I recently read a story that made my jaw drop. Way back in the early 1800s, there was a Presbyterian minister named John Rankin who settled in Brown County, Ohio, about fifty miles upriver from Cincinnati. He was so successful that he managed to buy a house on top of the highest hill on the Ohio side of the river for many miles. From his house, he could see for miles, both up and down river. Reverend Rankin was very popular with his parishioners on the Ohio side of the river, but he made a point not to cross over to the Kentucky side because he knew many of those people hated Reverend Rankin and would very much have liked to have killed him. You see, Reverend Rankin was not only a fervent abolitionist, he was a conductor on the Underground Railroad for almost forty years.
There are some clergy who see themselves as the lambs of Jesus, while others see themselves as “kickass servants of God.” (The latter is a nod to George Clooney’s character from From Dusk Till Dawn.) His views were phenomenally ahead of his time. He and his wife had eighteen children of their own, took in five orphaned nieces and nephews and a black girl who was a runaway slave they raised as their own.
The local college admitted one of the very first black students in the entire United States, Benjamin Franklin Templeton. One day, with no provocation whatsoever, a Southern student attacked Templeton with a whip and nearly killed him. A crisis ensued because every Southern student threatened to withdraw if Templeton was not expelled. Reverend Rankin stepped into the breach and effected a compromise. He took Templeton into his own home and tutored him so he could finish his degree. (The Rankins must have had a *VERY* large breakfast table!)
Rankin always kept a lantern burning in the window of his home and runaway slaves knew that if they could reach that beacon on the top of the hill, they were as good as in Canada. In all his forty years as a conductor, he never lost a passenger.
As much as Reverend Rankin’s story impressed me, I was amazed to learn that Rankin was a friend of Harriet Beecher Stowe. He told her that perhaps the most heart-wrenching thing was that, one cold winter night, he saw a runaway slave woman running across the ice of the Ohio River with a baby in her arms. Slavecatchers were in hot pursuit. I was absolutely astounded to learn that the story of Eliza and her baby was inspired by a true incident.
The postscript to Reverend Rankin’s story: By the time the Civil War broke out, all six of Reverend Rankin’s sons served in the Union Army. The Rankin family enjoyed great luck; all six survived the war. If you’re ever in Brown County, Ohio, you can visit Reverend Rankin’s home, a historic landmark.