The Life and Ministry of John and Bettie Dreisbach
“And of some having compassion making a difference.” Jude 22
Born into a godly farm home in northwest Ohio, Dr. Dreisbach was the youngest of three children. His father was superintendent of the Sunday school; his mother was an active member of the Women’s Missionary Society and also a Sunday school teacher in a Bible-believing, Bible-preaching church. Strongly interested in foreign missions, the parents dedicated their children to the Lord’s service before they were born. Dr. D.’s brother, 15 years his senior, had dedicated his life to medical missions in Africa and was due to begin medical school in the fall of 1925. That summer, he was assisting their father in spraying the fruit trees of the large cherry orchard that was part of the farm when a thunderstorm came up. Seeking refuge from the rain, they waited inside a small shed. A single bolt of lightning struck a tree beside the shed, ran down an iron trolley and through the shed, killing Dr. Dreisbach’s father and brother, and jumped across additional space, killing one of the horses that had been pulling the spraying machine.
Dr. D. was only four years old at the time of this tragedy, but from that incident on, he never doubted but that the Lord wanted him to assume the mantle that had fallen from his brother’s shoulder and to do the work his brother had intended to do. It was not, however, until he was 12 years old, that in a revival meeting at the same country church, he wept out his confession of sin, pled for salvation, and found it at an altar of prayer.
His parents’ interest in missions played a great role in determining the course of his life. Missionaries were often entertained in their home, and his mother read and encouraged him to read missionary biographies, which played a significant role in confirming his call to missions in Africa. The life of Mary Slessor in particular had a tremendous influence upon his young life.
Bettie Short Dreisbach grew up in West Virginia. She came to faith at a vacation Bible school when she was about eight years of age. From the time she heard a missionary to China speak, she felt the call of missions and later felt the Lord would have her serve in Africa in medical missions. Although she was given some tempting offers in the field of industrial chemistry and research, she did not allow them to crowd out the call of foreign missions. After earning her undergraduate degree, she pursued graduate studies in seminary and then nurses training. The Dreisbachs met in a collegiate Bible study at Ohio State University when Dr. D. was a second-year medical student and Mrs. D. was a senior undergraduate student. He immediately knew she was to become his wife!
On completion of medical school, Dr. D. took his internship at Gorgas Hospital in the Panama Canal Zone, where he received excellent training in tropical medicine and specifically in leprosy. After his internship, he was invited by the Canal Zone Health Department to be acting superintendent of the American leprosarium in the Canal Zone.
He invited Bettie to come, and they were married in the Canal Zone. He took his bride from the church to the honeymoon cottage in the leprosarium ambulance. All their first night of marriage, they were serenaded by a band of leprosarium patients playing on homemade steel instruments.
On completion of his assignment at the leprosarium, Dr. and Mrs. Dreisbach returned to the U.S., made preparation to proceed on to Africa, and in 1948 began full-time missionary working in Nigeria, West Africa. In their early years in Africa, Dr. Dreisbach was superintendent of three large provincial leprosy hospitals in northern Nigeria.
Being in an area almost 100 per cent Muslim, the primary focus of this ministry was Muslim evangelism. Dr. D. reckoned that about 25 percent of the patients came to faith in Jesus Christ. Many of the men went on to Bible school and became pastors and evangelists in this predominantly Muslim northern part of Nigeria. Medically, Dr. Dreisbach did much research in the treatment and rehabilitation of leprosy patients, particularly in the field of rehabilitative surgery—prevention and correction of deformities of hands and feet of leprosy patients. The Kano leprosarium became a model for other leprosy works, and people came from many parts of the world to observe and learn. In addition, Dr. D. began receiving invitations to guest lecture and demonstrate his procedures at leprosy ministries around the world.
Eschewing the growing fame connected to his innovative work in hand and foot rehabilitation by tendon transplant, in 1959 Dr. and Mrs. D. left the leprosy work and relocated to the neighboring country of Benin where they founded a new, general practice hospital. Mrs. D. designed the hospital and Dr. D. supervised the construction. Hundreds came to the ribbon-cutting ceremony in 1962 to celebrate the opening of the new hospital and medical ministry, including the President of the country. But in Benin, as it had been in Nigeria, Dr. made the primary focus of his ministry Gospel evangelism.
In 1964, during their third furlough from Africa, they resigned from the mission organization they had been a part of to accept the invitation of Bob Jones University to join the faculty/staff as campus physician and to develop a curriculum for medical missions. In developing the medical missions program, they believed an important aspect of the training should be field experience; that aspect of the ministry they named “Project Compassion.” Over the next years, they conducted 25 Project Compassion teams from the University to 12 different nations scattered around the world. These teams provided hands-on training, both practical and didactic, and hundreds of students (predominantly nurses and medically-oriented people) were a part of these teams. From 1964 until 1993, the Dreisbachs were considered extension faculty of the University. They spent most of the time on the field as independent missionaries, serving the Lord in medical missions.
Early Years photo gallery (click on picture to view).
It was during this time that they experienced some of the most challenging ministries of their missionary career. For almost eight years they worked in the heart of the Sahara Desert, ministering to desert nomads.
