Bringing the lyrics of life to life

by Greg Asimakoupoulos

I started spending time with Ruth Eckels shortly after I began working as a chaplain at Covenant Shores, a Christian retirement community in suburban Seattle. Wilson, Ruth’s husband of 72 years, had just passed away. As we met to plan Wilson’s memorial service, Ruth related to me how much the hymns of the church factored in their lives as pioneer missionaries in Alaska.

Following the memorial service, I noticed how Ruth stumbled along through the valley of death’s shadows. She struggled to find meaning in life without her life partner. Still, it was obvious to her friends and to me that this ninety-four year old had energy to burn and creativity to channel.

In the midst of her grief, Ruth admitted to sleepless nights as she battled the demons of loneliness and fear. She also told me that she had found comfort recounting Bible verses that celebrated God’s presence that she had memorized as a young girl. One day Ruth approached me with a creative idea. She wondered if it would be okay if she led a weekly Bible study to help residents in our skilled nursing section of the campus learn how to meditate on God’s Word.

As Ruth described her idea, I nodded approvingly. She even offered to sew old-fashioned nightcaps that each wheelchair-bound resident would wear. The tactile visual aid would simulate night time as she helped the residents memorize verses that would serve them well when they were unable to sleep. The residents loved their night caps and I stood in the corner of the room amazed at this godly woman’s gift.

In addition, Ruth’s expressive rendering of the Biblical text impressed me. She read the Bible with deep feeling and understanding. I began using her as a regular scripture reader on Sunday mornings before I preached.

As Ruth was about to celebrate her 95th birthday I approached her with a creative idea of my own. I was planning a hymn-sing on campus in which we would sing only Fanny Crosby hymns. In addition to introducing the congregation to Fanny’s greatest hits, I was hoping to conduct an interview with someone impersonating Ms. Crosby as a way of sharing the hymnwriter’s fascinating life story. Would she be interested in researching Fanny’s life and appear as the celebrated songstress at our singspiration? To my delight, Ruth accepted.

Greg and Ruth

As Ruth studied the materials I gave her, she discovered that Frances Jane Crosby had been born almost a hundred years before she had. Coincidentally, Ms. Crosby died in her 95th year, the same age as the person I was asking to impersonate her. Fanny died on February 12, 1915. Ruth was born on February 16, 1919.

Ruth was impressed to learn that although Fanny had been born with normal vision, she was blinded at six weeks due to an incompetent doctor’s careless treatment of an eye infection. She was even more interested to learn that the doctor’s inexcusable error did not result in bitterness within young Fanny or a lifetime of resentment toward God.

As Ruth met with me to rehearse our interview, she shared a poem Fanny had written at the age of eight that explained her incredibly positive attitude to life.

Oh, what happy soul am I
although I cannot see.
I am resolved that in this world
contented I will be.

How much blessings I enjoy
that other people don’t.
To weep and sigh because I’m blind,
I cannot and I won’t.

Both Ruth and I marveled at the ability of a second grader to compose such a mature and poignant verse. I then asked Ruth what some of those blessings were that Fanny had experienced. She proceeded to tell me that, although Fanny’s father died when she was only six months old, the gifted lyricist was raised by her godly mother and grandmother to love the Lord and know the Bible.

The two women regularly read her lengthy portions from God’s word. By the time Fanny was 15, she had memorized the first five books of the Old Testament, the entire book of Proverbs, the Song of Solomon, and the four Gospels.

About that time Fanny was accepted as a student into the prestigious New York Institution for the Blind. For the next ten years the young poet excelled as a student and as a musician. In addition to being trained as a vocalist, Fanny learned to play the piano, organ, harp, and guitar.

Upon graduation Ms. Crosby was retained as an instructor at the school at which point she met and eventually married Alex Van Alstyne, one of her sightless students. Sadly, the couple’s only child died in infancy. It was a grief the young mother never got over.

In addition to teaching, Fanny traveled as a lobbyist on behalf of the blind and met many influential people. It was during this time she began writing hymns with the pastor of Sixth Avenue Bible Baptist Church in Brooklyn, where she was a member. Fanny wrote the lyrics and Rev. Robert Lowry wrote the music. In time she was selling her religious poetry to Bigelow and Main Publishing Company. When her life concluded on February 12, 1915, Fanny Crosby had composed over 8,000 hymns.

The more Ruth Eckels shared the facts of Fanny’s life with me, the more I realized she was the perfect person to represent the hymn writer at our hymn sing. Ruth, like Fanny, had experienced similar sorrow in her life. In addition to the death of her husband, Ruth’s 30-year-old son had been killed in a small plane crash while they were missionaries in Alaska.

On the night of the hymn sing, I led the congregation in some of Fanny’s more familiar songs: “Blessed Assurance,” “To God Be the Glory,” and “Near the Cross.” And then I invited Ms. Crosby to the stage. Ruth mounted the steps clad in period costume she had collected from her own closet complete with a white cane and dark glasses.

As I began the interview asking my guest about her life, I sensed the Lord’s presence in a wonderful way. The idea of having an interview with Fanny Crosby was far more than a creative one. It was an inspired one! To God be the Glory!

A Fanny Pack

Fanny’s first published poem appeared in P.T. Barnum’s Herald of Freedom periodical (and Fanny’s grave in a Bridgeport, Connecticut cemetery is a stone’s throw from Barnum’s grave).

In 1941, The New York Herald published Fanny’s poem eulogizing President William Henry Harrison upon his death.

Fanny was the first women to speak before a joint session of Congress in April 1846.

Fanny performed in the White House for President James Polk.

While teaching at the New York Institution for the Blind, Fanny befriended future President Grover Cleveland who at the age of seventeen spent hours with Fanny transcribing poems she dictated to him.

Fanny was a distant relative to Bing Crosby.

When asked if she resented being blind, Fanny replied “If it had not been for my affliction I might not have had such a good education, so great an influence or so fine a memory.”

Fanny’s most familiar hymns include:

All the Way My Savior Leads Me

Blessed Assurance

He Hideth My Soul

I am Thine O Lord

Near the Cross

Pass Me Not O Gentle Savior

Rescue to the Perishing

Safe in the Arms of Jesus

To God Be the Glory