Institute for the Education of the Blind, where Fanny taught for 23 years. One year after they married, they had a baby daughter, Frances, who died in her sleep soon after birth. Some believe that Fanny’s hymn “Safe in the Arms of Jesus” was inspired by her young daughter’s death.
Fanny seldom spoke of this daughter, and the couple never had another child. Fanny carried with her through life the brief joy of being a mother and the tremendous grief of losing her daughter. Sadly, Fanny’s marriage struggled after this loss, and she and her husband moved apart. Neither remarried, and they remained friends until he died. Through her own trials, Fanny clung to her faith as expressed in the words of her hymn “Near the Cross”:
Jesus, keep me near the cross,
There a precious fountain,
Free to all, a healing stream,
Flows from Calv’ry’s mountain.
Though most of Fanny’s hymns were written more than 150 years ago, they have lasting value, and I pray that as we sing our way through her life today we will be drawn more closely to the God Fanny loved and served.
Prayer of Invocation
we pray that you would make us more like you,
that you would dwell within us
in this time of worship.
Fill our souls with peace and love.
Teach us how to live,
all our sinful thoughts forgive.
Make us more like you when we pray,
more like you day by day.
Enrich our faith
as we rejoice in the life
of your faithful servant Fanny.
Blessed Savior, dwell in each of us this day
so God may be glorified. Amen.
“Blessed Assurance” Crosby, LUYH 363 (v. 3), GtG 839, PsH 490
Elevation Worship arrangement: bit.ly/34WwQbb, CCLI# 7011451
Arrangement by Eric Lige and Kimberly Kim, The Ethnos Project, Vol. 2 (spoti.fi/36FAcjl), CCLI# 7051734
“More Like Jesus” Crosby, arr. Janzen
Do you like to sing? What are your favorite songs? What do you like about the words? Singing is something we do in worship together. Do you like to sing with your families in worship? What songs are you learning in church school? If you had to write a song, what would you write about? Have you ever written a poem? Was that difficult, or did you enjoy it?
Today we are singing songs written by a woman named Fanny Crosby. She couldn’t see. Would it be difficult to write songs and play the piano if you were unable to see?
Fanny didn’t feel sorry for herself. She learned to be a good writer and student even without being able to see. She loved Jesus and wrote words for hymns that were sung in church school. Fanny was even paid to write one or two songs each week for her church’s church school students. Can you imagine having a brand new song to sing each week? Can you imagine writing one or two songs each week? Fanny often wrote six to eight new songs each week!
God used Fanny’s love for Jesus to give those of us in the church wonderful songs to sing for more than 150 years! If all of Fanny’s songs were published in hymnals, how many books do you think they would fill? [I had a stack of twelve hymnals near me. The kids started counting with me out loud.] Would it be one? No! Two? No! . . . [After stacking twelve hymnals into a towering pile, I said that we needed even more than that!] Is there someone willing to give [insert name of a child] a hymnal that we can borrow for a moment?
Do you think thirteen hymnals have enough room for all the hymns that Fanny wrote? No! Can someone give [name] a hymnal? [Work up to fifteen hymnals.]
Fanny couldn’t even remember all the hymns she had written at the end of her life, but we know it was about nine thousand! And today we are still singing them. Isn’t that an amazing gift God gave to a little girl who was visually impaired?
I wonder what words I would use for a song about Jesus? I wonder what song you could write?
Let’s pray: Thank you, God, for your servant Fanny Crosby. We are so grateful for the gift you gave her to write songs. We know that she loved your son, Jesus. Thank you that we can still sing her music today and remember how much we love Jesus too! In Christ’s name we pray, amen.
“To God Be the Glory” Crosby, LUYH 604 (v. 3), GtG 634, PsH 473
Lifeway Worship arrangement: bit.ly/34YnDPE
Mike Schuster arrangement: bit.ly/2LtqNmZ
An Advocate for the Visually Impaired
Fanny never felt sorry for herself. She wrote her first poem when she was eight years old—evidence of the positivity and love of her upbringing:
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.
—J. H. Hall, Biography of Gospel Song and Hymn Writers, New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1914, p. 40–41.
When Fanny was about 14 years old she learned of the New York Institute for the Education of the Blind. She knew this was the answer to her prayer for an education. She was a student there for twelve years and taught in the Institute for twenty-three years. She became the face of the academic institution and was asked to write poems for all sorts of occasions. The school became the locus of efforts to promote the cause of the visually impaired. Consequently Fanny often met with dignitaries including presidents, generals, and other important figures. When Fanny was 31 years old she addressed the New York State Legislature to bring attention to the school and its important work. Her sensitivity to the sightless showed up in the wording of many of her hymns.
