Beloved hymn writer Fanny Crosby’s unpublished works recovered
Generations of Christians have long sung — from hymnals and memory — the inspiring hymns of Fanny J. Crosby (1820-1915) such as “To God Be the Glory,” “Jesus Is Tenderly Calling You Home” and “Blessed Assurance.” But very, very few knew that some 2,700 of her unpublished and unfinished compositions were stashed away in a library.
OUT OF SIGHT
These compositions — dictated by the blind poet, lyricist, composer and social worker — had been scribbled out on various sheets and scraps of paper, all with her initials and tucked out of sight at Wheaton College.
They might have remained hidden had Stephen Kelley’s mind not wandered during a sermon long ago. The artist/entrepreneur was searching for a unique word to help brand a company he was forming.
The sermon ended with a call to commitment while singing the hymn “To God Be the Glory,” that included the line: “… and opened the lifegate that all may go in.”
“The word (lifegate) sunk into my heart,” said Kelley.
His curiosity led him to note that the hymn writer was Fanny Crosby and to discover her name listed several times in the hymnal index. He didn’t stop there, however.
“I can barely hum, but wanted to know more about that songwriter,” said Kelley, who is an avid collector of antique hymnals.
So he began intensive research into the remarkable life of Fanny J. Crosby, one of history’s most prolific hymn writers.
Kelley learned that Hope Publishing had acquired Crosby’s catalog from her publisher but that the many unpublished and incomplete writings “languished in their files.” They were then donated to Wheaton College and stored away.
“No one had pursued them at all except two or three students who’d done theses on them,” he said.
Upon a visit to Wheaton in 2000, Kelley was first shown an envelope containing some of Crosby’s writings. He insisted on seeing the whole collection — which was wheeled out on 20 library carts.
He offered to pay for having every word digitized — a project that took about two months.
Kelley was sure that something must come from this successful “treasure hunt.” But he wasn’t sure what it would be.
“I’m not a hymn-ologist,” he noted. “… I had a business sense, but had never done a musical project.”
‘RESCUE THE PERISHING’
Kelley also discovered that Crosby’s old piano was reportedly housed in a New York rescue mission. So he headed to the Bowery from his South Florida home to check it out.
“There sits her Steinway upright,” he said. And a nearby plaque on the wall acknowledged that it was on this instrument that Crosby wrote the hymn, “Rescue the Perishing.”
It reflected much of Crosby’s faith as well as her long, deep commitment to serving Christ in rescue missions.
Crosby, he learned, understood her vocation to be that of a mission worker more than a songwriter — and that hymns such as “Rescue the Perishing” and “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Saviour” were influenced by her work among immigrants, the urban poor and the imprisoned.
Crosby was a member of Brooklyn’s Sixth Avenue Baptist Church but felt at home in a variety of congregations. She wrote songs and poetry out of her compassion and faith.
In addition to the thousands of hymns and poems, Crosby wrote some popular and political tunes — especially songs during the American Civil War that reflected her deep moral commitment to the abolition of slavery.
Fifteen years passed and still no project. Much of Kelley’s attention shifted to care for his wife, Janda, who began cancer treatments shortly after their move to Nashville. She died in 2007.
Nashville was “ground zero” for the music industry, said Kelley. There he met music producer Bobby Blazier, also a drummer for Roy Orbison, Michael Martin Murphey and other popular artists.
Kelley discussed his long-ago discovery with Blazier over dinner and got an unexpected response.
“He grew up on Fanny Crosby,” said Kelley. “He started to cry.”
That which had languished for so long now had a future.
“That’s when it became a project,” he confirmed. “Bobby had the music contacts.”
After a failed attempt with one publisher, the project was presented to Integrity Music where a deal was struck.
The challenge was deciding on a first project from such a massive collection. Of the 2,700 discovered compositions, only 200 had been scored, said Kelley.
And Kelley was insistent that whatever happened with these treasures must be respectful of Crosby — and, therefore, “tastefully done.”
OLD BECOMES NEW
The resulting first project was released this fall. Blessed Assurance: The New Hymns of Fanny Crosby has 15 compositions further crafted by respected songwriters such as Michael Farren and Michael W. Smith.
The involvement of contemporary Christian artists bridged some modern musical preferences. And the timing for that was just right, said Kelley, who remarried and now lives in the mountain town of Tiger, Ga.
“There is a resurgent interest in traditional hymns,” said Kelley.
Adrian Thompson, vice president of song and artist development for Integrity Music, said great care was taken when bringing the new/old music to life.
“We were asking established modern worship songwriters to collaborate with someone who had been dead for 100 years — yet someone who had inspired each of them — to complete her unfinished songs,” he said.
Thompson said that each work was assessed “to see if it could stand the test of time” — realizing they were “now stewards of some potential great hymns that could, and should, be sung in churches for decades to come.”
Collaborating on the recordings are Blind Boys of Alabama, Paul Baloche, Ernie Haase & Signature Sound, Matt Redman, Ricky Skaggs and the Whites, All Sons & Daughters, and others.
“Musically we have crossed a lot of the style genres that are present in today’s modern church while simultaneously maintaining the lyrical depth and perspective that Fanny Crosby brought to the church back in the late 1800s and early 1900s,” said Thompson.
With so much more of Fanny Crosby’s recovered music still awaiting the light, what’s next? The answer to that question will take a little time, said both Thompson and Kelley.
“It’s almost unlimited,” said Kelley of the potential projects. But, he added quickly, whatever follows must be done “tastefully.”
Thompson agreed: “We are currently looking at the other works and what we may be able to do for seasonal or specific musical genres. Although for now, we want to see how the church responds to these songs!” BT
By John Pierce