Her Heart Can See: The Life and Hymns of Fanny J. Crosby

Her Heart Can See: The Life and Hymns of Fanny J. Crosby

by Edith L. Blumhofer

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Her Heart Can See offers an intimate, informed look at Fanny J. Crosby (1820–1915), the most prolific of all American hymn writers. Having lost her sight in infancy through a doctor's negligence, Fanny went on to compose more than 9,000 hymns, as well as various other songs, cantatas, and lyrical productions. Crosby's hymns, including such all-time favorites as … See more details below


Her Heart Can See offers an intimate, informed look at Fanny J. Crosby (1820–1915), the most prolific of all American hymn writers. Having lost her sight in infancy through a doctor's negligence, Fanny went on to compose more than 9,000 hymns, as well as various other songs, cantatas, and lyrical productions. Crosby's hymns, including such all-time favorites as "Blessed Assurance," "Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior," "Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross," "Rescue the Perishing," "Safe in the Arms of Jesus," and "I Am Thine, O Lord," continue to be sung around the world.Celebrated in her own day for her gospel hymns, Crosby was also very publicly involved with New York City's rescue missions and with other benevolent efforts. She rubbed shoulders with the likes of Henry Clay, Grover Cleveland, Winfield Scott, Dwight L. Moody, Ira Sankey, Jenny Lind, P. T. Barnum, and many other famous figures who people these pages. More than two dozen black-and-white photographs depict the people and settings among which Crosby moved.Drawing on primary sources -- including thousands of unpublished Crosby manuscripts -- Edith Blumhofer sorts fact from fiction in the life of this remarkable woman. Blumhofer responsibly limns Crosby's life as a gifted nineteenth-century northeastern Protestant woman, in the process showing why "this diminutive woman" was -- and is -- so beloved.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Anyone who has stood in church and sung "Blessed Assurance" or "Redeemed, How I Love to Proclaim It" is familiar with the work of Fanny Crosby (1820-1915), one of America's most esteemed and prolific Protestant hymn-writers. In a marvelous new biography, Wheaton College history professor Blumhofer tells Crosby's story. The musician, blind from infancy, was educated at the New York Institute for the Blind, where she later taught. In 1858, she married Alexander van Alstine, but their marriage was unusual, in that they lived apart for lengthy spells and led largely separate lives. Though she played the piano, harp, organ and guitar, and published several volumes of poetry as a young woman, she didn't turn to hymnody until midlife. Crosby was well-educated, but she never learned to write legibly, so she composed verses in her head and remembered the words until someone turned up to take dictation; sometimes she "wrote" an entire hymn in 20 minutes. She was also active in urban mission work and gave her time to institutions like the YMCA and the Bowery Mission. Not only does Blumhofer offer a lively account of Crosby's many accomplishments, she also contextualizes Crosby's life in larger currents of American history, including the rise of Sunday schools and the mid-19th-century movement to "elevat[e] the nation's musical taste" and "introduc[e] music into the public schools." This is a splendid and entertaining contribution to American religious history. (May) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
Publication date:
Library of Religious Biography
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Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

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Her Heart Can See

The Life and Hymns of Fanny J. Crosby
By Edith L. Blumhofer

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2005 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8028-4253-4

Chapter One

Family (1635-1835)

My forefathers were America in the making.... Every drop of blood in me holds a heritage of patriotism! I am proud of my past. I am an American! Elias Lieberman My ancestors were Puritans; my family tree rooted around Plymouth Rock; all my predecessors of lineage died at a good old age. Fanny Crosby, 1903

Sixty miles north of New York City, the Croton River and its tributaries water the rugged hills of a narrow strip of land in eastern Putnam County, near the Connecticut border. Here Frances Jane Crosby, "America's sweet singer in Israel," was born 24 March 1820 in a small clapboard house built in 1758 and standing just back from Foggintown Road. Locals called the winding street "the sequestered valley road," suggesting the tall trees, thick underbrush, and stone fences that the occasional passerby noticed more readily than the handful of homes that dotted the way. The road traversed a section of Southeast, New York, a designation that denoted a township rather than a village.

