William Rankin grew up in Little Chuckey, Tenn. He graduated from Amherst College in 1852 with a B.A. degree. He later became principal of Rhea Academy in Greeneville from 1852-1854. He served as President of Greeneville College from 1854-1858 before becoming Professor of Mathematics at Tusculum College from 1859-1861. After the Civil War, Rankin served as principal of Wellsville School in New York from 1864-1866. He became an ordained minister by the Holston Presbytery and returned to Greeneville. He preached at Mount Bethel and Salem churches until 1874. During this time, Rankin served as president of Washington College and on the Board of Trustees at Tusculum College. He worked as the District Superintendent of the American Bible Society in Tennessee from 1874-1876 and in Texas from 1876-1898. Rankin chose Salem Churchyard at Washington College Academy in Limestone, Tenn. as his final resting place.