The subject of this post is Presbyterian Rev. Adam Rankin of Lexington, Fayette County, Kentucky. Rev. Adam is the source of some fun Rankin YDNA and family history issues. However, he didn’t just become controversial after he died. He also caused considerable turmoil in his denomination during his lifetime over a theological controversy. Never mind the genealogy, Rev. Adam’s life is a story unto himself.
Here is a summary of the issues surrounding Rev. Adam …
- Who were Rev. Adam’s parents? There appears to be no evidence of Rev. Adam’s family of origin in traditional primary sources such as county records. Instead, the evidence consists of secondary sources, usually considered less reliable. In Rev. Adam’s case, secondary sources include an 1856 letter by his son John Mason Rankin and a book about Presbyterians in Kentucky. Family names also provide circumstantial evidence . YDNA evidence about Rev. Adam’s line is inconclusive thus far.
- What was Rev. Adam’s life all about? During his lifetime, Rev. Adam fanned the flames of an uproar in the Presbyterian church about an obscure theological issue. He was rabidly fanatic on the question, to put it plainly. It was the centerpiece of Rev. Adam’s life.
- The family oral tradition. Rankin YDNA results as of May 2019 cast doubt on part of the family history recounted in John Mason Rankin’s letter. The famous Rankin family legend in that letter is also preserved on a tablet in Mt. Horeb Cemetery in Jefferson Co., TN. The question raised by YDNA testing is whether men identified in both the letter and the tablet as immigrants to Pennsylvania were actually brothers, as family tradition claims.
Let’s take these questions in reverse order, because the family legend is a good story. For all the colorful details, check out the Mt. Horeb tablet inscription here.
The YDNA Question
The Mt. Horeb tablet and John Mason’s letter identify three brothers who came to Pennsylvania in the 1720s during the “Great Migration” of the Scots-Irish to the colonies. Family tradition identifies the brothers as sons of William Rankin, who was a son of Alexander Rankin. (I’m not aware of any evidence other than family oral history that the three brothers were sons of William, or that William was a son of Alexander). According to the legend, Alexander and his son William escaped from the so-called “Killing Times” in Scotland and survived the Siege of Londonderry in the province of Ulster in 1689. Here are the three immigrants who were reportedly sons of William:
(1) Adam Rankin, who died in 1747 in Lancaster Co., PA. His wife (reportedly his second) was Mary Steele Alexander. Let’s call him Adam d. 1747. His will named three sons — James, William, and Jeremiah –and one daughter, Esther. I’ve written about Adam here and here.
(2) John Rankin, who died in 1749, also in Lancaster Co., PA. His first wife was reportedly Jane McElwee. His widow was named Margaret. His will named his wife, two sons, six daughters, and two sons-in-law. Let’s call him John d. 1749. You can find John’s will at this link.
(3) According to family tradition, Hugh Rankin, the third brother, was killed in a mill accident and had no children.
Conventional wisdom says that Rev. Adam Rankin of Lexington, KY was a son of Jeremiah Rankin and a grandson of Jeremiah’s proved father Adam d. 1747. One of Rev. Adam’s descendants has YDNA tested and does not closely match any other Rankins, although he is definitely a genetic Rankin because he does have some Rankin matches. Two other men whose paper trails establish they are from the line of Adam d. 1747 have YDNA tested, but neither one matches anyone in the Rankin project. Nor do the two men match each other. Clearly, more testing of descendants of Adam d. 1747 is required.
Six descendants of John d. 1749 have also YDNA tested. The six match closely and are grouped together as Rankin “Lineage 2” on the Rankin Family DNA project website. Here’s the YDNA fly in the ointment: the descendant of Rev. Adam Rankin is not a YDNA match with the descendants of John d. 1749, raising the possibility that John d. 1749 and Adam d. 1747 weren’t brothers.
Hmmm … is there an error in these men’s paper family trees? We can quickly and conclusively say “NO” regarding the descendants of John d. 1749. There is no doubt about their ancestry. All six of them descend from Thomas, one of John d. 1749’s two sons, and there are no weak links in their ancestor paper trails. Perhaps the error is in the paper trail for the descendant of Rev. Adam? That brings us to the next issue:
Who were Rev. Adam’s parents?