The only child of John and Mercy Crosby, Fanny Crosby was born into a humble home crowded with extended family. They boasted few worldly goods, but they cherished a rich family lore. The adult Crosby liked nothing more than an excuse to recite her "granite stock" pedigree. Animated by nostalgic pride in her forebears and uncomplicated devotion to liberty and democracy, she carried a small American flag wherever she went. She boasted a family line that valued the "stuff" of fabled Yankee pride - independence, sobriety, thrift, morality, hard work, public service, family loyalty, unashamed patriotism, and above all, devotion to duty. To her, words like "English" and "Protestant" described not only her lineage but also - she hoped - a certain essence of character. The Crosby family saga shaped Fanny Crosby's sense of self and country. It also offers glimpses into the lives of some of the nameless people whose choices have woven the fabric of the American dream.


As Fanny Crosby told it, the family saga began in Great Britain, where at least eight ancient sites bear the Crosby name. Crosby means "town of the cross," and the first occurrence of Crosby as a family name is probably a reference found in 1204, the sixth year of the reign of the ill-fated King John of Magna Carta fame. In those days a Crosby was constable in Tickhill in Yorkshire, near the border with Nottinghamshire. Over the years the family name described a handful of distinguished sons among a long roster of ordinary citizens. In 1466 one John Crosby, a wealthy London merchant, built Crosby Hall on Bishop's Gate Street in London (later the residence of Richard III and referenced in Shakespeare's play; Thomas More lived in the house for seven years, and there he wrote his Utopia). During the reign of Henry VIII, a Richard Crosby collected rent at the Monastery of St. John in Yorkshire. Records list Julianus Crosby as rector of Leke in Nottinghamshire; Edmundus Crosby as cantor of St. John's, Doncaster; John Crosby as presbyter and cantor in Lincoln cathedral, on the royal payroll. One branch of the family moved to Ireland, but Fanny Crosby's story zooms in on the Yorkshire Crosbys, specifically on those who lived in Holme-on-Spalding Moor near the shire's southwest boundary. From All Saints, the ancient parish church atop a small oval-shaped hill, on a clear day one could glimpse the spires of York Cathedral fifteen miles to the northwest.

In Yorkshire, then, the New World Crosby story begins, most directly with Simon and Ann Brigham Crosby, a young couple beckoned by "far away places ... far away over the sea" (as their descendant Bing Crosby put it) most likely because they felt driven from home. In the seventeenth century Holme-on-Spalding Moor was a hotbed of Puritanism. Sir William Constable, lord of the manor and estate, would march in the 1640s with Oliver Cromwell and sit as a Commissioner of the High Court that tried Charles I. Constable signed the king's death warrant. By then, financial pressures had forced him to sell parts of the manor of Holme. Simon and Ann Crosby came of age on former manor lands, part of two extended families of landowning yeomanry in the sparsely populated parish where agriculture and grazing provided much of the livelihood. Married in April 1634, Simon and Ann sailed from London in spring 1635 for Massachusetts Bay with their infant son, Thomas. Ann's older brother, Thomas, traveled with them. Simon had with him his share of his father's substantial estate.

The Susan and Ellen, a ship that regularly traveled between New and Old England, brought the Crosbys to Boston harbor in the summer of 1635 with a shipload of other hardy souls, most under forty and eager to help carve a holy experiment in the wilderness of North America. Among their shipmates were the saintly Peter Bulkeley and his family, soon to take up residence in the parsonage at Concord. The men of the ship's company carried certificates assuring that they were not "subsidy men" and that they were "conformable to the order and discipline of the Church of England." Abevy of new settlers arrived in 1635, so the Crosbys had many cohorts also settling in. (In the spring, six ships docked in six weeks; by the end of 1635 nineteen passenger ships from London had swelled the colony's population. The Susan and Ellen alone made three voyages from London to Boston in 1635.)

Simon's father, Thomas (then aged sixty-five), followed Simon and Ann to New England a few years later with his wife, Jane Sotheron Crosby, and Anthony, the young orphaned son of Simon's brother William. This Thomas's eldest son, another Thomas (Simon's brother), remained in England on the extensive family holdings. The younger Thomas's two daughters married into families of the "armorial landed gentry," and the line continued, though the Crosby name died out at Holme-on-Spalding Moor.

