Fanny Crosby, America’s most prolific hymn writer, wrote 8,000 Gospel songs and hymns during a lifetime, which spanned nearly a century. She passed away in her 95th year. All of her days, except the first six weeks, were spent in blindness. However, not even the loss of eyesight could render defeat to this astoundingly courageous soul. Aunt Fanny, as she later was affectionately called, also wrote 1,000+ nonreligious songs, and had four books of poetry and two best-selling autobiographies published.
Frances Jane Crosby was born in Putnam County, New York, on March 24, 1820. A poorly trained doctor applied a mustard plaster poultice to her eyes when she was only six weeks old, rendering her totally blind. Even in her childhood, she realized she had a special gift.
Fanny Crosby was a lifelong Methodist who began composing hymns at age six. She became a student at the New York Institute of the Blind at age 15 and joined the faculty of the Institute at 22, teaching rhetoric and history. In 1885, Crosby married Alexander Van Alstyne, also a student at the Institute and later a member of the faculty. He was a fine musician and, like Fanny, a lover of literature.
An author of more than 8,000 gospel hymn texts, she drew her inspiration from her own faith. Crosby published hymns under several pen names including "Ella Dale," "Mrs. Kate Gringley," and "Miss Viola V. A." Her hymn texts were staples for the music of the most prominent gospel song writers of her day.
One day in 1873, Aunt Fanny was visiting with a friend, Mrs. Joseph Knapp, a musician of sorts and wife of the founder of Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. During their visit Mrs. Knapp played a tune on her piano, which she had recently written. She then asked Fanny, “What does this tune say?” After kneeling in prayer for a few moments, she rose and declared, “It says, ‘Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!’”
Aunt Fanny began to dictate verses to Mrs. Knapp, who wrote them down, fitting them to the melody just as we hear it sung today.
This hymn has inspired many singers ranging from those in evangelistic crusades to theologians. Don E. Saliers, William R. Cannon Distinguished Professor of Theology and Worship Emeritus at Candler School of Theology, Emory University in Atlanta, borrowed a portion of the opening stanza for his liturgical theology text, Worship as Theology: Foretaste of Glory Divine (1994). If one enters "foretaste of glory divine" into a Google search, numerous sermon titles appear that incorporate this phrase. YouTube renditions of the hymn abound.
Crosby captured the poetic essence of the Wesleyan understanding of Christian perfection in the phrase, "O what a foretaste of glory divine!" The entire hymn is focused on heaven, a place where "perfect submission" and "perfect delight" [stanza 2] will take place. The earthly existence is one of "watching and waiting, looking above" [stanza 3]. As we submit ourselves to Christ and are "filled with his goodness" and "lost in his love" [stanza 3], we are remade in Christ's image and are moving toward Christian perfection.
This hymn appeals to the senses in a rich way. Not only do we have a "foretaste of glory," we experience "visions of rapture [that] burst on my sight," and we hear "echoes of mercy, whispers of love" [stanza 2].
The refrain calls us to "prais[e]. . . my Savior all the day long," echoing I Thessalonians 5:17, "Pray without ceasing."
Because of her long life, Fanny Crosby had an extraordinary relationship with several United States presidents, even penning poems in their honor on occasion, and she was influential on the spiritual life of or a friend to Presidents Martin Van Buren (8th), John Tyler (10th), James K. Polk (11th), and Grover Cleveland (22nd and 24th). She addressed a joint session of Congress on the topic of education for the blind.
Middle class women in nineteenth-century United States had little voice in worship, however. One of the only ways for a woman to claim the authority to be heard was by direct personal revelation from God. Fanny Crosby readily claimed God's personal revelation as a source for her hymns; her personal revelation then became a communal inspiration as Christians throughout the world sang her hymns and confirmed her faith experience as their own.