Tag Archives: history

The problem of longitude & the lone genius who solved it

Let’s face it. We are spoiled nowadays when it comes to navigation. All we need to do is to enter our destination into our phone and we get step by step directions there. We don’t even need a physical map anymore. 

But let’s face it. It hasn’t always been that simple and that easy. For a lot of human history, getting to where we want to go was not that quick and easy and that brings us to today’s topic–the problem of longitude. And one man sought to solve that. He was an English clockmaker named John Harrison. 

You might be asking yourself what is the big deal about longitude or what is longitude, for that matter?

Well, time to think back to middle school geography class. 

Take out a globe. Notice the grid pattern. Those lines are meant for navigation and helping you pinpoint your place on the earth. The horizontal lines are known as latitude and run east-west. The vertical lines are called longitude and run north-south. Finding latitude is relatively easy to do but longitude isn’t. So why? 

The short answer is that latitude had reference points that were easily available and they were also easy enough to measure and use for guidance, even without the use of sophisticated instruments. Longitude, on the other hand, was much less obvious and needed very accurate tools and tables of information for their measurement to be useful. 

In other terms, latitude is your position north or south of the equator and longitude is your location east or west of the prime meridian or zero degrees which happens to go through Greenwich, England. Both are imaginary lines circling the earth and on a modern map they form a grid of lines at right angles to each other that enable you to locate your position. These terms and the method of mapping with a geometric grid are relatively recent in history. 

Latitude has been widely used by humans since they took to exploring the seas and perhaps even earlier than that, as they moved to new places on land, leaving a locality with landmarks. This is because latitude has an obvious reference in the sky–a map or chart featuring the sun during the daytime and the moon, stars, and planets at night. As you move north and south, the map in the sky changes. By simply looking up, you could measure where you were in relation to the changes in location of these celestial bodies. Their position as they rose and set was easy enough to observe, but their height above the horizon also changed as you moved north and south and this too could be estimated with quite reasonable accuracy by different methods. 

This whole celestial reference formed a chart of its own, and although it changed through the night and through the seasons, and even presented a different view of the bodies depending upon your location, these changes were all gradual and formed a pattern which many communities and civilizations were able to observe and record and often in stunning detail and insight. This accumulated body of knowledge was passed on from generation to generation and people were able to use it to determine their position north or south relative to the equator.

The quest to determine longitude involved a number of possible answers, three of which had the potential of being accurate. Observing Jupiter’s moons held possibility and could be used on land; remember that there was no such thing as light pollution and so the night sky was a lot more detailed and brilliant than we see it now. Observing the moon through the lunar distance method also presented a very precise answer. There was also the concept of using the difference in time between a known location and your location as a means of calculating longitude was also well known. However, all of these needed very precise observations of the different celestial bodies and in the case of the first two, very detailed recordings of their patterns of movement, and tedious calculations to arrive at an answer. The time of day was also needed. The instruments required–telescopes, sextants, timepieces, and so forth–were gradually improving in accuracy, but did not begin to meet the requirements needed until the 1700s and into the 1800s.

The difference in time that eventually gave practical access to longitude at sea used a specific reference that was within the east-west moving chart in the sky. Lying within this was also a north-south oscillation. All of the bodies rising in the sky to a high point above the horizon and then setting again the west. This change in height above the horizon could be seen on earth as a north-south vector within the east-west motion. The highest point was due north or south in the sky and always occurred at the midpoint between when a body rose and set, and this midpoint was a constant reference as it occurred at the same time each day. 

It was one of these midpoints, along with Harrison’s invention, which helped provide a practical solution to the longitude problem. The point is called local noon, the point at which the sun was highest in the sky. Whereas sunrise or sunset changes time each day, local noon was always the same time  and thus a precise reference point for checking the time each day no matter where you were. If you could then just check your time against a known location, then presto! You could calculate your longitude relative to the known location….And this is where our clockmaker steps into the story. 

John Harrison was a self-educated English carpenter and clockmaker who invented the marine chronometer, the long-sought after device for solving the problem of calculating longitude while at sea. 

He was born in Foulby in Yorkshire, England, on April 3, 1693, the first of five children. Around 1700, the family moved to Barrow upon Humber in Lincolnshire. He followed his father’s trade as a carpenter but also built and repaired clocks in his spare time. Legend has it that when he was six, lying in bed with smallpox, he was given a watch to amuse himself and he spent hours listening to it and studying its moving parts. It would be the beginning of a lifelong fascination. 

He also had a lifelong fascination with music and eventually became choirmaster for the Barrow parish church. 

In 1713, at the age of 20, he built his first longcase clock whose mechanism was entirely made of wood. Three of his early clocks have survived and are now on display at the Science Museum in London. On August 30, 1718, John Harrison married Elizabeth Barret at the Barrow church. After her death in 1726, he married Elizabeth Scott on November 23, 1726, at the same church. 

Between 1725 and 1728, John and his brother James made at least three precision longcase clocks and these have been thought by some to have been the most accurate clocks in the world at the time. Harrison was a man of many skills and he used these to systematically improve the performance of the pendulum clock. He invented the gridiron pendulum which consisted of alternating brass and iron rods assembled so that the thermal expansions and contractions essentially cancel each other out. Another example of his inventive genius was the grasshopper escapement–a control device for the step-by-step release of a clock’s driving power. It was virtually frictionless, requiring no lubrication because the pallets were made of wood. This was key at a time when lubricants and degradation were little understood. 

In his work on sea clocks he was continually assisted, including financially, by the watchmaker and instrument maker George Graham. It was Graham who introduced Harrison to the Royal Astronomer Edmund Halley (yes, the Edmund Halley, as in Halley’s comet), who championed Harrison and his work. This support was essential for Harrison, as he was supposed to have found it difficult to communicate his ideas. 

