Under intense persecution, hundreds of Puritan preachers, followed by tens of thousands from their flocks in the Old Country, answered freedom’s beckoning call and headed for America. Governor John Winthrop would describe what they hoped to build as a “shining city on a hill.”
Among those arriving in Boston were the Rev. Thomas Shepard and Simon Crosby and his relatives. Simon had heard Shepard preach and had undergone a profound religious conversion. The Crosbys would settle across the river and Cambridge (Newtowne) and become prominent citizens whose heirs were pillars of local Puritan and Presbyterian churches, as well as noted soldiers in the War for Independence.
It was into such a community of faith that young Francis (Fanny) Crosby would be born. At six weeks old, Crosby developed an eye inflammation, which an unschooled traveling medical man treated with “mustard poultices.” According to the story, this was the cause of her permanent blindness, although modern scientists believe she was probably congenitally blind.
Crosby herself would always speak of the occasion as a remarkable working of God’s providence, opening doors to her that would not have been opened otherwise. Her grandmother Eunice was of particular importance in instilling in young Crosby a love for the gospel and the Scriptures.
Biographer Edith L. Blumhofer describes the home environment as sustained by “an abiding Christian faith”: “At its center stands the Bible in the classic rendering of the Authorized Version. Crosby frequently admitted its centrality in her childhood home, where the family altar found a regular place. Although she could not read for herself, she memorized Scripture under the patient tutelage of her grandmother. … Shaped by the Calvinist reading of Scripture that years before prompted the family’s migration to the New World, the Crosbys of Southeast understood that God had a purpose for whatever happened. … They knew God as the source of all true pleasure and believed that all they had – meager or abundant – came from God’s hand.”
When Crosby was 19, her family learned of the Institute for the Blind in New York, where Crosby’s world suddenly became much larger. When a traveling phrenologist (a faddish “science” that presumed to discern intelligence and capability by carefully feeling the bumps on one’s head) pronounced Crosby extremely gifted, the Institute gave Crosby every opportunity for learning. She excelled and was soon working as an instructor.
Fanny Crosby’s self-styled “primitive Presbyterianism” gave her decidedly low-church views, yet she seems to have manifested a very open and warm attitude toward all of Christian faith. One incident, in particular, captures the essence of young Crosby and dismisses immediately the notion that the Institution was a dour and mournful place.
Alice Holmes, a year younger than Crosby, was born in England and struck by yellow fever on the ocean crossing to America. The ship was quarantined for months, and when the family finally stepped onto American soil, 9-year old Alice was completely blind.
Years later, Holmes would remember her first encounter with the new roommate in her book “Lost Vision”: “At a quarter before ten, Miss Crosby announced that she would take charge of the new pupil from New Jersey, as I was to room with her, and at once, with a kind good-night to all, and taking me by the hand, she started off at a pace which rendered me rather timid, every step being new and strange to my ‘unfrequented feet.’ Which, observing, she told me not to be afraid as she would not let me break my neck; and after crossing one of the main halls and reaching the third floor beyond a long flight stairs, she remarked, ‘Here we are; this is our room … here on this side is your bed, and here is your trunk, and here is a place to hang your clothes;’ in short ‘she tended me like a welcome guest.’ Before saying our prayers, however she inquired as to my religious views, and I at once declared myself an Episcopalian, to which she humorously replied, ‘Oh, then, you are a churchman,’ and made a rhyme which ran something like this:
‘Oh, how it grieves my poor old bones,
To sleep so near this Alice Holmes.
I will inform good Mr. Jones,
I cannot room with a Churchman!’
“Then she hoped I would not be offended or feel hurt, as she was only in fun; and with a warm goodnight retired to her side of our apartment,” Holmes writes.
At the Institution, Crosby became acquainted with a broad range of evangelical Protestants who served on the board and faculty and took the opportunity to visit many of the local churches. Her first contacts with Methodism clearly broadened her experience with church music. In her last Presbyterian church before leaving the Institution, hymns were often written more or less on the spot by the deacons and elders each Sunday, a practice which, to no one’s surprise, has not survived in many quarters.
The chief instructor at the institution was Professor William Cleveland, the son of a Presbyterian minister. When the elder pastor Cleveland died, Professor Cleveland’s younger brother was quite depressed and came to spend some time at the Institution.
As Crosby recounts, “In 1853, our head teacher, Prof. William Cleveland, was called to New Jersey by the death of his father, a Presbyterian clergyman. After a few days absence, he returned, bringing with him his younger brother, a youth of 16; and the next morning afterward he came to consult me in regard to ‘the boy.’
“‘Grover has taken our father’s death very much to heart,’ he said, ‘and I wish you would go into the office, where I have installed him as clerk, and talk to him, once in a while,’” Crosby writes.
“So I wend down as request, and was introduced to the young man,” she continues. “We talked together unreservedly about his father’s death, and a bond of friendship sprung up between us, which was strengthened by subsequent interviews. He seemed a very gentle, but intensely ambitious boy, and I felt that there were great things in store for him, although … there was not though in my mind that he would ever be chose from among the millions of his country to be its president.”
As Crosby’s own fame spread later in life, her circle of friends and acquaintances would expand to include a staggering range of political, social and literary figures. And she moved freely among well-schooled Presbyterians and circuit-riding Methodists. Her hymns, like “To God Be the Glory” and “Blessed Assurance” have found places in hymnals of virtually every denomination and assembly of God’s people throughout the world.
For the full article on Fanny Crosby, please visit Leben’s website.