English Puritans had planted Boston in 1630, and by 1635 several thousand English settlers had come through the port. The Crosbys were typical of the larger lot. They came with resources and with staunch religious convictions. The vast majority stayed in New England, many in Boston, the growing hub of this Puritan commonwealth. The Crosbys opted to cross the Charles River and put down their roots in Cambridge (then Newtown), where another new arrival with Yorkshire ties, the saintly pastor Thomas Shepard, would soon take up residence and safeguard proper Puritan practice in church and civic affairs. Thomas and Jane Crosby, noted in one record as "owld Crosby," first joined Simon and Ann in Cambridge. They later moved on to Rowley on Boston's north shore to sit under the preaching of another onetime Yorkshire divine, the Reverend Ezekiel Rogers.

Both Rogers and Shepard had won the Crosbys' loyalty in Old England. Fired by the fervent faith of these giants of the Puritan pulpit, the first American Crosbys were, from the start, part of a community defined by religious convictions and molded by common experiences in the turmoil of Stuart England. Rogers had preached twelve miles to the southeast of Holme-on-Spalding Moor. Shepard preached in 1631 and 1632 at Buttercrambe, twelve miles to the northwest, and apparently brought Simon Crosby to a decisive religious commitment. The two were close in age, and under Shepard's tutelage Simon embraced the strong convictions that animated Puritan pilgrims. The party of settlers Simon and Ann joined comprised some of Shepard's following from his contacts in Essex, Yorkshire, and Northumberland. Their common experiences in Old England and their devotion to Shepard provided the foundation for their lives in Massachusetts Bay.

The Crosbys disembarked at Boston at a particularly tumultuous moment in the colony's brief history. The popular minister in Newtown (Cambridge), the Reverend Thomas Hooker, was actively planning to leave the Massachusetts Bay Colony to plant a settlement in Connecticut. Much of the congregation of the town's First Church signaled their decision to go with him, creating an opportunity unusual in so new a colony: developed houses and land for sale. These were ideal - if still somewhat crude - properties, for Hooker's followers had roofed their homes with slate or shingle instead of thatch and had conformed to a uniform plan by setting all homes six feet back from the streets. In 1633 one William Wood praised the town as "one of the neatest and best compacted Towns in New England, having many faire structures, with many handsome contrived streets." Neatness and prosperity befitted the town that Governor John Winthrop hoped would be the capital of Massachusetts Bay. In 1635 the town register listed some sixty families. In 1636 the town paid the largest tax of any Massachusetts Bay town, manifesting its relative wealth and population (a standing it soon lost as outlying regions attracted new arrivals).

After first trying to dissuade those planning to depart, magistrates grudgingly authorized the Hooker party's exodus. Town records reveal that only eleven families of Newtown's earliest settlers stayed; most of the rest followed Hooker. Thanks to the pace of arrivals in 1635, though, the small community stood to replenish its population without missing a beat. Abandoned houses and properties would not be empty long. And a new pastor whose popularity in both Englands rivaled Hooker's considerable fame, Thomas Shepard, stood in the wings with a following of his own to reconstitute a covenanted community at the heart of this Puritan settlement.

In 1635 the colony's chief architect, John Winthrop, still envisioned Massachusetts Bay as "a city on a hill." If, as Winthrop fondly hoped, "the eyes of the world" had happened to glance toward New England in 1635, however, they would have looked on a troubled scene. Implementing "a due form of government civil and ecclesiastical" within the legal parameters of the colony's corporate charter provoked unexpected discord in civil and religious affairs. Between 1634 and 1636, the colony's General Court elected three different men to the governor's office. The turnover reflected in part unhappiness with the colony's civil mastermind - Winthrop himself. Religious unrest complicated civil discontent, and the survival of this Puritan experiment seemed jeopardized on several fronts. Indian raids, internal disagreements, and English ecclesial designs boded ill for God's outpost in New England.

Religious unrest centered around two figures whose names live on in American lore: Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson. Williams, later celebrated as the champion of religious liberty and founder of Rhode Island, stubbornly and publicly differed with Winthrop's most basic views and openly criticized the particular blend of the civil and religious that was emerging as the New England Way. He rejected the Bay Colony's church order and denied the validity of the colonial charter. Convinced that magistrates had no right to enforce laws that governed one's relationship to God, Williams would neither conform to the religious and legal blend required by the colony's General Court nor embrace the colony's official stance toward the Church of England. At length, his persistent willfulness "provoked the Lord to move the Court" to banish Williams, a man with many friends on Boston's north shore. The Crosbys arrived toward the end of this protracted unhappiness.

