Faith of my Fathers

 John C. Rankin (October 23, 2010)

My father, Dr. Emmett Clair Rankin, well into his 93rd year, recently passed from this life. See also The Gift of Thinking. And after he died, I realized that there was never a promise he made that he did not keep. What a heritage.

Our family line traces back to a boatload of Presbyterian ministers, and many of them abolitionists. My great aunt Mary, sister to my father’s father, Elwood Clair, was a professor of Latin and Music at the University of Nebraska, and she traced the family lineage in the 1930s, well in advent of today’s internet genealogical resources. At that time she counted some 35 Presbyterian ministers back to when William Rankin left Scotland in 1689.

William had lost four of his five sons in the English Revolution of 1688, so he emigrated to Ireland in order to preserve his lineage with the surviving youngest son, Adam. Then they emigrated to the United States in 1721, Adam now married and with five sons himself. William died the next year. From Adam’s five sons come maybe half the Rankins on the United States today. The next emigration of any Rankin were of those who came in the mid 1800’s and settled on the Appalacian frontier.

I come from one of Adam’s sons. From another is one of his grandsons, the Rev. John Thomas Rankin, known as the “manager of the Underground Railroad.” He left Kentucky as a slave state, settled for many years in Ripley, Ohio, south of Cincinnati, with his house on the Ohio River (then toward the end of his long life, in Ironton, further down the river). It was said in those days, “Who freed the slaves?” The answer, “John Rankin and his seven sons.”

They personally escorted some 2,000 slaves to freedom, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, visited with him and got many true stories from him that helped in her book. So hated were John Rankin and his seven sons, that slave owners put a $100,000 bounty on his head (several million in today’s dollars), and $10,000 on each of his sons. But John Rankin and his sons were a praying people, and during his 44 years of abolitionist work, not a hair of his head was ever harmed, nor for any of his sons as well.

A more distant relative is the Rev. Andrew Rankin, founder of Howard University after the Civil War, the first college for Black Americans. When I contacted the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright in 2008 for our Mars Hill Forum, he knew well my lineage, having graduated from the Rankin Chapel at Howard.

In other words, what a wonderful lineage, I did nothing to choose it, but it greets me and I celebrate its embrace. My mother’s family also traces back to believers, including Sir Francis Scott Key.

In the summer of 1974, I drove through the night some 600 miles from my summer camp job on Cape Cod, to attend the Jesus ’74 Christian music festival in Mercer, Pennsylvania (almost to the Ohio border). There was a certain young lady attending from upstate New York whom I was chasing, and she finally caught me, and we were married when she graduated college in 1977. I adore her more as the years pass.

I drove through the night, using half my days off for the summer to make the trip, and got sleepier and sleepier across I-80 – and I had just returned from a survival overnight with a group of campers from the outer beach, being low on sleep when I left at 4:30 in the afternoon. So I drank much coffee, probably about 80 percent of what I have had over my whole life (I rarely have a cup), and only got sleepier, so much so that I had to pull over on the side of the highway a number of times to sleep as the 18-Wheelers flew by and shook my VW bug as it sat in the dark with flashers on.

Years later, I mentioned this to my Dad, and he laughed. “Well, John, you are my son.” He explained that for a small minority of people, caffeine is a relaxant, not a stimulus. This was the case for him, so a good stiff cup of black coffee always kept him awake. And apparently for me too.

I had an arranged meeting place to see Nancy at the festival, but it didn’t work out. So after I pitched my tent, I wandered through the crowd of 18,000 people, praying I would find her. As I wandered close to the stage, I finally sat down, and a friend from Ohio recognized me and we started chatting. Then I heard, “John!” I had sat down exactly behind Nancy and her friends from her hometown outside Rochester, New York.

During those several days, I was in one of the prayer tents, and a woman praying for me asked about how I had come to Christ. I did not then know of my lineage, and she said, “Someone has been praying for you …”

In 1971, when I was ready to apply for college, my mother went to the West Hartford public library, and came home with a lovingly crafted list of some 30 schools. I was away at South Kent School at the time, so at Thanksgiving break, she gave me the list. I was interested in small private liberal arts colleges, at some distance but not too far from New England, thus I looked at colleges in upstate New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

As I looked at the list, the name of Denison University jumped off the page (and I had never heard of it before). The Lord then spoke with surprising and great clarity: “John – you are going to Denison, and you will find Christian fellowship and meet your wife.”

