Rev. Adam Rankin of Lexington, KY (1755-1827), revised: Psalmody & other controversies

Rev. Adam Rankin of Lexington is associated with some fun Rankin family history issues. He also caused considerable controversy in his denomination during his lifetime. Even aside from genealogical questions, Rev. Adam’s life is a story unto itself.

I’m issuing this revised post to update the YDNA information and to add another important source about Rev. Adam’s family, which I previously excluded due to doubts about its authenticity.

Here are the major issues surrounding Rev. Adam:

  • What was Rev. Adam’s life all about? He is famous for stoking the flames of an uproar about an arcane theological issue. He was rabidly fanatic on the matter, and that may well be an understatement.
  • Who were Rev. Adam’s parents? I have found no evidence of Rev. Adam’s family of origin in traditional primary sources such as county records: deeds, wills, tax lists, marriage records, and the like. Instead, the only evidence of his origins are secondary sources, usually deemed less reliable than primary evidence. In Rev. Adam’s case, however, the secondary sources are unusually credible.
  • What is the YDNA evidence about Rev. Adam’s line? YDNA testing is inconclusive as of May 2019. However, the existing evidence casts doubt on one piece of family oral tradition that affects more than one Rankin line.

Rev. Adam’s theological mess

There is a wealth of evidence regarding Rev. Adam’s personality in history books. George W. Rankin’s 1872 History of Lexington describes Rev. Adam 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.[1]

Even more colorfully, Rev. Robert Davidson’s 1847 history of Kentucky Presbyterianism says 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.”[2]

An early twentieth-century Kentucky history 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.”[3]

What on earth do you suppose all the fuss was about?

Ahem. The theological issue about which Rev. Adam was fanatical is the so-called “Psalmody controversy.” Psalmody, said Rev. Davidson, was “his monomania.”

The what controversy? I have a friend who is a retired Presbyterian minister, and he didn’t have a clue when I asked him about it.

An article entitled “How Adam Rankin tried to stop Presbyterians from singing ‘Joy to the World’” describes the issue and its origins:

“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’ versions 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 Presbyterian 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’ hymns.[4]

You had to be a virtual lunatic on the issue to ride more than 600 miles from Lexington to Philadelphia, right? Assuming the Reverend’s horse was capable of 12-hour days at an average speed of four miles per hour, that’s a good 12-day trip each way.[5] And we must surely assume that Rev. Adam rested on the Sabbath.

The trip is even more extraordinary because Rev. Adam had no “commission” to attend the Assembly, meaning he was not an official attendee.[6] He simply requested to be heard by the Assembly on the subject of Psalmody. Specifically, he sought a repeal of a 1787 resolution allowingWatts’ hymns to be used in churches. Rev. Adam 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?”[7]

The Assembly listened to him patiently. Then it suggested (gently, it seems to me) that Rev. Adam behave in a similar fashion by demonstrating “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.”[8]

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.[9](Emphasis added).

“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.[10]

Rev. Adam didn’t mince words. He verbally abused his Psalmody opponents in ways that would make even some 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 Gingrich’s instruction to his House colleagues circa 1986 to refer to members of the opposing party as “traitors” and the “enemy” seem almost collegial, 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 (of course), his case was tried in April 1792. Rev. Adam simply withdrew from the Presbytery, taking with him a majority of his congregation.[11]

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 ministry. He and his congregation simply declared themselves independent.

Rev. Adam wasn’t merely stubborn and pugnacious. He may also have been deluded. 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.”[12]

I find myself wishing he had made it to Jerusalem just to see what happened. Of course, there is no telling what additional trouble we might now have in the Middle East if he had done so.

Rev. Adam’s widow eventually 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.”[13] It was probably no picnic, being a planet in Rev. Adam’s solar system.

Moving on to the next issue …

Who were Rev. Adam’s parents?

As noted, there appears to be no primary evidence available on Rev. Adam’s family of origin. The family oral tradition is that he was a son of Jeremiah and Rhoda Craig Rankin of Cumberland Co., PA. Jeremiah, in turn, was one of the three proved sons of the Adam Rankin who died in 1747 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and his wife Mary Steele Alexander Rankin.

