The Productive Collaboration of Fanny Crosby and William Howard Doane

I wrote about Fanny Crosby, the queen of Gospel hymn writers in my book, Sisters in Song, but the structure of the book limited my exposition of her and her many hymns.  The medium of the blog allows me to go further with her.    After one of her main collaborators, William Bradbury, died in 1868, she met William Howard Doane, a rich business tycoon, inventor, and Christian worker.  Doane knew of her prolific hymn production and specifically went from his home in Cincinnati to meet her at her home in New York City.  They struck up a long and productive friendship, working together, she as lyricist and he as music composer.  Yet, as closely as they worked, they always referred to each other as “Mrs. Crosby” and “Mr. Doane”.

Shortly after they met, he asked her to write the words to a hymn containing the words “Pass me not, O gentle savior”.  Shortly after that, she heard an inmate cry out during one of her prison ministries, “Good Lord, do not pass me by!”  This spurred her inspiration and she wrote the lyrics to Doane’s requested hymn.  Doane then wrote the tune and the hymn was sung later at the prison where she received her inspiration.  It impressed some prisoners so much at the time that some turned to Christ immediately.  She was so moved by this, that she swooned or fainted and was carried out.  This hymn is still sung and in hymnbooks today.

“Pass Me Not” was written with the words first and the melody following.  It didn’t always work this way.  “Safe In the Arms of Jesus” is a case in point.  That same year, Doane once again came to Fanny’s home with a tune he wrote and wanted a poem to go with it.  He hummed the melody.  Once she heard it, the clapped her hands and said “Safe in the arms of Jesus!”  She left him in the parlor, went to another room, prayed for inspiration, and came out a half hour later with the complete poem.  This appears to be similar to the way she wrote “Blessed Assurance” some years later with Phoebe Knapp, as recounted in my book. “Safe in the Arms of Jesus” was an instant hit.  After including it in a hymnal by Biglow and Main, the nation’s pre-eminent hymnal publisher, it was sung all over the country.  Fanny especially liked it as it reminded her of her own relatives who had passed on, perhaps including her own baby who had died years earlier.

A year later, Fanny was visiting Doane at his home to speak to working men in Cincinnati.  During her talk, she felt someone in the audience had to be rescued that night, and so pleaded if there was a boy there who wandered away from his mother’s teaching, to come to her afterward.  As she expected, a boy of about 18 came and asked her if she referred to him.  He had promised his mother to meet her in heaven, but didn’t think he could based on how he was living.  Fanny prayed over him and she said “He finally arose with anew light in his eyes and exclaimed in triumph, ‘Now I can meet my mother in heaven, for now I have found her God!’”   Doane had earlier asked her to write a hymn on “Rescue the Perishing” to be used at home missions.  That night, she composed the hymn with that name and with that young man in mind.  Once published, it became the theme for home mission workers around the country.

She and Doane went on to collaborate on over 1000 hymns.  Of course she worked with other composers before and after Doane, and she provided Biglow and Main with 5959 hymns in her 47 years with them.  Just the thought of all she did exhausts me.

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