As mentioned, longitude is one’s east or west of a north-south line called the prime meridian. Knowledge of a ship’s east-west position was crucial when approaching land. After a long voyage, cumulative errors in dead reckoning frequently led to shipwrecks and a great loss of life. Avoiding such disasters became critical in Harrison’s lifetime, as global trade was dramatically on the rise. After the Scilly naval disaster in 1707, the British Parliament offered a prize of £20,000 which is equivalent to $4.5 million today. This prize was under the 1714 Longitude Act.

In 1730, Harrison designed a marine clock to compete for the Longitude prize. After receiving financial assistance from Graham, he got to work. It took him five years to build his first sea clock called H1. He demonstrated it to the Royal Society who then spoke on his behalf to the Board of Longitude. It was the first proposal that the board considered worthy of a sea trial. In 1736, he sailed to Lisbon on the HMS Centurion. He sailed back on the Orford after the Centurion’s captain died in Lisbon. The clock lost time on the outward voyage but performed well on the return trip with both the captain and the sailing master of the Orford praising the design. The master noted that his own calculations had placed the ship sixty miles east of its true landfall which had been correctly predicted by Harrison using H1. It was not the transatlantic voyage demanded by the Board of Longitude, but they were impressed enough to grant Harrison another £500 for further development. Harrison had already moved to London by that point and got back to work on what would be H2 which had a more compact and rugged design. In 1741, H2 was ready but by that time Britain was at war with Spain in the War of Austrian Succession and the mechanism was deemed too important to risk falling into Spanish hands.   In any event, Harrison had discovered a serious design flaw in the concept of the bar balances; he had not recognized that the period of oscillation of the bar balances could be affected by the yawning of the ship. This led him to adopt circular balances in the Third Sea Clock or H3. The Board granted him another £500 and while waiting for the war to end, he proceeded to work on H3. 

He spent the next seventeen years working on H3 but despite his best efforts he could not get it to work as he wished. After thirty years of experimentation, Harrison found much to his surprise that some of the watches made by Graham’s successor, Thomas Mudge, kept time just as accurately as his huge sea clocks. He then realized that a mere watch could actually do the job and was a much more practical option for use as a marine timekeeper. In the early 1750s, he had already designed a precision watch for his own use. It was the first watch that contained a compensation for temperature variations and also the first watch that continued running while being wound.  Aided by some of London’s finest craftsmen, he proceeded to design and make the world’s first successful marine timekeeper that allowed a navigator to accurately assess his ship’s position in longitude and prove that it could be done by using a watch. This was to be his masterpiece and is engraved with his signature, marked Number 1 and dated A.D. 1759. 

After two sea trials, the watch was found to be accurate to an error of one nautical mile. Despite this, the Board attributed the accuracy to mere luck and refused to hand over the prize. Harrison and his son, William, who had taken over on the sea trials due to his father’s age, were understandably outraged. To add insult to injury, the Reverend Nevil Maskelyne who championed the lunar distances method, had been named Astronomer Royal and was therefore on the Board and he gave a negative report of the watch. 

Harrison began working on H5 while extensive land testing was conducted on the first, which he felt was being held hostage by the Board. After three years he had enough and enlisted the aid of none other than King George III. In the spring of 1772, he obtained an audience with the king who was extremely annoyed with the Board. King George tested the H5 at the palace and after ten weeks found it to be accurate within a third of a second. He advised Harrison to petition Parliament for the full prize after threatening to appear in person to dress them down. Finally in 1773, when he was eighty years old, he was awarded £8, 750 or around two million dollars today. He never received the official reward and, in fact, no one ever did. In total, he received £23, 065 for his work on chronometers. This made him the equivalent of a multi-millionaire today and gave him a reasonable income in the final decade of his life.

Captain James Cook used K1, a copy of H4, on his second and third voyage, having used the lunar distance method on the first. His log is full of praise for the watch and the charts of the South Pacific he made using the watch were remarkably accurate. K2 was loaned to Lt. William Bligh, commander of the HMS Bounty, but was retained by Fletcher Christian following the infamous mutiny. It was recovered from Pitcairn Island until 1808 and then made its way through several hands until reaching the National Maritime Museum in London. 

While the Lunar Distances method would complement and even rival the marine chronometer initially, Harrison’s chronometer would overtake it in the nineteenth century. The more accurate Harrison timepiece led to the much-needed calculation of longitude, making it fundamental to the modern age. By the early nineteenth century, navigation at sea without one was considered unwise or even unthinkable. Using a chronometer to aid navigation simply saved lives and ships–the insurance industry, self-interest, and common sense did the rest in making the device a universal tool of maritime trade. 

Harrison died on March 24, 1776, at the age of 82, just shy of his eighty-third birthday. He was buried in the graveyard of St. John’s Church in Hampstead, in north London, along with his second wife Elizabeth and later his son William. His tomb was restored in 1879 by the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers, even though Harrison had never been a member. On March 24, 2006, a memorial tablet to Harrison was unveiled in Westminster Abbey, finally giving him the recognition he deserves. The memorial shows a meridian line in two metals to highlight his most widespread invention, the bimetallic strip thermometer. The strip is engraved with its own longitude of 0 degrees, 7 minutes, and 35 seconds West. On April 3, 2018, Google celebrated his 325th birthday by making a Google Doodle for its homepage. Harrison came in 39th in the BBC’s 2002 public poll of the 100 Greatest Britons. 

After World War I, Harrison’s chronometers were rediscovered at the Royal Greenwich Observatory by retired naval officer Lieutenant Commander Rupert T. Gould. They were in a highly decrepit state and Gould spent many years documenting, repairing and restoring them. He was the first to designate them from H1 to H5. Even though Gould made modifications and repairs that would not meet today’s standards of museum conservation, he is credited with having ensured that they survived as working mechanisms to this day. He also wrote a book, The Marine Chronometer, which remains the authoritative work on the subject. In 1995, Dava Sobel wrote a book on Harrison’s work entitled Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time became the first popular bestseller on the topic of horology. 

