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

I previously promised to reproduce in full H. L. Eads’s transcription of Shaker Rev. John Rankin’s 1845 autobiography. That’s not going to happen, for reasons that will become clear. Instead, this article includes verbatim only the limited genealogical material in the autobiography. It also contains a general overview of the document and some additional details about Rev. John’s family.

Shaker 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, in the province of Ulster. Robert and Rebecca were this Rankin family’s immigrant ancestors.

Here’s why I must retract my promise to type Shaker Rev. John’s 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 Glaze Over”). Finally, the type is so blurry it is almost unreadable. My husband Gary described it as “word salad” and 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 appropriate.

Shaker Rev. John spent the bulk of his autobiography recounting his education, religious development, opinions, and mental state – beginning at age six. He was 88 when he wrote it. His self-absorption and memory are mind-boggling. My overall impression is 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 circumstances of the purchase in semi-exculpatory detail that was not entirely convincing. He stated the exact date of his marriage but, so help me God, did not 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 and Rebecca Rankin of New Castle County, Delaware (1704 – 1764).[7] Y-DNA testing proves that John and Rebecca were genetically related, although the paper evidence establishes they were no closer than second cousins. The couple’s common Rankin ancestor lived on the other side of the Atlantic, possibly in Ulster, probably in Scotland.[8]

Shaker Rev. John also failed to mention the given names of his father George, his only sibling Robert, or the stepfather who raised him. Rev. John’s widowed mother Lydia Steele Rankin married Arthur Forbis (or Forbes) about 1764, when John was seven.[9] 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.[10]

Shaker Rev. John was originally ordained a Presbyterian, of course: he came from 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 offer a contrary opinion.

Here are relevant parts of it, verbatim. My comments, embedded in the text, are 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, Shaker Rev. 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 Shaker Rev. 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 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 Rankins are tapping on my shoulder.

See you on down the road.


[1] Jim Small, Shaker Birth and Death Records, South Union Kentucky, accessed 24 Oct 2019 at See also Shaker Union burial records at 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 and indicates a family relationship between grantors 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 defines “prolix” to mean (1) “unduly prolonged or drawn out: too long; (2) marked by or using an excess of words.” 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. See also Rev. S. M. Rankin, The Rankin and Wharton Families and Their Genealogy (facsimile reprint by Higginson Book Company, Salem, Massachusetts) 55: Rebecca, a daughter of John and Hannah Carson Rankin, married Rev. John Rankin in 1786, son of George and Lydia Rankin.

[7] Rev. S. M. Rankin, Rankin and Wharton Families 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. Y-DNA testing has disproved this, but the error has a life of its own. See discussion in the article at this link.

[8] Robert and Rebecca Rankin’s descendants and John and Hannah Carson Rankin’s descendants are a Y-DNA match. They belong to Lineage 1A and 1B, respectively, of the Rankin DNA Project. See the August 2021 update to the Rankin DNA Project at this link.

[9]  Will of Arthur Forbis dated 10 Arp 1789 and proved 1794 named his stepsons John Rankin and Robert Rankin to be his 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.

[10] There is some information about Shaker Rev. John’s little brother Robert Rankin in the article titled “Four Robert Rankins of Guilford County, NC,” see it here. Robert’s pension application is the topic of the article titled “Pension Application of Two Robert Rankins” at this link.

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

[12] There is some information about the Nottingham Lots  here.

8 thoughts on “Autobiography of Rev. John Rankin, Grandson of Robert & Rebecca Rankin of Guilford, NC”

  1. Fascinating. Rev John Rankin is my 4th g-g father. My 3rd g-gfather is the son Robert Wetherington Rankin, who did not convert to Shakerism and left the family became a doctor and moved to Missouri. Appreciate your detailed accounts as I’ve been trying to figure out who Rev Johns grandfather was. Very interesting your research is. Thank you

    1. My pleasure, Christine! I assume you’ve read the articles on your Rankin line … Rev. “Shaker John” Rankin was the elder son of George Rankin d. 1760, Rowan, and Lydia Steele. George, in turn, was a son of Robert and Rebecca. Thanks to your 4th great-grandfather, they are all proved back to a specific county in Ireland.

