When John Vassar called on President Grant, after he had paid him the respect due the chief executive of the United States, he held on to his hand until he had told him of the Lord Jesus Christ and courteously questioned him regarding his experience of the new birth. Introduced to Brigham Young, the Mormon leader, he made the same appeal and pressed the same searching question concerning his soul.
Unique among personal workers was this humble colporteur of the American Tract Society. No more resourceful, colorful, prayerful and fruitful personal soul-winner ever traveled up and down the United States than Uncle John Vassar. He often referred to himself as the Good Shepherd's dog hunting up the lost sheep, but his friends affectionately called him "Uncle John."
John E. Vassar (1813-1878) refused to accept ordination or clergy status in any sense. However, he held the pastoral office in highest esteem and gave much of his life in helping pastors in soul-winning labors. He loved to pray, exhort, sing, visit and do personal work while others did the preaching.
At the age of twenty-eight, while working in a Poughkeepse, New York, brewery, he became deeply concerned about his soul. For a week he agonized under the powerful and searching conviction of the Holy Spirit while his friends prayed for him. Finally, the light broke, his burden rolled away and sweet peace and assurance flooded his soul. Radiant with Christian joy and overflowing with the love of God, he united with the local Baptist church and joined in its services and activities.
He had scant schooling but he soon realized that he needed a practical mastery of God's Word if he was to be a strong and useful Christian. He read the Bible at every opportunity. During spare time, he spent hour after hour pouring over its pages and praying. He even wrote Scripture verses on the wall of the brewery and memorized them while he worked. At the same time he began to talk to others about their hope in Christ. He was not as skillful, tactful and pointed as in later years, but, his biographer says, "...from the start no one spent half an hour in his presence without being made to feel that with John Vassar religion was a real thing."
He soon became a power in the prayer circles and evangelistic meetings around his home community. Recognizing the anointing of the Lord upon him, pastors would send for him to help them during revival meetings.
In a brief span of time, divine providence seemed to release him from family responsibilities in order to usher him into full-time Christian service. In 1847 his little boy died, and the next year, the older one, a lad of nine. In 1849 his father passed away, and then his wife. But John E. Vassar grew in grace and power. One of his friends writes:
Whether he sang, prayed, or exhorted, it was all done in the same spirit; or whether he ate or drank or whatever he did, it all was done to the glory of God. He could come into the meeting, slip along quietly from pew to pew, find out every tender-hearted one who was seeking the Saviour, and as soon as there was a lull in the meeting, he would be heard in prayer for the dear soul who was kneeling at his side. Sometimes there would be three or four on their knees before God, all crying for mercy while he was pleading so earnestly in his simple child-like faith that God would save them. Rest was a stranger to him while souls were around him unsaved.
In 1850 Uncle John became a full-time missionary for the American Tract Society at a salary of one hundred and fifty dollars a year plus traveling expenses, his major work for the rest of his life.
He reveled in his work of distributing Christian literature (giving legs to Baxter and Bunyan, he called it) and doing personal work with every person he could. Dr. A. J. Gordon wrote of him:
He travelled from Maine to Florida, from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific, on foot, on horseback, by rail, and by steamer, resting not in summer or in winter, in the one intense, eager pursuit of souls; and wherever you found him there was the same burning zeal speaking out in his looks and in his words.
Illustrative of his intense activities is the following quotation from Uncle John himself:
I visit frequently forty families a day, have a meeting somewhere every night, and speak to three Sunday schools where practicable every Lord's day. I have conversed with over three thousand people during the last three months on the subject of personal religion, and feel that for this city a wonderful blessing is in store.
