Crosby, lost and found

She once was lost, but now is found.   Or at least that can be said of about 2700 of Fanny Crosby’s unpublished hymns.  Crosby (1820-1915) whom I have written about in my book and earlier on this blog, the most prolific hymn writer of all time, wrote more than we thought.  Though she wrote over 8000 hymns, until recently many were unknown.  Unknown until 2000 when Stephen Kelley, an entrepreneur and collector of antique hymnals, found about 2700 of her unpublished hymns in an archive at Wheaton College near Chicago where her publisher, Hope Publishing, had stored them.  Kelley found the archive of hymns, some unfinished, many handwritten on old paper, on the backs of envelopes, on invoices, and on her publisher’s letterhead.  Perhaps one reason they were so jumbled was due to her blindness.  Crosby needed someone to transcribe the compositions she stored in her head, sometimes as many as twelve at a time.  And different transcribers would do things differently, often on an impromptu basis.  Last October, a CD of fifteen of those hymns, now combined with contemporary music, was released.  Entitled “Blessed Assurance: The New Hymns of Fanny Crosby”, it does include that most famous previously published hymn, but with current music.  The other cuts are all new lyrics with new music by current writers and performers, including Paul Baloche, Michael Smith, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Ricky Skaggs and fellow sister in song, Darlene Zschech, among others.   Perhaps this melding of the meatier substance of the Gospel lyrics in traditional music and the tunes of today will appeal to both, or maybe not. Time will let us know.

I feel compelled to make one correction to the articles I read about this.  The Baptist publications claim Crosby as one of their own.  This is only partly true.  She was a member of Sixth Avenue Bible Baptist Church in Brooklyn, New York, but in 1887, she joined Cornell Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church.  She was active in the Wesleyan holiness movement, a great friend of prominent Methodist Phoebe Knapp with whom she wrote “Blessed Assurance”, and often visited the Methodist camp grounds at Ocean Grove, New Jersey.  In her life, she also attended a Congregationalist church, a Presbyterian church, an Episcopal church, and a Dutch Reformed church.  With so many hymns to her credit, I think there’s enough for each denomination to claim her as their own.

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.