Our Wesleyan Heritage Part 3: Fannie Crosby “Dark Night”

Pastor Galen Zook

Sunday June 23rd 2019

Psalm 42; Colossians 3:12-17

Dark Night of the Soul

42:8 “By day the LORD commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.”

Psalm 42 was written by a poet who was most likely a singer in the temple choir. The superscription indicates that this song was written “to the leader,” by one of the Korahites — who were the leaders of the choral and orchestral music in the tabernacle.

The songwriter at one time seems to have had a deep and vibrant connection with God, but he seems to be going through what is often called a “dark night of the soul.” The psalmist describes his intense longing for God, saying, “as a deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.” (Psalm 42:1, 2b NIV).

The psalmist then goes on to describe how he was the one who used to lead the processions into the temple, “with shouts of joy and praise among the festive throng” (Psalm 42:4b). But now his soul is downcast and “disturbed within me” (Psalm 42:5).

I don’t know if you can relate to what the psalmist was feeling or not, but perhaps there was a season in your life when you woke up one day and you just didn’t feel like praising God. Maybe you couldn’t put your finger on why you were feeling that way, but you just felt disconnected from God. You had a longing for God, but it just felt like God was far away or removed. I’m sure that probably most of us have felt this was at one time or another — even pastors feel this way sometimes, and probably Scripture readers and Sunday school teachers and maybe even members of the choir too!

For the psalmist it even feels like God has forgotten about him (Psalm 42:9). And if that weren’t bad enough, his enemies are taunting him, saying, “Where is your God?” (Psalm 42:10b). Talk about a dark night of the soul!

And so what does this songwriter do when he can’t feel God’s presence? He writes a song (psalm)! He writes a psalm that is heartfelt and honest, he writes a song that expresses his longing for God, his discontent, and he reminds himself of how God has worked in his life in the past, of all the things that he has to be grateful for. And he encourages himself through his own music and poetry to find hope in the Lord. 

Psalms and Hymns

Music has a way of lifting our spirits, of connecting us with God. Even when we may feel disconnected from God, music can be a tool to express our longing and desire for God. When we don’t know what to pray, psalms and hymns can often express our thoughts and feelings in a way that other means of prayer and communication may fall short.

This is why Paul tells us in Colossians chapter 3 that we should “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts (Col. 3:16). This is one of the reasons why music is such a significant part of our Sunday morning worship services. 

“Our Wesleyan Heritage” Sermon Series

This month we are talking about Our Wesleyan Heritage, and each Sunday in June we’re focusing on a different historical figure in the Methodist church movement who has had a significant impact on who we are today as a church and denomination. 

Two weeks ago we talked about Phoebe Palmer, a Methodist revivalist, theologian and author in the mid-1800’s who advocated for the rights of women to preach. She encouraged people to pursue holiness, and to lay hold of the promises of God in Scripture. Last week we looked at the life and ministry of the British clergyman John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, whose life and ministry spanned much of the 1700’s, who developed a methodical approach to pursuing holiness and godliness, but who felt somewhat restless and dissatisfied in his walk with God, until that moment when he felt his heart had been “strangely warmed” and he felt the assurance of his salvation.

Today we’re going to focus on the life and ministry of a famous Methodist songwriter who lived from 1820 to 1915, whose well-loved songs and hymns are still sung in many churches and by many denominations even today. In fact, our three congregational hymns for today were written by her, and we have a number of her other hymns in our United Methodist Hymnal. Like the psalmist who wrote Psalm 42, her hymns express an intense longing and desire for God, and have provided hope and encouragement to so many people. This songwriter was one of the most prolific hymnwriters of all time, writing over 8,000 hymns and Gospel songs, with over 100 million copies printed. And all of this despite the fact that she was completely blind!

That hymnwriter was Fannie Crosby.

Fannie Crosby (1820-1915)

Fannie Crosby was born in 1820 in the town of Brewster, about 50 miles north of New York City.

At six weeks old, Crosby was given a treatment for an inflammation of the eyes that resulted in her becoming completely blind, and a specialist declared that she would be blind for the rest of her life. On top of that, at six months old her father passed away, leaving her to be raised by her mother and grandmother.

When she was nine years old Fannie Crosby and her mother moved to Connecticut, where she was placed under the tutelage of a woman named Mrs. Hawley. Mrs. Hawley taught her the Bible and poetry in equal proportions and Crosby began to memorize large portions of each. By the age of ten Fannie Crosby could recite the first four books of the old and new testaments by heart, and could recite countless secular poems as well.

She also began to compose her own poetry. At the age of eight she wrote her first poem:

Oh, what a happy child I am, Although I cannot see! 

I am resolved that in this world Contented I will be. 

How many blessings I enjoy That other people don’t! 

So weep or sigh because I’m blind, I cannot, nor I won’t!

Although she resolved to be happy despite her blindness, Crosby recounts in her autobiography that if she ever lamented that she was blind, it was because she was not able to read. The amount of literature printed in Braille was very limited in those days. She had such a hunger and thirst for knowledge, that she said, “night and night again, I have gone to bed drearily, weeping because I could not drink of the waters of knowledge that I knew were surging all around me.” 

Eventually, God answered her prayers that she could go to school, opening up the opportunity for her to attend the New York Institute for the Blind. There, among other things, she learned to play the piano, organ, harp, and guitar, and was trained as a soprano singer.