As noted, Rev. Adam is traditionally deemed a son of Jeremiah Rankin and Rachel Craig. Jeremiah, in turn, was a proved son of Adam d. 1747. Family tradition also says that Jeremiah died young in a mill accident.
The problem is a lack of primary sources of evidence identifying Jeremiah’s children. So far as I have found, the only mention of Jeremiah, son of Adam d. 1747, is in his father’s 1747 will. I have found no evidence in the Pennsylvania records identifying his wife or children. The Mt. Horeb tablet, and John Mason Rankin’s letter, constitute secondary evidence. It’s still evidence, but it is error to accept it without question: you have to check it out. If you have ever investigated a family legend, you almost certainly found some flaws.
The best secondary evidence about Rev. Adam’s family of origin may be Rev. Robert Davidson’s 1847 book titled History of the Presbyterian Church in the State of Kentucky.
Here is what Rev. Davidson wrote about Rev. Adam. The emphasis and italics are mine.
“The Rev. Adam Rankin was born March 24, 1755, near Greencastle, Western Pennsylvania [sic, Greencastle is in south-central Pennsylvania]. He was descended from pious Presbyterian ancestors, who had emigrated from Scotland, making a short sojourn in Ireland by the way. His mother, who was a godly woman, was a Craig, and one of her ancestors suffered martyrdom, in Scotland, for the truth. That ancestor, of the name of Alexander, and a number of others, were thrown into prison, where they were slaughtered, without trial, by a mob of ferocious assassins, till the blood ran ancle [sic] deep. This account Mr. Rankin received from his mother’s lips. His father was an uncommon instance of early piety, and because the minister scrupled to admit one so young, being only in the tenth year of his age, he [Rev. Adam’s father] was examined before a presbytery. From the moment of his son Adam’s birth, he dedicated him to the ministry. He was killed in his own mill, when Adam, his eldest son, was in his fifth year. [Rev. Adam] graduated at Liberty Hall [now Washington & Lee University], about 1780. Two years after, Oct. 25, 1782, at the age of twenty-seven, he was licensed by Hanover Presbytery, and, about the same time, married Martha, daughter of Alexander McPheeters, of Augusta county,” Virginia.
The most important thing Rev. Davidson said about Rev. Adam was in a footnote: “This sketch of Mr. Rankin’s early history so far is derived from his autobiography, prepared, shortly before his decease, for his friend, Gen. Robert B. McAfee, then Lieut. Governor of the State.” That qualifies as information straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. Several facts stand out in Rev. Davidson’s sketch:
- The death of Rev. Adam’s father in a mill accident is consistent with the conventional wisdom. The date is established by the autobiography at about 1760, when Rev. Adam was five.
- Rev. Adam’s mother was, as the conventional wisdom says, a Craig.
- There was a Presbyterian martyr among Rev. Adam’s ancestors, although the murdered man was his mother’s kin, not his father’s.
- Rev. Adam was born in Greencastle, Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, which had been created in 1750 from Lancaster County (where Adam d. 1747 lived when he died). Adam d. 1747’s sons William and James began appearing in Cumberland in the 1750s. The location of Rev. Adam’s birth in Greencastle is good circumstantial evidence that Rev. Adam is from the line of Adam d. 1747.
Rev. Davidson didn’t mention the legend preserved on the Mt. Horeb tablet and the John Mason letter, although he does recount Rev. Adam’s father’s examination before a Presbytery at age ten. Surely Rev. Adam would have been aware of the Mt. Horeb legend if it had concerned his family, and would have included that story in his autobiography. Had he done so, then surely Rev. Davidson would have mentioned it. The omission raises the inference that the Mt. Horeb legend was not part of Rev. Adam’s oral family history. Or perhaps Rev. Adam’s mother didn’t know the story, although that seems hard to believe.
On balance, Rev. Davidson’s biographical sketch supports the conventional wisdom – that Rev. Adam Rankin, born in Cumberland Co., PA, was a son of Jeremiah and Rachel Craig Rankin and a grandson of Adam d. 1747. We could probably put that issue to rest permanently with additional YDNA testing of the line of Adam d. 1747. So far, no luck. So …let’s move on to Rev. Adam’s theological controversy and remarkable character.
