Rev. Adam Rankin of Lexington, KY: YDNA Controversy, Ancestry Issues, and Theological Fanaticism

A distant Rankin cousin recently introduced me to Confederate Brigadier General Adam Rankin “Stovepipe” Johnson. His mother was a Rankin, so I wrote about him here. Today’s subject is Presbyterian Rev. Adam Rankin of Lexington, Fayette County, Kentucky. Rev. Adam is the source of Rankin YDNA and family history issues, although he didn’t just become controversial after he died: he caused considerable turmoil in his denomination during his lifetime.

Here is a summary of the issues …

  • The YDNA question. YDNA tests of Rev. Adam’s descendants cast doubt on one part of famous Rankin family legend preserved on a tablet in Mt. Horeb Cemetery  in Jefferson Co., TN. The story concerns an Alexander Rankin and his son William (two other sons having been martyred) who fled to Ulster in 1688 to escape the “Killing Times” in Scotland.[1] The family then survived the Siege of Londonderry in 1689. Three sons of William reportedly immigrated from Ulster to Pennsylvania in the 1720s, where one died without children. One of the two surviving brothers was probably Rev. Adam’s grandfather. Descendants of Rev. Adam and the other surviving brother have YDNA tested, and they do not match each other. Absent another explanation, this means the two men traditionally considered sons of William Rankin weren’t brothers.
  • The family history question. One explanation for the YDNA mismatch might be an error in the family trees of descendants who have tested. Alternatively, there might be an NPE (a so-called “non-paternal event,” such as an adoption) in a line. To sort that out, we need to look at the other YDNA matches and ancestor charts of the Rankins who have tested.
  • Theological turmoil. During his lifetime, Rev. Adam caused an uproar in the Presbyterian church about an obscure theological issue. Rev. Adam was a fanatic on the question. If anyone reading this post has ever even heard of it, you must be a serious theologian. Read on …

The YDNA Question

The Mt. Horeb Rankin legend described above identifies three brothers who came to Pennsylvania in the 1720s:

(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 and one daughter.[2] 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, and his widow was named Margaret. His will named two sons, six daughters, and two sons-in-law.[3] Let’s call him John d. 1749. You can find John’s will at this link.

(3) According to the legend, Hugh Rankin, the third brother, died without children.

Conventional wisdom says that Rev. Adam was a grandson of Adam d. 1747. Two of Rev. Adam’s descendants have YDNA tested and fall into “Lineage 3” at the Rankin Family DNA Project. At least five descendants of John d. 1749 have also YDNA tested. They fall into Rankin “Lineage 2.”

The Lineage 3 descendants of Adam d. 1747 do not match the Lineage 2 descendants of John d. 1749. However, descendants of Adam d. 1747 and John d. 1749 are all genetic Rankins. We know that because each of them matches men descended from other Rankin lines. For example, the descendants of John d. 1749 are also YDNA matches to descendants of Samuel and Eleanor Alexander Rankin of Lincoln Co., NC. That is also true of the descendants of Adam d. 1747, who match yet another Rankin line. Because all of the tested descendants of John d. 1749 and Adam d. 1747 are genetic Rankins, a non-Rankin adoption in one line, or an illegitimate birth, probably cannot explain the Lineage 2/Lineage 3 mismatch.[4]

The question becomes whether there is an error somewhere in these men’s family trees. That brings us to …

The Family History Question

Let’s start with the descendants of John d. 1749, because we can dispatch them quickly. There is no doubt about their ancestry. All five of them descend from Thomas, one of John d. 1749’s two sons, and there are no weak links in their descendant charts.

Rev. Adam as a descendant of Adam d. 1747 is a tougher case. Rev. Adam is traditionally deemed a son of Jeremiah Rankin and Rachel Craig. Jeremiah, in turn, was a proved son of Adam d. 1747.[5] 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. Consequently, we have to rely on secondary sources of evidence. That means information that has no reasonable guarantee of accuracy. Primary sources of evidence include county deeds and probate records, for example. Secondary sources of evidence include books. (Online family trees are not evidence of any sort.)

