Sunday, December 20, 2015
Rescue the Perishing -- Fanny Crosby
“Rescue the Perishing” was a line that stuck in her head one summer night in 1869, and Fanny Crosby just couldn’t ignore it. How could this 49-year-old blind woman rescue anyone? Wasn’t she herself at risk, visiting a rundown neighborhood inhabited by desperate men? This Bowery area of the Manhattan borough (see a look at it in 1910 shown here) was not for the timid, who might encounter the “Bowery Boys” street gang or other reminders of urban blight. Not a wonder that its residents might turn to alcohol as a means of escape, and find themselves needing help as life slid into one of the many gutters there. Maybe this is where Fanny had an advantage. Since one of her senses, eyesight, did not function, she could not shrink from people with the same revulsion that sight might have compelled. Thankfully, she did not ignore her other senses, including her heart.
Crosby’s life and work especially among missions in New York City are well-known, but never grow old. This 1869 episode took place early in her hymn-writing career, which had only started a few years before, though she had been a notable writer of secular works for some time already. It could be said that the hymn’s poem had gestated in her spirit because of the work in which she was engaged that day, and also was spurred by a musical friend’s idea. Her friend Howard Doane had proposed the ‘Rescue the Perishing’ theme to her a few days beforehand, and it was still stirring within her as she spoke to a crowd that evening at the mission. Her urgent appeal struck a chord with one 18-year-old, whom she implored needed God if he ever expected to join his mother in eternity. This was a defining moment in these two lives, apparently, as he accepted her leading and God’s place in his life. The young man reportedly encountered Crosby decades later to tell of his faithful service for God. For her part, Crosby went home that evening following their initial encounter and wrote the lyrics for “Rescue…”, a hymn that still survives one hundred years after her own death in 1915. And, the Bowery Mission still goes on too, with this story – and probably many more – that relate how the blind woman helped others to see. How many people did Frances Jane Crosby show the way, and still does through her poetry?
Urban, suburban, rural, and especially the third-world…how would Fanny Crosby have regarded residents of these areas today? There’s still poor in every one of them, though an economist might claim the world has come a long way in the last 150 years since Fanny thought about rescue. She’d be somewhere helping, and teaching, and making music too, no doubt. There’s still lots of people in trouble, and plenty who try to help others in ways that remind us of her. Fanny was special because she merged her gift - her musical ear- with a mission for the destitute. She was genuine, with hymns flowing from a reality she experienced. Hers were not just ideas, but authentic life. Maybe that’s why her hymns still reach us. What might yours or my life have to say?
See more information on the song story in these sources: The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006; Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990; 101 Hymn Stories, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1982; and Then Sings My Soul – 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories, Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003.
See this site that describes the ministries of the mission where the composer had the experience that birthed this song: http://www.bowery.org/