There is plenty of evidence regarding Rev. Adam’s personality. An 1872 History of Lexington describes him as a “talented, intolerant, eccentric, and pious man, [who] was greatly beloved by his congregation, which clung to him with devoted attachment through all his fortunes.”
Rev. Davidson wrote that Rev. Adam “appears to have been of a contentious, self-willed turn from his youth … and his wranglings at last ended in a schism. Obstinate and opinionated, his nature was a stranger to concession, and peace was to be bought only by coming over to his positions … his pugnacious propensities brought on at last a judicial investigation.”
What on earth do you suppose all the fuss was about?
The theological issue about which Rev. Adam was fanatical is the “Psalmody controversy.” Psalmody, said Rev. Davidson, was “his monomania.”
The what controversy?
An article entitled “How Adam Rankin tried to stop Presbyterians from singing ‘Joy to the World’ ” describes the origin of the issue:
“In 1770 [sic, 1670], when Isaac Watts was 18 years of age, he criticized the hymns of the church in his English hometown of Southampton. In response to his son’s complaints, Watts’ father is reputed to have said, ‘If you don’t like the hymns we sing, then write a better one!’ To that Isaac replied, ‘I have.’ One of his hymns was shared with the church they attended and they asked the young man to write more.
For 222 Sundays, Isaac Watts prepared a new hymn for each Sunday, and single-handedly revolutionized the congregational singing habits of the English Churches of the time. In 1705, Watts published his first volume of original hymns and sacred poems. More followed. In 1719, he published his monumental work, ‘The Psalms of David, Imitated.’ Among those many familiar hymns is the Christmas favorite ‘Joy to the World,’ based on Psalm 98.
For many years, only Psalms were sung throughout the Presbyterian Churches and the old ‘Rouse’ versons were the standard. The first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States convened at the Second Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia in 1789. One of the Prebyterian ministers of the time, a man by the name of Rev. Adam Rankin, rode horseback from his Kentucky parish to Philadelphia to plead with his fellow Presbyterians to reject the use of Watts’ hymms.”
You had to be a fanatic on the issue to ride more than 600 miles from Lexington to Philadelphia, right? Worse yet, Rev. Adam had no “commission” to attend the Assembly: he was not even an official attendee! He simply requested to be heard by the Assembly on the subject of Psalmody. Specifically, he sought a repeal of a 1787 resolution allowing Watts’ Psalms to be used in churches. He presented this query to the General Assembly:
“Whether the churches under the care of the General Assembly, have not, by the countenance and allowance of the late Synod of New York and Philadelphia, fallen into a great and pernicious error in the public worship of God, by disusing Rouse’s versification of David’s Psalms, and adopting in the room of it, Watts’ imitation?”
According to Rev. Davidson, the Assembly listened to him patiently and recommended “that exercise of Christian charity, towards those who differ from him in their views of this matter, which is exercised toward himself: and that he be carefully guarded against disturbing the peace of the church on this head.”
You can probably guess how well Rev. Adam followed that advice:
No sooner had he returned home than he began to denounce the Presbyterian clergy as Deists, blasphemers, and rejecters of revelation, and debarred from the Lord’s Table all admirers of Watts’ Psalms, which he castigated as rivals of the Word of God.
“Debarred from the Lord’s Table” means that Rev. Adam refused to administer communion to his parishioners who disagreed with him about Watts’ hymns. It is hard to imagine a more radical punishment in a Presbyterian church short of, I don’t know, burning dissenters at the stake.
Rev. Adam didn’t mince words. He verbally abused his Psalmody opponents in ways that would make even current partisan politicians cringe. He called them weak, ignorant, envious, and profane, compared them to swine, said they bore the mark of the beast and that they were sacrilegious robbers, hypocrites, and blasphemers. It makes Newt Gingritch instructing his House colleagues circa 1986 to refer to Democrats as “traitors” and the “enemy” seem mild-mannered, doesn’t it?
In 1789, several formal charges were brought against Rev. Rankin before the Presbytery to which his church belonged. One charge was that he had refused communion to persons who approved Watts’ psalmody. Apparently attempting to dodge a trial, he made a two-year trip to London. When he returned, his views unchanged, his case was tried in April 1792. At that point, Rev. Adam just withdrew from the Presbytery, taking with him a majority of his congregation.