The best secondary evidence about Rev. Adam’s family of origin may be an 1847 book by Rev. Robert Davidson 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 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.[6]

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.[7] 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.[8]
  • Adam’s mother was, as the conventional wisdom says, a Craig.[9]
  • There was a Presbyterian martyr among Rev. Adam’s ancestors, although the murdered man was his mother’s kin, not his father’s.
  • Adam was born in 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, 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, because the Rankin martyrs were as important as both the murdered Craig and the Presbytery examination at age ten. The omission raises the inference that the Mt. Horeb legend was not part of Rev. Adam’s family history.

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. However, the best way to resolve the issue would be with a YDNA test by a proved descendant of Adam d. 1747. I need some help on that, because I’m terrible at convincing men to take a YDNA test. Let’s all pause here while you phone or email a prospective YDNA test participant … then let’s move on to Rev. Adam’s theological controversy and remarkable character.

Theological Turmoil

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.”[10]

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.”

Another source describes Rev. Adam as “a strange, eccentric man, a dreamer of dreams, a Kentucky Luther, and, perhaps, a bit crazed with the bitter opposition his views received.”[11]

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.[12]

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![13] 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?”[14]

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.”[15]

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.[16]

“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.[17]

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.[18]

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.”[19]

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.

[1] 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

[2] Lancaster Co., PA Will Book J: 208.

[3] Lancaster Co., PA Will Book J: 211.

[4] 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. Descendants of Adam d. 1747 don’t even remotely match descendants of James Alexander’s family, the so-called Alexander line of “Seven Brothers and Two Sisters.”

[5] 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.

[6] 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.

[7] I’m looking for that autobiography. No luck so far.

[8] I said Rev. Adam’s father died “about” 1760 simply because of the difficulty a 70-year-old man would naturally have pinpointing the exact time something happened when he was a child.

[9] 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).

[10] George W. Rankin, History of Lexington, Kentucky (Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co., 1872), pp. 108-110.

[11] John Wilson Townsend and Dorothy Edwards Townsend, Kentucky in American Letters (Cedar Rapids, IA: The Torch Press, 1913), p. 17.

[12] 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/

[13] Davidson at 82.

[14] Ernest Trice Thompson, Presbyterians in the South, Volume One: 1607-1861(Richmond: John Knox Press, 1963), pp. 115-116

[15]Thompson, Presbyterians in the South, Volume One, pp. 218-219.

[16] Id.

[17] 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.

[18] Rankin, History of Lexington, Kentucky,  pp. 108-110.

[19] Townsends, Kentucky in American Letters at 17.

5 thoughts on “Rev. Adam Rankin of Lexington, KY: YDNA Controversy, Ancestry Issues, and Theological Fanaticism”

  1. So interesting, as always, Robin. I have just had an email exchange with a friend of mine who is a Presbyterian minister, and who has done much research in the field of Presbyterian history, since she also has a doctorate in church history — and it was about this very matter of the sharp opposition in many Presbyterian churches to a shift in singing style. I told her that I had found statements in histories of some of the Presbyterian churches members of my family attended in the South Carolina upcountry that there was uproar in the churches when hymns were introduced. Many folks stoutly resisted and insisted that only the psalms should be sung in church, in the old style of singing that didn’t use instrumental accompaniment.