In 1854 he married again, but with the distinct understanding that it was not to interfere with his itinerant soul-winning labors. During this period, one pastor with whom Uncle John labored, gives this example of their activity:
For three months we were together thus by day and night. One day, while out on our rounds, we saw a man in the field husking corn. Uncle John said, "Let us kneel down here and pray, and then go after him." We did so. Soon as we began to talk with him we found out that he was a man at whose house we had just called. He had a wife and three children, and none of them entertained a hope of pardoned sin. He was invited first to attend the meeting. He refused flatly, declared he was a Universalist, but admitted that he never prayed. Then Uncle John poured out upon him all the truth of God. I never saw him more valiant for his Master, and think it was one of his grandest hours. With tears streaming down his cheeks, the man said, "Pray for me," and down among the stalks we all three bowed, and all three prayed. He and three others from his family were soon in the kingdom.
This scene is one of many. Strong oaks on every hand bowed before the mighty on-movings of God's all-conquering grace. We one day met a man on the road, resting his team, who, on being approached, loudly avowed himself an infidel. So tremendous was the pressure under which Uncle John put him that in five minutes, with wonder and penitence written of his face, he gladly bowed to have prayer offered in his behalf, and on arising and parting he said, "I need this Saviour, and will seek Him."
The years 1863-65 found Uncle John working among the soldiers of the Union armies, winning thousands to Christ. A witness to his army labors writes:
In a merely physical point of view his achievement was prodigious. He began his day at roll call, and was in a state of intense activity from sixteen to eighteen hours. He ate little, and slept little, yet never flagged, and never gave out. Week after week, and seven days in the week, the same even high rate of energy was sustained. I suppose there were very few of the eight thousand officers and men of our division with whom in the time he was with us he did not talk, and with the majority of them more than once or twice. I used to see him running in his eagerness to get about. Yet he was as far as possible from being in a hurry. His restlessness was wholly external. He always knew exactly what he was after. His objects were distinctly before him.
Conversing with from 75 to 100 different men a day, he came to the 50th or 60th just as fresh in his manner, just as much interested, just as tender, as at the first. He wasted no words. He went right to the heart of his errand at once,and his bearing was such that it was hardly possible to take offense.
Captured once by Stuart's Confederate Cavalry, he was suspected of being a spy, but so strong was his witness for Christ and so powerful his prayers that he was released with this message to General Stuart: "Take this man's promise that he will not tell of our whereabouts for twenty-four hours, and let us see him out of our lines, or we will have a prayer-meeting from here to Richmond." Uncle John refused a chaplain's commission at one hundred and twenty-five dollars a month in order to be the Tract Society's missionary among the soldiers at twenty- five dollars a month.
In 1868 he worked in Florida and 1869-71 he was out in Kansas and up and down the Pacific Coast, but after that he spent his remaining years in the East. Worn out by sacrificial and intense labors for the salvation of men, he went to be with the Lord on December 6, 1878, from Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
Uncle John practiced the direct approach in personal evangelism. His first question was usually a question about the new birth, such as, "My friend, have you been born again?" He believed that his prospect's first reactions to this question revealed his true spiritual status. If one had been born again, he would not mind the question and would gladly admit the experience; but if he had not been born again, he would likely be confused and make excuses. One pastor who enlisted Uncle John's help describes his work as follows:
On Monday morning he started out, with his districts and families all designated, and began to buttonhole everyone he met with the characteristic question, "Are you sure that you have been born again?" As I was able I went with him. Some remarkable scenes took place. We saw a young man chopping wood in his back yard. We stepped across the road and Uncle John plied him with sword thrusts. The effect was such that he felt prayer was needed, and there by the fence, the youth on one side and we on the other, we took off our hats and prayed. The young man was one of the converts soon. At a store we found another young man alone. He found himself cornered, and submitted to the interview with an ill grace, and a sort of dazed look; but he, too, quickly came to regard that interview with a very different mind. At another place - the post office I think it was - a group was assembled around the stove. He there knelt and prayed and called on me to follow. The town was soon in a blaze over it, and not all of fire from above.
