John Rankin (1793-1886) published one of the most significant Early American treatises on slavery, yet history relegated Rev. Rankin into obscurity. Letters on American Slavery became the foundation of many famous abolitionists’ anti-slavery ideologies. William Lloyd Garrison stated in his anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator, “the ‘Letters’ became at once a powerful addition to the weapons of abolitionists, and never ceased to be cited.”
Letters on American Slavery was not Rankin’s only contribution to the abolitionist movement. During his lifetime, he founded numerous churches and educational institutions, wrote several books and pamphlets, was one of the founders of the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society, the Antislavery Tract Society, and the American Reformed Tract and Book Society. In addition, his legacy of work with the Underground Railroad was immortalized in Harriet Beecher-Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
John Rankin was born February 4, 1793 in Jefferson County, TN. to Richard and Jane (Steele) Rankin. Following the birth of their first son, Richard and Jane Rankin moved to eastern Tennessee from Virginia where he purchased “one thousand acres of land [that] cost him but little”. Upon the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, families took advantage of the inexpensive land in Tennessee and migrated from the East coast, where land was costly and limited.
Religion and reading played key roles is John’s childhood. Uncommon for migrants who moved to eastern Tennessee, John’s parents were literate and impressed upon their children the importance of literacy. Richard and Jane were staunch Presbyterian’s. They required John and his siblings to “read the Bible, writings of the ablest Scotch Divines and some historical works”. The children also memorized the Shorter Catechism. Richard was adamant that his children follow the doctrine of the church and biblical writings in order to inculcate a strong religious foundation. John credits his mother for having the most significant impact on his childhood. Jane “earnestly opposed the use of whiskey and tobacco, and zealously spoke against Free Masonry”. She also strongly opposed dance and frolicking in any form. Moreover, Jane led the family in prayer when Richard was absent. Yet, the most important and lasting impression Jane left with John was her open, unyielding opposition to slavery. In this manner, her beliefs became the foundation
for her children. While his mother clearly steered John away from specific vices, she impressed upon him the value of reading, religion, and the formation of anti-slavery sentiments.
John balanced his schoolwork with the chores he had around the family farm. Instead of playing with the other boys, he attended school, helped with the manual labor on the homestead, and listened to his father read history books to him at night. John described the schoolhouse he attended as “built of round logs. The floor was native earth, a wide space between two of the logs formed a place for light."He read books such as Dilworth’s Spelling Book, The New and Old Testaments, the New first, then the Old. After these any history might be read.”
With his father’s encouragement, John began his post-secondary education at Washington College under the direction of Rev. Samuel Doak. An avowed abolitionist, Rev. Doak encouraged his students to follow his anti-slavery ideologies. John studied Greek, Latin, theology, history, and composition. Although his health and poor financial status sometimes inhibited John’s progress in his classes, he overcame these adversities and graduated college in 1816, a mere two and a half years after his matriculation.
As with many marriages in the early nineteenth century, John looked for a companion who would meet his societal standards. Fortunately, John found all he desired in Jean Lowry (1795-1877). She was the granddaughter of Rev. Samuel Doak, John's former mentor. Jean was of high reputation, industrious, good-natured, physically attractive, and an active church member. Considering that John planned on a career in the ministry, Jean was a suitable helper to his vocation. According to historian Leonard I. Sweet in his work, The Minister's wife: Her Role in Nineteenth-Century American Evangelicalism, clergymen's wives like Jean, "became the heart and soul of religous organizations." John and Jean married on January 2, 1816 after a brief courtship.
In his autobiography, John extensively praises her virtues throughout their marriage. He stated, “In every place she exerted a good influence, being exemplary in all her intercourses and showing kindness to all the afflicted and speaking evil of none. But few women have filled as well the place of a minister’s wife. She contributed greatly to my success in the sacred office”.
The Rankin’s did not stay long in Tennessee after their marriage due to John’s anti-slavery stance. The Abingdon Presbytery licensed John six months after collegiate graduation as a minister. However, he found resistance from the congregation on the subject of opposing slavery during his sermons. Determined to move to a free state, John, Jean, and their infant first born son left Tennessee in 1817 to never return.
It took nearly four years for John and Jean to reach the banks of the Ohio River and Ripley. After leaving Tennessee, John accepted a pastoral position around 1818 with the Concord Church located near Paris, Kentucky. The Concord Church was renowned for it part in the Second Great Awakening revival movement. Additionally, the church members were “were strongly anti-slavery”. Prior to John’s arrival, the membership had formed an Abolition Society auxiliary to the State Society thus with John’s encouragement attendance grew. For the next three years, John expanded his preaching to surrounding towns, yet he still yearned to build a home on free soil.
John and his family moved from Kentucky to Ripley, Ohio in 1822. Upon securing a home on Front Street, he began his ministry with the Ripley Presbyterian Church and the Straight Creek Church in January of that same year. Nevertheless, Ripley was not what he had expected, instead the town was “infected with infidelity, Universalism, and whiskey retailers. It was exceedingly immoral. Drinking, profane Swearing, Frolicking, and dancing were commonalities”. For the next two years, John earnestly worked to discourage this behavior through his sermons, profession of faith, and living what he considered a pious life. Eventually, John prevailed and earned the reverence of the townspeople. In 1830, the Rankin family outgrew their house on Front Street and John purchased sixty-five of land high on a mount that overlooked Ripley. It is in this house that John began actively assisting slave fugitives versus only sermonizing against the evils of slavery. John and Jean had thirteen children together as well as adopted on of John’s nieces. Married over fifty years, John and Jean Rankin celebrated their Golden Anniversary in 1866 amongst their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
It is not until the final chapters in Rankin’s Autobiography that he begins to discuss at length his activity with the anti-slavery movement or the Underground Railroad. Instead, he place his family, education, and theological endeavors as primary points in his life. Plausibly, Rankin gave less credence to his abolitionist activities. However, significant abolitionist leaders such as Garrison, Weld, and Birney felt differently about Rankin. Historian Alice Dana Adams in her work The Neglected Period of Anti-Slavery in America stated, “The strongest and best know of this group of anti-slavery men in Ohio was John Rankin, sometimes called the “father of abolitionism” and the “Martin Luther of the cause.”
Therefore, Rankin’s contribution to the abolition movement is best delineated into subsections. In this manner, a more precise presentation of the broad range of Rankin’s activities can examined.
*Please use the navigational menu to examine Reverend John Rankin's part in the anti-slavery movement.
Publications by Reverend John Rankin
Letters on Slavery: Addressed to Mr. Thomas Rankin (1823)
A Present to Families: A Practical work on the Covenant of Grace, as Given to Abraham (1840)
An Antidote for Unitarianism (1841)
A Remedy for Universalism (1843)
Pamphlets published by the Western Tract and Book Society
The Bible Contains No Sanction for Slavery
By the Son of a Blacksmith
Reasons Why We Should Go to Church
Borderlander of Light
By: Donna B. Jacobson, University of Connecticut
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