Southern Abolitionists (Part 2) - Reverend John Rankin

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brass napoleon

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Feb 6, 2010
In Part 1 of this series, I introduced Charles Osborn, a Tennessee Quaker who insisted as early as 1816 that "the system of slavery is acknowledged on all hands to be an evil of the greatest magnitude", and that "now is the time for the advocates of freedom to exert themselves to overthrow" it. In Part 2, I'm introducing the Reverend John Rankin, one of his Tennessee pupils, who would far exceed his mentor in planting the seeds of abolitionism and would dedicate his life to freeing slaves from bondage and educating and assisting free blacks.


John Rankin (not to be confused with the New England abolitionist of the same name) was born in 1793 in east Tennessee to devout anti-slavery parents. He was greatly influenced by the Second Great Awakening, which was sweeping through Tennessee during his youth, and was ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1816. He joined Charles Osborn's Tennessee Manumission Society around that time. But even though he lived and preached in a region where many people frowned on slavery, his anti-slavery zeal caused suspicion in his church presbytery, who recorded in his file their "suspicion and distrust because of his frequent expression of opposition to slavery."

During this time his wife, Jean, gave birth to their first son, and the Rankins decided they didn't want their children growing up under the influence of slavery. And so they headed north, intent on reaching the free state of Ohio. But along their journey they stopped in an anti-slavery Kentucky town that just happened to be looking for a preacher. Rankin agreed to fill in temporarily and ended up staying for a four year stint.

During his sojourn in Kentucky Rankin didn't confine himself to his anti-slavery congregation. He wrote later that "I preached against slavery in some of the most prominent parts of the State, and was known as an abolitionist as far as I was known, and I spoke against slavery in families of wealthy slveholders, and I never had an insult offered." He also wrote anti-slavery articles, helped found anti-slavery societies, established a school for slaves, and cofounded the Abolitiion Intelligencer and Missionary Magazine.

But with the coming of the Missouri Compromise controversy in 1820, Kentuckians began to take a harder stance against abolitionism. Many of the anti-slavery families in Rankin's congregation decided it was time to leave and headed to Indiana. The Rankins, now parents of four children, also decided to revert to their original plan of raising their children in the free state of Ohio.

And so they packed up and moved again, this time to the little town of Ripley, Ohio, on the north bank of the Ohio River, about 50 miles southeast of Cincinnati. (I'll have more about Ripley later in this thread). Here the Rankins found many dislocated Southerners and a few Northerners who shared their anti-slavery convictions in the midst of a pro-slavery general population.

Rankin became the pastor of a Presbyterian church in Ripley on his arrival in January, 1822. He openly advanced his anti-slavery views, but also quickly became part of a clandestine part of Ripley's existence. Ripley's location right across the Ohio River from Kentucky, and its cadre of anti-slavery residents, made it one of the most active stations on the Underground Railroad. (In fact one story has it that the term "Underground Railroad" was coined in Ripley in the 1830s). The Rankins became very active Underground Railroad conductors. It's estimated that John, Jean, and their sons helped as many as 2,000 freedom seekers escape from bondage during their tenure in Ripley. Most of these escapes were funneled through their second home in Ripley, a little house sitting atop a 500 foot bluff overlooking the town and the Ohio River. (More about this house in a later post).

In 1823, Rankin received a stunning letter that would change his life and plant the seed for the national abolitionism movement. His brother, Thomas, wrote from his home in Virginia that he had purchased a slave. John responded with a series of anti-slavery letters that would ultimately convince his brother to free the slave. A local anti-slavery newspaper published the letters, and they were picked up by newspaper columns throughout the North and ultimately published in book form. The letters presented numerous well-reasoned, logical arguments against slavery. I'll post a link to the letters, and some excerpts, later in this thread.