The devout had no time for a sigh of relief, since as Williams left, new problems mounted, this time centered in the claims of Mistress Anne Hutchinson. She had arrived in 1634 and soon opened her home for prayer meetings and sermon discussions. Before long she bristled under the reigning assumption that moral uprightness suggested spiritual health. Believing that the Holy Spirit "illumined the hearts" of true believers, she accused colonial leaders of being under a "covenant of works" rather than a "covenant of grace." In effect, she challenged the carefully nuanced framework on which the fabric of colonial life rested. If direct action by the Holy Spirit on the hearts of the devout could supersede the written law of Scripture, how could the colony guard itself against anarchy? Known as antinomians or familists, Hutchinson's followers seriously divided the churches of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Young arrivals and merchantmen as well as a handful of disenchanted Puritan stalwarts rallied to support Hutchinson in her mounting disagreement with entrenched leadership. In 1636 a young Hutchinson admirer, Henry Vane (like the Crosbys, a 1635 arrival), won election to the governor's office. Only by careful maneuvering and the narrowest of margins did John Winthrop regain office in 1637. With office came the opportunity to dismantle Hutchinson's power base. It took Winthrop until 1638 to manage her banishment from the colony.

If the New World setting to which they came offered little immediate tranquillity, the England Simon and Ann Crosby left was in the throes of even more fundamental upheaval. At the ruthless hand of Archbishop William Laud, English Puritans suffered sustained persecution. Intent on purging the Puritan virus from the Anglican Church, Laud initiated a vigorous reform movement that frustrated Puritans at every turn. Statistics manifested Laud's effectiveness. When Charles I appointed Laud archbishop of Canterbury in 1633, 700 Puritans (double the number that had migrated in each of the preceding two years) promptly left for the New World. Some of the Massachusetts Bay Colony's leading lights-Thomas Shepard, John Cotton, Thomas Hooker, Richard Mather-were "harried from the land" by Laud. Pressures at this time on the Puritans in the vicinity of Holme-on-Spalding Moor likely contributed to the Crosbys' decision to leave.

Laud did not let these emigres go in peace. Instead, he hoped to dismantle the Massachusetts Bay Colony by calling in its charter. But the wily Puritans had taken their charter with them, and in the end Laud had no real power over them. Nonetheless, threatening rumbles echoed across the Atlantic from Old to New England. The structure through which Laud schemed was known as the Commission for Regulating Plantations, created by King Charles I in 1634, and headed by Laud. Massachusetts Bay leaders responded by agonizing over the sins that had brought this evident divine wrath upon them, openly renouncing such finery as beaver hats and lace and prohibiting the public use of tobacco. And the government called the colonists to a day of fasting, repentance, and prayer.

Winthrop absolutely refused to relinquish the colonial charter, and his cohorts talked boldly of armed resistance-or at least resolute civil disobedience - if the mother country threatened their shores with either royal governor or soldiers. In the end, Puritans in England left the king and Laud little time or taste for the Puritans in Massachusetts Bay. Laud's schemes against the colony failed, even as new colonists poured in - some three thousand in 1638 alone. And so the tumult of the 1630s passed, and Massachusetts Bay survived with Winthrop, for the moment, at its helm.

Against this backdrop, Simon and Ann Crosby purchased several parcels of land and acquired from one William Spencer a three-acre homestead with a house and cultivated garden in the part of Newtown known as Westend. (Fanny Crosby liked to boast that Harvard College was built on some of the acres once owned by Simon. Over time an embellished rendering made Simon "one the founders of Harvard College." Some of his land did pass indirectly in 1707 to the Reverend William Brattle, and Harvard's Brattle House now stands on it, close to the site on which Simon's house once stood.) The Crosbys had arrived with cash and the ability to access what meager comforts the fledgling colony afforded. Simon Crosby and Thomas Shepard became freemen on the same day - 3 March 1636 - and later that year Simon was one of seven residents selected "to order the towne Affayres for this yeare following." The freeman's oath bound him to submit to the colony's rulers and laws and to "advance the peace and welfare" of Massachusetts Bay. In the next few years he added to his landholdings and served a term as surveyor of highways.


Excerpted from Her Heart Can See by Edith L. Blumhofer Copyright © 2005 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co..
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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