Frances Jane Crosby the Blind Hymnwriter

Frances Jane (Fanny) Crosby was born on March 24, 1820, in Southeast, Putnam County, New York State.  We know her as Fanny Crosby, or Frances Jane Van Alstyne.  At the age of six weeks a medical charlatan treated her for an eye infection with hot mustard poultices, and as a result she was blinded for life!

Fanny’s father died about a year later.

At the age of eight her bent for poetry began to reveal itself.  She wrote:

Oh what a happy soul am I!
Although I cannot see,
I am resolved that in this world
Contented I will be …

A godly grandmother introduced explained what things looked like to her and taught to love and memorise the Bible … and Fanny managed to memorise large portions. As a child “she could repeat from memory the Pentateuch, the book of Ruth, many of the Psalms, the books of Proverbs, Song of Solomon, and much of the New Testament!”

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Fanny often told her needs to God and saw him answer. One prayer was for the chance to go to school and learn. At about the age of 15 that prayer was answered and she attended a new school, The Institution for the Blind in New York City. Fanny spent 23 years there, first as a student and then as a teacher.

Despite her religious convictions and Bible knowledge it was not until 1850, at age 31, that she became assured of her soul’s salvation.

She had a dream one night in the Blind School where she worked, a dream that spoke of death and readiness to meet the Lord.  And there was the singing of a hymn by Isaac Watts, at an evangelistic mission she attended:

Alas and did my Saviour bleed
And did my Sovereign die …

She left that meeting assured of sins forgiven.

At the age of 20 she fell in love with another blind student, Alexander VanAlstyne, and some years later she learned of his affection for her. At the age of 37, on March 5, 1858, she married her man and they enjoyed 44 years of happy marriage together. Their only child died as a baby. Her church connection was with the old John Street Methodist Episcopal Church of New York.

Fanny wrote poems and was privileged to recite them to Congress when she was 23, then to entertain Presidents in the years that followed. Her first book of poems appeared when she was 24, titled The Blind Girl and Other Poems.

But her calling to write gospel songs came later in her life. At the age of 44 she was introduced to well-known composer William B Bradbury who suggested that she write the lyrics for a hymn for him. That experience produced “We are going, we are going, To a home beyond the skies” which became a Sunday School favourite and confirmed to her she had found her life calling.

Thousands of Gospel songs flowed from her pen – sometimes seven or eight in a day.

A Shelter in the Time of Storm, Blessed Assurance, Rescue the Perishing, To God be the Glory, Pass me not O gentle Saviour, He Hideth my Soul, and many, many more – about 8,000 altogether.

Many moving testimonies came to Fanny to confirm the awesome spiritual impact her hymns had. She often wrote hymns based on her experiences at New York street missions for working class men. She also preached in these venues. Stories of souls saved due to the use of her hymns around the world testify to the divine destiny of her hymn-writing gift. Each account testified to God’s answer for her prayer that she would be instrumental in saving a million men.

Many composers brought her tunes or asked her for new songs for special occasions. These hymns flowed often in just 30 minutes and then were sung for the next century or so. For years she was under engagement with Biglow and Main to furnish them regularly three songs a week.

Fanny was sensitive to the Lord’s promptings. One night, while preaching in a mission, she felt impressed that some young man had abandoned his mother’s faith and must repent that very night. A 19 year old came forward and found God’s grace. From that experience she wrote “Rescue the Perishing”. On another occasion in 1874 she needed $5 and knelt to ask God to provide. A man visited soon after, just to meet this famous lady, and gave her $5 as he left. This led to her hymn “All the Way My Saviour Leads Me”.

The crusades of Moody and Sankey did much to popularise Fanny’s hymns on both sides of the Atlantic. She also composed much for Mr Doane’s evangelistic work. Music for her hymns was also contributed by such notables as Phoebe Palmer Knapp, George Stebbins, S J.Vail and Ira D Sankey.

At age 90 she declared, “My love for the Holy Bible and its sacred truth is stronger and more precious to me at ninety than at nineteen”. Asked about her long years, she said her secret was that she guarded her taste, her temper and her tongue.

Fanny outlived her husband by 13 years, dying at Bridgeport, Connecticut on Friday morning, February 12, 1915, not long before her 95th birthday.  And then – to paraphrase her own hymn – “she saw Him, face to face!”

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This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at:

Phoebe Palmer Knapp Rich HymnWriter

Phoebe Palmer Knapp was born in New York City, on March 9, 1839. She was obviously named after – but not to be confused with – Phoebe Palmer, preacher of entire sanctification around the mid-19th century. Phoebe’s parents, Dr Walter C Palmer and Phoebe Worrall Palmer, were Methodist evangelists and founding members of the Holiness Movement, thus their choice of an evangelist’s name for their daughter.

Phoebe married 23 year old Joseph Fairfield Knapp when she was only 15, and he founded the Metropolitan Life Assurance Company and was its second president. They were members of the Methodist Church.

Wealthy and influential, the Knapps hosted four United States Presidents, many Civil War generals and other dignitaries at Knapp Mansion in Brooklyn, from 1860 -1894.

Phoebe had a love for music and considerable talent. While she was on holiday in Europe in 1882 her husband had a special music room built for her at the mansion as a surprise.

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When her husband died in 1891, Mrs Knapp inherited $50,000 – most of which was distributed to “religious and charitable causes”.  Her son, Joseph, headed up Collier’s Publishing Company.

The important thing is that she wrote hymn tunes.

In 1873 she composed a melody and played it to fellow Church member, and hymn writer extraordinaire, Fanny Crosby.  After listening to the tune played “two or three times”, the blind hymnist wrote the words …

Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!

Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine …

It is still sung to Phoebe Knapp’s tune, called Assurance.