Today, H1, H2, H3, and H4 can be seen on display in the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. H1, H2 and  H3 still actually work. H4 is kept in a stopped state due to the fact that, unlike the first three, it requires lubrication and so would degrade as it runs. H5 is owned by the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers and since 2015 has been on display at the Science Museum in London.

One of the controversial claims that he made was that of being able to build a clock more accurate than any competing design. He also claimed to have designed a clock capable of keeping accurate time to within one second over a span of 100 days. He was ridiculed at the time for having made an outlandish claim. He had drawn a design but had never built the clock himself. But in 1970, Martin Burgess, a Harrison expert and a clockmaker himself, endeavoured to build the clock as designed. He studied the plans and built two versions that were dubbed Clock A and Clock B. Clock A became the Gurney Clock which was given to the city of Norwich in 1975, while Clock B lay unfinished in his workshop until it was acquired in 2009 by Donald Saff. The completed Clock B was submitted to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich for further study. It was found that the clock could potentially meet Harrison’s claim. So the clock’s design was carefully checked and adjusted. Finally, over a 100 day period from January 6 to April 17, 2015, the clock was secured in a transparent case in the Royal Observatory and left to run untouched, apart from regular winding. Upon the completion of its run, it was found to have lost only ⅝ of a second, meaning that Harrison’s design was fundamentally sound. If we ignore the fact that it used materials unavailable had it been built in 1762, and run continuously since then without correction, it would, as of today, be slow by just nine minutes and 51 seconds. The Guinness Book of World Records has declared this clock to be the “most accurate mechanical clock with a pendulum swinging in free air.”

It’s a testament to a true mechanical genius and one that deserves to be more well-known. 

Trailblazer: won alexander cumyow

It is 1949 in British Columbia, Canada. An elderly Chinese gentleman casts his vote in the federal election. At first glance, it does not seem that earth-shattering of an event, but this marked an important landmark in the struggle for democratic rights in Canada. Although born in Canada, before the country even existed, Won Alexander Cumyow had to wait 88 years to have the unfettered right to vote!

Few other non-Indigenous British Columbians have roots as deep as Cumyow did. Won Alexander Cumyow was born in Port Douglas on the traditional territory of the In-SHUCK-ch Nation at Port Douglas on the North Shore of Harrison Lake on March 21, 1861. His parents, Won Ling Ling and Wong Shee, were Hakka storekeepers and restaurant owners who came up from California in 1860 after initially migrating from Guangzhou two years before that. The couple outfitted miners most notably during the Cariboo Gold Rush. His mother was among a handful of women from China who had migrated to British Columbia at this time. Won was their oldest son and he was the first Chinese Canadian to be born in present-day Canada. His parents’ choice of last name, Cumyow, which literally means “gold have” was likely a reflection of the Gold Rush period in which he was born.

Growing up, he learned to speak multiple languages, including Hakka, Cantonese, English, and Chinook Wawa which was the Indigenous trade language and the main language of work on the coast in nineteenth century British Columbia. By the 1870s, the family had moved to New Westminster where he completed his education including high school and training in law. On November 29, 1889, he married Ye Eva Chan, a woman from Hong Kong whose parents were Methodist missionaries who had adopted her in Hong Kong and brought her back to Canada. The couple would go on to have ten children. In 1923, their grandchild, the son of the eldest daughter Grace and her locally-born Chinese husband Cecil Sit-shiu Lee, became the first fourth generation Chinese Canadian. 

Cumyow was well integrated into settler society at a time period when there was almost no Chinese or Hakka community to speak of. Following the practice of the time, although his father’s surname was Won, his given name became his surname. He attended school in New Westminster with Richard McBride, a future premier of British Columbia. The 1881 census lists his religion and that of his siblings as Anglican. The New Westminster British Columbian Weekly, reporting on his wedding, described him as “well known to most of our readers, as, perhaps, the most intelligent, clever, and best educated young Chinaman in the province, exceeding in his English education many young men of Caucasian origin.” Indeed, his reputation was such that from 1889 until his retirement in 1936, the Vancouver Police Department employed him as its official Chinese and Chinook interpreter. He also ran a number of businesses, including a coffee and tea company, as well as an opium importer operation, until the latter became illegal. He also worked as a laborer and landlord. 

Despite his education, skill, ambition, and reputation, Cumyow faced considerable racism and discrimination. Like many of his fellow Chinese Canadians, he had to live with unjust policies created by white-dominated communities and governments. 

In 1885, while living in Victoria, he was accused of forgery by his white business partner, Edward Johnson. It took the all-white jury just a mere twenty minutes to declare him guilty and Chief Justice Matthew Bailey Begbie sentenced him to three years in the provincial penitentiary. This despite the fact that Won claimed the evidence against him had been falsified and manipulated by his business partner and that he had no time to prepare a defence prior to the trial. While it is unclear whether or not Won committed fraud, the justice system, coupled with racial prejudice against Chinese Canadians, likely had a role in stacking the deck against him. The system was rigged and the odds were certainly not in his favor. 

Despite his education as a lawyer, Won was unable to take the bar exam and become a lawyer because he was not registered to vote. This was due to the shameful fact that Chinese Canadians, unlike their white counterparts, were largely denied the right to vote and this was nothing new. British Columbia had been stripping Chinese Canadians of the right to vote as early as 1871. Won managed to vote in the 1890 election but provincial legislation in 1895-96 stripped Chinese, Japanese, and First Nations voting rights in election in British Columbia; though his name still appears on the 1898 voting registry. The federal voting registry came from the provincial one and so the federal franchise was also blocked. He later attempted to vote in 1902, but his request was ignored. In 1903, he applied to become a notary but he was once again denied due to being unable to vote. In 1914, he moved his Christian, English-speaking, Canadian born family from Vancouver’s Chinatown to the Grandview area, but the local ratepayers association passed resolutions calling to prevent Chinese from owning property in Vancouver and elsewhere in British Columbia. In 1923, like all other Canadian-born Chinese, he had to register with the federal government under the Chinese Immigration Act, also known as the Chinese Exclusion Act, in order to remain in the country.

