Presbyterians of the Past

Alexander T. Rankin, Missionary to Kansas Territory & Denver

Alexander Taylor Rankin was born December 4, 1803 to Richard and Isabella (Steel) Rankin in Dandridge, Tennessee. His parents were originally from Augusta County, Virginia and had moved for better opportunities in east Tennessee. Alexander was next to the last child born in a household of eleven sons and one daughter. The Baltimore Sun said that according to Alexander’s memories of his home life that:

His mother became a sort of arbiter in all church matters, which were at that time in a greatly agitated state. She was a great theologian, and not afraid to express her opinion, so her house was the center for ministers, elders and all those interested in Presbyterianism and the various questions which occupied the minds of thinking people of that day.

What was the greatly agitated state of the Presbyterian Church during Rankin’s early life? As the eighteenth century turned to the nineteenth, the eastern Tennessee-Kentucky region experienced religious revivals such as the season at Cane Ridge in August 1801. The Synod of Kentucky of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) was formed in 1802 with its constituent presbyteries Transylvania, West Lexington, and Washington transferred from the Synod of Virginia. Some members of the Synod believed the revivals represented a unique outpouring of the Holy Spirit showing the work of God, but others thought the contrary and attributed the apparent conversions to the machinations of man and a stirred-up emotional atmosphere. Within the new Synod there was polarization as the supporters of revivalism called for reduced educational requirements for ministers and less adherence to the Westminster Standards, particularly its Calvinist soteriology, so that more passionate ministers could be trained more quickly. Why in America serious subscription to the Westminster Standards and their replete Calvinism has been considered counterproductive for evangelism and passionate ministry is a mystery since John Calvin’s personal symbol was a burning heart signifying rightly governed passion in life that yields an empathetic ministry of gospel extension (see Notes). The desire for more ministers was well founded. In 1803 the General Assembly reported that the Synod of Kentucky had 37 ministers and 3 licentiates with no vacant churches, but the other six synods combined had 62 ministers without call. It would have been good if some of the ministers without call had made their way to the Synod of Kentucky and established Presbyterian churches committed to Scripture and the Westminster Standards in the wake of the Second Great Awakening, but this was unfortunately not the case. The General Assembly sent missionaries to the expanding frontier, but the supply could not keep up with the demand. In the end, the controversy was resolved by division. The Cumberland Presbyterian Church was formed in 1810 with ministers who were either expelled or had withdrawn from the Synod of Kentucky. So, the greatly agitated state of the Presbyterian Church into which Alexander Rankin was born had long-term effects on Tennessee and Kentucky Presbyterianism.

Alexander Rankin went on to graduate Washington College in Tennessee, 1826. Washington was founded by the first Presbyterian minister to settle in Tennessee, Samuel Doak. His education for the ministry was likely accomplished with a minister at Washington College, but this has not been determined for sure. Rankin left Tennessee to be ordained an evangelist by the Presbytery of Cincinnati and worked as such until 1837 when he was installed the minister of the church in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The Fort Wayne Presbyterians had struggled since their earliest days when John Ross first preached in their settlement, but with the city growing and Pastor Rankin’s faithful tenure the church became well established during his call that ended September 1843. For the next ten years his ministry appears to have been supplying pulpits or serving brief calls in New York state, possibly in both Old and New School churches. His Fort Wayne ministry showed he was an abolitionist. From 1852 to 1859 he pastored the Breckinridge Street Church in Buffalo, New York. When Alexander Rankin attended the Old School General Assembly in May 1859, Moderator William L. Breckinridge appointed him to the Committee of Publications and when deliberations about establishing the Presbyterian Theological Seminary of the Northwest (later McCormick) took place he was nominated a candidate for two of the faculty chairs, neither of which he received. But most significant for Rankin was the Assembly’s Board of Domestic Missions appointment as a missionary to the West. It was a difficult decision but after some consideration his family remained in Buffalo as he planned the journey to the Kansas Territory and then on to the rapidly growing city of Denver in the Utah Territory.

Rankin’s understanding of his work was to start churches so younger men could become their pastors and face the challenges of the West. By October 18, 1859 he had made his way the thousand miles from Buffalo to Lawrence, Kansas, which was used as a hub for reaching other settlements in the area. Topeka, about twenty-five miles west of Lawrence, had its Presbyterian Church seeded with seventeen members gathered by Rankin in a home, December 19, 1859. He had gathered the group from the area. The church was soon organized with two elders. On April 21, 1860 he was leading worship in Quindaro and organized a Presbyterian church with ten members who adopted the Westminster Standards. His ministry in Lawrence led to organizing a church for the city. Other trips to settlements where he preached and in some cases organized churches included Highland, Junction City, Selina, Auburn, Olathe, Caplesville, Burlingame, Superior City, and Elm Grove. During a trip to Selina, Rankin commented on his first encounter with a herd of bison saying the prairies were sometimes black with them as far as the eye could see. Other wildlife he mentioned were packs of wolves and large jack rabbits (he called them “jackass rabbits”). It was a risky business going to the territories because of the sparse distribution of law enforcement, dangerous terrain, and animal life, so Rankin carried with him a Sharps rifle for hunting and a revolver for protection from wolves and vermin.

Having worked out of Lawrence for nine months, Alexander Rankin left for Denver July 17, 1860. During the stage trip the temperature rose as high as 112 and buffalo were a reoccurring problem. He wrote to his wife, July 31, 1860, describing the buffalo presence along his route.

