Her Heart Can See

I mentioned in my last blog post that I’ve been in contact with two publishers about the possibility of writing a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder with particular attention to her Christianity. So I went to Trinity’s library and checked out several religious biographies to see what they’re like. I was able to read one of them last week: Edith Blumhofer’s Her Heart Can See: The Life and Hymns of Fanny J. Crosby. Blumhofer is a history professor and director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College.

Some readers may know that Fanny Crosby was an almost superhumanly prolific Christian hymnwriter during the late 1800s and early 1900s. She wrote for multiple publishers who printed her songs under her own name and dozens of pseudonyms. As a result, an exact number cannot be given, but it is probable that she wrote as many as nine thousand hymns and gospel songs. Apparently she was able to think of rhymes on the fly, and she composed multiple poems and songs every day. She was blind and dictated the songs to others who wrote them down. Crosby was also a popular speaker at churches, Sunday schools, YMCAs, and rescue missions in the greater New York City area. While most of her hymns have fallen into obscurity, some are still sung today, especially “Blessed Assurance,” “Rescue the Perishing,” and “Safe in the Arms of Jesus.”

Since I’ve never written a book-length biography, I’m especially interested in how historians organize biographies, what questions they’re asking, and how they address a broader audience. Blumhofer’s book gave me answers to all three questions:

Organization: The first three chapters, which describe Crosby’s family history, childhood, and early adulthood, are chronological. Crosby was born in 1820 in a small town about 60 miles away from New York City. She lost her sight in infancy, and at age 15 she went to the New York Institution for the Blind in Manhattan. After she finished their course of study, she became a teacher there. At age 38, she married Alexander van Alstine and moved to Long Island.

The next eight chapters are thematic and address Crosby’s main period of activity, from 1858 to around 1900. One chapter recreates the world of New York City evangelical Protestantism that Crosby operated in. Others present the background of nineteenth century Christian music, especially “gospel songs.” Others give the biographies of Crosby’s collaborators: her music teacher, her publishers, her composers, and her friends. Still others describe Sunday schools during the nineteenth century and her talks in different venues. Finally, one chapter analyzes some of her most famous songs to draw a picture of how she experienced her faith and how she depicted it in her poetry.

The last chapter of the book covers the final fifteen years of her life, and the afterword considers her legacy. The book also has “A Note on the Sources,” which describes the sources used to write the book, an appendix giving Crosby’s family tree, and an appendix listing 150 of her pseudonyms.

Questions: Early in the Introduction, Blumhofer notes that there have been a variety of previous biographies of Crosby. Apparently most of them are inspirational, telling her story in order to feed Christian faith and devotion. Blumhofer also notes that, unfortunately, many of them are inaccurate. Her aim is to tell a more truthful story of how Crosby experienced life in nineteenth century New York as a blind, Christian, female hymnwriter. How did she come to be who she became? What networks supported her? How was she shaped by and how did she shape nineteenth century evangelicalism? How should one understand Crosby’s relationship to her historial context?

To answer these questions, Blumhofer spends a lot of time describing the historical developments, institutions, and individuals that made it possible for a Christian woman to do what Crosby did during the nineteenth century. First, music was increasingly seen as an important way to educate children and to Americanize immigrants. Second, Protestant evangelicalism came to define elite New York society. Third, Sunday schools became ubiquitous in Protestant churches. Fourth, new printing technologies revolutionized the publishing business. Finally, Crosby cultivated associations with important Christian figures like Phoebe Palmer, Dwight L. Moody, Ira Sankey, and William H. Doane. In all of these ways, Blumhofer presents Crosby’s life as being interwoven with nineteenth century evangelical Protestantism.

Broader Audience: I think that the major way that this book reaches out to a broader audience is by not having footnotes or endnotes and not engaging many other historians’ works directly. Her “Note on the Sources” is great, and I have some ideas of what that would look like for Wilder if I do a book for Eerdmans. However, as one might infer from my description of Blumhofer’s questions and ways of answering them, many of them are the types of questions that academic historians ask. I’m not sure how successful this story of Crosby’s might be in attracting the attention of Christians who are more interested in an inspirational story about the blind woman who wrote so many hymns.

At any rate, these are all things that I’ll have to continue to consider if I’m going to write a book on the Faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Thanks for reading.


Author: johnfry2013

Chair, Department of History, Trinity Christian College, Palos Heights, IL

2 thoughts on “Her Heart Can See”

  1. Hi John,
    Thanks for sharing your reading of the Fanny Crosby biography – she’s one of my favorite hymn writers. I actually like the placing of a person in the time period and related circumstances as it makes historical sense (especially to those who don’t know much about history).

    I hope you will pursue the LIW Faith as a biography. It doesn’t have to be huge, but I know it would help many understand her life’s values, foundations and circumstances in context of the frontier and American church history.

    Connie in Colorado


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