Autobiography of John Rankin, Grandson of Robert & Rebecca Rankin of Guilford, NC

I previously promised to reproduce on this blog H. L. Eads’s transcription of Rev. John Rankin’s 1845 autobiography. That’s not going to happen, for reasons described below. Instead, this article reproduces verbatim only the limited genealogical material in the autobiography. It also contains a general overview of the document and additional details about Rev. John’s family.

Rev. John (1757 – 1850)[1] was the elder son of George and Lydia Steele Rankin.[2] He was a grandson of Robert and Rebecca Rankin of Rowan/Guilford Counties, North Carolina.[3] According to the autobiography, Robert, Rebecca and George were originally from Letterkenny Parish, County Donegal, Ireland, when it was still part of the province of Ulster. Robert was the family’s immigrant patriarch.

Here’s why I must retract my promise to type the entire autobiography.[4] It is impenetrably dense prose. It is dreadfully prolix.[5] The content zooms miles past uninteresting and lands squarely in boring. It would surely cause readers to experience MEGO (“My Eyes Glazed Over”). Also, the type is so blurry it is almost unreadable.

My husband Gary described it as “word salad.” He quit reading on page two of twenty. I persevered through the entire document and expect to receive some sort of Rankin Family Research prize for doing so. A quart of Visine would be an appropriate reward.

Rev. John spent the vast majority of the autobiography recounting his education, religious development, opinions, and mental state — beginning at age six. He was 88 when he wrote the autobiography. His self-absorption and memory are mind-boggling. My overall impression was that the autobiography is primarily theological navel-gazing. E.g., at about age nineteen, “my mind preponderated in favor of the newlight [sic, New Light”] scheme, and I greatly desired living religion that would reach my senses and understanding.”

As an adult, he reluctantly bought an enslaved person. He described the purchase in semi-exculpatory detail. He stated the exact date of his marriage but did not even mention his wife’s name! She was Rebecca Rankin, a daughter of John and Hannah Carson Rankin of Guilford County.[6] John Rankin was a son of Joseph Rankin of New Castle County, Delaware (1704 – 1764).[7] YDNA testing establishes that John and Rebecca were genetically related, although definitely not closer than second cousins. The couple’s common Rankin ancestor almost certainly lived on the other side of the Atlantic, either in Ulster or Scotland.[8]

Rev. John also failed to mention the given names of his father George, his only sibling Robert, or the stepfather with whom he grew up. Rev. John’s younger brother was Robert Rankin (1759 – 1840), a Revolutionary War soldier who married (1) Mary (“Polly”) Cusick, then (2) Mary Moody. Robert died in McNairy County, TN in 1840.[9] Rev. John’s widowed mother Lydia Steele Rankin married Arthur Forbis (or Forbes) about 1764, when John was seven.[10]

Rev. John was raised and originally ordained a Presbyterian, of course: he belonged to a family of Scots-Irish immigrants. But he was depressed by Presbyterian doctrine and practices. He longed for something more. He finally had some sort of transformative experience while preaching at a revival meeting in Casper’s River, near the place that eventually became the Shaker colony at South Union, Kentucky. His sermon moved many to tears and trembling. He became a Shaker and was essentially the patriarch of the South Union colony.

If I have unfairly characterized his autobiography, I hope someone who has read it will post a comment.

Here are relevant parts of it, quoted verbatim. My commentary is in italics.

“My parents emigrated from Ireland to the state of Pennsylvania & County of Lancaster in their youth – My Mother Lydia Steele, Jun., in the 13th year of her age under the superintendence of my grandmother Lydia Steele, Sen’r & the then single part of her family, in or about the year of 1746 from the County of Derry & parish of Newton; – the elder branches of the family removed before; and after this period, my eldest uncle John Steele, who was educated in Scotland & settled a Presbyterian preacher in the Town of Carlisle, with pay for life. – My father from the County of Donnegal [sic, Donegal] & parish of Letterkenny, about the year 1750, having then arrived to the year of maturity. [This suggests that George Rankin, Rev. Shaker John’s father, may have been born about 1729. George’s wife Lydia was born about 1733.]

… My Parents after a suitable acquaintance entered into that civil connection natural to the human family, who design living according to the order of the first Adam. After their union, they made preparation & emigrated to North Carolina in the month of July 1755 to lands purchased of Earl of Granville, the British proprietor, by a company in Lancaster County Pa. of which my father was a partner. [The Granville grants to Lancaster Co. Scots-Irish were collectively called “the Nottingham Settlement.” Many of the grantees were members of the West Nottingham Presbyterian Church, then located in Lancaster Co., later located in Rising Sun, Cecil Co., MD after the Mason-Dixon survey of the PA-MD line.[11] Most grantees lived in the disputed PA-MD area known as the “Nottingham Lots.”[12]] This grant of land contained 32 tracts of the first choice & was laid off in so many square miles (with some exception) about the center of Guilford County, & of course in the vicinity of Greensboro. The above mentioned company, who were principally Presbyterians of the old order, about this period emigrated, each to their respective possessions …

… I was born on the 27th of November 1757 two and a half years afterwards my Father was removed by death, & my Mother left a widow with two helpless infants, He left each of us children a tract of the above mentioned land. My Mother remained in her widowhood four years …

… On the 5th of December 1786, I entered a new relation in life & settled myself in a family capacity. [This is the date John and Rebecca married. The marriage bond was issued a few days earlier.]

