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A Blind Benediction

In a previous essay, The Clarity of Water, I wrote about Helen Keller, who, despite her blindness, came to appreciate the world of letters through the deliverance of a caring mentor, Anne Sullivan. In this current short essay, I want to talk about an equally impressive blind person – Fanny Crosby – a “household name” – who was called often “America’s Hymn Queen” – author of more than 9,000 hymns, some of which are among the most popular in every Christian denomination.

Born in Putnam County, New York, Fanny became ill within two months. Unfortunately, the family doctor was away, and another man—pretending to be a certified doctor—treated her by prescribing hot mustard poultices to be applied to her eyes. Her illness eventually relented, but the treatment left her blind. When the doctor was revealed to be a quack, he disappeared.

As for her blindness, she remarked, “So, it seemed intended by the blessed providence of God that I should be blind all my life, and I thank him for the dispensation. If perfect earthly sight were offered me tomorrow, I would not accept it. I might not have sung hymns to the praise of God if I had been distracted by the beautiful and interesting things about me. If I had a choice, I would still choose to remain blind… for when I die, the first face I will ever see will be the face of my blessed Saviour.”

Her obituary reads: “Her life was a benediction. The blind hymn-writer, whose sweet songs have cheered so many, and who never in all her ninety-odd years saw the sunlight, or had the pleasure of looking on the faces of those she loved, has gone to that land where there is neither blindness nor sickness and where, with wide-open eyes, and ears attuned to heavenly melodies, she may witness the full realization of the dream for which she struggled so bravely and so faithfully while here on earth.” (Church Herald, March 3, 1915)

Heroines of Modern Religion edited by Warren Dunham Foster. New York: Sturgis & Walton Co., 1913, has this to say:
Much of this elasticity of nature was doubtless due to her splendid ancestry. Fanny Crosby was well born. She can trace the two lines of her ancestry back to the earliest New England stock. Her mother, who was also a Crosby, was descended from Simon Crosby who came to Boston in 1635 and was one of the founders of Harvard College, from which his son, Thomas, was graduated in 1653. Fanny’s great grandfather, Isaac Crosby, was the father of nineteen children. One of them was born while he was serving in the Revolutionary Army; whereupon he asked for a furlough on the ground that he had many children at home and “hadn’t ever seen one of them.” The furlough was immediately granted. The records do not say whether, on his return to the army, he confessed in what sense his words were true. If he had the sensitive conscience of his descendant, he doubtless did.

 

Fanny Crosby came naturally therefore by a sense of humor and a playful spirit. She was full of fun, joined the other children in play, and was likely to be deep in any mischief that was going on. Taking the description of natural objects from her young companions, imagination made them as plain to her as sight did to them. She would leap over stone walls, play tag, climb trees with the agility of a cat, and ride the colts bareback across the fields. This vivid imagination was made possible by senses of hearing and touch unusually graphic. Sounds of nature, for instance, were always a “feast” to her.

In celebration of the centennial of her death in 2015, I wrote a skit, as introduction to a church concert featuring her songs. I wrote the following preface to the script:

It is difficult to contain the depth and breadth of Fanny Crosby’s Christ-centered brilliance, her profundity and the sublime substance of her hymns in a short skit such as this. Past attempts, such as musicals or plays, to dramatize her life unfortunately have been reduced to “dress-up” cartoonish sketches. Our goal is to celebrate her divinely-inspired genius and memorable episodes of her long life, and through these, to offer up her Christian testimony in the hope of proclaiming the gospel to those in need of Christ. Accordingly, to bestow the much-deserved respect we have for this poetess-evangelist, we eschew the overplaying and employment of “caricature” type portrayal of this strong heroine of the faith, or use of melodramatic techniques which would detract from the message of this skit; the motivation behind the writing of this skit is to bring out the “voice” of Fanny Crosby – her personal tone and manner reflective of her era and conviction; thus, to portray her in her essence is to somehow inhabit her indomitable spirit and personality. The somewhat nonchalance of the interviewer moreover is used as a juxtaposition (the comic, or in Shakespearean term, the “jester” relief – a kind of Twelfth Night’s Jester tool) and counter-point to Fanny Crosby’s focused determination. This remarkable woman died in February 1915, so this skit, dedicated to her, is to celebrate the centennial of her death. It is to this aspiration we present this skit.

The final script called for a Late Show/David Letterman type of anchor, with his desk top of pencils, glass of water, and mike – two New Yorkers from different era in a short interview. In the interview, liberty was taken to condense the transforming episodes of her earthly sojourn – thus: 1) her blindness, 2) early exhibition of her poetic virtuosity, 3) conversion; 4) participation in revival meetings (those hallmarks of the “Great Awakening”); 5)glimpse of her humanity and humor; 6)insights into composition and writing.

It is challenging to describe the breath and depth of her compositions, nor to decide which hymns I consider my favorites. However, I prefer Fanny herself to select for me. One, Hold Thou My Hands, expresses her own helplessness as a blind person. In her own autobiography, Life, she writes:

For days before I wrote it, all had seemed dark to me. This was an unusual experience, for I have always been most cheerful; and so, in my human weakness, I cried in prayer. ‘Dear Lord, hold Thou my hand!’ Almost at once sweet peace returned to my heart, and my gratitude for answered prayer sang itself in the lines of my hymn:

Hold Thou my hand, so weak I am and helpless
I dare not take one step without Thy aid;
Hold Thou my hand, for then, O loving Saviour,
No dread of ill shall make my soul afraid…

I suppose if there is one I would choose, especially during these uncertain times, it would be Safe in the Arms of Jesus on which she remarks, “This hymn, was called into being by a thought expressed in a sermon preached by Dr. Howard Crosby, a distant relative of mine. He said, ‘No Christian should fear death; for the same grace that teaches us how to live will also teach us how to die.’ Not many hours after hearing these remarks, I began to write this hymn.”

Safe in the arms of Jesus,
Safe on His gentle breast;
There by His love o’ershaded,
Sweetly my soul shall rest.
Hark! ’tis the voice of angels
Borne in a song to me,
Over the fields of glory,
Over the jasper sea.
Refrain:
Safe in the arms of Jesus,
Safe on His gentle breast;
There by His love o’ershaded,
Sweetly my soul shall rest.
Safe in the arms of Jesus,
Safe from corroding care,
Safe from the world’s temptations;
Sin cannot harm me there.
Free from the blight of sorrow,
Free from my doubts and fears;
Only a few more trials,
Only a few more tears!
Jesus, my heart’s dear Refuge,
Jesus has died for me;
Firm on the Rock of Ages
Ever my trust shall be.
Here let me wait with patience,
Wait till the night is o’er;
Wait till I see the morning
Break on the golden shore.
(Trivia – Bing Crosby the famed crooner hailed from that Crosby family)

 

 

By Alfie Kwong

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