In 1894 Phoebe moved out of Knapp Mansion and ended up taking the entire top floor of the new Savoy Hotel, even moving her organ there. She continued with her extensive entertaining program. She also encouraged musical talent, although she was a firm believer in disciplined practice.

Emma Thursby (1845-1931) was a lifelong friend and “discovery” of Phoebe Palmer Knapp, becoming one of the world’s leading Opera Singers.

Phoebe also was the New York City head of the International Sunshine Society, which did international good deeds. Her charitable spirit may have prompted her son, Joseph, to start his own Knapp Foundation. Phoebe continued to travel to Europe with her friends and family but lived in the Savoy up until the spring of 1908.

By the time of her death in Poland Springs, Maine (10 July, 1908) about 500 tunes had been composed by Mrs Knapp, including Open the Gates of the Temple, which was also written with Fanny Crosby.

It has been said of Phoebe Knapp that she was not an amateur with her music, but a talented and dedicated professional musician who produced melodies of excellence.

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This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at:

William Howard Doane the Man of Melody

William Howard Doane was born in Preston, Connecticut, USA, February 3, 1832. He was to become one of the leading gospel songwriters of his era, writing more than 2,000 hymn tunes, and numerous cantatas. By the age of 14 he was conducting the choir of the Congregational school he attended, Woodstock Academy.

Converted a few years later, in his final year at school, he joined the Baptist Church (his mother was Baptist), where he served as a faithful layman for the rest of his life. For 25 years he was Sunday-School Superintendent and choir director at Mount Auburn Baptist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Music was Doane’s ‘avocation’ (something done outside his vocation). He made his living by working for J.A. Fay & Co, which made woodworking machinery, where he excelled as a businessman. He became President of the large company.

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The music of his soul bubbled forth throughout his life. He composed his first piece at age 16 and in 1852 he was engaged as conductor at the Norwich Harmonic Society. His first published songs were for Sunday School use, reflecting his life-long interest in that ministry (as has been seen in other hymn-writers – such as Alfred Midlane 1825-1909 – see Jan 23, 2009 post).

Note the titles of his first book of songs, published in 1862, “Sabbath School Gems”. The second book, published two years later was “Little Sunbeams”, and in 1867 came perhaps the most popular Sunday-school book of its day, “Silver Spray”.

Doane’s first book of songs for adult use, “Songs of Devotion”, came in 1868 and was very popular.

Doane is noted for his creation of Christmas cantatas, which popularised the genre, especially through his work entitled, “Santa Claus”.

Doane married the daughter of his father’s business partner in Doane & Treat, cotton manufacturers. That union produced two daughters.

A personal friend of blind hymn-writer, Fanny Crosby, she would often ask him to compose a melody for words she had written. One evening, whilst she visited Doane’s home, they spoke of God’s nearness. Before retiring Miss Crosby penned the words:

I am Thine, O Lord, I have heard Thy voice,

And it told Thy love for me…

Next morning she asked Doane if he would compose the tune, which he did.

On the other hand, he sometimes composed a tune and asked Fanny Crosby to supply the words. In 1869 he mailed her such a tune, and as she later sat in a New York Mission, the words came to her:

Rescue the perishing,

Care for the dying …

On another occasion Mr Doane composed a melody and played it to Miss Crosby on a small organ. “Why,” she at once exclaimed, “that tune says Safe in the Arms of Jesus. I’ll see what I can do about it.” (Sankey’s Story of Gospel Hymns, page 263).

Jesus, Keep me Near the Cross was also written by Miss Crosby to one of Doane’s previously composed melodies.

The melody of Katherine Hankey’s Tell me the Old, Old Story came from Doane’s pen.

This highly successful Christian businessman gave large sums of money to further the spread of the gospel, including a music building at Moody Bible Institute. The Doane Memorial Music Building in Chicago, Illinois, was named after him.

He died on Christmas Eve, 24 December, 1915.

Dr Doane compiled some forty books, and wrote about twenty-three hundred songs, ballads, cantatas, etc, also a number of vocal and piano pieces in sheet form. Millions of people across the globe have sung Doane’s tunes, even though they would not know his name.

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This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at:

George Frederick Root the Great Musician

This is the day that … George Frederick Root was born in Massachusetts, USA, in 1820.

Born on a farm he ended up running the property at age 18, while his father and brother were in South America. His love for music began with the flute taught to him by his dad. At age 13 he was delighted that he could play one instrument for each year of his life.

He was invited to learn from Boston choirmaster, A.N. Johnson, and within seven weeks he had so mastered the piano that he played for church services. He advanced as a musician, teacher and composer. His particular love was to teach and he not only studied the leading methods of instruction but passed them on to the music teachers he prepared. By this he made a lasting contribution to the promotion of musical skill within America.

Fanny Crosby became one of his pupils and she contributed the lyrics to a cantata, The Flower Queen, which he wrote as a tool for teaching his students. That work was the first secular cantata composed in America.

He became a hymn and melody writer of much note, arguably one of the most successful musicians of his age. Under the pseudonym of G. Friedrich Wurzel he wrote a number of minstrel songs that achieved much popularity in the secular world.

One of the melodies he wrote was called The Little Octroon. The composer sent it to William O. Cushing, who wrote the gospel words:
Ring the bells of Heaven,
There is joy today …

His great invitation hymn, for which he wrote both words and music, is still in many hymnals today:
Come to the Saviour,
Make no delay …

George F. Root also wrote the melody for the well-loved children’s hymn:
When He cometh, when He cometh,
To make up His jewels …

Before his death in 1895, Root helped edit 75 musical collections and was partner in a music publishing firm which was ruined in the great Chicago fire. He is noted as a man of spotless integrity.

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at