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Rankin was born in Jefferson County, Tennessee. After attending the district school, he attended Washington College at Jonesborough. On January 12, 1814, he married Jean Lowry and created a family of nine sons and four daughters, all of whom lived to have families of their own. In 1816 Rankin was licensed to preach by the Presbytery of Abington, Virginia. He preached in Jefferson County Presbyterian church and spent four years in Concord and Cane Ridge, Kentucky.
In 1822, Reverend Rankin accepted a call from the Presbyterian Church at Ripley, Ohio. It was here that the famous "Abolition Letters" were written. As an abolitionist, Rankin realized his work in "The Underground Railroad" needed a more advantageous location. His home on Front Street was too accessible to slave owners seeking to reclaim their slave property. He chose a spot on a high hill overlooking the village of Ripley, the Ohio River, and it had a full view of the Kentucky shoreline. The family moved into what became “The Rankin House” in 1828.
Reverend Rankin also helped establish churches in Cedron, Felicity, Buford, Sardinia, Huntington, Russellville, Decatur, and Winchester, Ohio. He was also the first president of "Ripley College." John Rankin Died on March 12, 1886. He is buried in Ripley’s Maplewood Cemetery.