Sermon from St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, preached by the Reverend Dr Gordon Giles commemorating the centenary of the death of Fanny Crosby 1820 - 1915
We have just sung one of the few hymns of which both the author of the words and the composer of the tune are women. In fact of those that there are, this is probably the most famous. And it is the centenary of the death of one of those women that we commemorate – and celebrate – this week.
Frances Crosby (known as ‘Fanny’) was possibly the most prolific hymn writer ever known, and she died on February 12th 1915. Known as Fanny Crosby in the USA and Frances Jane van Alstyne in the UK, it is widely believed that she wrote between eight and nine thousand hymns, although only 442 of them are listed on the http://cyberhymnal.org website, and only about fifty of them are in regular use today. The new Methodist Hymnal, Singing the Faith, and the new Ancient and Modern only have two of her hymns (both of which we are singing tonight) and the New English Hymnal doesn’t have any of her hymns in it. The two we know are of course, “Blessed Assurance” and “To God be the Glory”. Although I wonder when any of us last sang “Blessed Assurance”, if ever at all.
Fanny Crosby was born in Putnam County, New York in 1820. When she barely six weeks old, she developed an eye infection and the man who treated her, who was believed to be a doctor, but who was probably not, inadvertently blinded her. It was one of those tragedies of childhood that set the young girl’s life on a path that she never regretted. Furthermore around the same time, her father died.
She studied at the New York City School for the Blind, where she displayed prodigious talent on the piano, guitar, organ and harp. At the age of eight she began to write poetry, and her first major collection was A Blind Girl and Other Poems published in 1844 when she was 24 years old. Having been brought up as a Presbyterian by her mother, in 1850 she had a conversion experience at the Chelsea Methodist Episcopal Church in New York City, but it was not until around 1863 that she began her extensive hymn-writing career. Many of these hymns were written under pseudonyms, so it is not easy to produce a definitive list of her output, nor even of the names she used. There could be at least fifty such pseudonyms under which she wrote.
Her vast oeuvre was partly determined by the publishing contracts and expectations placed upon her, which meant that sometimes she was writing three hymns a week, or even half a dozen a day, composing them at night and writing them down the next morning. Fortunately, and perhaps being blind was part of it – she had been blessed from an early age with a wonderful memory.
Her prodigious and prolific talent made her famous in her own day. She was a personal friend of significant people, including US Presidents, and gained a reputation for generosity and commitment. Sadly, she drifted apart from her husband, Alexander van Alstyne, with whom she had taught at the New York City School for the Blind. This was mostly due to her humble attitude towards her own blindness and others in need. She believed that her blindness was a gift, which enabled her to lead a life which a sighted person would have been denied, and herself wrote of her predicament:
“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.”
She lived to the great age of 95, and her autobiographical writings were edited and published in her own lifetime by her friend the poet Will Carleton (1845-1912), in Fanny Crosby’s Life-Story, by Herself (1903), and later as Memories of Eighty Years (1906). She lies buried in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where on her tombstone she is called ‘Aunt Fanny’ and beneath her details the opening verse of “Blessed Assurance” were engraved in 1955.
“Blessed assurance” was written in 1873, and Crosby herself described its conception:
“My friend, Mrs. Joseph F. Knapp, composed a melody and played it over to me two or three times on the piano. She then asked what it said. I replied, “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!”.
The tune became known as ASSURANCE and Crosby wrote the remaining words. It soon appeared in Guide to Holiness, a monthly magazine edited by Phoebe Palmer Knapp and her husband, Joseph Fairchild Knapp, and it was picked up by Ira Sankey and printed in Gospel Hymns No 5 in 1887, cementing its place in popular hymnody and spirituality.
The text is a personal one, referring to ‘mine’, ‘my’ and ‘I’, and speaks of the sheer delight of praising God in song. It is a hymnwriter’s hymn, for sure, extolling the heartfelt spirituality of singing the praises of God. In this it throws its roots back into the Psalms, yet while speaking the language of the evangelical revival and the personal devotion inculcated by that tradition. Yet at the same time it is hymn that unites and bonds those who sing it together. It enables everyone to sing of their own story, their own journey of faith and relationship with God, yet while joining together in corporate praise. In this blend of the personal and corporate is found the epitome of worship. This may explain why the refrain was echoed by the compilers of the Church of England’s Common Worship provision at the turn of the millennium: In the responsorial Eucharistic Prayer D, we find a subtle resonance of Crosby’s words, which are used to modulate in the liturgy from “This is his story. This is our song: Hosanna in the Highest” to “This is our story. This is our song: Hosanna in the Highest”. The song of Christ, who, as the Eucharistic prayer puts it ‘touched untouchables and washed the guilty clean” becomes our song. We who are set free by his death and resurrection: his story becomes ours.
So while we may not sing the hymn that often, we have borrowed its spirituality and it has become embedded in the liturgy of the Church of England. Fanny Crosby, who was devoted to the untouchable poor and whose passion was to be washed in the blood of Jesus, would surely have approved of this subtle but real influence on Anglican spirituality that her hymn continues to have a hundred years after her own entering into glory.
Hymnwriters rarely get sainted, even the great Wesleys while revered do not really get proper recognition. And Crosby wrote many more hymns than they did. In this week in which we commemorate the death of Fanny Crosby, and mourn the loss of Michael Saward who died last weekend suddenly – he who wrote “Christ Triumphant” - it does no harm occasionally to remember what a huge impact great hymns have on our spirit and our lives. They give us pleasure, make us think, affect our believing and thinking, and most of all, give us that most wonderful vehicle of praise to Almighty God, Father Son and Holy Spirit. To whom be the glory, for great things he has done!
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 08/02/15