This week’s Free Ride* muses on the songs of hymn writer Fanny Crosby, who was born on this day in 1820. As much as any of the famous preachers of the era, Crosby’s music is responsible for the Great Awakening revivalism movements that marked the 19th century. She rivals Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts for having the most hymns in non-liturgical protestant hymnals. Blind since infancy, she kept the eyes of her heart focused on the cross. One of her many cross-themed hymns gives us one example of her many contributions to the freedom songbook:
Jesus, keep me near the cross,
There a precious fountain—
Free to all, a healing stream—
Flows from Calv’ry’s mountain.
In the cross, in the cross,
Be my glory ever;
Till my raptured soul shall find
Rest beyond the river
While she was no doubt the most prolific lyricist of the time, penning over 8,000 hymns, she did not consider herself first and foremost a hymn writer. Her primary passion and vocation was as a rescue mission worker with the suffering. Living much of her life in communities such as Hell’s Kitchen and the Bowery, she knew firsthand the challenges of the urban poor, many of them immigrants. She advocated for services to the blind, and was the first woman to address the US Senate when she went to lobby for congressional aid to support education for the blind in 1843. She was also a strong abolitionist and wrote many songs for that cause. Her tireless work on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged comes through in another of her freedom songs, an anthem of social gospel sentiment:
One other aspect of freedom related to Fanny Crosby’s hymns: There is something incredibly liberating about singing these hymns full throttle in harmony with a group or congregation that knows the parts. So, if you get a chance, go find a rescue mission somewhere that continues the liberating work Fanny Crosby devoted herself to, and as you join in their mission of feeding the hungry or housing the homeless or giving sight to the blind, start humming one of her beloved hymns, and I’ll bet it won’t be long before four-part harmony fills the air.