A Centenarian Presbyterian: William Rankin

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Imagine what it would be like to live from the beginning of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century. William Rankin, Jr., who served as both a ruling elder and the treasurer of the PCUSA Board of Foreign Missions (for 37 years), did just that.

Born on September 15, 1810, on a farm near Elizabeth, New Jersey, his longevity was such that at the time of his death on October 20, 1912, he was 102 years old, and was then the oldest college graduate in the United States. He took up the study of law, graduating from the Cincinnati Law School, and served as a law partner to Salmon P. Chase, who later became Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court. He was married to wife Ellen (née Smith) for 62 years. Ecclesiastically, he served as ruling elder for the Third Presbyterian Church of Newark, NJ for 15 years and in the same capacity at the Wicliff Church for 11 years. Sixteen times he attended the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church as Commissioner from Newark. He was a trustee for the Bloomfield Theological Seminary; President of the Essex County Bible Society; President of the Newark Library Association; President of the Board of Trustees for the High Street Church; and a member of the Presbyterian Church Extension Committee. He was also a member of the New Jersey Historical Society from 1848 until the time of his death.

His 1857 address to the Synod of New Jersey on the subject of the Board of Missions was published by request of the Synod. He also authored Handbook and Incidents of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. (1893) and Memorials of Foreign Missionaries of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. (1895). These latter two works are valuable resources which cover the history of Presbyterian foreign missions in the 19th century, written by a man who devoted much of his life to aiding the cause of missions worldwide. We have previously alluded to his account of American Presbyterian missionary to India Joseph Owen (1814-1870), and this is but one of many fascinating biographical sketches to be found in his books.

If the history of world missions is of interest to you, take time to visit the William Rankin, Jr. page and read his remarkable books on foreign missions, written by a centenarian Presbyterian who spent his life in the service of God and the church.

The Story of a Dedicated Life

The story of American Presbyterian missionary to India Joseph Owen (1814-1870) is a fascinating and inspiring tale. It is told in a biographical sketch by William Rankin, Jr. in Memorials of Foreign Missionaries of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. and in a full-length biography by James Clement Moffat ("his earliest and dearest friend"), The Story of a Dedicated Life.

Born in Bedford, New York, Joseph Owen completed his undergraduate studies and theological training at Princeton. In 1840, after being appointed a missionary in the service of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions, he sailed to India by way of Boston, Massachusetts, and around the Cape of Good Hope. He would spend the next 28 years of his life serving the Presbyterian Church in Northern India, in Allahabad. His commitment to the missionary cause of Jesus Christ was rock solid, but the pains of separation from family and friends were deep. 

"Dedication to missionary work had become a part of himself. It had ceased to be a question before his mind. As such it had been closed up long ago, never more to be opened. It was the decree of God for him. He knew that it would cost self-denial. But his mind was made up for self-denial. What it would cost was no longer to be considered. He had summed up all that when he gave himself to the Lord. Nor was this separation from all he loved most dearly upon earth designed to be temporary. In his view it was final. The devotion of himself was without reserve. It was to live and die in his work" (Moffat, p. 8).

While in India, besides his preaching endeavors, he also completed an edition of the Old Testament in Hindi, and commentaries on Isaiah and the Psalms in the Urdu language (as a student at Princeton in Biblical literature and Oriental languages "he earned the highest commendations of Dr. Joseph Addison Alexander"). He married twice during his time in India, and when his course was finished, he left behind two children as well. In 1869, he determined to leave India for a short time in order to visit Europe and America with a plan to return to India to spend the remainder of his days. It was in Edinburgh, Scotland, however, before ever returning to America, that he became sick with dysentery and ultimately passed away on December 4, 1870, in the presence of Dr. Robert S. Candlish. He conveyed his final warmest regards to the flock he left behind in Allahabad: "Tell them to be steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, not seeking merely after worldly advancement, but seeking first the service of Christ." "Tell them that I have never for a moment regretted that I went as a missionary. I only regret that I was not more faithful."

So closed the chapter on a dedicated missionary servant of the Lord Jesus Christ whose name is barely known today, although it is written in the precious Book of Life. Get to know his story in the writings of Moffat and Rankin because it is the story of an ordinary man who performed extraordinary service for the kingdom of God in the land of India.