Fanny Crosby was one of the great, and greatly prolific, hymnwriters of the 19th century. Considering how that century was a bit of a golden age of hymn writing, that’s saying something. Did I say prolific? She almost sets her own definition for the term, considering that wrote over 8,000 hymns.
Some of her songs were criticized as being too emotionalistic or sentimental. In that way, she shows the pitfalls of populist hymnody, then and now. But she is hard to beat when she hits her stride. Her writing is filled with scriptural insight, with simple language that rewards deeper reflection. At her best, she is populist hymnody at its best.
And did I mention that she was blind from childhood? She composed her hymns mentally, from memorized sources, often working on several simultaneously before dictating them. All 8,000+ of them.
Her most well-known contributions include “Blessed Assurance” and “To God be the Glory.” Here, I want to highlight “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior”:
Pass me not, O gentle Savior, Hear my humble cry; While on others Thou art calling, Do not pass me by.
Savior, Savior, Hear my humble cry; While on others Thou art calling, Do not pass me by.
The heart of this song is a pretty straightforward poetic conceit. Christ is out making social calls, so to speak, visiting others with His presence and His grace. In other words, she means “call” in the sense of making a personal visit, perhaps making enquiry at the door or leaving calling card. “Lord Christ, visit me as well!”
But, there is another important theological meaning for the word: “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” (Romans 8:30) When a sinner like us comes to saving faith, it is in response of Christ’s call, in the power of the Spirit and through the vehicle of the proclaimed Word. This is Preaching 101, both for the sober Puritan divine and for the impassioned Great Awakening preacher. A good Methodist, Fanny Crosby probably means to invoke this theological sense of the term as well. “You are giving our life-giving call to others, give it to me as well!”
Let me at Thy throne of mercy Find a sweet relief, Kneeling there in deep contrition; Help my unbelief.
Here we see her develop the cry for Christ’s saving call. “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” (Psalm 32:1) She cries for Jesus, enthroned above, to give that blessing. And “help my unbelief” is the famous word from a father asking Christ to heal his son. She is thus crying for Christ to accept and bolster a weak faith, to take the smallest mustard seed and grow it into a mighty oak of trust in God. And to bless the seed as if it had already so blossomed.
Trusting only in Thy merit, Would I seek Thy face; Heal my wounded, broken spirit, Save me by Thy grace.
Here is another expansion of the cry for Christ’s call. Note “would I seek.” It is a statement of intent. “Christ, I would seek Your face.” We need Christ not only to cover the weakness of our faith, but also the weakness of our desire. The cry for healing and new life, rooted solely in the grace and merit of Christ. Here she boils the Reformers down to a quatrain. She has us ask Christ to take our feeble contrition, our nearly unbelieving hearts, our too-weak desire to see His face, and give us His precious salvation. This is not the whole of Christian discipleship, but rather the basis for every step of it. Even the greatest saints know they are the chief of sinners.
Thou the Spring of all my comfort, More than life to me, Whom have I on earth beside Thee? Whom in Heav’n but Thee?
Our faith in Christ gives us a true hope in God’s promises. If love of God and neighbor is the proper outward fruit of saving faith, hope is the proper inward fruit. We trust in God, so we can confidently look forward to the fulfillment of His promises. When faith blossoms into that true and certain hope, we can with Fanny Crosby praise Christ as the source of true comfort, in this life and in the next.