Her hymn “All the Way My Savior Leads Me” TH 605, WR 505 came from Fanny’s grateful heart after she received what she understood as a direct answer to her prayer. She once was in desperate need of five dollars. As was her habit, Fanny prayed and placed her need in God’s hands. Within a matter of minutes a man appeared at her door with the exact amount. She said, “I have no way of accounting for this except to believe that God put it into the heart of this good man to bring the money. My first thought was that it is so wonderful the way the Lord leads me. I immediately wrote the poem and Dr. Lowry set it to music” (Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories: The Inspiring True Stories Behind 101 Favorite Hymns, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications, 1982, p. 26).
That hymn was first published in 1875. As we sing it, listen to how Fanny gave praise to a Savior who guided her steps and gave needed grace for every trial. May Fanny’s testimony also be ours.
“All the Way My Savior Leads Me” Crosby, TH 605, WR 505
Chris Tomlin arrangement: bit.ly/2OUgdYc,
CCLI# 5203268, bit.ly/2rXXrq3
A Surprising Mix of Poverty and Greatness
While Fanny has been best remembered as a hymn writer, her greatest passion was for serving those struggling with poverty. She willingly gave away the few assets she had for the support of New York City missions. Crosby stated, “From the time I received my first check for my poems, I made up my mind to open my hand wide to those who needed assistance.” She earned only one or two dollars per song, with all future royalties going not to her, but to the composer of the melody. This small income never went toward her own home; she always rented modest apartments and had very few possessions. Her willingness to place the needs of the poorest city dwellers above her own became her trademark. Her concern for the marginalized often shows up in her hymns.
When Fanny couldn’t be found at one of the downtown missions, she might have been presenting at one of her many speaking engagements, perhaps in the company of famous people. Her published poems and countless hymns put her in the spotlight. At age 21 Fanny wrote a poetic eulogy on the death of President William Henry Harrison that was published in The New York Herald. Fanny’s poems were often published there or in The Saturday Evening Post.
One of her music students was 17-year-old Grover Cleveland. He often transcribed the poems that Fanny dictated, and the two became good friends. Cleveland wrote a recommendation for her 1906 autobiography, and she wrote a poem for his inauguration.
Fanny was prolific, writing the text to several cantatas, one of which comprised some 35 songs. She wrote choruses for musical pieces that were performed at large churches and concert halls. She was asked to write poems of welcome for visiting dignitaries. And she wrote songs to support Abraham Lincoln in the agony of the Civil War.
But in the midst of this busyness and notoriety Fanny never wavered in her commitment to the poor, choosing to live frugally so she could give to others. One day, when she had returned from a visit to a mission in one of the poorest districts in New York City, her heart was particularly attuned to the neglected poor and in response she penned the words to the hymn “Rescue the Perishing.” She tells the story in these words: “I usually tried to get to the mission at least one night a week to talk to ‘my boys.’ I was addressing a large company of working men one hot summer evening, when the thought kept forcing itself on my mind that some mother’s boy must be rescued that night or he might be eternally lost. So I made a pressing plea that if there was a boy present who had wandered from his mother’s home and teaching, he should come to me at the end of the service. A young man of 18 came forward—‘Did you mean me, Miss Crosby? I promised my mother to meet her in heaven, but as I am now living, that will be impossible.’ We prayed for him and suddenly he arose with a new light in his eyes—‘Now I am ready to meet my mother in heaven, for I have found God.’” With each remarkable story of faith, Fanny always gave God the glory!
“To God Be the Glory” Crosby, LUYH 604 (vs. 1, 2), GtG 634, PsH 473
A Passion for Bringing Others into the Fold
While Fanny wrote her first poem at age eight, she didn’t start writing hymn lyrics until she was in her forties. She was paid to write three or four poems a week to be published in a church school songbook. Sometimes God inspired her to write six or seven hymns a day, a gift she attributed to God’s faithfulness. Though she was an accomplished singer, pianist, organist, harpist, and lyricist, Fanny’s primary goal in writing her hymn texts was to bring people to Christ. For those who would not listen to preaching, Fanny prayed that they might hear of God’s mercy in her hymns. The appeal of Fanny’s hymns was the very personal relationship depicted between the believer and God. Earlier hymns had emphasized people’s sinfulness, but Fanny’s words invited people into a redeemed resting place with the Savior. In her hymn “I Am Thine, O Lord” TH 533, WR 408 she celebrates the very nearness of Jesus, who has spoken to her of his love. Through words like these she has brought people to Christ for many generations.