      If you aren’t a member of the Rankin DNA Project, give it a look. Lineage 1 is your line and YDNA has established some interesting relatives!

      Happy hunting!

  2. A question about the YDNA Rankin Project: Is it possible to conduct the test from a hair sample — cut curls of a Rankin male? Earl Murray Rankin b1894. Worth the squeeze?

  3. Hello: Robin,
    I am back again. I have spent a great deal of time researching the person you call Rutherford Robert, my 4th Great Grandfather. I was invited to go on Facebook in a Group called North Carolina Genealogy Group. I posted the birth and death date of Robert Rankin 1749 -1814, Caldwell County, Ky. In five minutes a person came back and published the fact that Captain Robert Rankin was mentioned in the Revolutionary War Pension of Captain Aaron Deveny Pension S8321. Aaaron mentions serving under Captain Robert Rankin in the Tryon County Militia, North Carolina. I have presented this pension of Aaron Deveny to the SAR to see if they would accept him into the DATA Base as a patriot and then hopefully, I could get a supplemental to him. His son was Jesse Rankin, and his son Was Robert W. Rankin 1826 – 1860. Robert W. was my second Great Grandfather, but he is not listed in Jesse’s will. Also he died in 1860 and his wife, Mary Cedona Terrill Rankin remarried to John Henderson.

    I do not know if I can ever bridge the gap, because I am solid at all other links.
    Thanks for all your work, I keep working on genealogy every day.
    Michael S. Moore:

    1. Michael, thanks for the comment! In the same name confusion category, Eleanor (“Ellen”) Alexander Rankin had a brother Robert who was a justice in Lincoln County and, before that, had several positions of importance in Tryon Co. including being a militia colonel. I’ve never been successful in distinguishing between Robert, Eleanor’s brother, and Rutherford Robert.

      Have you ever communicated with Francis Gill? He is the expert on Rutherford Robert’s line (he’s also a descendant). He has some interesting opinions about Robert and a ton of information. You might enjoy communicating with him — you’re kin!

      Happy New Year!

  4. Hello Robin: Yes, I was in familysearch looking for documentation of Rutherford Robert Rankin, 1749 1814. I saw where I could send a message to Francis Gill. I thought he was dead, but he answered my message saying he was working as a volunteer for familysearch and just entered the information about Robert, but did not know much about him. I believe that Francis comes thru John Rankin, Rutherford Robert and Mary Withrow’s son. I come from Jesse Rankin, 1795 1860 who married Cynthia Sellars in Livingston Caldwell County, KY. Francis does not know much about my line. I have downloaded his 800 page book with references, but I would like to fin a title page, the publisher and the year, so I can use it to document Robert W. Rankin born 1826 and Married Mary Cedona Terrill in 1844. In order to get a supplemental I need to prove that Robert W. Is Jesse Rankin’s son.
    I will go back on familysearch and see if Francis will let me have his address.
    Thanks for all your efforts. I corresponded to Hazel Townsends on the Tennessee Rankins, but she is not familiar with my Ky Rankins.

  5. Dear Robin: I did get an email reply from Francis C. Gill. He knows of no document that proves that Robert W. Rankin is the son of Jesse Rankin and Cynthia Sellars, but he would look for one.. Robert W. Rankin is missing from the Gibson County, TN census of 1850, but there is a Robert Rankin in the California Census in the gold fields. Then in 1860 Robert W. is back with his family Mary Cedona, but they are now in Dunklin County MO. and they have another child. Now I find that there are two Robert Rankins in Rutherford County, NC, One is married to Mary Withrow and the other is married to Mary McAllister.
    I have written to the Rutherford County Historical Society with questions, but have not gotten a reply. Very mysterious.

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