Dr. John Dreisbach

During the last week of November, one of God’s great missionary statesmen of our times passed on to be with his Savior and to be reunited with the wife he had missed for nine years. Dr. John Dreisbach passed away at the age of 87, just a few weeks after being diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia.

I was fortunate to have attended the same church as the Dreisbachs for fourteen years. I had heard of them for years before that. Thirty years ago when I was a student at BJU, Dr. John and Bettie Dreisbach were legendary even then. The first time I heard Dr. John speak, a somewhat short, soft-spoken, grey-haired man who was not what you would call a dynamic speaker, I thought, “Is this the man I have heard so much about?” But oh, what a heart for God and for missions! His wife, Bettie, was, I’d say, a little feistier than he was, but they were both unfailingly kind, humble, gentle people who were completely sold out to do whatever God wanted.

One of my fondest memories of Dr. John was from a church picnic when, for some reason, all the missionary men on deputation or furlough (there were several in that church) were asked to don a headpiece with long dog ears attached and sing, “Do your ears hang low?” Though at first none of the men looked thrilled to be asked, Dr. John wagged his ears to the song along with the best of them. My oldest son still remembers a time Dr. John spoke in chapel and flung out a massive rolled-up snake skin that unfurled several rows over the heads of the children. I also remember when Mrs. Dreisbach spoke to the ladies about how to encourage an interest in missions in the home. They both possessed merry hearts and quick smiles. They were both genuine, transparent people who would cringe at words like “great” and “legendary” being applied to them, yet those words are not intended to magnify them but rather to show the extent to which God used them.

From Dr. Dreisbach’s memorial service I gleaned the following biographical information presented by Gospel Fellowship Association’s director, Dr. Mark Batory:

John was only four when his father and brother were killed by a lightning strike. John’s brother was fifteen years older and had been planning to be a missionary, and John immediately felt his brother’s mantle had fallen on him like Elijah’s had on Elisha. He was brought to conviction, repentance, and salvation at a revival meeting, partly because of a continuing temptation he experienced to steal marshmallow cookies from his uncle’s store.

He studied medicine with an eye toward being a medical missionary. He wanted his future wife to be already called to Africa before they met rather than just following his call. One day when he was uncharacteristically late to a Bible study, he came in to hear several students giving their testimonies. His ears perked up when he heard one young lady tell of her call to go to Africa, and though he could only see the back of her head, he knew she was the one for him.

Dr. John and Bettie were married in Panama in 1947. Dr. John had been a farm boy and hadn’t been to many weddings. He and Bettie had planned to be married at the end of an evening worship service at the church they had been attending. There were no typical wedding frills: no special wedding clothes, no attendants, no wedding pictures, and so forth. He was at that time on staff at a Panamanian hospital known for its work with leprosy patients, and the only vehicle available to him was the ambulance, so he took his new bride back to the leprosarium in the ambulance. Their house was built up on stilts, and some of the local men came and played drums underneath their house. The Dreisbachs dropped some candy down to the musicians, for which they delightedly played all the more. They then dropped some money down to them, hoping that would thank them and encourage them to stop, but they played all night long.

The Dreisbachs went to Nigeria in 1948 and worked in a leprosy hospital. Though they did outstanding medical work (Dr. John pioneered a surgery to restore usefulness to lepers’ hands and feet by using tendons from other parts of their bodies to replace the constricted ones, and he won many awards for his work), they considered their primary mission sharing the gospel. Dr. John was not a man given to exaggeration; he was very careful in what he said, but he estimated that about 25% of all those who came to the hospital left with faith in Christ.

They had been on the mission field in Nigeria for several years when, becoming concerned about compromise in their mission board and sensing a need for a change, they accepted an invitation from BJU in 1964 to come to be the campus physician and to develop a curriculum for medical missions. They also founded Project Compassion, medical missionary apprenticeship teams made up of nurses and others who had some kind of medical training. They took Project Compassion teams to 12 different countries over a period of 25 years to serve in medical evangelistic mission works.

They took a leave of absence from BJU to spend 8 years ministering to nomadic tribes people in the Sahara Dessert. The BJU film Beyond the Night comes from these years.

In 1990 Dr. John joined the staff of Gospel Fellowship Association. His beloved wife Bettie passed away in 2000 after 52 years of marriage. He continued to take missions trips to Africa, primarily to Cameroon. He had wanted to develop medical clinics there but was told by the government he was too old. He went as a consultant because his primary mission was to share the gospel. A wonderful story about that time is told here under the title “A Light in a Dark Continent.”

When Dr. John was finally told he could no longer travel because of his health, Dr. Batory suggested they tape a series of lessons in the Hausa language that could be used among the Hausa-speaking people in Cameroon. Dr. John had prepared 15 short lessons and preparations were underway to video tape his presenting these lessons. At the trial run, a faulty tape recorded only 30 seconds of the first lesson. Discouraged at first, Dr, Batory came to realized that God did not want to replace Dr. John with tapes or discs; God wanted people to take up the mantle.

Some years ago I had the opportunity to reconnect with the Dreisbachs when they were at a missions conference at a church we were visiting. I’ll never forget his speaking on the verse, “Can God furnish a table in the wilderness?“ (Psalm 78:19), and then sharing many instances of times God had provided in seemingly impossible circumstances. Neither will I forget the poem he read at that time, when he was in his 70s, titled, “Would you?”

If you had been to heathen lands
Where weary souls stretch out their hands
To plead, yet no one understands,
Would you go back? Would you?

If you had seen the women bear
Their heavy loads, with none to share
Had heard them weep, with none to care,
Would you go back? Would you?

If you had seen them in despair
Beat their breasts and pull their hair
While demon powers filled the air,
Would you go back? Would you?

If you had seen the glorious sight
When heathen people seeking right
Had turned from darkness to the light,
Would you go back? Would you?

If you had walked through Afric’s sand
Your hand within the Saviour’s hand
And knew He’d called you to that land,
Would you go back? Would you?

Yet still they wait, that weary throng.
They’ve waited, some, so very long.
When shall despair be turned to song?
I’m going back. Wouldn’t you?

— Author unknown

May God raise up many like him to take his place.

Therefore said he unto them, The harvest truly is great, but the labourers are few: pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he would send forth labourers into his harvest.  Luke 10:2

(Edited by Priscilla Dreisbach)

11 thoughts on “Dr. John Dreisbach

  1. aww! I hadn’t heard this.
    I remember their visits when I was in Bible college.
    You’ve described them perfectly!

    I loved this film of their story. I remember being fascinated by their photos they shared of things they treated.

    Also, I remember Mrs. Dreisbach speaking to the girls about working with the women.
    One thing I always remembered was that when she showed them photos of themselves they couldn’t figure it out.
    Very interesting godly people!

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  4. We saw the movie of his time in Africa last night at church during Missions Month. His commitment was so moving, my 14-year-old daughter came home and prayed to the Lord, “I will go anywhere You want me to go.” Praise the Lord for faithful servants like Dr. Dreisbach.

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