“Women’s Sunday Reflection”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

February 8, 2015 – Women’s Sunday

Isaiah 40:21-31


At the end of the 19th century, Fanny Crosby was a household name. She was known as “the queen of gospel song writers” and as “the mother of modern congregational singing in America.” Over the course of her long career, she composed lyrics to more than 8,000 hymns and gospel songs, many of which were widely used in the revival movements of the day and served to introduce countless people to faith. The hymnal we use here at the Hill Church contains seven Fanny Crosby compositions, as compared to one or two from most other contributors. Her works include old favorites like “Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross,” “Close to Thee,” “I Am Thine, O Lord,” and the one we will sing in a few minutes, “Blessed Assurance.” (Side note: for a while, Crosby attended Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims in New York City, where her pastor, Henry Ward Beecher, was a friend of Henry Bowen and a visitor to Roseland Cottage here in Woodstock. Small world!)

Fanny Crosby’s hymns gained popularity because they expressed in a poetic yet conversational way the emotional experience of relationship with God. She wrote of the joy and peace, the purpose and vocation, the courage and strength that she found in Jesus, in the notion of God’s love made manifest for her, and for each of us. She wrote of the renewal and transformation that happened in her life as a result of her faith, as a result of knowing that she was God’s beloved. She wrote of her desire to follow Christ’s call and to live as his disciple. Her lyrics struck a chord with many who sang them—and I suspect that their resonance was due not only to her lyrical gifts, but also to the example of her life, which was itself a testament to the power of faith to help a person overcome adversity.

When Crosby was just six weeks old, she fell ill with an infection of the eyes. The treatment prescribed by a traveling physician caused irreparable damage to her optic nerves and rendered her blind. That same year, her father died, and her mother moved in with her grandmother, who helped to look after Fanny while her mother worked as a maid. She eventually remarried, but her new husband abandoned her a few years later. Fanny’s own family life was not much happier. Her only child died in infancy, and Fanny and her husband ended up separating and lived apart for most of their lives.

The place where she found fulfillment and success was with her lyrics and poems, both sacred and secular. But in spite of her fame, and in spite of the appreciation of her many collaborators, Fanny Crosby received very little direct benefit from her vast body of work. Lyricists were not highly-regarded by publishers, and female ones even less so. Many of Crosby’s hymns were published under pseudonyms—sometimes to disguise her gender, and other times to camouflage the sheer number of her compositions so that a given volume would not appear to be dominated by a single author. The rights to her lyrics were transferred to the publishers after just a small one-time payment, leaving her with no ongoing stake in the success of her work. In spite of the fact that books containing her work sold hundreds of millions of copies, she depended for much of her life on family and friends for housing and financial support.

Nevertheless, Crosby insisted throughout her life that she had all she needed. Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine… What resources she had, she gave away to fund urban missions and causes of abolition and temperance, all the way up to her death in Bridgeport, 100 years ago this Thursday, February 12.

Through all her hardships and struggles, the thing that sustained Crosby was her faith. When she was a girl, her grandmother coached her in studying scripture, and by the age of fifteen, she is reported to have memorized a dozen books of the Bible. I don’t know if Isaiah was one of them, but I feel confident that Fanny Crosby knew the passage we heard this morning:


The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.


Both in the hymns she wrote and in the life she lived, Fanny Crosby was a witness to this deepest of truths: that the God who established the foundations of the earth, who has been there since before the beginning and will be there long after all we know and all we are has found its fulfillment—that same God is the One who knit you together in your mother’s womb. The God who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, who can see the whole universe in a single glance—that same God is the One whose eye is on the sparrow, who counts the hairs of your head, who knows you intimately and loves you completely. The God who sang the world into being, whose love-song hums in the beating of hearts and the flowing of sap and the stillness of stone—that same God knows your name, calls you Beloved.


On this Women’s Sunday, we pay tribute to Fanny Crosby and to others like her—including Sarah Adams and Katherine Hankey, the lyricists of our other two hymns today. But not only to them. Today we remember the countless other women who have persevered in the face of hardship and who have become examples for us, living witnesses of faith. And because, unfortunately, the stories of women still do not get told as often as they ought to, today I’d like to invite each of you to take a few moments to tell the person sitting next to you about a woman who has been important in your life and in your faith.

As we introduce our neighbors to these women, we will bring their presence into this place until this sanctuary is packed to the rafters, filled up with their faith and power. So turn now to the people sitting near you and tell them about a woman who made you who you are. Tell them her name; tell them a little bit of her story; tell them what you learned from her. In so doing, we will honor all the generations of women without whom we would not be here today.