Yet his legal training did not gather dust on the shelf. He put them to good use. Throughout his life, Cumyow fought against discrimination and for the rights of his fellow Chinese. The Chinese community faced many injustices and racist restrictions, which Won and other Chinese Canadians fought to overcome. These policies included, among others, the Chinese Head Tax, the disenfranchisement of Chinese Canadians, and racial segregation.  In 1884, the same year he moved to Victoria, he helped found the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, serving as its English language secretary. The association was an important advocacy group for Chinese Canadians that aimed to push back against discriminatory policies. The Imperial Qing Consulate in San Francisco established it at the request of BC merchants on the grounds that they needed to unite all Chinese because Canadian officials were “infected with cruel habits surpassing those seen in the United States in recent years” and that is saying something. The CCBA also acted as a de facto government for the community, organizing its self-defense, settling internal disputes and providing social services, including a hospital, relief, and eventually a public school.

As its English-language spokesman, Cumyow was the key intermediary with white dominant society. He would have been the one who presented the association’s census of the Chinese population in British Columbia and other information to the 1885 Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration. He was one of a handful of Chinese witnesses to the 1902 Royal Commission on Chinese and Japanese Immigration. He argued that it was actually mutually beneficial for white Canadians and Chinese Canadians to work together hand in hand. He noted that people were anxious to employ the Chinese and that it was mainly white politicians who were stirring up anti-Chinese sentiment and moral panics. He pushed back against restrictive immigration policies, stating that Chinese people would “greatly aid in the development of this great country.”

When in 1922, the Victoria School Board attempted to racially segregate Chinese students from other students, the students refused to comply and went on strike against this policy. Won represented the association in its response to the school board informing that the segregation would “widen the breach” between Chinese and white Canadians, which would be “to the detriment of the Chinese in Canadian life.”

In 1899, Cumyow helped found the Chinese Empire Reform Association or the “Save the Emperor Society,” once again serving as English language secretary and official interpreter. It had been established by BC merchants and the reformer Kang Youwei after the Empress Dowager’s palace coup abruptly ended the One Hundred Days Reform in China, a reform intended to move the Qing dynasty toward a constitutional monarchy. By 1903, the association had a global membership of half a million and was in some ways the first mass political party in Chinese history. Cumyow and his colleagues saw legislated anti-Chinese racism as at least in part the result of the weakness of the China’s government and advocated the modernization and strengthening of China as key to ending racism in Canada. Although promoting its benevolent intentions, it tried to forcibly overthrow the Empress Dowager through an abortive uprising. Cumyow remained active in the association for many years, serving as the secretary of its school in Vancouver. In 1920, he became the president of the Vancouver branch. 

In 1936, Won retired from his court interpreter position. He was succeeded by his son, Gordon Wo, the first Chinese Canadian to study law at the University of British Columbia and the first Chinese notary public in Canada. After years of tireless advocating, on May 14, 1947, the Chinese Immigration Act was finally repealed and voting rights were at last restored. In 1949, Won Alexander Cumyow, cast his vote in the federal election, at the age of eighty-eight. This made him the only Chinese person to have voted before and after disenfranchisement. A photo of him voting has been reprinted many times. On May 6, 1955, he passed away at the age of 94, leaving his brother, eight surviving children, eight grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. 

He left a lasting impact on Chinese Canadian history. The Vancouver CCBA would continue to advocate for the rights of Chinese Canadians, notably in reforming the country’s immigration system. In life and death, he was featured in multiple newspapers, including the Vancouver Sun and the Daily Province. In 2016, there were calls for a new Vancouver school to be named after him, but ultimately the name Crosstown was chosen. In 2020, he was shortlisted by the Bank of Canada for the newly redesigned five dollar bill alongside seven other important historical figures.

It was Chinese Canadians like Won Alexander Cumyow who paved the way for those to come  including the twenty-sixth Governor-General of Canada, Adrienne Clarkson. 

A Hymn Born of War

This hymn is a favorite of my family and this beloved German hymn was born of conflict and suffering.


It was penned by Martin Rinkart (1586-1649), a Lutheran pastor in the little village of Eilenberg, Saxony in Germany. He grew up as the son of a poor coppersmith who felt called to the ministry. After his seminary training, he started his pastoral career just as the Thirty Years’ War was raging throughout his native Germany. 


It was an awful conflict that pitted Catholics against Protestants. Floods of refugees streamed into the walled city of Eilenberg. These were times that tried men’s souls and this small town became a refuge for political and military refugees and the result was overcrowding, deadly pestilence and famine. Armies overran it three times. The Swedish army surrounded the city gates. Inside the gates, there was nothing but plague, famine, and fear. Eight hundred homes were destroyed. The Rinkart home became a refuge for victims, even though he was hard-pressed to provide for his own family. 


In 1637, there was a severe plague. People started to die in increasing numbers. There was a tremendous strain on the pastors, who spent all their strength on preaching the gospel, caring for the sick, and burying the dead. One after another, the pastors themselves fell ill and died until at last only Martin Rinkart was left. He performed up to fifty funerals a Martin_Rinckartday and 4000 funerals that year including that of his own wife. 


Finally the Swedes demanded a huge ransom. It was Rinkart who left the safety of the city walls to negotiate with the enemy and he did it with such courage and faith that there was soon an end to hostilities and the suffering had ended.


Pastor Rinkart knew there was no healing without thanksgiving and he composed this hymn for the survivors of Eilenberg. The hymn tune was composed by Johann Cruger, who was director of music at St. Nicholas’ Church in Berlin, who published it in 1647. It was sung at the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War, the following year. It was translated into English in the nineteenth century by Catherine Winkworth.

