Fanny Crosby (1820-1915) is well-known as the prominent blind hymnwriter of the nineteenth century. Some of her hymns are still sung today, including “Blessed Assurance,” “Redeemed,” “To God Be the Glory” and others. The story of her brush with death and subsequent conversion as a young woman is less well known.
At age fifteen Fanny entered the New York Institution for the Blind (NYIB), where she was a student for eight years before becoming a teacher there in 1843. In May of 1849, when Fanny was twenty-nine years old, a cholera epidemic broke out in New York City. Students at the NYIB were given an early dismissal to summer vacation that month, thinking they would be safer away from the city. But a number of students were unable to return to their homes elsewhere. So Fanny and some other faculty members decided to remain, being convinced that God would take care of them and they could be of some help.
By mid-July over 2,200 New Yorkers had perished from the dread illness. In the end, twenty members of the NYIB contracted cholera and ten died from it. Fanny assisted the Institution’s physician, Dr. Clements, in making pills to try to fight the sickness. A school just one block from the NYIB was turned into a cholera hospital. The Institution’s sick were taken there, and both Clements and Fanny served there. Frequently as she sat by a patient’s bedside at night the stillness was shattered by the harsh cry of a city official outside the door of some bereaved home nearby, “Bring out your dead.”
After several nights of almost no sleep near the end of July, Fanny felt like she might be coming down with the sickness. But after taking a generous dose of medication and getting a long night of sleep she felt fully restored. Hearing of her close call, however, the NYIB’s superintendent sent Fanny to her home in Bridgeport, Connecticut, for the remainder of the summer. After the first hard frosts of fall it was deemed safe for people to return to New York City, and the Institution reopened in early November.
Fanny’s experiences in the cholera epidemic brought her face to face with her own mortality and likely played a part in life-changing spiritual developments that took place in the months to follow. Dating back to her first years at the NYIB she had attended the class meetings at the Eighteenth Street Methodist Church. In those early days at the Institution she was timid and never spoke in public if she could at all avoid doing so. She would attend the class meetings and play piano or guitar for them on the condition that she would not be called on to speak. Though Fanny had been raised in a devout Christian home before coming to the NYIB, by her own admission she had by this time grown somewhat indifferent toward spiritual matters.
In the autumn of 1850 revival meetings were held at the Methodist Broadway Tabernacle on Thirtieth Street. Fanny and some others from the NYIB attended the meetings each night. Twice when the invitation was given at the close of the service, she went forward, seeking peace from her inner spiritual struggles, but found none. Finally on November 20 she went to the altar alone. As she prayed, the congregation began to sing Isaac Watts’ grand old hymn, “Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed?” When they reached the great words of consecration contained in the last verse – “Here, Lord, I give myself away” – Fanny expressed that commitment as the desire of her heart, yielding her life to Jesus Christ. Immediately her “very soul was flooded with a celestial light” and she sprang to her feet, literally shouting, “Hallelujah!”
A week later she gave a public testimony at the class meeting of her recent conversion. When a good friend challenged her to make a complete surrender of her will to God, she did so by promising to do her duty whenever the Lord should make it clear to her. A few weeks later she was asked to close one of the meetings with a brief prayer. Her first thought was, “I can’t.” To which her conscience responded, “But your promise.” Some sixty years later she testified, “And from that hour I believe I have never refused to pray or speak in a public service, with the result that I have been richly blessed.”
The Lord used Fanny to bring great glory to Himself and abundant blessing to countless people. She went on to write several thousand hymns and to carry out a broad-ranging speaking ministry. Well into her eighties she traveled widely, ministering in churches, Bible conferences, rescue missions, YMCAs and various other settings. Fanny never tired of testifying, through her songs and speaking, of what Christ had done for her or of pointing others to Jesus as their Savior.
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Fanny Crosby’s fascinating life story is related more fully in my book Women of Faith and Courage (Christian Focus, 2011). The story of her life is shared in her own words in Fanny J. Crosby, An Autobiography (Baker, 1995, and Hendrickson, 2015). A more comprehensive account of her life and ministry is provided in Edith Blumhofer’s Her Heart Can See, The Life and Hymns of Fanny J. Crosby (Eerdmans, 2005).
Copyright 2017 by Vance E. Christie