Family tradition also says that Jeremiah died young in a mill accident. There are no probate records concerning his estate, so far as I have found. One would expect there to be some records, since Jeremiah owned land devised to him by his father Adam. In fact, the only reference I have found to Adam’s son Jeremiah in county records is Adam’s 1747 Lancaster County will.[14] Likewise, I haven’t found any guardian’s records, although Jeremiah’s children were underage when he died. I may have missed something, and it wouldn’t be the first time. If you have seen anything in the county records on Jeremiah, Rhoda and/or their children, please let me know.

Fortunately, there are at least two pieces of credible secondary evidence about this family: (1) Rev. Robert Davidson’s History of the Presbyterian Church in the State of Kentucky and (2) personal family knowledge and oral tradition, preserved in an 1854 letter written by one of Rev. Adam’s sons. Both provide evidence concerning Rev. Adam’s family of origin.

Here is what Rev. Davidson wrote about Adam (boldface and italics are mine):

“The Rev. Adam Rankin was born March 24, 1755, near Greencastle, Western Pennsylvania [sic, Greencastle is in south-central PA]. 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,[15] 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].”[16]

The most important thing Rev. Davidson said about Rev. Adam was in a footnote: “[t]his 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.” Rev. Davidson obtained his information information straight from the horse’s  mouth, so to speak, establishing its credibility. Several facts stand out in Rev. Davidson’s sketch:

    • The death of Rev. Adam’s father in a mill accident confirms the family oral history. The date of death is established at about 1760, when Rev. Adam was five.[17]
    • Adam’s mother was, as the family history says, a Craig. There are a number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren in the line named “Rhoda Craig” or “Rhoda C. Rankin,” providing additional circumstantial evidence of her given name.
    • Adam was born in Greencastle, Cumberland County. The county was created in 1750 from Lancaster, where Adam and Mary Steele Alexander Rankin lived. Adam and Mary’s sons James and William began appearing in Cumberland in the 1750s. Rev. Adam’s birth in Greencastle is consequently good circumstantial evidence that he was a son of Jeremiah and grandson of Adam and Mary Steele Rankin.

The other significant piece of evidence regarding Rev. Adam’s family is an 1854 letter written by John Mason Rankin, Rev. Adam’s youngest son. John Mason obviously wrote from personal knowledge as to his father’s generation and their children, all of whom lived in Fayette and Woodford counties, KY. He also had information from the family’s oral tradition as to his earlier ancestry. Because I had been unable to find anyone who had ever seen that letter, I had reservations about its authenticity. Fortunately, Susan Faust, a Rankin researcher, located and communicated with one of the two Rankins who transcribed the 1854 letter and other materials.

You can find the extraordinary 1854 letter  here. There are a couple of interesting things about the letter, in addition to the broad scope of information and detail. There are also some minor and unsurprising errors.

First, John Mason identified the original colonial immigrants in his Rankin family as the brothers Adam (his ancestor), John, and Hugh. This precisely echoes some of the information contained on the famous bronze tablet in the Mt. Horeb Presbyterian Cemetery in Jefferson County, TN. The tablet has a wonderful, colorful story about the Rankin family in Scotland and Ireland which is worth reading. A transcription can be found  in  this post.

The Mt. Horeb tablet also identifies the original Rankin immigrants as the brothers Adam, John and Hugh. It further names Adam’s wife as Mary Steele. It is thus certain that John Mason Rankin and the Mt. Horeb tablet were dealing with the same immigrant family. John Mason claims descent from Adam (d. 1747) and Mary Steele Rankin; the Mt. Horeb Rankins are descended from John (d. 1747, also in Lancaster), who was Adam’s brother according to both family traditions.

The John Mason and Mt. Horeb tablet histories diverge prior to the Rankin immigrant brothers, however. John Mason’s letter does not include the colorful stories of Alexander and William Rankin in Scotland and Ireland. Those legends must also have been omitted from Rev. Adam’s autobiography, or Rev. Davidson would surely have mentioned it. This raises the possibility that the Mt. Horeb stories about the Killing Times in Scotland and the Siege of Derry in Ireland were not part of Rev. Adam’s family’s oral history.