… [I was licensed as a Presbyterian minister in] the year 1795 … and [went to Sumner County Tennessee at a friend’s invitation] … [where] I found the inhabitants of the Presbyterian denomination comparatively a barren waste in a religious point of view … at the approach of Spring [1796], I returned home attended to my farm, and other secular concerns, received my Presbyterial appointments and fulfilled them through the summer … I concluded, in union with my family to remove to the western country [Tennessee] without any visible prospect of regular settlement or congregational support. I sold my lands, crop & other disposable property and set out on the 6th of October in [1796], in company with Jesse McComb & family & arrove [sic] in the vicinity of Gallatin, Tenn. about the 15th of November; tarried there three months and then removed into the bounds of a small society on the ridge in Sumner County. In this place and two others equally destitute, I continued preaching near two years.

I … removed to this place, now, South Union, in December 1798.

John Rankin, sen. Now in the 88th year of my age.”

Unquote. End of excerpts.

And that’s all the news that’s fit to print about Shaker Rev. John’s autobiography. Other ancestors are tapping on my shoulder.

See you on down the road.

Robin

[1] Jim Small, Shaker Birth and Death Records, South Union Kentucky, accessed 24 Oct 2019 at this link. See also Shaker Union burial records  here.. The latter says, probably incorrectly, that Rev. John Rankin (shown as John Rankin Senior) was born in Pennsylvania. If John’s autobiography has the correct date for his parents’ move from PA to NC, he was born in North Carolina.

[2] See will of George Rankin dated and proved in 1760. He named his wife Lydia and two sons John and Robert. Guilford Co., NC Will Book A: 141. Lydia remarried, and her second husband, Arthur Forbis, named his stepsons John and Robert Rankin executors of his will. Guilford Co., NC Will Book A: 119.

[3] See deed from Robert Rankin and wife Rebecca to George Rankin, 5 shillings for 480 acres. Rowan Co., NC Deed Book 2: 70-73. The token price establishes the conveyance as a deed of gift as well as a family relationship between grantor and grantee.

[4] If you wish to see the typed transcription of the original autobiography, you can obtain one from the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives, Library Special Collections, Western Kentucky University. The first page is headed “Auto-Biography of John Rankin, Sen., Written at South Union, Ky. 1845, & copied here, Aug. 1870 by H. L. Eads.” A handwritten note on the first page describes it as “South Union Shaker Record A.”

[5] The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines “prolix” as (1) “unduly prolonged or drawn out: too long; (2) marked by or using an excess of words.” See it here. My articles are frequently prolix.

[6] Ruth F. Thompson and Louise J. Hartgrove, Volume I Abstracts of Marriage Bonds and Additional Data, Guilford County, North Carolina 1771 – 1840 (Greensboro, NC: The Guilford County Genealogical Society, 1989), marriage bond dated 28 Nov 1786, Rev. John Rankin and Rebecah Rankin, bondsman Robert Rankin. The bondsman was most likely Rev. John’s brother or his uncle, as his grandfather Robert died about 1770. See also Rev. S. M. Rankin, The Rankin and Wharton Families and Their Genealogy (facsimile reprint by Higginson Book Company, Salem, Massachusetts) at 55: Rebecca, a daughter of John and Hannah Carson Rankin, m. Rev. John Rankin in 1786, son of George and Lydia Rankin.

[7] Rankin, Rankin and Wharton Families at 52, 55. Rev. Rankin incorrectly identified Samuel Rankin of Lincoln Co., NC (wife Eleanor “Ellen” Alexander) as a likely son of Joseph Rankin of New Castle, DE. YDNA testing has disproved this, but the error has a life of its own. See discussion in this article..

[8] See discussion of “Lineage 1” in the horizontal “Results” tab of the  Rankin DNA Project.

[9] There is some information about Shaker Rev. John’s little brother Robert Rankin in this article.

[10] See will of Arthur Forbis dated 10 Arp 1789, proved 1794, naming stepsons John Rankin and Robert Rankin executors. Guilford Co., NC Will Book A: 119. The autobiography says that Rev. John’s mother Lydia “remained in her widowhood four years,” so she married Arthur about 1764.

[11] See history of the Mason-Dixon Line, including the PA-MD portion,  here.

[12] You can find information about the Nottingham Lots at this link.