Career as a Poet and Hymn Writer

Interestingly enough, although Fannie Crosby is best known today as a Gospel hymn writer, she didn’t begin composing hymns to be sung in church in earnest until the age of 44! 

After graduating from the New York Institute of the Blind became an instructor at the school, teaching grammar, rhetoric, and history. During that time she composed numerous secular and political poems. At the age of 23, Crosby traveled to Washington, D.C. with a group of lobbyists to argue for support of education for the blind. In fact, she was the first woman to speak in the United States Senate when she read one of her poems in front of the joint houses of Congress!

In her early 30’s she published a book of poetry which included poems focusing on the recent Mexican–American War, and a poem pleading for the US to help those affected by the Irish Potato Famine. She also composed numerous poems that were set to music and became popular songs of the day, along with several longer-length Cantatas. Even after becoming a hymn writer, Crosby continued to compose poems that were political in nature. She was an ardent abolitionist, and during the Civil War she wrote songs and poetry in support of the Union cause.

Fannie Crosby got married at the age of 38. She and her husband only had one child, a daughter by the name of Frances, who died soon after birth. Fannie’s husband, who was also blind, was a church organist and music teacher, and after the death of their child he became a bit of are recluse. The couple lived very simply, never owning their own home and giving large portions of their income away. Together they organized concerts and poetry readings and gave half of the proceeds to organizations that aided the poor. 

It was during that time that Crosby began composing hymns full-time. She would often compose 6 or 7 hymns a day, for which she was typically paid $1-$2/hymn. Crosby described her hymn-writing process saying, “It may seem a little old-fashioned, always to begin one’s work with prayer, but I never undertake a hymn without first asking the good Lord to be my inspiration.”

Home Missions Work

Although Crosby will always be best known for her hymns, Crosby lived most of her adult life in some of the poorest areas of New York City, including Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, the Bowery and the Tenderloin districts, and she saw herself primarily as a rescue mission worker. 

At the end of her life, Fanny’s concept of her vocation was not that of a celebrated gospel songwriter, but that of a city mission worker. In an interview that was published in the March 24, 1908, Fanny said that her chief occupation was working in missions.

She was always aware of the great needs of immigrants and the urban poor, and was passionate to help those around her through urban rescue missions and other compassionate ministry organizations. She said, “from the time I received my first check for my poems, I made up my mind to open my hand wide to those who needed assistance.”

During the early part of her hymn-writing career, her mission work was mostly indirect, giving monetarily to rescue missions and encouraging them with her poems, but at the age of 60 when she and her husband separated, Crosby “made a new commitment to Christ to serve the poor” and to devote the rest of her life to home missionary work. She increased her involvement in various missions and homes, dedicating her time as “Aunty Fanny” to work at various city rescue missions, including the Bowery Mission, where she often spoke for their evening meetings. By the way Fanny lived to the age of 95!

Many of Fanny’s hymns emerged from her involvement in these city missions, including “More Like Jesus” (1867), “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Saviour” (1868), and “Rescue the Perishing” (1869), which became the “theme song of the home missions movement” and was “perhaps the most popular city mission song,” with its “wedding of personal piety and compassion for humanity” It was also during this time when Fannie Crosby met the Methodist revivalist and evangelist Phoebe Palmer, who we talked about several weeks ago. Fannie often accompanied Phoebe and her husband Walter to their revival campmeetings in the area, and she even composed the hymn “Blessed Assurance” with their daughter, Phoebe Knapp.

Fannie’s Dark Night of the Soul

Given Fannie Crosby’s life story, it’s not surprising that Crosby experienced periods of her life that can only be described as a Dark Night of the Soul, like the songwriter who composed Psalm 42.  In her autobiography, Crosby describes an experience she had when she was a young child:

A poor little blind girl, without influential friends, could have as many ambitions as any one; but how was she to achieve them? What was there for her? The great world that could see, was rushing past me day by day, and sweeping on toward the goal of its necessities and desires; while I was left stranded by the Comfort from Hymns, when a Child. wayside. “Oh, you cannot do this—because you are blind, you know; you can never go there, because it would not be worth while: you could not see anything if you did, you know” :—these and other things were often said to me, in reply to my many and eager questionings.

Often, when such circumstances as this made me very blue and depressed, I would creep off alone, kneel down, and ask God if, though blind, I was not one of His children; if in all His great world He had not some little place for me; and it often seemed that I could hear Him say, “Do not be discouraged, little girl: you shall some day be happy and useful, even in your blindness.”…And so it was, that gradually I began to lose my regret and sorrow at having been robbed of sight: little by little God’s promises and consolations came throbbing into my mind. Not only the Scriptures, but the hymns that I heard sung Sabbath after Sabbath, made deep impressions upon me

Crosby attended many different churches of various denominations during the course of her life-time, but it’s reported that when she first attended a Methodist church she fell in love with the hymns of the church. For most of her adult life, Crosby was actively involved in the Methodist Church, and now we have the blessing singing her hymns in our worship services.

This morning I hope you are encouraged by the life of Fannie Crosby, that no matter what you are going through, no matter how old or young you are, no matter what you have or don’t have, you can cry out to the Lord. And if you don’t know what to say to the Lord, or if you don’t feel like praying, pick up a Bible and read aloud the words of a Psalm, or pick up a hymnal and read aloud the words of one of Fannie Crosby’s hymns. 

The psalms and hymns were composed by people who endured challenges in their lives just like us, but found hope and comfort in the Lord. May we too find hope in the Lord, and praise God even in the midst of the storms of this life.