The same pastor gives us another side of Uncle John's approach when he met with stubborn and insolent opposition. He records:
Perhaps I ought to add one incident showing that Uncle John was capable not only of heroic treatment, but of righteous indignation where the circumstance of the case required it. At a house where we had been holding a neighborhood prayer meeting one night a man was visiting who was a stranger to us all. As he was one who remained at the close of the service Uncle John approached him with his tender earnestness and searching questions. But the man in a dogged and discourteous way opposed a flat denial to every statement made, especially those touching his accountability and danger. I shall never forget the change which came over Uncle John's manner. He rose to a Sinaitic attitude above the wretched caviller, and his captious and blasphemous speech, as if for the moment he was wielding the divine thunderbolts, then suddenly softening into an almost equally awful tenderness he fairly dragged him to the mercy seat, and called on us to pray. Whether the fellow was savingly affected or not, I cannot tell, as he left the place the following day, but he was morally cowed that night, and crouched speechless before Uncle John.
Concerning his direct approach, Dr. A. J. Gordon testified:
Hence John Vassar's method was to strike a man at once with the most direct and vital question which could be brought to bear. Instead of hinting by a lengthened introduction what he proposed to do, he did it before his subject had time to gather himself up or brace himself against the attack. And no sooner was the battle opened than it was followed up with the intensest rapidity, by appeal, and argument, and warning, and entreaty, all ending in a most fervent and melting plea at the throne of grace that the Spirit would seal his words to him who had heard them.
He was naturally energetic, vivacious, friendly and sympathetic, but all these qualities were backed up by his habitual and almost unbroken life of prayer. Says one friend:
After visiting all day, he would give a detailed account of his visits, calling the name of every member of the families met, and their spiritual condition. He would then kneel and pour out his heart for them, one by one, naming each particular case in his petition. He was quick to detect the secret of a cold and half-hearted profession.
Another man bears this witness:
He absolutely prayed day and night. Prayed about everything. Prayed for almost everybody, and prayed with almost everybody whom he met. He prayed when he went out, and when he came in. He prayed before every religious service, and then prayed all the way through it. I have roomed with him night after night, and rarely went to sleep without hearing him at prayer, or awoke without finding him at prayer.
On special occasions, Uncle John practiced prayer and fasting. A Civil War soldier said that Uncle John left the print of his knees in every company street of that division. One officer claimed, "I can stand up under any man's prayers but Uncle John Vassar's." In public prayer, he often reached an eloquence and power that seemed to be of another world.
One time he knelt in prayer at the close of Sunday school in a Brooklyn, N.Y., church , and pleaded for the children who gathered around. Soon a boy dropped on his knees and crawled under Uncle John's uplifted arm, and sobbed until the intercessor was surrounded by a group who came to Christ by that prayer.
While working in the Army of the Potomac, he came upon several officers seated around a keg of beer. They invited him to join them and take a drink. He replied that he would have to ask the blessing of God first, and grasping one of them by the arm, he went to his knees and poured out such an ardent prayer for the company that they were glad to let him go.
John Vassar was strong in faith. No individual was too hard or too high and mighty for him to tackle; neither was any person, regardless of what race, or condition, too humble or too poor for him to ignore. Once he labored for some time in the First African Baptist Church of Richmond, Va., a church of some 3,000 members, visiting in homes and at the black schools. A remarkable outpouring of saving grace ensued.
No church or community was too hardened or too hopeless for him to grapple with. "Forbidding circumstances and a gloomy outlook never shook his trust nor tried his tongue. Indeed, he saw no gloomy outlook, for he did not look out so much as up." He believed that the God of Heaven could send a spiritual awakening anywhere if there were enough faith, prayer and personal evangelism.
He came to know his Bible intimately because he was always reading it, meditating upon it, and using it. He could quote the Scriptures with an accuracy and deftness that vanquished opponents and melted lost sinners. Even though his prospect might not believe the Bible, he would not hesitate to use "the sword of the Spirit" just the same. The following story by an eyewitness has been rather well publicized:
While waiting in the parlor to be shown to the gentleman's room, he opened conversation with a very fashionable and proud-looking lady who was sitting in the room. With great concern he began to urge the necessity of the new birth and immediate acceptance of Christ upon her. She was thunderstruck, and protested that she did not believe in any of those things. Then followed a most fervent appeal, texts of Scripture, warnings against rejecting Christ, the certainty of a wrath to come for any found in impenitence, till at last my friend said he was fairly alarmed at the boldness of the assault. Suddenly the gentleman came in for whom he was waiting and called him out. The friend sat watching from behind his newspaper for the effect of the interview. In a moment the lady's husband came in.