A portion of this ministry is depicted in a very moving film produced by Unusual Films of Bob Jones University entitled Beyond the Night. They were eventually forced by the Muslim government to leave the desert because people were beginning to respond to the preaching of the word and accepting Christ as their Savior. This was alarming to the Muslim state.
In 1990, Dr. Dreisbach was invited to become the field representative for Gospel Fellowship Association Missions, and he accepted the position. This position entailed extensive travels to visit GFA missionaries worldwide to encourage, counsel, and give guidance; to explore new fields of ministry; and to open up new avenues of missionary work. They found this a thrilling calling, and both Dr. and Mrs. D. were greatly used to bless and encourage GFA missionaries worldwide. Mrs. Dreisbach traveled with the doctor on almost all of his journeys and was a great encouragement to the missionaries wherever they went. She was called home to be with the Lord in November 2000 at age 77. The Dreisbachs also represented the mission in missionary conferences in churches across the United States.
Further, Dr. D. counseled and encouraged hundreds of college students in the area of foreign missions. He believed he could multiply himself by challenging young people with the cause of world evangelization. This was certainly realized, as many of these young people, through the counseling and encouragement of the Dreisbachs, are now on various mission fields around the world or in preparation to go to these fields.
Being somewhat a buff of missionary history, Dr. Dreisbach was particularly blessed in December 2001 to be able to visit sites relating to the ministry of William Carey in Calcutta and Serampore, India, as well to that of Adoniram and Anne Judson in Burma (Myanmar). In 2006, he and his daughter Anne visited the church of Andrew Murray in South Africa, the work in Genadendal of Moravian missionary George Schmidt, followed the trails of some of David Livingstone’s journeys in Botswana and Zambia, visiting several Livingstone memorials, museums, and the Victoria Falls. What a thrill it was for Dr. D. to be able to walk in the shadows of these great missionary heroes! Visiting GFA missionaries who are likewise pioneering new fields now open to the Gospel, such as Cambodia, Papua New Guinea, and Equatorial Guinea, was also a great blessing to him.
Even after suffering a heart attack and undergoing triple by-pass surgery, in 2007 Dr. D. returned to Africa, spending five weeks in Cameroon to investigate the possibility of evangelizing islands in Lake Chad.
His burden is evidenced by his report of that trip.
A vision born decades earlier was opened on this field trip—that of being able to live and minister to tribes of people on some of the small islands in Lake Chad. As far as our research had been able to ascertain, and that of our GFA team in the Extreme North of Cameroon, there had been little if any Gospel witness ever shared with these neglected tribespeople. I had a burden to take the message of redeeming grace to these neglected people.
Following up on this vision, from October 2007 to March 2008, Dr. D. returned to this area of Africa to live on a remote island on Lake Chad. Because of his physical limitations, he was accompanied by Joe Cable, an ex-Marine and graduate of Northland Baptist Bible College. Although they lived under extremely primitive conditions, they realized many opportunities to witness to people who had never before heard the Gospel message, or heard it correctly.
When they prepared to leave, Dr. D. was asked, “Who is going to teach us now?” Back in the U.S., Dr. D. was surprised to receive, on several occasions, calls from men living on these remote islands of Lake Chad, asking him to return. Until the last months of his life, Dr. D. sincerely hoped to have another opportunity to witness of God’s love in Africa, but this proved to be the last time he was able to spend in the land which had claimed his heart.
The last name of a missionary was given as the middle name to each of the Dr. and Mrs. Dreisbachs’ six children: Anne Slessor Dreisbach (missionary in Surinam), John Carey Dreisbach (missionary in the Philippines), Elizabeth Reed Wertz (Lexington, SC), Priscilla Judson Dreisbach (Black Mountain, NC), Peter Brainerd Dreisbach (Hardinsburg, KY), and Daniel Livingstone Dreisbach (Fairfax, VA). Dr. D. praised the Lord that all six are active in service to the Lord. There are 13 grandchildren and 8 great-grandchildren.
Family photo gallery (click on picture to view).
Two verses that challenged Dr. Dreisbach’s heart and which he frequently quoted when asked for a favorite verse are the following: II Corinthians 4:3 “But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost” and verse 22 of Jude, which reads “And of some have compassion, making a difference.”
On November 23, 2009, Dr. Dreisbach entered the presence of his Lord. Pray that others will take up the mantle to go and tell those who have yet to hear of redeeming grace—whether in Africa or elsewhere in the world.
The memorial service on Saturday, November 28, 2009, for Dr. Dreisbach was a powerful reminder of what God can do with a life fully consecrated to Him and fully engaged in His calling. Dr. Mark Batory (Executive Director of GFA) presented a Spirit-filled tribute, and Dr. Mark Minnick (Pastor of Mount Calvary Baptist Church) gave a needed reminder from I Corinthians 15 of what the Gospel is. He concluded with the following story:
Dr. Dreisbach, as you probably know, wanted to be buried in Africa. God granted his request, but not in the way he envisioned. A member of Mount Calvary Baptist Church began making caskets a few months ago. His first one, a prototype, was made of wood selected locally—African mahogany. When he heard of Dr. Dreisbach’s demise, he offered the family the casket without charge. In a sense, therefore, Dr. Dreisbach was buried in Africa!
Later Years photo gallery (click on picture to view).