In the interest of full disclosure, here are some of the minor errors or discrepancies in John Mason’s 1854 letter:

  • Adam Rankin (wife Mary Steele Alexander) died in 1747, not 1750.
  • John Mason identified the father of the three Rankin immigrant brothers (John, Adam and Hugh) as Adam. The Mt. Horeb tablet identifies their father as William Rankin. I don’t know which, if either, is correct. There is apparently no evidence either way other than family oral histories.
  • What John Mason called “Cannegogy Creek” appears in the colonial records as “Conogocheague” Creek. In later records, it is spelled “Conococheague” Creek. In any event, John Mason was clearly talking about the creek where Jeremiah’s mill was located. Two Presbyterian churches on or near that creek are where Adam and Mary Steele Rankin’s sons William and James attended. That puts the three proved sons James, William and Jeremiah in close physical proximity, a nice piece of confirming evidence of their family relationship.
  • Jeremiah Rankin, Rev. Adam’s brother, had four sons, not three: Adam, Joseph, Andrew and Samuel.

And that brings us to the last issue …

YDNA evidence concerning Rev. Adam’s line

A proved male Rankin descendant of Rev. Adam and Martha McPheeters Rankin (and probably a descendant of Adam and Mary Steele Rankin) has YDNA tested. He is not a Y-DNA match with descendants of John Rankin (d. 1749 in Lancaster), who is traditionally identified as Adam’s brother. At least six of John’s proved Rankin male descendants have YDNA tested, and they match closely. Further, there is no reasonable doubt as to their descent from  John d. 1749.

This raises two possibilities: either (1) Rev. Adam was not a grandson of Adam d. 1747 and Mary Steele Rankin, despite good secondary evidence; or (2) Adam d. 1747 and John d. 1749 were not brothers, despite family tradition.

I have been in contact with two Rankin men having solid paper trails back to Adam and Mary Steele who have YDNA tested. Neither man matches any other Rankin in the FTDNA database. Nor do they match each other.

There may be some profound genealogical conclusion to be drawn from those results, but it eludes me. In any event, the question whether Adam d. 1747 and John d. 1749 were brothers remains unresolved.

See you on down the road. With, I hope, more enlightening YDNA results in hand.


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

[2] Rev. Robert Davidson, History of the Presbyterian Church in the State of Kentucky (New York: R. Carter, 1847), 95. For “The Rankin Schism,” see p. 88 et seq. The book is available online as a pdf at this link.

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

[4] Staff of the Ebenezer Presbyterian Church, March 20, 2015, “How Adam Rankin Tried to Stop Presbyterians From Singing ‘Joy to the World,’” published online by the Aquila Report here.

[5] Average horse speed stats here.. Distance at Google maps.

[6] Davidson, History of the Presbyterian Church, 82.

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

[8] Id. at 218-219.

[9] Id.

[10] I was baptized and confirmed in, and currently belong to, a Presbyterian church. I am, after all, a Scots-Irish Rankin. A frequent message at my church, including on its LED marquee, is “ALL ARE WELCOME.” That phrase has several layers of meaning in this era of immigrant hatred, but its most fundamental meaning is that everyone is invited to participate in communion.

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

[12] Townsends, Kentucky in American Letters,17.

[13] Fred Lee Hawkins, Jr., Maury County, Tennessee Cemeteries with Genealogical and Historical Notes, Vol. 1and Vol. 2(1989).

[14] Lancaster Co., PA Will Book J: 208, will of Adam Rankindated 4 May 1747 proved 21 Sep 1747. To son James Rankin, £ 5 “pencelvaney currancy” plus the “place he is now in possession of being fully given over to him.” Daughter Esther Rankin alias Dunwoody, £ 5. Wife (name omitted), 2/3rd“of all my worldly substance.” Sons William and Jeremiah the remainder, including the plantation to be equally divided betweenthem.

[15] Interestingly, it isn’t clear whether Alexander was her ancestor’s given name or surname. Both occur frequently among the Scots-Irish..

[16] Davidson, History of the Presbyterian Church,95.

[17] I only say “about” 1760 because of the difficulty a small child might have in pinpointing his exact age when his father died.

2 thoughts on “Rev. Adam Rankin of Lexington, KY (1755-1827), revised: Psalmody & other controversies”

  1. Hi Robin, this is Susan Faust.

    First, correcting a typo you made: the Rev. Adam’s mother was said to be RHODA, not RACHEL Craig, and her several granddaughters and great-granddaughters are named Rhoda Craig and Rhoda C.

