1887 - 1956
John Remeses Olley
I want to call attention to one unique servant of the Lord whose life intersected with my own. Few outside the heart of Africa have heard of or known of this remarkable man.
The year was 1955; the place, a mission guesthouse in Lagos, Nigeria. I shared a guest room with Dr. John Olley for about one week. Daily I was awakened by the sound of his early morning cold shower, hearing him slap his body and, at times, sing in several African languages interspersed with English that still gave evidence of his British origin. He was leaving Africa at the end of his first term—a term that spanned 36 years.
John Olley was born into a moderately well-to-do home in a suburb of London, England. His mother was a devout Anglican and his father a member of C. H. Spurgeon's Metropolitan Tabernacle. As a youth, he was not robust in health, and scholarship was not his forte. In fact, he failed his exams. When he fainted during a singing class, it was determined something must be done. His father apprenticed him to become a seaman; so, at age 15, young John took to the sea, and his health and vigor were restored. His first voyage involved taking relief supplies to Martinique in the West Indies, where an eruption of Mt. Pelee had caused great loss of life and destruction. A love for travel to strange countries and climes was born in his soul. The Bible his mother had put into his sea kit was forgotten.
John and a companion jumped ship in Savannah, Georgia. This turned out to be a bad experience; and after a few weeks, they signed onto a small Italian sailing vessel bound for Buenos Aires. The captain and crew were vile. The ship was torn by a terrible storm that struck fear as nothing before had done. From there he visited many strange and interesting ports of call, finally arriving back home in Newington at Christmastime 1903.
Off again, he eventually found himself in New Zealand. He was attracted to this beautiful island nation. Having had very little formal education, he launched on a lifetime of self-education. He became a great lover of books. For a time he was employed on a sheep station; later he worked as a surveyor. Since there was no school in the area at the time, he was pressed into teaching. By consistent self-study, he progressed through the requirements of the government and obtained a teacher's certificate. Going from one-room village schools to a city school in Hastings, he spent time studying much more than the subjects he taught.
Up until this time he had given little attention to religion; but he found lodging in the home of a godly family and, through their influence and witness, came to know the Lord. He began to study Greek, Hebrew, and modern languages along with church history and the history of missions. The Bible became his constant companion, and the stirrings of a mission call were growing in his soul.
Lord Jesus, grant me eyes to see
In my poor brethren thine and thee.
To give ourselves where others sin to intercede,
And in thy service and by prayer,
Our brethren's burdens seek to bear.
He began to enjoy the fellowship of a group of earnest young Christians of the Brethren persuasion and was growing rapidly in his walk with the Lord. Although Mongolia and Tibet beckoned to him, it was an urgent plea for help in Tunisia, North Africa, that led him to leave New Zealand for Africa in December 1919.
For the next five years he was an itinerate evangelist in North Africa, mostly in Tunisia. He was a close observer of customs and religion. Arabic and other languages were quickly learned. Later he would say, "Remember what happened to the church of North Africa. Give the people the Word of God in their own tongue and teach them to read and understand it."
In 1924, he left Tunisia with plans to go to Nigeria at the request of a Brethren missionary there. He planned to stop in Naples only long enough to get passage to West Africa, but his stay stretched over a number of months during which he enjoyed fellowship and rich experience with Italian Christians. He also spent a number of months in colportage work in Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey as well as the Holy Land. All were moving experiences for him. From there he went on to Kano, Nigeria, arriving in August 1925. (This was our home for our first three terms in Africa.)
It was here that the people of West Africa really stole his heart. Most of the believers of that assembly were from Chad, and they impressed on him the great need of that land. In February 1926, he left with his camel caravan for Chad, arriving at Kousseri on Sunday, the 28th of March. (Why should that be of interest to those of us who are a part of Gospel Fellowship Association? That's where one of our missionary families were stationed for their first term in North Cameroon.) It was here he crossed the Logone River into Chad, which became his home for the next 30 years. He translated the Bible into two of the Chadian languages and planted scores of churches. He was the spiritual father of thousands.
Great physical needs led him to study medicine. Eventually he was awarded an M.D. degree (by correspondence) from a Chicago medical school that no longer exists. He was a faithful and fearless witness to all who crossed his path, be it the governor of the country or the beggar at his door.
Year followed year with little variation. The dry season consisted of his itineration of a wide area for the purpose of encouraging the many assemblies and seeing new ones started. The rainy season saw him in long hours of translation work. He never had a European companion in the work.
The year 1954 found him very ill. He had tried to operate on himself for an abdominal abscess. Some passing missionaries found him in critical condition when they stopped to visit. He was taken by road to Maiduguri in Nigeria, where a mission airplane had come to take him to medical help. He had never been on an airplane, refused the one that came for him, and traveled the 500 miles to Jos, Nigeria, in a pickup truck instead.
It was here at the hospital for missionaries that I first met him and, along with other mission doctors, cared for him. Loudly he would proclaim that I was the one who saved his life. It was while I was attending a medical meeting in Lagos in October of that same year that we shared the same room. What a blessing it was to share in devotion and prayer time! He had two footlockers full of his translation notes—his rich understanding of Scripture.
Why no wife? It would have been too difficult for a woman. Why no furlough? He responded, "I'm a coward. If ever I were to leave the arduous task and difficult country, I'd never have the courage to return."
He had a burden for one more opportunity to witness to a relative living in Australia for whom he had prayed for over 35 years. He left Nigeria for a brief visit to the United States and to Jamaica in the West Indies, where he settled the estate of a deceased brother. He then went through the Panama Canal to Australia and was able to lead that cousin to Christ. The joy was more than his weakened heart could take. He passed into the presence of the Lord he had served so faithfully for those many years. He had hoped to visit New Zealand for a few weeks to thank his faithful supporters and then return to Chad. The Lord saw fit to call this faithful servant home.
My two rather brief encounters with him were great lessons of commitment and zeal for the Lord. Some 15 years after his passing, we spent two years in Chad and saw firsthand much of the work of this great missionary. The words of St. Augustine epitomize Dr. John Olley, "To myself I will show a heart of steel, to my fellow man a heart of love, and to my God a heart of flame" (II Tim. 4:5-8).