Transitional statement if including a sermon:
The story of Fanny Crosby brings to mind the story of Bartimaeus, who was also visually impaired. We find his story in the gospel of Mark.
“A Seeing Faith”
This service did not include a sermon, but it would be appropriate to preach on Mark 10:46–52. While on the surface the passage is about the miraculous healing of a man with visual impairments, throughout the book of Mark sight and the question of who sees and who doesn’t is a spiritual metaphor. Though Bartimaeus was physically blind, he understood that Jesus could show him mercy and heal him. Bartimaeus had a greater understanding of Christ’s identity than Christ’s disciples did, so Jesus says that he was healed because of his faith. Oh, that we had the sight of Bartimaeus and Fanny!
“Behold the Lamb of God” Crosby
Behold the Lamb of God,
who takes our sins away!
He stands with open arms and pleads
with dying souls today.
Behold the Lamb of God,
whose all-atoning blood
will cleanse and make us pure within
who plunge beneath its flood.
Behold the Lamb of God,
despised, reproached, betrayed;
the Father’s well-beloved Son,
on whom our guilt was laid.
Behold the Lamb of God,
who died for you and me!
Oh, come, and at his hand receive
salvation full and free.
Behold the Lamb of God,
from earth’s foundation slain,
that we, if faithful unto death,
with him might live and reign.
Behold the Lamb of God,
whom now by faith we see;
Oh, tell the wonders of his grace,
and shout redemption free.
—Fanny Crosby, 1882 adapt., P.D.
This text can be sung to any tune with a 22.214.171.124 meter, such as GORDON (“Remember Not, O God” LUYH 632, GtG 430, PsH 254). Or you could put two stanzas together and sing it to DIADEMATA (“Crown Him with Many Crowns” LUYH 223 GtG 268, PsH 410). Note how one tune highlights the repentant nature of this text and the other its triumphal message. You might want to choose the tune based on what emotive response you anticipate listeners having to the sermon.
Prayers of the Church and the Lord’s Prayer
“I Am Thine, O Lord/Draw Me Nearer” Crosby, TH 533, WR 408 (vs. 1–3)
Caedmon’s Call arrangement: spoti.fi/2LrW4Xe
Stephen Merrick arrangement: bit.ly/2rkCplm, CCLI#5611427
Offering of our Gifts and Tithes
- Christian History: “Fanny Crosby Story” (tinyurl.com/tthwpv)
- Christianity Today: “Fanny Crosby: Prolific and Blind Hymn Writer” (tinyurl.com/um659rj)
- Faith Hall of Fame: “Frances Jane van Alystyne (Fanny Crosby)” (tinyurl.com/gnuasoz)
- History’s Women: The Unsung Heroines: “Fanny Crosby, Hymnwriter” (tinyurl.com/ulhge9b)
- Inspirational Christians: “Fanny Crosby Biography” (tinyurl.com/wswuwee)
Fanny Crosby: Wrapping Up Well
When asked toward the end of her long life about her visual impairment, Fanny was predictably positive: “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. If I had a choice I would still choose to remain blind . . . for when I die, the first face that shall ever gladden my sight will be that of my blessed Savior.”
In her old age and continued poverty, Fanny’s half sisters cared for her. As she had sacrificed for their care when they were small children, they now provided for her needs. Despite her age, Fanny would sit at the piano and play everything from classical works to hymns to ragtime. Her music stayed with her. But her writing had been so prolific—almost nine thousand hymns written in her lifetime—that when hearing an unfamiliar hymn she liked she’d inquire about the author only to be told that it was one of her own!
The abiding Christian faith of Fanny’s young, widowed mother and grandmother sustained not only her but countless others who met Jesus through her hymns and mission outreach. In honor of her eighty-fifth birthday, Fanny Crosby Day was celebrated by churches of many denominations around the world. When she was ninety-one she addressed a national gathering of Christians after they had spent thirty minutes singing her songs. She died one month short of her ninety-fifth birthday, leaving money in her will for “the sheltering of senior males who had no other place to live.”
Ten years after her death, in March of 1925, three thousand churches across the United States again observed Fanny Crosby Day to celebrate her gift to the church. And today, two hundred years after her birth, Christians around the globe, using many different languages, continue to use her words to give praise to Jesus, our blessed Redeemer.
People of God,
go from here rejoicing
for all that God has done, is doing, and will do.
And as you leave,
empowered by the Holy Spirit to share in God’s work,
take with you this blessing:
May our Lord Jesus Christ himself
and God our Father,
who loved us
and by his grace
gave us eternal encouragement and good hope,
encourage your hearts and strengthen you
in every good deed and word.
—2 Thessalonians 2:16–17