One young man who was strongly influenced by Rankin's letters was a Boston colonizationist named William Lloyd Garrison. He was the co-editor of Benjamin Lundy's The Genius of Universal Emancipation, which was itself an indirect spin-off of Charles Osborn's first anti-slavery newspaper. Rankin's letters helped convert Garrison from a colonizationist (favoring gradual emancipation and recolonization to Africa) to an immediatist (spurning colonization in favor of immediate voluntary emancipation and integration into American society). In 1831, Garrison began publishing his own immediatist newspaper, The Liberator, and in the second volume he reprinted the entire set of Rankin's letters. Although Garrison's strident tone was the antithesis of Rankin's calm voice, he later called Rankin "my anti-slavery father; his book on slavery was the cause of my entering the anti-slavery conflict."

In 1833 the American Anti-slavery Society was founded to promote the message of immediatism. Rankin became one of its charter members and helped form the Ripley chapter of that society. The Ripley branch included 337 charter members and a constitution which included the following provisions:

While it is admitted that each State in which slavery exists has by the Constitution of the United States the exclusive right to legislate in regard to its abolition with in its own bounberies; this Society shall endeavour to convince their fellow citicens that slaveholding is a henious sin in the sight of God and that the duty, safety and best interests of all concerned require its immediate abandonment without expatriation...

This Society Shall aim at the elivation of the character and codition of the people of colour, by encouraging Their intellectual, morrel, & religious improvement and by removing publick predudice; that thus they may according to there intellectual and morrel worth Share an equality with the whites in civil and religious privilidges but this Society will never in any way countinance the oppressed in vindicating their rights by resorting to phisical force

Rankin also helped found the Ohio Anti-slavery Society, and In 1836 he toured the state as one of "the Seventy" apostles of the American Anti-slavery Society appointed to spread the message and encourage the formation of new chapters. Despite frequent peltings with rotten eggs, brickbats, clubs, and even firebrands, Rankin was able to increase the number of Ohio chapters of the American Anti-slavery Society to nearly 150 by year's end.

Rankin was also much concerned with education, both of whites and blacks, and became the President of the Ripley College (an academy, in reality, which for a brief time educated a young Hiram Ulysses Grant). Rankin's attempts to integrate the academy failed, however, in the face of opposition from the anti-abolitionist majority of the local population. So instead he took black students into his own home and tutored them there, one of whom would eventually go on to be ordained a Presbyterian minister in Pennsylvania, and another an orphan girl who he and his wife would raise as their own.

Throughout his life, Rankin was an "evangelical abolitionist", believing in the use of moral suasion to persuade slaveholders to give up slavery voluntarily, as he did his brother. As such he wasn't overtly political, but he did in time became a passive member of the first national abolitionist political party, the Liberty Party (led by another Southern abolitionist who I'll describe in a future thread in this series, if I get that far).

The Rankins continued to assist fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad right on into the Civil War, even after six of their sons went off to serve the Union cause. Ten months after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Rankin wrote to William Lloyd Garrison:

"... You and I have ever been united on the subject of immediate emancipation while we have widely differed in other respects... From my boyhood to the present time, I have opposed the abominable system of American slavery. For the liberation of the slaves I have labored long and suffered much reproach and persecution; but I regret none of he sacrifices I have made for the hapless millions that have been bought and sold as if beasts of the field and deprived of all that makes existence desirable. Nearly forty years have passed away since I began to warn this nation of the ruin that would result from the horrible system of oppression, but now the day of blood has come...

I greatly rejoice in the President's proclamation... Let us thank God and take courage; and not relax our efforts while there is a slave in the land."
After the war, the abolitionist Reverend Henry Ward Beecher was asked who abolished slavery. His reply was "Rev. John Rankin and his sons did it" (although I think his wife deserves a good share of the credit too, as we shall see.)

(I'll have more to say about the Rankins in subsequent posts to this thread.)

Other sources:

Paul R. Grim, "The Rev. John Rankin, Early Abolitionist", The Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly, July, 1937

Rev. Andrew Richie, "The Soldier, the Battle, and the Victory; being a brief account of the work of Rev. John Rankin in the Anti-Slavery cause - 1793-1886"

Ann Hagedorn, Beyond the River
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