  2. Enjoyed immensely. I am an historian, an independent Christian, and a descendant of Adam Rankin Sr. through his son Samuel Rankin. One gigantic flaw many researchers and historians have, (not you or this piece) is to pass judgement upon an individual or an historical event taken out of historical context and based solely upon modern biases and social norms. Adam Rankin’s objection to Watts Hymns was not entirely of his own solitary opinion but reflected a more “conservative” outlook of the day, for lack of a better word. In today’s world, Watts Hymns would be tantamount to having a troupe of parishioners performing a raucous Hip Hop show during services. Which I am convinced would be quite acceptable in many parishes today. Adam’s propensity for stubbornness and his opinionated characteristics have been passed down through generations. The quick temper all Rankin’s have is inherited from Scottish Presbyterians being “martyred” as it were, and the overwhelming desire for independence from any form of anything perceived of as an attempt to control, ie, slavery. You have a good theory going here on YDNA but there are several possibilities. One; the people tracing their lineage got tangled up in the names and dates. It was many years before i was able to get correct information because a self-ordained family historian had the wrong information. Two; YDNA tests are not infallible. If you match on the Y-DNA, you could be brothers, or 6th cousins. The amount of mtDNA and YDNA testing can certainly influence your results. For example, men can choose to test between 12 and 111 markers, or locations, on the Y-DNA. The more markers tested, the better able we are to determine a relationship range. For that reason, a 67-marker test is more precise than a 12-marker test at determining if and when you share a common ancestor, and therefore is less likely to imply a false positive relationship. A false positive is when you match someone on the Y-DNA that you aren’t actually related to. Some men share their 12-marker Y-DNA profile with thousands of people, but only a handful share their 67-marker Y-DNA profile.
    Relationships and Y-DNA
    If two men have the same surname and the same Y-DNA test results, there’s a very good chance they’re related within a genealogically significant time period. One or two different marker values, depending on the number of markers tested, also could indicate a genetic link. Remember that a genetic mutation can occur at any time, so even father and son might not match exactly. https://www.familytreemagazine.com/premium/dna-fact-or-science-fiction/

    1. Vernon, I hope you have YDNA tested and that you have joined the Rankin Family DNA project! We need more participants, particularly Rankins who have done a good job on their paper research. If you have any questions about the project, contact me from the website via the links to project administrators.

      Regards,
      Robin

  3. Hi, Robin. My name is Susan and I also live in the Houston area. I found your blog a couple of days ago while working on my husband’s Rankin line and it’s terrific.

    My husband is descended from THOMAS RANKIN, who died in 1808 in Woodford County, KY, leaving a will. He is believed to be the younger brother of the Rev. Adam Rankin, so I am intensely interested in the question of whether these two are sons of Jeremiah Rankin, son of Adam Rankin d 1747 Lancaster PA.

    Last night I found something on Ancestry.com which may be the source (or one of the sources) of all this conventional wisdom and exact dates in this Rankin family. It is two letters written by John Mason Rankin, son of the Rev. Adam Rankin, in 1852 and 1854, plus a family bible held by him, described as his father’s (in other words, the Rev. Adam’s). These (transcripts only, no pictures) were uploaded by user khulsm in 2008. Asked about the source, khulsm said:

    “I believe the man’s name was Robert Rankin and he lived in deep South Texas, McCalister, maybe? He was a descendent of John Mason Rankin. He had two letters and the the bible info as well. I had his information saved in my computer-which died. I have not had any contact with him in years…”

    I am looking now to see if I can find this Robert Rankin by looking down the lines of John Mason Rankin’s two sons but I thought I would go ahead and bring these to your attention.

    The Bible:

    https://www.ancestry.com/mediaui-viewer/collection/1030/tree/2826836/person/-1538207768/media/77385335-d3ba-4fbe-a812-12a09a6bcc1a?_phsrc=Eye4&usePUBJs=true

    The 1852 letter:

    https://www.ancestry.com/mediaui-viewer/collection/1030/tree/2826836/person/-1538207768/media/f65aae1e-c498-4d94-b025-535d859d3c22?_phsrc=Eye4&usePUBJs=true

    The 1854 letter:

    https://www.ancestry.com/mediaui-viewer/collection/1030/tree/2826836/person/-1538207768/media/79498015-2764-464c-948a-e06ed011a87a?_phsrc=Eye4&usePUBJs=true

    1. Susan, thanks for the comment. Good stuff! I hope you can find Robert. I’ll see if I can find any living male descendants of John Mason who might be willing to test. The Rankin DNA Project has one proved descendant of Rev. Adam who has YDNA tested. We need to find one from John Mason’s line and one from the line of your husband’s ancestor Thomas Rankin of Woodford! Even more importantly, we need to find a proved descendant of Adam Rankin d. 1747 in Lancaster, PA — Jeremiah’s father.

      I had a longish reply which I sent via email. Nice to hear from another Rankin researcher!
      RRW

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