Here is an excerpt from my review of "Beyond the River," this year's One Book One Community selection in Alliance. To read the entire review, see the Saturday (2/3/07) edition of The Alliance Review.
"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil," goes a quote attributed to Edmund Burke, "is for good men to do nothing."
We do not know if John Rankin was familiar with the saying, but we do know his life stands as a stirring testimony to a man who refused to stay silent about one of this country’s great evils, slavery.
Rankin, whose story is recounted in this year’s One Book One Community offering, "Beyond the River" by Ann Hagedorn, was a Presbyterian minister who helped hundreds, if not thousands, of blacks who had escaped across the Ohio River from the slave-holding state of Kentucky and onto the free shores of the Buckeye State.
Beyond his active involvement in the Underground Railroad, Rankin was a tireless campaigner for the cause of abolition. He traveled far from his beloved town of Ripley to deliver the message of emancipation in front of audiences both receptive and hostile.
A collection of his writings, "Rankin’s Letters on Slavery," was widely reprinted on both sides of the Atlantic, leading many others to catch the abolitionist bug. The letters, addressed to a brother who eventually freed his slaves as a result, made Rankin little or no money, but he allowed their wide dissemination -- and sometimes paid for printings out of his own pocket –- because they advanced the cause, not because he sought to augment his meager salaries as minister and president of Ripley College.
So influential was his writing that he is viewed as a spiritual father to many other abolitionists, including William Lloyd Garrison, publisher of the antislavery newspaper, The Liberator.
Hagedorn tells Rankin’s story in powerful, unflinching prose. He is the centerpiece of her meticulous research into a time when human beings were bought and sold as cattle, when slavers roamed the shores of the Ohio River to kidnap free men and drag them back into bondage, when the United States government was torn between the demands of slaveholders on one side and abolitionists on the other.