Fanny Crosby, America’s Hymn Queen

Mercy Crosby held her tiny daughter’s hands as little Fanny’s face contorted in a scream of pure agony.

“Doctor, are you sure you have to do this to her?,” Mercy asked through tears of anguish.

“Mrs. Crosby, I know it’s hard to hear little Fanny scream like this, but we must draw out the infection. These hot mustard poultices are the best way to do it.”

“But she is so small, only six weeks old. Maybe we should wait until our regular doctor returns to town.” Mercy tried her best to shut out tiny Fanny’s screams, but it proved too difficult. If anything, her screams were getting louder.

The impatient doctor replied, “Mrs. Crosby, as I told you, waiting would only make the infection worse. I know the treatment hurts Fanny, but it’s much better to treat the infection immediately. You never know what may happen if an eye infection is left untreated.”

Mercy reluctantly accepted the doctor’s diagnosis. Although Fanny’s screams eventually subsided to a whimper, they still lingered in her mother’s memory. The infection in Fanny’s eyes did go away, but her corneas had been burned in the process and scars began to form over them. In the weeks that followed, long after the unknown doctor left town, John and Mercy realized that their daughter was not responding to visual stimuli. Soon, their worst fears were realized: young Fanny was completely blind. The doctor was revealed to be a quack and disappeared. In time, she would become America’s hymn queen.

The future musical monarch, Fanny Jane Crosby, was born on March 24, 1820, in the village of Brewster, fifty miles north of New York City, the only child of John and Mercy Crosby. When she was six months old, her father died. Her mother was forced to work as a maid and she was mostly raised by her Christian grandmother. These women grounded her in Christian principles and instilled in her an abiding faith in God.  

Fanny would later write of her grandmother: “My grandmother was more to me than I could ever express by word or pen.” Her grandmother Eunice took the time to help her granddaughter “see” the world around her. They spent hours walking in the meadow, where Eunice would describe the sights around her in as vivid detail as possible. Many hours would also be spent in an old rocking chair where Eunice would describe to Fanny the intricate details of flowers and birds around her, or the beauty of sunrise or sunset.

Although Fanny was blind, she never considered herself handicapped. She did many of the things that other children did and accepted her blindness with a positive attitude that is evident in a poem that she wrote when she was just eight years old. She maintained this positive outlook her whole life and considered her blindness a blessing and not a curse. She refused to feel sorry for herself. She once stated, “It seemed intended by the blessed providence of God that I should be blind all my life, and I thank him for the dispensation. If perfect earthly sight were offered me tomorrow I would not accept it. I might not have sung hymns to the praise of God if I had been distracted by the beautiful and interesting things about me.”

“I think it is a great pity that the Master did not give you sight when he showered so many other gifts upon you,” remarked one well-meaning preacher.

Fanny Crosby responded at once, as she had heard such comments before. “Do you know that if at birth I had been able to make one petition, it would have been that I was born blind?” said the poet, who had been able to see only for her first six weeks of life. “Because when I get to heaven, the first face that shall ever gladden my sight will be that of my Savior.”

Grandma Eunice spent many hours reading the Bible to Fanny and teaching her the importance of prayer and a close relationship with God. She soon discovered Fanny’s amazing gift for memorization. She encouraged her to memorize long passages of the Bible. She memorized five chapters of the Bible per week from age ten; by age fifteen, she had memorized the four gospels, the Pentateuch, the book of Proverbs, the Song of Solomon and many of the Psalms. Fanny remarked, “The Holy Book has nurtured my whole life.”

Her mother’s hard work paid off. Shortly before her fifteenth birthday, Fanny was sent to the recently founded New York Institute for the Blind. Lessons were taught by lecture, as Braille was not widely used at this time. Her phenomenal memory helped her retain the information she heard and she enjoyed her studies.

In 1843, she joined the Institute faculty and taught history and rhetoric for the next fifteen years. During this time, she gained recognition as a poet and rubbed shoulders with well-known people such as President James K. Polk, Henry Clay, and William Cullen Bryant. She also recited poetry before a joint session of Congress in April 1846 to advocate for the education of the blind. The audience included Jefferson Davis and former president James Quincy Adams. When she finished her recitation, the applause was so deafening it sounded like thunder and frightened her. Her encore was so moving that it moved many Congressmen to tears. She even befriended future president Grover Cleveland, then age 17, while teaching at the Institute. The two spent hours together at the end of each day and he often transcribed the poems that she dictated to him. He wrote her a recommendation that was published in her 1906 autobiography. She wrote a poem to be read at the dedication of Cleveland’s birthplace at Caldwell, New Jersey, being unable to attend due to ill health.

Fanny and others at the Institute often travelled giving concerts and programs to make people aware of the school and what it offered to the blind. On one such trip, Fanny met an acquaintance that would prove significant for her life. Mary Van Alstine was so impressed by the Institute that she determined to send her twelve-year-old boy there as soon as she could. She wanted Fanny to be his instructor and told the twenty-three-old teacher, “Take good care of my boy!” She did take good care of him but what no one realized is that the two would later marry!

“Van,” as Fanny called him, was the first of the school’s students to attend “regular college.” After obtaining his teaching certificate, he returned to the Institute as a music teacher, where he and Fanny connected over their mutual love of music and poetry. Despite the age difference, their friendship blossomed into love, and on March 5, 1858, the two married. Considered one of New York’s best organists, he wrote the music to many of her hymns. Fanny put the music to only a few of her hymns, even though she played piano, guitar, harp, and other instruments. More often than not, musicians came to her for lyrics.

For example, one day musician William Doane dropped by her home for a surprise visit, begging her to put some words to a tune he had recently written and which he was to perform at an upcoming Sunday School convention. The only problem was that his train to the convention was leaving in 35 minutes. He sat at the piano and played the tune.

