Today is the birthday of Fanny Crosby, writer of thousands of hymns, a birthday which dovetails interestingly with my recent posts about accessibility. I wrote about her in this post on my theology blog, a post which covers some details of her life and work. But she also interests me as a poet and a historical figure.
I can't imagine that many churches still sing her hymns on a regular basis; they're just too sentimental and mawkish for modern tastes. But during her day, congregations and revival meetings loved her hymns. She moved away from the focus on sinfulness and wretchedness that we would find in hymns that came before her. Many people would have seen her hymns as showing authentic emotion, and would have loved singing them for just that reason.
She rarely wrote the music, instead concentrating on the lyrics. She often wrote 6 or 7 hymns a day, and because she was blind, she did all the work in her head.
She wrote hymns and cantatas, she wrote popular music and patriotic songs. In addition to all this work, she also did massive work in rescue mission houses. Her accomplishments would have been impressive in any age, but the fact that she lived in 19th century America, that she was a woman--how amazing.
I wonder if we would have heard more about her if she had been a male. I wonder if we would have studied her work more if she had written fewer hymns and focused on a genre that was taken more seriously. I wonder if it's her very accessibility that makes many of us dismiss her.
To be fair, I'll be the first to confess that I prefer a hymn written by the Wesley brothers if we must have a hymn from 19th century. I find much of the hymns coming out of the 19th century to have a theology that's strange to me, especially in its adoration of bloody, rugged crosses of all sorts. I much prefer other types of theology--like liberation theology.
I have theology on the brain not only because it's the birthday of Fanny Crosby, but because on this day in 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated. Romero's life trajectory was an interesting one. He was chosen precisely because his superiors expected him to cause no trouble, and instead, he becomes a leading voice against repression and other horrors in El Salvador. Although he's not strictly a liberation theologian, he's associated with that movement.
It's a movement that focused on Jesus' message of how we are to treat the poor and outcast, a focus that took Christian eyes away from Heaven and to the Hells here on earth. And El Salvador in the late 1970's had plenty of them.
Perhaps today I'll watch Oliver Stone's Salvador again. It's a movie that stays true to Romero's life, even while collapsing the events of several real-life days into a shorter time period in the movie.
Will I sing the hymns of Fanny Crosby today? No I will not. But I'll be grateful for her example. She shows how much can be accomplished in one human life, despite being blind, despite living in a time period that constrained her because of her gender, despite any number of setbacks.
Likewise Archbishop Romero. From a tiny country where he might not have made much difference, his life shines as an example of what can be accomplished when one is committed to social justice.
Perhaps we should draw the same conclusion from Crosby's life; she, too, was committed to the poor and outcast, and she, too, committed her life to social justice.
We might think we cannot change the world, but if we'd only look, we'd see the examples of many people who did indeed change the world, despite being in an outpost of civilization, despite being constrained because of our gender or disabilities or nationality or any number of other things we think hold us back.
Fanny Crosby hoped that each hymn that she wrote would bring people to Christ. What do you hope to accomplish when you sit down to write?