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The Midweek Hymn: Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior


WHAT is the difference between a hymn and a gospel song? There is no solid definition that I can find, and I am forced to the conclusion that ‘gospel song’ is a rather snobbish dismissal of material considered to be inferior.

This is not a ‘gospel song’ that I know but I have had a request for it from America, where it is very popular, and that is why I have retained the American spelling of ‘savior’.

It was written in 1868 by the astonishingly prolific Frances ‘Fanny’ Crosby (1820-1915). She wrote about 9,000 hymns, with the result that music publishers assigned her dozens of pseudonyms so that it was not apparent that so many were by one writer. Among her works were Blessed Assurance, which I wrote about here, and To God Be the Glory, see here.

This is part of my article on To God Be the Glory:

‘Crosby also wrote more than 1,000 poems and had four books of poetry published, as well as two best-selling autobiographies. Additionally, she wrote popular, political and patriotic songs and at least five cantatas on biblical and patriotic themes.

‘Her output is all the more amazing considering that she was blind, possibly as the result of incorrect treatment of an eye infection six weeks after her birth in village of Brewster, about 50 miles north of New York City.

‘Her first composition came when she was eight, and in later years she said it had been the motto of her life:

‘O what a happy soul am I!
Although I cannot see,
I am resolved that in this world
Contented I will be.

‘At the age of 15 she was given a scholarship to the New York Institution for the Blind. As well as the usual academic subjects she learned to sew and knit, yet did not master Braille. After she graduated she became a teacher of English grammar, rhetoric and American history at the institution.

‘During this time she learned to play the guitar, the piano and the organ, and became a noted harpist. She was the first woman to speak before the Senate, on the subject of the education of the blind, and later before a joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives. She became a friend to several presidents and stayed in the White House several times.

‘Her capacity for work was incredible and she would often write six or seven hymns a day. Her poems and hymns were composed entirely in her head and she worked on as many as twelve at once before dictating them to an amanuensis, as Crosby herself could write little more than her name.

‘While at the NYIB, Crosby met Alexander van Alstyne Jr, known as ‘Van’. He also was blind and, like her, first a student then a teacher at the institution. They married in 1858, when Crosby was 38. According to the NYIB’s rules, she had to give up her job.

‘The next year the couple had a daughter whom they named Frances. She died soon after birth. Crosby never spoke publicly about being a mother, except to say in her oral biography towards the end of her life, “God gave us a tender babe and soon the angels came down and took our infant up to God and His throne.”

‘After a few years the couple separated and mostly lived apart, but they remained in contact and even ministered together. Crosby was described as having a “horror of wealth” and often refused payment for her work. If she was paid (often receiving only a dollar or two per hymn or poem) she gave it away at once, and lived in considerable poverty.

‘She died at Bridgeport, Connecticut, at the age of 94. At her request, her small tombstone in the town’s cemetery carried the words: “Aunt Fanny: She hath done what she could; Fanny J Crosby”. A more elaborate stone was put in place later.’

According to the writer Kathleen Blanchard, Crosby was often asked to speak at evan­gel­is­tic sing­ing miss­ions.

‘On one occasion, it was at a state pri­son. As Fan­ny was speak­ing – and her very blind­ness gave her pow­er – first one pri­son­er and then an­oth­er would in­ter­rupt by call­ing on the good Lord “not to pass me by”.

‘Fanny told that she was so touched by the pleas of these men that she could not get the thought of them out of her mind; in­deed she said, “I wrote the lines with the men’s plead­ing wail still in my ears”.’

She may also have been inspired by Genesis 18:3: ‘[Abraham] said, “If I have found favour in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by”’ (NIV).

The hymn was set to music by Crosby’s long-time collaborator William Howard Doane, who was a wealthy American industrialist as well as composer, and first published in Doane’s 1870 collection Songs of Devotion. It was introduced by Dwight L Moody and Ira D Sankey during their London revivals and was Crosby’s first hymn to gain international recognition.

These are the words:

1 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.

2 Let me at thy throne of mercy
find a sweet relief;
kneeling there in deep contrition,
help my unbelief. [Refrain]

3 Trusting only in thy merit,
would I seek thy face;
heal my wounded, broken spirit,
save me by thy grace. [Refrain]

4 Thou the spring of all my comfort,
more than life to me,
whom have I on earth beside thee?
Whom in heaven but thee? [Refrain]

Some theologists have taken issue with the words, saying that it is contrary to scripture to suggest that Jesus would pass anyone by. Crosby in fact changed the refrain from ‘while on others thou art smiling’ to ‘while on others thou art calling’, but that has not satisfied the critics.

There are many, many versions of this hymn on YouTube and it has been tough choosing just a few.

This is by the Seminole String Band. I chose it for the girl’s lovely voice.

A different interpretation by Jay-Ray and Gee of New Orleans.

A bluegrass jam session.

Lyle Lovett arranged and performed it in the 1992 film Leap of Faith.

Even Bob Dylan has performed it, here at Santa Cruz, California, in 2000.

Finally, my favourite: this lovely old record from 1906 by Frank C Stanley and Harry Macdonough.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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