"There has been an old man here talking with me about religion," she said.
"Why did you not shut him up?" he asked gruffly.
"He is one of those persons you can't shut up," was her reply.
"If I had been here," he said, "I would have told him very quickly to go about his business."
"If you had seen him you would have thought he was about his business," was her answer.
No truer tribute could be paid to him than that. Never did I see one who could "close in with a soul," as the old Puritans used to phrase it, like he could.
While blunt and abrupt, at the same time he had a tact that was Spirit-taught. He seldom made a blunder. His knowledge of human nature seemed intuitive. He knew the excuses of sinners and sensed the maneuverings of Satan to retain his hold upon them. "He read men at a glance, and pierced the surface of things as by magic. He knew how to approach men, what to say to them, and when to have done with them."
His genuine humility, whole-hearted sincerity, and transparent love disarmed men. Utterly unselfish and self-sacrificing with his time, strength and means, his consuming love for lost souls drove him to the limit to seek their salvation.
Once engaged in conversation with an unsaved person, he was hard to shake off. He would hold on tenaciously and press hard for a decision on the spot. His biographer writes:
Uncle John's tenacity was wonderful. It was hard to shake him off. We entered a house of our congregation with him one day where we met a young man from Virginia who had come North to attend school. The others being Christians, Uncle John soon fastened all the conversation upon him. We never saw him so press and push a soul. He had found a lost sheep, and seemed determined, "shepherd's dog" that he was, to keep at it till he had worried it home. Again and again we feared that he was crowding too hard and too far. But he had been out on many such a service before, and what he was about he knew very well. Before the house was left, a sincere penitent was on his knees pleading for mercy, and was soon rejoicing in Christ as his portion. Three or four years have gone since then, and the one so wrestled with, a useful and earnest Christian now, has many a time blessed the Lord that he was not given up that day.
Rev. J. K. Maning, a friend of Uncle John's, records his impressions of his work as follows:
For three characteristics especially he is remembered here. First, his resort to prayer when met by cavilling or gain-saying tongues, and his readiness to plead with men, and for men, in any place, and in every circumstance.
Second, his persistent holding of the penitent and inquiring soul to the promises of God as the means and source of his comfort. He was the most faithful to the Word of God of any man I ever knew.
Third, the impression made on all minds that doing good was the mission of his life. Many speak of him yet as the man who knew nothing excepting the seeking and saving of souls.
Is not the greatest need of the Christian world today for men of Uncle John Vassar's all-out dedication to personal soul-winning? No one could be exactly like Uncle John, nor would God wish him to be; but if his Christian character, self-sacrifice and burning zeal for the salvation of the lost could be matched in even one hundred men and women of our land today, would not the revival we desire be upon us in a short time?
This article is by Faris Daniel Whitesell and was originally published under the title "Great Personal Workers." Copyrighted 1956 by Moody Bible Institute and is now public domain.
1. Thomas E. Vassar, Uncle John Vassar; or The Fight of Faith (Philadelphia: The Judson Press, 1879, p. 203 (258 pps.)
2. ibid, p. 34
3. ibid, p. 41
4. ibid, p. 6
5. ibid, pp. 50-51
6. ibid, p. 79-80
7. ibid, p. 102-103
8. ibid, p. 89
9. ibid, p. 160
10. ibid, pp. 161-162
11. ibid, p. 12
12. ibid, p. 182
13. ibid, p. 188
14. ibid, p. 109
15. ibid, p. 192
16. ibid, p. 197
17. ibid, p. 200
18. ibid, p. 200
19. ibid, p. 174