- Her Heart Can See: The Life and Hymns of Fanny J. Crosby
This fine biography brings together Frances "Fanny" Jane Crosby (1820 1915), the blind Evangelical poet who created hundreds of lyrics immortalized in late nineteenth-century gospel hymns, and Edith L. Blumhofer, the distinguished historian of Pentecostalism and author of the acclaimed biography Aimee Semple McPherson: Everybody's Sister (Eerdmans, 1993). The encounter of a master Evangelical biographer with a nineteenth-century Evangelical hymnodic icon promises much, and Blumhofer does not disappoint. She delivers a deeply informed and carefully wrought interpretation of Crosby's life and works. This is unquestionably the best critical study of Crosby as well an accomplished interpretation of the Evangelical movement in post-bellum New York City and the emergent gospel music industry.
Crosby is usually presented as a devoted spinsterly Methodist, a selective image she herself promoted in her 1906 autobiography, Memories of Eighty Years (1906). A century's worth of hagiographic commentary and outright legend has further distorted the historic Crosby, but Blumhofer uncovers an immense array of neglected facts and contexts to make new sense of her life experience. We learn, for example, that Crosby had Massachusetts Puritan and Pilgrim forebears dating to 1635 and that as a young woman growing up in what is now Putnam County, New York, she described herself as "a primitive Presbyterian." On the difficult question of Crosby's loss of sight, Blumhofer concludes that she was afflicted with congenial blindness, not victimized by quackery as her family later insisted. In young Crosby's formative years, Blumhofer details her attendance at local singing schools, experiments with poetry, and maturation in a supportive matriarchal family environment.
As a student at the New York Institute for the Blind from 1835, Crosby gained her celebrity by writing and reciting poems at Anniversary Week celebrations held each May by New York's interdenominational Evangelical agencies. In 1844 she published her first book of poems, and a few years later she rose to the office of Preceptor—academic dean—of the institute. In her remarkable account of these crucial developmental years, Blumhofer hammers home the point that Crosby had enjoyed a successful career as educator and civic poet long before she became famous for her gospel hymns.
Blumhofer is no less illuminating on the fundamental question of Crosby's religious development. Crosby received a steady diet of ecumenical Protestant preaching at the Institute, and although the poet experienced an 1850 conversion at Thirtieth Street Methodist Church, Blumhofer reports that she did not join any church until 1887. To the contrary, Blumhofer demonstrates that Crosby aggressively pursued a pan-Protestant pattern of affiliation, enjoying [End Page 403] fellowship with popular preachers like the Congregationalist Henry Ward Beecher, while also moving in the city's elite Methodist circles and attending vespers every evening at a neighborhood Episcopal church.
Crosby's 1858 marriage to Alexander van Alstine, a former institute student ten years her junior, ended her career as an educator. Blumhofer appropriately breaks off her biographical narrative here and turns to the forces that soon brought Crosby vast fame as a hymn writer. Essential to her later career was the circle of Lowell Mason, George Root, and William Bradbury, composers, music educators, and publishers who transformed American church music in the late nineteenth century. Blumhofer rightly devotes a long section to Mason, an immensely influential figure still largely ignored by historians of American religious culture, who trained Root and Bradbury and positioned them to recruit Crosby as a lyricist for their hugely popular Sunday School and revival songbooks. Drawing on previously unstudied correspondence and records of Evangelical music publishing houses, Blumhofer draws a deft picture of the emerging gospel hymn industry in the 1870s and 1880s, for which Crosby provided hundreds of hymn texts on order from an array of collaborating Evangelical composers including Root, Bradbury, Ira D. Sankey, William Howard Doane, Phillip Phillips, and Phoebe Palmer Knapp.
Blumhofer brings this carefully braided interpretation to...