Whoa. But it was clear. I had been praying for my wife-to-be since I was 15 or 16 years old, only desiring to find the young women whom I could love for a lifetime. I was also shy, only having been onto double dates prior to college. And one time, while praying for my wife to be, I had a clear vision of upstate New York, bordering Lake Ontario. As it turns out, Nancy grew up just a few miles from the lake.

In my freshman year at Denison, I found the Christian fellowship immediately as an oasis on campus, as the “Jesus Movement” of those years was the true counter-counter culture. I checked out all the Christian women, and told the Lord, “I don’t see her.” The following fall, 1973, on the first day, I saw a young woman, quite tall, with long brown hair down to her waist, with a jade green cross around her neck, and from a distance as I stood by the Koinonia Christian Fellowship information table in the main quad by the Student Union. I was in conversation with another person at the time. So I told the Lord, “I would like to meet her.” Now, in that era, my sandy hair was down to my shoulders, and my beard was bushy.

The next evening at Chapel (such a quaint idea at Denison these days), members of the Christian fellowship had been invited to sing some Godspell tunes. After the service, one friend (now an Episcopal priest) was talking with two young women in one of the aisles. I recognized the young lady I had seen the day before, along with a red head. So I made my way over, and immediately the red head started talking to me in length, quite outgoing. But I was interested in this other young lady.

So I was finally able to meet Nancy Gordon, and the moment I did, she looked at me, her eyes welled up, and she said, “The Lord told me to come to Denison, but I don’t want to be here.” I fell in love, and the story begins there … Her father was a Denison alumnus, Nancy had wanted to go to Elim Bible College, but he wanted her to go to an accredited college. He was an American Baptist minister, and served as the chaplain aboard the U.S.S. Augusta leading the D-Day invitation of Normandy, and his prayers and hymn choices are in the official records.

Our parents make us who we are, and God builds and/or redeems from there.

In 2008, I was reading a manuscript to my Dad, in a section covering some of my youth. As I did, he smiled and said, “You know John, as a little boy, you were always thinking.” And I have been thinking about that ever since.

Dad was born during World War I in Nebraska, lived through the Depression, served as a Navy physician, and came to Connecticut after World War II. His spiritual sojourn led him from a biblical Presbyterian upbringing, to the Unitarian Universalist Church in West Hartford, where he found refuge from judgmentalism and hypocrisy in two other local churches.

His faith was rooted in the Lord’s Prayer, but he still had many questions, especially about suffering – his mother died young, my mother died young, I lost a sister young in a plane crash, and Dad’s second wife died young.

When I first told him that one of my Sunday School teachers was an agnostic, he was amazed. In 1961-62, as she taught our third grade class that miracles cannot occur, I said to myself, “Why not?”, and that Genesis was a myth, I thought, “Why bother?” In our conversation, I told my father that I was thus a “skeptic of skepticism.” He laughed heartily, in the deepest agreement, quoting this clause back to me in the Latin. All in pursuit of the truth.

In 2000, a miracle occurred in my father’s life, at my home church, Covenant Presbyterian Church in Simsbury, Connecticut. At my mother-in-law’s memorial service, the opening hymn proved to be the opening hymn at his mother’s funeral over six decades earlier, “I Come to the Garden Alone.” The closing hymn proved to be the closing hymn at my sister’s memorial service in 1980, “Amazing Grace.” In the middle, Denise Root, then a Ph.D. student in music at the University of Connecticut, played the Lord’s Prayer on the French horn, and as she did, Dad clearly heard her singing the words through it, but knew that was physiologically impossible. So he asked her, as I stood by, “How did you do that?” Denise, choking with emotion, said that she had prayed that the angels would sing the words. They did, and I continue to think about God’s amazing grace from a thousand angles.

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