“Your music says, ‘Safe in the Arms of Jesus,’” Crosby remarked. She quickly scribbled down the lyrics. “Read it on the train and hurry. You don’t want to be late!” It became one of her most famous hymns.

Fanny is best remembered for the nearly 9,000 hymns she wrote. Amazingly, she did not start writing hymns until her forties. Publisher and hymn writer William B. Bradbury was not happy with the quality of the hymns that were submitted to him for publication. He had heard of Fanny’s talent and after verifying her ability, he hired her to write hymns telling her, “As long as I have a publishing house, you will have work.”

Though she was under contract to submit three hymns a week to her publisher and often wrote six or seven a day, many became incredibly popular. When Dwight Moody and Ira Sankey began to use them in their crusades, they received even more attention. Among them are “Blessed Assurance,” “All the Way My Savior Leads Me,” “To God Be the Glory,” “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior,” “Safe in the Arms of Jesus,” “Rescue the Perishing,” and “Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross.”

From 1871 to 1908, she worked with Ira Sankey who helped turn her into a household name for Protestants around the globe. While Sankey was the premier promoter of gospel songs, Crosby was their premier provider. Sankey and Moody brought many of her hymns to the attention of Christians in the United States and Britain. Crosby was friends with Ira Sankey and his wife, Frances, and often stayed at their home in Northfield, Massachusetts, for the annual Summer Christian Workers’ Conference, and later at their home in Brooklyn. After Sankey’s eyesight was destroyed by glaucoma in March 1903, their friendship grew even deeper and they continued to compose hymns together at his home.

She once described her writing process in this way: “It may seem a little old-fashioned, always to begin one’s work with prayer, but I never undertake a hymn without first asking the good Lord to be my inspiration.” And God never ceased to provide inspiration for her music.

Though she is best remembered for her hymns, she wanted to be remembered as a rescue mission worker. She even said that her official occupation was mission worker.

Many of her hymns were inspired by her work in city missions. She was inspired to write Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior, after speaking at a service at the Manhattan Prison in 1868, after hearing comments by the prisoner asking the Lord not to pass them by. It became her first hymn to have global appeal, after it was used by Sankey at Moody’s crusade in Britain in 1874. Sankey commented that no hymn was more popular at those London meetings than this one.

Crosby and her husband had lived in area of New York City such as Hell’s Kitchen, the Bowery, and the Tenderloin. She was acutely aware of the great needs of the immigrants pouring into the city and of the urban poor. She was passionate about helping them through working at city missions and other urban ministries. She wrote, “From the time I received my first check for my poems, I made up my mind to open my hand wide to those who needed assistance.” She was said to have had a horror of wealth throughout her life. She never set prices for her speaking engagements, often refused honoraria, and what little she did accept she gave away at the first opportunity. She and her husband organized concerts, with half the proceeds being given to aid the poor. Throughout New York City, her love for the poor and efforts to help them were well-known. She and her husband could have lived comfortably off the money she was making through her hymns, but they chose to use the money to embetter the lives of the poor.

Her hymn-writing declined in later years, but she remained active in speaking engagements and in mission work until almost the day she died. She met with presidents, generals, and dignitaries.

Crosby died at Bridgeport on February 12, 1915, after a six-month illness, age 94; her husband predeceased her. She was buried in the town cemetery near her mother and other family members. Per her own request, a small gravestone was erected which read, “Aunt Fanny: she hath done what she could; Fanny J. Crosby.” In 1955, a large marble monument was erected which dwarfed the original gravestone and has the first stanza of Blessed Assurance written on it.

In 1975, she was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and is known at the “Queen of Gospel Song Writers.” The Episcopal Church remembers her on February 11.

St Patrick

Today is the day we wear green, drink Guinness, and eat corned beef and hoist a pint to the Apostle of Ireland. His feast day is both a religious and cultural holiday.

The dates of his life are not entirely certain but he lived during the fifth century. He was born in Roman Britain possibly in the year 387. His father was a deacon and his grandfather a priest, but Patrick himself was not an active believer. According to his Confession, when he was sixteen he was captured by Irish pirates who took him to the Emerald Isle where he was enslaved for six years tending sheep. This time in captivity proved critical to his spiritual development. God spoke to him and showed him mercy and forgiveness for his ignorance and sin. Through prayer, he strengthened his relationship with God and converted to Christianity. During this time, he also became fluent in the Irish language and culture which would prove key later on. Much like Joseph who sold into slavery in Egypt, God sent Patrick into captivity for a reason. In both cases, people meant it for evil, but God meant it for good. In this case, the conversion of an entire nation and people!

God told him that he would soon be freed and to travel to a distant port where he would find a ship willing to take him to Britain. After escaping from his master, he traveled two hundred miles to the coast where he persuaded a ship captain to let him aboard. After three days sailing, he landed back in Britain and after various adventures, including encountering a herd of wild boar,  he returned home to his family. On his way back to Britain, he was captured again and spent sixty days in captivity in Tours where he discovered French monasticism.

He continued to study Christianity. He studied in Europe, principally at Auxerre, but is thought he visited Marmoutier Abbey at Tours. St. Germanus ordained him. After receiving a vision, he returned to Ireland as a missionary. He founded three hundred churches and baptized 100,000 Irish men, women, and children. He ordained priests to lead the new churches and converted wealthy women, some of whom became nuns in spite of family opposition. Patrick also dealt with the sons of kings, converting them too.

Tradition says that St. Patrick used the shamrock to teach the Irish about the Trinity, using the three-leafed plant to explain one God in three persons. In pagan Ireland, three was a significant number and there were a number of triple deities which may have aided him in his efforts to evangelize the Irish when he used the shamrock as a teaching tool.

