Wednesday, July 4, 2012
Praise Him Praise Him -- Fanny Crosby
What was going on in the life and mind of 49-year old Fanny Crosby in 1869? This blind hymn lyricist and social worker had so much to make her well-known and loved by the end of her life in 1915 that we could gloss over what brought to life her song “Praise Him, Praise Him” that was published in the mid-19th Century. Besides her spiritual energies, Crosby had also engaged in many secular endeavors by the time she reached middle age, including popular music and national-political issues toward which she had applied her poetic skills. More personally, she was also a married woman who had lost her only child some years earlier. Living in the New York City area, she must have also been aware of the various events locally that colored her perception of the world. This blender of events created something special in 1869, for “Praise Him, Praise Him” is one of her most well-known hymns.
Yet, we know few or none of the specific circumstances of the hymn’s origin (it was published in the Bright Jewels hymnal), although we can see much of what surrounded Fanny Crosby and imbued her life at the time. “Praise Him, Praise Him” was written the same year, 1869, as her “Rescue the Perishing”, which focused on missionary work in U.S. inner-city areas, one of the major themes of her life, particularly in the period after the Civil War until her death. Her hymn writing could thus be viewed primarily through the prism of her missionary labors, especially the rescue missions in the New York area where she lived (like the Howard Mission shown here). Crosby and her husband, Alexander Van Alstyne (called Van by friends), moved frequently during the period, giving up much of their income to help the needy. She also wrote many hymns to lift spirits and convey God’s message to strugglers. Crosby was incredibly prolific, producing perhaps as many as 9,000 hymns in her lifetime, a rate that some say included composition of six or seven songs per day in some periods. So, what made her write one may have made her write many others, too. Perhaps her aggregate output should be thought of as a reflection of the depth of feelings – her gratitude toward Him could not be contained in just a few words. Did she also struggle with the loss of her only child 10 years earlier in 1859? Might that have spurred her toward reflective behavior, like hymn writing? Crosby was a Methodist, and apparently attended the Chelsea Methodist Episcopal Church in New York City, while also reportedly a member of the John Street Methodist Episcopal Church in NYC. She may also have been aware of the February 1869 dedication of the Nostrand Avenue M. E. Chapel, at the corner of Nostrand Avenue and Quincy Street in Brooklyn, so maybe her hymn flourishes also served to supply new and growing churches with praise material.
Fanny would never have been called a cultural hermit in 1869, if what she did as a younger woman stuck with her later on. From the 1840’s and beyond, she wrote many secular works to commend events of the times in which she lived. These included poems about abolition, the Civil War, and presidents. Locally, she probably knew about the Booth Theater that opened at 23rd Street & 6th Avenue, that the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge had begun, and about the first American steeplechase horse race in Westchester, NY. Nationally, how could she have missed that treason charges were dropped against former Confederate States president Jefferson Davis, of the inauguration of the new president Ulysses Grant, that the US Congress upped the number of Supreme Court justices from seven to nine, and that Thomas Edison patented the first voting machine in June 1869? Did she feel liberated when US women were first given the right to vote in the Wyoming territory in December? Do you suppose a mine fire in Avondale, Pennsylvania that killed 179 miners in September 1869 grieved her? Did she, a one-time popular music composer, hear that the German composers Wagner and Brahms premiered “Rhine Gold” and the “Liebeslieder Walz” in September and October? Did the Suez Canal opening in Egypt in November enlarge her world, even indirectly? Was she intrigued to try William Semple’s newly patented chewing gum?
From the sublime to the mundane, Fanny Crosby probably heard about or had an opinion about much of the world’s events in 1869. But, no composer, even one as talented and sensitive (though blind) as Fanny Crosby, can sum up in one song all that goes on in his or her world. Fanny didn’t try. Instead, pass all your world through one lens…even if that eyepiece cannot see the physical.
Information on the song was obtained from the book “Amazing Grace – 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions”, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, 1990.
See this link for the song’s original verses: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/p/h/i/phimphim.htm
See also these links for the composer’s biography:
History in 1869: http://thehistorybox.com/factual_first/1800s_9.html
Brooklyn Bridge construction: http://www.aviewoncities.com/nyc/brooklynbridge.htm