You will hardly believe the story but still it is true, the Buffalo were crossing the road in such immense numbers that we could not drive through them, & were compelled to lay over a whole night to let them pass. If I were to say there were a million you would think I was romancing. Perhaps there were five. I can only conjecture the number. They were crossing the road all night & all the next morning for a distance of 25 miles, & all the country for that distance was covered over with them. The noise they made was like the noise of many waters [Ezk 43:2, Rev 1:15, 19:6]. It was certainly the most exciting scene I ever witnessed.

It must have been something to see one of God’s most magnificent North-American animals gathered in such an awe-inspiring but intimidating sea.

After seven days bouncing over the trail, dodging bison, swatting flies, fending off wolves, and enduring triple-digit temperatures, Rankin’s stage arrived in Denver. He immediately visited the local printing office to have an advertisement for the first worship service published in the Rocky Mountain News. While standing at the counter, a man stormed into the office and grabbed editor William N. Byers by the collar and threatened to shoot him. Rankin said the assailant was convinced to think twice about his threat when other men stepped in with Colts drawn to defuse the situation. Byers later was confronted by the same assailant in a saloon, but some friends helped him out a back door to once again avoid being shot. Articles in the News were calling Denver residents to do something to establish law and order because of the shootings, robberies, and murders in their unsettled town.  Rankin commented to his wife Ann, “A pretty ruff introduction to Denver.”

The church work in Denver used a variety of locations for services—a school house, a hall above a drug store, a theater, a log cabin, the second floor of a store building, and rather appropriately, a carpenter’s shop. The first service was held August 5 in a schoolhouse in the morning as was the second that evening, but the next week he moved to a hall over a drug store. One Sunday the service was held in a second-floor theater. Theaters in the West were considered by some individuals to be places of questionable merit for entertainment by not always competent performers. Members of the audience might throw rotten vegetables or even more injurious items to express their dissatisfaction with a performance, so using such a venue for worshipping God was a coup for the Kingdom. But this service had some competition. An extended free for all erupted in the saloon below, complete with gunfire, but the free for all did not stop preacher Rankin from continuing worship. There were other challenges faced such as not having a bed to sleep in for two months and he used a dry-goods crate for a pulpit with a candle for light. Prices in Denver were extremely high, particularly if the merchandise came through California or from the eastern ports, so a recycled crate made a serviceable pulpit. Alexander Rankin organized the Denver congregation as a particular church September 5; the first Lord’s Supper was held October 14; and the first Thanksgiving service ever held in Denver occurred November 29, 1860.

The hub-and-spokes system of church extension used successfully in Lawrence was continued in Denver. One trip included taking the stage to both Central City and Missouri City because several Presbyterians were interested in having churches organized. During the trip other settlements were visited with services held. It was an efficient way to reach what were often settlements located at sites where gold could be panned from streams or obtained from veins in rock. With about 4,000 people residing in Denver and estimates that the population scattered in the mountains was as high as 50,000 the opportunities for new churches were numerous. The Denver gold rush occurred ten years after the chaos that erupted because gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in California in 1849.

Rankin did not stay long on the field because he arrived back in Buffalo, New York, in December 1860 to minister at the Breckinridge Street Church for eight more years. He then served churches in Maryland before retiring to live in Baltimore with his granddaughter. He died April 30, 1885 and his body was returned to Buffalo for burial in Forest Lawn Cemetery. His first wife, Mary Lowry died in 1841 in Fort Wayne; the second marriage was with Ann Smith who died in 1865; and then his third wife was Mrs. Annie Kelly, but she had passed away within a year of their marriage in 1872. He was honored with the Doctor of Divinity by Tusculum College in 1878.  A son was murdered while working as a doctor in Mexico.

Barry Waugh

Notes—The header is from Pixabay; the portrait is from Rankin’s Find a Grave listing. Regarding Calvin’s burning heart see Kyle Fedler’s “Calvin’s Burning Heart: Calvin and the Stoics on the Emotions,” in the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, 22 (Fall 2002), pp. 133-62; a fine and interesting article. Most of the information about the mission trip West is from Rankin’s published diary of his trip and correspondence he had with his wife Ann that are collected in, Alexander Taylor Rankin: His Diary and Letters, by Nolie Mumey, 1966. When missionaries were sent out by the General Assembly they would report each year on their work, and his published diary is likely his report to General Assembly. When Rankin was in Denver, he said the city was in “Jefferson Territory,” but it was in fact Kansas Territory. Jefferson Territory was an illegal territory set up to benefit the gold industry and it incorporated parts of both Kansas and Utah Territories. While in Denver, Rankin called it Jefferson Territory. For Fort Wayne ministry, see, Historical Sketch of the First Presbyterian Church, Fort Wayne, Indiana, with Early Reminiscences of the Place: A Lecture Before the Congregation, March 7th, 1860, by J. L. Williams, and the Yearbook of the First Church Fort Wayne, Indiana, May 1914. The organization of First Church, Topeka, is from “With Christ in Kansas: A History of the First Presbyterian Church of Topeka, Kansas, 1859-1934,” G. W. Allison et al, published by a church committee, no date. Information about the organization of First Church, Denver, is from page 670 of History of Colorado, by Wilbur F. Stone, 1918. Fort Wayne information can also be found in L. C. Rudolph, Hoosier Zion: The Presbyterians in Early Indiana Yale, 1963. Andrew E. Murray, The Skyline Synod: Presbyterianism in Colorado and Utah, Denver, 1971, provides considerable information about the area in its 765 pages. G. W. Allison, et al, With Christ in Kansas: A History of the First Presbyterian Church of Topeka, Kansas, 1859-1934, by the church, circa 1934.

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