It also said that he banished all the snakes from Ireland after they attacked him during a forty day fast. The trouble with this account is that Ireland has never had snakes due to the fact that it is too cold. So there were no snakes for him to banish. Yet the story could be metaphorical. Heresy is often depicted in the church as a snake. By converting the Irish to Christianity, he banished paganism from Ireland. So he banished the “snakes” of heresy from the island.

Modern scholars say he died in 460 but Irish historians prefer the later date of 493. Legend has it he was buried in Down Cathedral in Downpatrick, County Down, alongside St. Columba and St. Brigid, though that has never been proven.

Interestingly enough, some depictions of him show him wearing blue and that color was the color associated with Ireland. It was until later on, due to Ireland’s deep green hues, that green became the color we now associate with the saint and Ireland.

He is venerated worldwide and is known as the Enlightener of Ireland. He is one of Ireland’s primary saints, along with Sts. Columba and Brigit of Kildare. His influence cannot be understated. Thanks to his efforts, Ireland became the land of saints and scholars.



Anthony Mary Claret, Founder of the Claretians

Today (October 24th) marks the feast day of St. Anthony Mary Claret who founded the congregation of Missionary Sons of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, more commonly known as the Claretians. He was also a Spanish Catholic archbishop, missionary, and confessor to Isabella II of Spain.

He was born in Sallent, in the county of Bages in the Province of Barcelona, Spain on December 23, 1807, the fifth of eleven children. His father was a woolen manufacturer. As a child, he enjoyed pilgrimages to the nearby Shrine of Our Lady of Fusimanya.

He received an elementary education in his native village, and at the age of twelve became a weaver. At age eighteen, he went to Barcelona to specialize in his trade and remained there till he was 20. Meanwhile, he devoted his spare time to study and became proficient in Latin, French, and engraving.

Recognizing a call to religious life, he left Barcelona and wished to become a Carthusian monk. He finally entered the diocesan seminary at Vic in 1829 and was ordained on June 13, 1835, on the feast of St. Anthony of Padua. He received a benefice in his native parish where he continued to study theology until 1839. Missionary work strongly appealed to him and so he proceeded to Rome. There he entered the Jesuit novitiate but had to leave due to ill health. He returned to Spain and exercised his pastoral ministry in Viladrau and Girona. His efforts on behalf of the poor attracted attention. In an area despoiled by civil war, he added the practice of rustic medicine to his other efforts.

Recalled by his superiors to Vic, Claret was sent as Apostolic Missionary throughout Catalonia which had suffered from French invasions. He traveled from one mission to the next on foot. Claret, an eloquent preacher fluent in the Catalan language, attracted crowds from miles around who came to hear him. After a lengthy time in the pulpit, he would spend long hours in the confessional and was said to have had the gift of discernment of consciences. In 1848, his life was threatened by anti-clerics and was sent to the Canary Islands where he gave retreats for fifteen months. His services were so well attended that he often preached from an improvised pulpit in the plaza before the church.

Upon his return home to Spain, he founded the Congregation of the Missionary Sons of the Immaculate Heart of Mary on July 16, 1849 (Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel) and founded the great religious library at Barcelona. Pope Pius IX gave approval to the congregation on December 22, 1865.

Pope Pius IX, at the request of the Spanish crown (Isabella II), appointed him archbishop of Santiago, Cuba, in 1849. He was consecrated at Vic in October 1850. The Santiago seminary was reorganized, clerical discipline strengthened and over 9,000 marriages validated within the first two years of his arrival. He built a hospital and numerous schools. Three times he made a visitation of the entire diocese. Among his great initiatives were trade or vocational schools for disadvantaged children and credit unions for the use of the poor. He wrote books about rural spirituality and agricultural methods, which he first tested himself. In August 1855, he founded the Religious of Mary Immaculate, the first female religious institute in Cuba. He also visited jails and hospitals, defended the oppressed and denounced racism. His work stirred up opposition and was stabbed by a would-be assassin.

In February 1857, Claret was recalled to Spain by Queen Isabella II, who made him her confessor. He obtained permission to resign his Cuban see and was appointed to the titular see of Trajanpolis. His influence was now directed solely to help the poor and to propagate learning. He lived frugally and took up his residence in an Italian hospice. For nine years, he was rector of the Escorial monastic school, where he established a scientific laboratory, a museum of natural history, library, college and schools of music and languages. In 1868, a new revolution dethroned the queen and sent her with her family into exile. His life was also in danger and he accompanied her to France which gave him the opportunity to preach in Paris. He stayed with them for a while and then went to Rome where he was received by the pope.

He continued his popular missions and distribution of books wherever he went in accompanying the Spanish court. In 1869, he went to Rome to prepare for the First Vatican Council. Owing to failing health, he withdrew to the French Pyrenees, where he was still harassed by his Spanish enemies. Shortly afterwards he retired to the Cistercian abbey at Fontfroide, Narbonne, southern France, where he died on October 24, 1870, aged 62. His remains were buried in the Catalan city of Vic.

Anthony Mary Claret wrote 144 books. By his sermons and writings he contributed greatly to bring about the revival of the Catalan language, although most of his books were published in Spanish, especially during his time in Cuba and Madrid.

In addition to the Claretians, which now has over 450 houses and 3100 members, with missions in five continents, Claret founded or drew up the rules of several communities or religious sisters.

He was declared venerable by Pope Leo XIII in 1899, beatified by Pius XI on February 24, 1934 and canonized by Pius XII on May 7, 1950. He is the patron saint of textile merchants, weavers, savings, Catholic press, the Canary Islands, technical and vocational educators and Claretian students and educators.

St. Martin of Tours (316-397)


He was the son of a pagan Roman officer and born in 316 in what is now Hungary. Educated in Pavia in northern Italy. From the age of ten, he knew he intended to become a Christian but was enrolled in the Imperial calvary five years later against his will and before he could be baptized. One bitterly cold night at Amiens, he gave half of his cloak to a freezing naked beggar and soon afterwards saw a vision of Christ wearing it. This is the basis of his invocation against impoverishment and has been depicted by numerous artist including El Greco (seen above). As a result of this event, he was finally baptized.

