Many of you may have heard of the blind hymn writer, Fanny Crosby. She remains one of the most prolific hymn writers in American history. Even if you don't spend much time listening to classic hymns, I suspect you have heard of "Blessed Assurance," which was based on her personal testimony.
Frances (Fanny) Jane Crosby was born March 24, 1820 slightly north of New York City to John and Mercy Crosby. At six weeks old, she caught a cold and developed inflammation of the eyes, which resulted in a discharge. No physician was available, so the family followed the advice of a stranger who claimed that hot mustard poultices applied to her eyelids would treat the discharge. Fanny’s parents believe that this procedure damaged her optic nerves and resulted in her blindness, but modern physicians suspected that she was blind from birth. Fanny could differentiate between light and dark, but that was it. She was destined to spend her life without the gift of sight.
When Fanny was only 6 months old, her father John passed away. Her mother, Mercy, took Fanny back to her own mother and Fanny’s grandmother, Eunice Crosby. Together, these two ladies raised Fanny.
When Fanny was 5 years old, her mother had researched until she found the most qualified doctor she could find – a Dr. Valentine Mott. After examining little Frances, Dr. Mott said that Fanny’s blindness could not be treated by any method he was aware of at that time. Can you imagine the heartache and worry that must have filled her mother's heart? Fanny later commented that during the trip back home her mother was much more distressed by the news than she was. Mercy would often worry about Fanny’s future, and it was up to Fanny’s grandmother Eunice to keep everybody encouraged.
Fanny's mother and grandmother apparently discussed the situation at great length, and came to a conclusion: they would accept this as God's will, and encourage Fanny to make the most of life not matter what. Mercy and Eunice taught Fanny that sometimes the Lord allows things like this for a greater spiritual good.
Christianity at Home
Fanny's family believed strongly in Christianity as a part of every day life. The family altar, a time for prayer and Bible reading, was a central part of their home. Since Fanny couldn’t read, her grandmother helped her to memorize Scripture, starting in earnest around the age of 10. Fanny later commented, "It was Grandma who brought the Bible to me, and me to the Bible.” She said, “The stories of the Holy Book came from her lips, and entered my heart and took deep root there.”
Fanny memorized five chapters of the Bible each week, and by the time she was 15 (with the help of her grandmother and later their landlady) she had memorized Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, and many Psalms. Fanny did this blind -- unable to read for herself, and fully dependent on memorizing Scripture by hearing the words and not seeing them. This meant a great deal of work for whoever was helping her, reading the Scriptures over and over until Fanny had them committed to memory.
It was also her grandmother Eunice that taught Fanny to kneel and pray to the Lord. In later years, Fanny would begin work on each of her hymns by praying to the Lord for inspiration, and was known for never shying away from offering prayers in public.
Fanny was also taught from a young age that no matter what happened God had a purpose. That included her blindness, also. Fanny accepted this disability as the will of God, and made a deliberate choice to be happy in spite of it. Fanny must have agreed, because here is a poem she wrote when she was just eight years old:
Oh, what a happy soul 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!
To weep and sigh because I’m blind
I cannot nor I won’t.
Mercy, Single Mother
Remember that Mercy was widowed -- forcing her into the position of what we now refer to as a single mother. There was little to no money for the family to survive in, so Mercy was forced to work long hours outside of the home. Fanny's care during the daytime was thus left to her grandmother for the first part of her life.
Fanny's grandmother was determined to Fanny to experience as normal a life as possible, encouraging Fanny to try everything the kids with sight did. As a result, there wasn’t much of a normal childhood that Fanny didn’t experience – romping with the neighbor kids, experiencing literature like Robin Hood, Don Quixote, and Shakespeare from her grandmother's voice. Fanny even attended Sunday School with the neighborhood kids, where her competitive nature broke lose when it came to Scripture memory. She also attended singing schools that here held twice weekly, mainly for the entertainment of adults (remember there was no such thing as television and radio then). This was where Fanny was first introduced to Christian music beyond what she heard at church.
Fanny's major hurdle was education. Se tried to attend school with her friends, but without sight she was unable to remain focused on the lessons. In spite of this, she absorbed learning and knowledge wherever she could. What Fanny couldn’t see, Eunice brought to life with words. In fact, Fanny had an amazing knowledge of nature for someone who could not see -- taught by her grandmother, who Fanny said could simply make words come alive to her.
Fanny would have a tremendous opportunity for an education to open up for her, but first a tragedy struck her young life. Fanny’s beloved and influential grandmother Eunice passed away when Fanny was only 11 years old. Eunice herself was only 53, and it is said that her death occurred because she was simply worn out from hard work and disease. We can only guess at the depth of heartache and pain little Fanny felt upon losing her grandmother.
Years later, she wrote a poem about her grandmother …
There are forms that flit before me,
There are tones I yet recall;
But the voice of gentle grandma
I remember best of all.
In her loving arms she held me,
And beneath her patient care
I was born away to dreamland
In her dear old rocking chair.
Sara McCaslin is an engineer, a computer scientist, and a freelance writer.