Hymn Stories: Blessed Assurance

June 5, 2017
Randy Peterson

If America ever had lords and ladies, surely Phoebe P. Knapp would have belonged among the ladies. She was the daughter of two notable Christian leaders, Walter and Phoebe Palmer. To this day Phoebe Palmer is hailed as one of the most prominent religious women of the 1800s, author of the classic The Way of Holiness and the founder of the Holiness movement.

Although this couple had four children, only one lived past infancy—Phoebe, who showed musical talent at a young age. At sixteen, she married Joseph Knapp, president of the Metropolitan Insurance Company. Living in a mansion in Brooklyn, where Phoebe became a popular hostess, the Knapps belonged to the John Street Methodist Church. Another member of that church was the prolific blind wordsmith, Fanny Crosby.

The two women became friends in 1868, but they were sort of an odd couple. Fanny was beginning to gain fame for her hymn writing, but she was simple and self-effacing. Phoebe, on the other hand, loved the lavish life her position afforded her. Meanwhile, Fanny was living in a small flat, donating most of her royalties to rescue missions.

Phoebe Knapp’s mother, the great Phoebe Palmer, struggled with the question of eternal security. Through the 1800s, many revivalists harped on that question, pushing their listeners to keep trying for an experience that would give them absolute assurance of their salvation. This was a part of Phoebe Knapp’s spiritual heritage.

Phoebe often invited Fanny to her home and it was on one such occasion in 1873 that hymn history was made. Phoebe had just written a new tune, and she wondered if Fanny might write some words for it. She wondered, what does this tune say? As Phoebe played it, she saw her friend kneeling in prayer. After a second run through, Fanny Crosby got up and remarked, “It says, ‘Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine.’”

Eternal security was a hot-button issue for many Christians of the time. And Fanny Crosby wisely tapped into it. Her words—sung to Phoebe’s tune—convey the deep satisfaction of one who has submitted fully to Christ and now is “at rest.” Thus, these two women, one who struggled with the doctrine of eternal security and the other who rested in it, together composed one of the most important hymns on the assurance of the believer.

– Randy Peterson, Be Still My Soul,

(Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2014), p. 44