Although she may not be a household name to many people – even to many Christians – certainly in the world of hymnody she has few equals. Except for perhaps Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley, she may be our greatest Christian hymn writer.
The gospel song writer was born in New York in 1820 and died in 1915. During this period she wrote around 9000 hymns and religious poems. Many of her inspiring and moving hymns are still sung today, including:
All the Way My Savior Leads Me
Eye Hath Not Seen
He Hideth My Soul
More Like Jesus
I Am Thine, O Lord (Draw Me Nearer)
Jesus Is Tenderly Calling You Home (Jesus is Calling)
My Savior First of All
Near the Cross
Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior
Praise Him! Praise Him! Jesus, Our Blessed Redeemer!
Safe in the Arms of Jesus
Savior, More Than Life to Me
Take the World, But Give Me Jesus
Tell Me the Story of Jesus
To God Be the Glory
As amazing as her hymnody output is, even more incredible is her life story which lies behind this. She had every reason not to be so in love with her Saviour. Bitterness could easily have overwhelmed her. You see, at just 6 weeks of age, because of a bungling doctor, she lost her eyesight.
And just a few weeks later she lost her father. Most mere mortals would have soured after such tragedies, but not Fanny. Her love for her Lord, experienced at an early age, did not waver, and she regarded her relationship with Christ to be of supreme value, even more important than having physical sight. As she wrote in her autobiography:
“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.”
She bore no ill will to the inept doctor, and wrote this: “If I could meet him now I would say ‘Thank you, thank you’ – over and over again – for making me blind.” And when she was asked by a preacher about her blindness, she said she cherished her blindness, and said that “when I get to heaven, the first face that shall ever gladden my sight will be that of my Savior”.
Her first verse, written while just 8, clearly showed how she did not feel sorry for herself:
Oh, what a happy soul 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
To weep and sigh because I’m blind
I cannot, and I won’t.
That is an amazing testimony – one which few of us would be able to make. And with the death of her father her mother had to take a job as a maid, leaving young Fanny to mostly be raised by her Christian grandmother. She instilled in her a love of the Bible and of prayer.
Coupled with her ability to write verse was a great ability to commit things to memory. Bible memorisation was done from an early age, and she memorised five chapters a week. As a child she could recite the Pentateuch, the Gospels, Proverbs, and many psalms.
At the age of 14 she went to the New York Institute for the Blind, spending 12 years there as a student and another 11 as a teacher. She quickly became established as the resident poet at the school. She wrote poems about all sorts of topics, including her pet peeves at school:
I loathe, abhor, it makes me sick,
To hear the word Arithmetic!
In 1858, at age 38, she married a blind man and musician, Alexander Van Alstyne. She wrote six or seven hymns a day, and her first book of poems and hymns was published in 1844. Her fame further spread when D. L. Moody and Ira Sankey used her hymns in their crusades.
She had as many as 200 different pseudonyms, as she turned out countless poems, which she was often just paid two dollars each for. She also wrote lyrics to many popular secular songs as well. In 1843 she was invited to read some of her poems before the US Congress.
In addition to her hymn-writing, she also worked busily in missions work among America’s urban poor, and did plenty of speaking engagements. She famously said, “Don’t waste any sympathy on me. I am the happiest person living.”
Although a Christian since her early childhood, she rededicated her life to Christ at a revival meeting in New York in 1850. The singing of the hymn Alas and Did My Savior Bleed especially spoke to her: “For the first time I realized that I had been trying to hold the world in one hand and the Lord in the other.”
She wrote hymns right up until her death at age 95. Let me conclude with the lyrics from her great 1873 hymn, Blessed Assurance:
Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.
This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Savior all the day long;
This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Savior all the day long.
Perfect submission, perfect delight,
Visions of rapture now burst on my sight;
Angels, descending, bring from above
Echoes of mercy, whispers of love.
Perfect submission, all is at rest,
I in my Savior am happy and blest,
Watching and waiting, looking above,
Filled with His goodness, lost in His love.
You can hear this beautifully sung in this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_5E1gWdW3P8