Jeremiah Eames Rankin Says Goodbye

Jeremiah Eames Rankin died on November 28, 1904, at the age of 76.

Born on January 2, 1828, at Thornton, New Hampshire, Jeremiah was educated at Middleburg College, Vermont. After his ordination to the American Congregational ministry in 1855 he pastored in various American states, including 15 years as minister of the First Congregational Church, Washington DC (1869-1884).

Rankin was of a literary bent and looked for useful ways to stimulate and minister to his congregants. He wrote poetry, compiled other people’s works and composed hymns. Among his works is The Babie, a poem composed to reflect awkward Scottish accent. Another book, The Journal of Esther Burr, is a biography of one of Jonathan Edwards’ daughters.

Rankin wrote hymns and added them to two collections which he edited, “The Gospel Temperance Hymnal” and “Gospel Bells”.

Yet Dr Rankin’s most enduring work, the hymn “God Be With You Til We Meet Again” came with no particular purpose or inspiration. He had simply noted in a dictionary that the word “Goodbye” was a conjugation of “God be with you”. So he decided to compose a benediction song that effectively said “Goodbye” in an appropriate manner for a congregation.

God be with you ’till we meet again,
By His counsels guide, uphold you,
With His sheep securely fold you –
God be with you ’till we meet again.

For all his literary talents Rankin could not compose the tune for himself. So he sent the text off to two prospective suppliers of melody. One was a well known composer and the other an unknown Methodist schoolmaster, who was a very amateur and by no means competent musician.

When the music was ready, Rankin preferred the schoolmaster’s tune, thus giving the otherwise unknown W.G. Tomer a share of the international limelight.

The song was popularized by Ira Sankey in D.L. Moody’s evangelistic meetings. And many a missionary sailing for an overseas field of service would hear friends singing it as the boat left the wharf.

A scout master visiting a dying lad in a London hospital heard the boy repeating “One Four One”. The man had no idea what the boy meant, but after the lad’s death the man discovered that Hymn 141 in the hymnbook was “God be with you til we meet again”. For a season some English scout groups began using “141” as their code for “Goodbye”.

In 1889 Rankin was elected to the Presidency of Howard College, Washington DC, a school originally founded as an African-American seminary after the Civil War, where he continued until his death.

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History, which I previously considered to be a little stuffy and of little practical value. I find in the process of updating Don’s Christian Diary that I am being constantly refreshed, illuminated or challenged by the lives of those who have gone before.