He then affiliated with the Associate Reformed Church, although that also ended badly. Rev. Davidson wrote that Rev. Adam “was on no better terms with the Associate Reformed than he had been with the Presbyterians; and his pugnacious propensities brought on at last a judicial investigation.” In 1818, he was suspended from the office of the ministry. He and his congregation simply declared themselves independent.
Rev. Adam wasn’t merely stubborn and pugnacious. He claimed early on that he was guided by dreams and visions, convinced that “God had raised him up as a special instrument to reinstate ‘the Lord’s song.’” Eventually, he was led by a dream to believe that “Jerusalem was about to be rebuilt and that he must hurry there in order to assist in the rebuilding. He bade his Lexington flock farewell, and started to the Holy City, but, on November 25, 1827, death overtook him at Philadelphia.”
That is a sad ending: I find myself wishing he had made it to Jerusalem. Although there is no telling what additional trouble we might now have in the Middle East if he had done so.
Rev. Adam’s widow moved to Maury County, Tennessee along with her sons Samuel and Adam Rankin Jr. She died there, and her tombstone in the Greenwood Cemetery in Columbia reads simply “Martha Rankin, consort of A. Rankin of Lexington, KY.” It was probably no picnic, being a planet in Rev. Adam’s solar system.
One final note: I keep promising to post outline descendant reports on the Rankin lines I write about. I keep failing to do it, so I am not going to make that promise about Rev. Adam’s family. Faced with facts, I must admit that I just don’t like compiling descendant reports. If you have a question about Rev. Adam’s line, you know where to find me.
See you on down the road.
 Many sources recite the history of this Rankin family during Scotland’s “Killing Times” and the Siege of Londonderry in Ireland. The memorial tablet in the Mt. Horeb cemetery in Jefferson County, TN may be the most well-known example: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/10727017/family-memorial-rankin. Another source for an abbreviated version of the legend is Rev. Samuel Meek Rankin, The Rankin and Wharton Families and Their Genealogy (Salem, MA, reprint by Higginson Book Company, origianally published in 1931), pp. 13, 16. The legend is even posted on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=1441329275900632&id=157190774314495
 An Alexander cousin of mine suggested that perhaps Mary Steele Alexander, widow of James Alexander and wife of Adam Rankin d. 1747, may have had Alexander children who adopted the name Rankin when she married Adam d. 1747. Unfortunately, the theory doesn’t work. The descendant of Rev. Adam Rankin doesn’t even remotely match descendants of James Alexander’s family, the so-called Alexander line of “Seven Brothers and Two Sisters.”
 Adam’s 1747 will named sons Jeremiah, James and William. Lancaster Co., PA Will Book J: 208. Adam d. 1747 left land to each of them in what was then Lancaster Co., PA. Cumberland County was created from Lancaster in 1750, and Franklin was created from Cumberland in 1784. Adam d. 1747’s sons James and William left numerous records in both counties, including their Franklin Co. wills. Franklin Co., PA Will Book A: 256, 345.
 Rev. Robert Davidson, History of the Presbyterian Church in the State of Kentucky (three publishers, including C. Marshall, Lexington, 1847), p. 95. Chapter III of the book is titled “The Rankin Schism,” see p. 88 et seq. The book is available online as a pdf at https://ia802302.us.archive.org/24/items/historyofpresbyt00davi/historyofpresbyt00davi.pdf, accessed 30 Aug 2018.
 Rev. Davidson may have been more impressed by the Craig connection than the Rankin name on account of Rev. John Craig, a famous Presbyterian minister from Ireland who lived in Augusta Co., VA. See, e.g., Katharine L. Brown, “John Craig (1709–1774),” Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia, published 2006 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Craig_John_1709-1774, accessed Aug. 29, 2018).
 Staff of the Ebenezer Presbyterian Church, March 20, 2015, “How Adam Rankin Tried to Stop Presbyterians From Singing ‘Joy to the World,’ published by The Aquila Report at this URL: https://www.theaquilareport.com/how-adam-rankin-tried-to-stop-presbyterians-from-singing-joy-to-the-world/
 I was baptized and confirmed in, and currently belong to, a Presbyterian church. I am, after all, a Scots-Irish Rankin. My church’s motto is “ALL ARE WELCOME.” That has several meanings in this era of immigrant-hatred, but one of them is that everyone is welcome to take communion.