Hidden History: Osage County settlers planted churches, seeds of abolitionism

The making of Osage County’s history was not limited solely to those individuals who maintained permanent residence here. Such is the case of John Rankin, an Ohio resident and the man who established the Presbyterian church in Lyndon, Kansas.

John Rankin was originally from Tennessee. Rankin was influenced by the period called the Second Great Enlightenment, which was a revival of the Christian faith that led many to realize slavery was incompatible with their beliefs.

Rankin became ordained as a pastor in 1814, and soon after joined a local Anti-Slavery Society, a branch of a nationwide group that believed prejudice in any form was offensive and that African Americans were entitled to the same rights and privileges as the white man. Rankin’s involvement in the Anti-Slavery Society was influential to famous abolitionist radicals such as William Lloyd Garrison.

Garrison is quoted as saying, “It was reading the productions of [Rankin’s] pen that awakened my mind to the enormity of the crime of slavery.”

Rankin’s opinions on slavery and his outreach to those that were oppressed caused his neighbors to create an environment that was increasingly dangerous for him and his family. Local mobs beat him and shaved his horse’s tail and mane, in addition to other instances of cruelty. Elders in his church encouraged him to move safely north if he was to continue to preach against slavery.

He moved his family first to Kentucky, where he organized an Anti-Slavery Society, and then across the river into Ripley, Ohio. The house at Ripley sat on a bluff 300 feet above the Ohio River and served as a beacon and refuge for those seeking freedom.

One such freedom seeker, a woman named Eliza, crossed the river one winter, jumping from one block of ice to another with her baby boy on her back. Her pursuers watched amazed at her every leap, expecting her to slip and succumb to the icy current, but Rankin’s awaiting hand reached down on the other side to assist her off the riverbed. Rankin later secured her passage with others to Toronto, Canada, and safety of freedom.

Etching the story of Eliza’s flight in history, Rankin relayed it to his friend and associate Henry Ward Beecher, and Beecher’s daughter Harriet Beecher Stowe utilized the story in the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

During his time as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, John Rankin assisted more than 2,000 slaves in their quest for freedom. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 increased the danger for all those involved in railroad activities, and made him a target for slave owners and slave hunters alike.

Years later, when asked “Who abolished slavery?” Henry Ward Beecher is quoted as replying, “Rev. John Rankin and his sons did it.” John Rankin and his family continued to rescue the formerly enslaved until the end of the Civil War.

After the war, members of the Rankin family began moving to Kansas, and John and his wife followed. By 1866, John’s son William had settled on the Sac and Fox reservation near the Quenemo Indian Agency. John’s grandson, John C. Rankin, had become the mayor of Lawrence, and his house was the first stop for John and his wife. John C. Rankin had lost both of his parents at a young age and was raised by his grandparents.

After the elder John’s arrival in Kansas, he successfully planted numerous Presbyterian churches in Kansas. It was through the work of John and others at this time that the Presbyterian church established a permanent presence in Kansas.

Another pastor assisting in establishing the Presbyterian church in Kansas was Victor M. King. Known for his “force and energy,” King had attended seminary with John Rankin, and assisted Rankin along the Underground Railroad in Ohio. King arrived in Baldwin City in 1867, and planted a church there, preceeding Rankin’s arrival in Kansas by two years.

King eventually became the pastor at Quenemo in 1869 and moved on to pastor at Burlingame in 1872. For his part, Rankin planted churches in Lanesfield, near Edgerton, Emporia, and Lyndon.

The Presbyterian church at Lyndon organized in December of 1870 with a dozen original parishioners. The congregation first met in the newly constructed Averill’s Hall, formerly located at 613 Topeka (the original building was destroyed in 1895 by a fire). Rankin served as their pastor and also as a circuit pastor, which would lead him to preach at every Presbyterian church in Osage County. Some circuit pastors would travel approximately 45 miles for a circuit and alternate the route each week.

Rankin pastored the Lyndon church until leaving in 1873, eventually returning to Ohio, but his planted churches lived on. Reverend Curtis came to pastor the Osage City and Lyndon churches after Rankin left. Under Reverend Curtis the church in Lyndon moved to its own building in 1874.

While John Rankin didn’t remain a resident of Osage County, some of his family chose to stay and make their mark on the county’s history. Members of the Rankin family remaining in the county became traders on the Sac and Fox reservation. Grandson John C. witnessed the treaty with the Sacs and Foxes in 1867 that signaled the move of the tribes to Oklahoma Territory.

In 1890, John C. was appointed special disbursing agent to various Indian tribes in the Southwest.

The Rankin involvement on the reservation eventually ended in bankruptcy, but John C. Rankin remained in his adopted county. He served as Osage County treasurer and as state senator, as well as maintaining his membership in the very church that his grandfather started.

John C. Rankin photo from the 1899 Osage County Atlas. Book cover of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, first edition, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1852, in public domain.


wendibevitt2016bWendi Bevitt is owner of Buried Past Consulting LLC. She lived in Osage County for 20 years and her research interests include Osage County Civil War veterans and Osage County history.


 
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