Note: Although not a direct blood ancestor, I include John Rankin as a family member because his son, Andrew Campbell Rankin, married my 1st cousin 4 times removed, Susanna Rush Houser and I am extremely proud to know that ancestors on my mother’s side of the family were instrumental in freeing men, women and children from the bonds of slavery.
John Rankin (February 5, 1793 – March 18, 1886) was an American Presbyterian minister, educator and abolitionist. Upon moving to Ripley, Ohio in 1822, he became known as one of Ohio’s first and most active “conductors” on the Underground Railroad. Prominent pre-Civil War abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison, Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe were influenced by Rankin’s writings and work in the anti-slavery movement. When Beecher was asked after the end of the Civil War, “Who abolished slavery?,” he answered, “Reverend John Rankin and his sons did.”
Rankin was born in Dandridge, Jefferson County, Tennessee, and raised in a strict Calvinist home. Beginning at the age of eight, his view of the world and his religious faith were deeply affected by two things — the revivals of the Second Great Awakening that were sweeping through the Appalachian region, and the incipient slave rebellion led by Gabriel Prosser in 1800. He attended Washington College at Jonesborough, and soon after married Jean Lowry. In 1814, he became a Presbyterian minister.
Not a natural public speaker, Rankin worked hard while at Jefferson County Presbyterian Church simply to deliver an effective sermon. Within a few months, however, despite Tennessee’s status as a slave state, he summoned the courage to speak against “all forms of oppression” and then, specifically, slavery. He was shocked when his elders responded by telling him that he should consider leaving Tennessee if he intended ever to oppose slavery from the pulpit again. He knew that his faith would not allow him to keep his views to himself, so he decided to move his family to the town of Ripley across the Ohio River in the free state of Ohio, where he had heard from family members that a number of anti-slavery Virginians had settled.
On the way north, Rankin stopped to preach at Lexington and Paris, Kentucky and learned about the need for a minister at Concord Presbyterian Church in Carlisle. The congregation had been involved in anti-slavery activities as far back as 1807 when they and twelve other churches formed the Kentucky Abolition Society, and Rankin’s deepening anti-slavery views were nurtured there by his listeners. He remained for four years and started a school for slaves; within a year, however, they were driven first from a schoolhouse to an empty house, and then to his friend’s kitchen by club-carrying mobs, and the students finally stopped coming. Spurred by a financial crisis in the area, Rankin decided to complete his family’s journey to Ripley. On the night of December 31, 1821 – January 1, 1822, he rowed his family across the icy river.
In 1822, Ripley was a town of frequent street fights and shootouts where the most common type of business was a saloon. During the Rankins’ first few months there, hecklers and protesters often followed the new preacher through town and gathered outside his cabin while their first permanent home was being built just yards from the river at 220 Front Street. When the local newspaper began publishing his letters to his brother on the topic of slavery, Rankin’s reputation grew among both supporters and opponents of the anti-slavery movement. Slave owners and hunters often viewed him as their prime suspect and appeared at his door at all hours demanding information about fugitives. Soon, Rankin realized that the home was too accessible a place for him to properly raise his family.
In 1829, Rankin moved his wife and nine children (of an eventual total of thirteen) to a house at the top of a 540-foot-high hill that provided a wide view of the village, the River and the Kentucky shoreline, as well as farmland and fruit groves that could provide sources of income. From there the family could raise a lantern on a flagpole to signal fleeing slaves in Kentucky when it was safe for them to cross the Ohio River. Rankin also constructed a staircase leading up the hill to the house for slaves to climb up to safety on their way further north. For over forty years leading up to the Civil War, many of the 2000 slaves who escaped to freedom through Ripley stayed at the family’s home, and none was ever recaptured there. It became known as the Rankin House and is now a U.S. National historic landmark
During a visit by Rankin to Lane Theological Seminary to see one of his sons, he told Professor Calvin Stowe the story of a woman the Rankins had housed in 1838 after she escaped by crossing the frozen Ohio River with her child in her arms. Stowe’s wife (Harriet Beecher Stowe) also heard the account and later modeled the character Eliza in her book Uncle Tom’s Cabin after the woman.
Early in his time in Ripley, Rankin learned that his brother Thomas, a merchant in Augusta County, Virginia, had purchased slaves. He was provoked to write a series of anti-slavery letters to his brother that were published by the editor of the local Ripley newspaper The Castigator. When the letters were published in book form in 1826 as Letters on Slavery, they provided one of the first clearly articulated anti-slavery views printed west of the Appalachians. Thomas Rankin, convinced by his brother’s words, moved to Ohio in 1827 and freed his slaves. By the 1830s, Letters on Slavery had become standard reading for abolitionists all over the United States. In 1832, William Lloyd Garrison printed them in his anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator. Garrison later called Rankin his “anti-slavery father,” saying that “his book on slavery was the cause of my entering the anti-slavery conflict.
In 1833 Rankin came to know Theodore Weld through their involvement with the creation of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Weld had come to Ohio from Connecticut to attend Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati. In November 1834 at Rankin’s Ripley church, Weld began a year-long series of speeches throughout Ohio that raised the profile of the abolitionist movement in the state and inspired Rankin to also expand his work beyond the pulpit and beyond Ripley, speaking from town to town on behalf of the national Society and founding many new local societies.
While in Zanesville, Ohio, for the formation of the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society, Rankin had his first real experience with mob opposition to his efforts as he was showered with rotten eggs in town. When he stopped in Chillicothe to speak at a church on the way home, stones were thrown through the window.
In 1836, Weld invited Rankin to join a group called “the Seventy” who were selected by the American Anti-Slavery Society to travel to churches throughout the Northern states preaching in support of immediate emancipation and forming local anti-slavery societies. Released by his congregation for one year to participate in the effort, Rankin’s passion for the cause grew with the opposition to his “dangerous” views, even among many who opposed slavery but feared the instigation of a slave uprising. A bounty of up to $3000 was placed on his life, and in 1841 he and his sons had to fight off attackers who came to burn his house and barn in the middle of the night.
The passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 heightened the danger and profile of their assistance to runaways as it had become illegal to do so, even in free states. At an anti-slavery society meeting in Highland County, Ohio held by Rankin and Salmon P. Chase, however, Rankin declared, “Disobedience to the enactment is obedience to God.
Opposition within his own congregation, spurred by Rankin’s attempts to expel slave owners from the church, finally led him to resign in 1846 after 24 years as minister of the Ripley Presbyterian Church. Over one-third of the church’s members left with him and helped Rankin establish the Free Presbyterian Church, which grew to have 72 congregations.
In May 1892, six years after John Rankin’s death, a monument aptly named “Freedom’s Heroes,” was dedicated to Rankin and his wife, Jean Lowry Rankin, on the grounds of the Maplewood Cemetery in Ripley, Ohio.