    Second, some discussion.

    About the father of brothers John, Adam, and Hugh Rankin: the Horeb tablet says their father was “William” and the 1854 John Mason Rankin letter says “Adam.” However, the John Mason Rankin Bible (which I have not seen but is still in the possession of the descendant who transcribed it) says “William.” Also, the 1915 published biography of Major John Y. Rankin (descendant of Thomas Rankin, brother of the Rev. Adam Rankin of Lexington) says:

    “The first ancestor to be mentioned is was WILLIAM Rankin who moved from Ireland to Scotland [sic–it was vice versa!] in 1700. His sons Adam, Hugh and John, immigrated to America in 1720.”

    ( )

    So my best guess (3 to 1) is that “William” is the name that was passed down in family legend and John Mason Rankin simply made a mental error when he wrote “Adam” (or it could even be an error of the transcribers–must see original letter!).

    So I was thinking about the sources of these four accounts. First the Mt. Horeb plaque, dated 1930. Presumably, this family history must have been passed down through the descendants of John Rankin in Pennsylvania and Tennessee. I don’t believe we know anything beyond that? However, 1930 is late enough that the writer of the plaque could have been using outside genealogy resources as well as family stories and family records.

    Second, the accounts in the John M. Rankin bible and 1854 letter obviously came from information passed down through the descendants of Adam in Pennsylvania and Kentucky. Specifically, in his 1854 letter John M. Rankin wrote “will commence as far back as I find RECORDED IN MY FATHER’S FAMILY BIBLE Adam Rankin moved from Scotland….” So it seems to me that -1- youngest son John Mason Rankin was in possession of his father’s family bible, not surprising since his mother died in his home, and -2- I think this is a *different* bible than the “John Mason Rankin Bible” passed down to the current descendant and transcribed along with the 1854 letter. In that bible, births, marriages, and deaths prior to John M. Rankin are presented consecutively in narrative, paragraph form as if sourced from an earlier bible and personal knowledge, while the births, marriages, and deaths after his (all the way to 1974) are only of his descendants (not his brothers’) and are listed as separate items and often out of chronological order as if they had been squeezed in anywhere there was room.

    It is unlikely that John Mason Rankin had access to any significant genealogy resources in Texas in 1854. I suspect he relied solely upon the material passed down to him from his father, the Rev. Adam, who was obviously a prolific writer (published several books and wrote his own autobiography).

    The geographical paths of these two branches of the family diverged quite early, so it is impressive to me that the family legends have as many points in common as they do.

    Finally, there is the 1915 bio of John Y. Rankin. This probably came down through the Rev. Adam Rankin (John Y’s great-uncle) as well because John Y’s grandfather Thomas Rankin Sr died young and the Rev. Adam was a surrogate father to John Y’s father Thomas Rankin Jr (who was only 9 when his father died). Also, after the death of his own father Thomas Rankin Jr in Missouri, John Y. Rankin’s mother moved with her children down to San Augustine TX where John Mason Rankin lived. John Y. Rankin spent most of his twenties living very near to his father’s first cousin John Mason Rankin and possibly considering him as a father figure. I can easily imagine them–the school teacher and the law student–discussing family history together.

    The John Y Rankin bio differs from the two John Mason Rankin accounts in that it mentions the generations of Rankins before William and his three sons Adam-John-Hugh and it briefly mentions that two brothers of William were martyred for their Presbyterian religion. It also says there were *seven* brothers in William’s generation rather than just three as in the Mt. Horeb plaque. And it differs from the other two by naming Jeremiah’s mother as Adam’s wife Elizabeth May rather than Adam’s wife Mrs. Steel.

    John Mason Rankin’s account, on the other hand, is the only one to say that Adam-John-Hugh had a sister Jane. He mentions both Mrs. Steel and Elizabeth May. Mt. Horeb only mentions Mrs. Steel.

    NONE of them mention poor Esther Rankin Dunwoody, the proved daughter (by his will) of Adam Rankin.

    1. Good grief, thanks for the Rachel/Rhoda correction. I knew better. Will enjoy reading the rest of your comment when I have a chance tomorrow.

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