The present COVID-19 pandemic has a lot of Christians thinking and talking about the various ways in which God will bring significant good out of the situation. It is our confident expectation and prayer that through these threatening, stressful circumstances countless people will be drawn into a personal relationship with God or will have their Christian faith and commitment deepened.
A striking example of God using a life-threatening epidemic to play a key role in a person coming to spiritual faith and life is found in the conversion testimony of Fanny Crosby. She went on to become the world’s premiere Christian hymnwriter of the nineteenth century.
Fanny, who was blind from infancy, entered the New York Institution for the Blind (hereafter NYIB) as a student at age fifteen. There she excelled as an exceptional student, musician and poet, becoming the NYIB’s model pupil and preeminent success story. In 1843, when twenty-three years old, Fanny became an instructor at the institution, teaching rhetoric, grammar and Roman and American history.
Five years later, in the fall of 1848, cholera swept over Europe, leaving scores of thousands dead in its wake. It broke out in New York in May of the following year. The NYIB gave its students 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 home. So Fanny and some other members of the faculty decided to remain, “being convinced that God would take care of us and that we 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. J.W.G. 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.’ Sometimes she was startled to bump against a casket as she moved around the hospital ward.
After several nights of almost no sleep near the end of July Fanny felt like she might be coming down with the sickness. After a generous dosage of medication and a long night of sleep she felt fully restored. But hearing of the close call, Chamberlain sent her to her mother’s home in Bridgeport, Connecticut, for the remainder of the summer. The students still at the institution were taken to another town that had not been visited by the deadly sickness. After the first hard frosts of fall it was deemed safe for people to return to the city, and the institution reopened in early November.
Fanny’s experiences in the cholera epidemic certainly would have brought her face to face with her own mortality and doubtless played an important part in life-changing spiritual developments that took place in the year to follow. Dating back to her first years at the institution, she had attended the class meetings at the Eighteenth Street Methodist Church. But by her own admission, through the years she had grown somewhat indifferent toward spiritual matters.
Now, 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 a public 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 it seemed to her “that the light must indeed come then or never.” That evening 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 Christ. Immediately her “very soul was flooded with a celestial light,” and she sprang to her feet, literally shouting, “Hallelujah!”
Through faith in Jesus Christ as her personal Savior, Fanny found the spiritual forgiveness, peace and life for which she had been searching. For the remainder of her life she was a devoted disciple and servant of Jesus. Eventually she was led into her primary ministry as a hymnwriter. She composed the lyrics for nearly 9,000 hymns, including a number that are still sung today. She also traveled widely, ministering fruitfully in churches, Bible conferences, rescue missions, YMCAs and various other settings.
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You can find a concise six-chapter sketch of Fanny Crosby’s remarkable life and service for Christ in my book Women of Faith and Courage (Christian Focus, 2011). That volume also includes similar-length biographical sketches of Susanna Wesley, Catherine Booth, Mary Slessor, and Corrie ten Boom. The story of Fanny’s life is shared in her own words in Fanny J. Crosby, An Autobiography (Baker, 1995, and Hendrickson, 2015).
Copyright 2020 by Vance E. Christie