31 Days of Missionary Stories: Dr. John Dreisbach, Modern Missionary Statesman and Surgeon

During the last week of November, 2009, 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.

John DreisbachBettie DreisbachI 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.

Beyond the NightThey 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.

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

So far as I know, no one has written a biography of the Dreisbachs yet, but I hope someone does. 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)

(Photos courtesy of the Dreisbach society at FlickR)

(You can see a list of other posts in the 31 Days of Missionary Stories here.)

12 thoughts on “31 Days of Missionary Stories: Dr. John Dreisbach, Modern Missionary Statesman and Surgeon

  1. Pingback: 31 Days of Missionary Stories | Stray Thoughts

  2. We had the privilege to be in a missions conference with the Dreisbachs when they were at least in their seventies. What impressed me most was his quietness. It was almost like he personified “peace.” His demeanor, his simple way of speaking . . . . I don’t know what I expected, but I was surprised at how quiet he was. The great innovative surgeon, leader of amazing works in Africa was a very quiet, peaceful man. She was gorgeous. Such a lady, and so gracious. I was in a meeting with only her, and her sharing was amazing. What a privilege to have known them, even if only for a few days! Praise the Lord for them.

  3. Great presentation of a missionary couple we both knew and appreciated. There is a book about the Dreisbachs in the works, and I’m looking forward to reading it when it’s finished.

    Thanks again for all of the work you have put into preparing and presenting these missionary posts.

    • I am so glad to know someone is writing a book about the Dreisbachs! Do you know who is writing it and when it might be expected? I would guess it would be published through BJU Press? I’m looking forward to reading it, too!

      I am glad you’re enjoying the series. For the past 15 years I’ve complied a newsletter/booklet for the ladies’ group at two different churches we have been in, and I’ve always included a column of missionary stories like these, or sometimes just quotes. When this “31 Days” opportunity came up, the Lord brought to mind to use some of those. I’m editing and tweaking them, but thankfully I’m not having to write them all from scratch this month.

  4. You many already know this but I am going to tell you anyway. You are so incredibly lucky to have know these great folks! Thanks for sharing their works!

    • Oh no — there are many people far more qualified! Plus I just heard this weekend that a young lady I know has a manuscript in the works. I’m excited and can’t wait to read it.

  5. OH! I love their story. They spent time at the Bible college I attended and I remember her classes with the girls. So many interesting things! I like their movie too. I’ll have to keep my eyes open for the book.

  6. Pingback: Book Review: Ten Fingers For God | Stray Thoughts

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