He asked for a discharge because he believed that as a Christian he was not allowed to fight and was accused of cowardice. His answer to that was to stand unarmed in battle holding only a cross-at the sight of which the enemy surrendered. He was given his discharge in 339 and became a disciple of St. Hillary of Potiers; he ended up converting his mother to Christianity. Martin later travelled in Italy and Dalmatia. He lived as a hermit for ten years before rejoining Hilary who encouraged him to found a community of monk-hermits at Liguge, the first monastery in what is now France.

In 372, Martin, now 56, accepted the episcopate in Tours. He was reluctant to accept the position and continued to live as a monk, first in a cell near his church and later at Marmoutier where he established another great monastic center. He continued to live in a strict monastic way until his death. He was zealous in the discharge of his duties. As bishop of Tours, he was a dedicated missionary to the Franks and other northern tribes who had invaded the region. As a former soldier, he used military methods in missionary work. He travelled to the remotest parts of the diocese by foot, by donkey and by boat. From Tours, he led an army of monks through France destroying idols, pagan temples and graves and preaching. Martin was also a wonder worker whose miracles included healing lepers and raising a man from the dead.

Martin opposed Arianism and Priscillianism, the two great heresies of the day, but condemned the practice of putting heretics to death. He actually interceded with the emperor Maximus in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent the execution of Priscillian and others for heresy, declaring that it was sufficient to declare them heretics and excommunicate them.

The first great pioneer of Western monasticism, Martin died at Candes, near Tours in 397. More than 2,000 monks attended his body on its return to Tours. He is the patron saint of France. His feast day is November 11. The saint has given his name to a spell of good weather around his feast day (Nov. 11) known as St. Martin’s summer; the English equivalent of the American Indian summer. His biography, written by Sulpicius Severus, was extremely popular in the Middle Ages and his cult was widespread. In France, over 4000 churches are dedicated to him. And the Benedictine monastery near me where I am going to be an oblate is named after St. Martin of Tours. A popular saint indeed, he is the patron saint of not only France, but also soldiers, horses, riders, geese and wine growers. His emblems are a globe of fire and a goose.

The Course of Empires: Whig View of History

John-Locke-Second-Treatise-of-Government-Cover-Page    The dissenters had a sharp and heightened view of political tyranny. We are talking about people who were sensitive to the abuse of power. By the 1720s, the Whigs were amassing a body of political thought that linked together political and ecclesiastical tyranny with the accumulation of executive power surrounding the monarch. Looking at the precedents of ancient Athens and Rome, they saw that republican governments tended to be subverted if that republic acquired an empire. The massive colonial administration would bring accumulation of power around an executive, and corruption would quickly set in. There would be buying and selling of offices and privileges. This is what happened to their native England. Its combination of monarchy and parliament was losing its balance of power towards growing executive power and arbitrary privilege. The wealthy Church of England was on the side of this executive power. When it comes to theology, they were not as strict as their Puritan predecessors, but they did share with the Puritans the belief that high-handed monarchial power is always supported by ecclesiastical privilege. Therefore these men of the commonwealth were the champions of the inalienable rights of humanity to life, liberty and property, in the footsteps of John Locke, and the inalienable rights of conscience in the traditions of English religious dissent.

George Marsden writes that “one could hardly overstate the importance of this Commonwealth heritage in shaping American revolutionary political thought.” Most Americans were dissenters. Even those who were Anglicans, like the Virginia gentry, were outsiders to royal privilege. Those who held political or social power in America stood to lose if the full-fledged English system was exported to the colonies. So when the English authorities, after 1763, began to take more interest in reorganizing her new expanded North American colonies, many colonists were understandably alarmed. And they stated their alarm in the terms and language of their Commonwealth or Real Whig heritage. This dissenting tradition would become the basis for the republican outlook that long dominated American political thought.

These fears were compounded by the militant anti-Catholic sentiments of many colonial revolutionaries. In a real sense of sad irony, those who were the champions of freedom and liberty did not extend these natural rights to those who they considered to be their mortal enemies. The Catholic population, who lived mostly in the middle colonies, was often discriminated against and generally tolerated. They were not the problem. Some Catholics, such as the influential Carroll family in Maryland, supported the Revolution and had hopes of making the American Catholic Church more republican. The real problem was that the thirteen English colonies were still Protestant enclaves in a mostly Catholic hemisphere. One could say a cold war mentality lingered. This was especially true in New England, home of the Congregationalists, the Puritans. On multiple occasions in the course of the eighteenth century, amidst much religious fanfare, the men of New England mobilized the militia for military action against French Catholics in Canada. In 1763, at the end of the French and Indian War, they rejoiced that French Canada (Quebec) was finally in British i.e. Protestant hands. But the rejoicing soon ended and they were quite chagrined that the Quebec Act of 1774 the British government of Canada allowed for continued tax support of the Catholic Church and allowed for the continued spread of Catholicism in the trans-Appalachian west (upper Midwest).

Most of the American revolutionaries took for granted a republican (Whig) view of history that had grown out of the British religious and political experience. They associated tyranny with the Middle Ages and the marriage of ecclesiastical and royal power. “Thus,” as John Adams wrote, “was human nature chained fast for ages in a cruel, shameful, and deplorable servitude to the pope and his subordinate tyrants.” Revolutionary thinkers like Adams saw Protestantism as crucial to the rise of freedom. According to this view, Protestantism opened the door for reason and common sense to challenge superstition and privilege. Here and elsewhere dissenting Protestant and Enlightenment views would blend more than they would disagree. Both parties saw superstition as the problem and common-sense reason as the answer. Both saw Catholicism (and to some degree Anglicanism) as defending monarchy and the authoritarianism of the Middle Ages and dissenting Protestantism was on the side of liberty and freedom.