The Rev. John Osborne Bisset, 86, co-founder of church, youth ranch

May 26, 2002|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,SUN STAFF

When the Rev. John Osborne Bisset spoke, people listened.

Whether it was curious onlookers at a sweltering tent revival in Overlea, or revenue agents from Carroll County or throngs of youngsters who descended on his ranch every summer, the thundering Scotsman got their attention.

Known as "Uncle John" to generations of congregants, Mr. Bisset died Friday of heart failure at a critical-care facility in New Oxford, Pa., where he had been moved from the Carroll County ranch that was his life's passion and spiritual calling. He was 86.

"Young people are not running with glee to hear the Gospel," he said in 1975, in describing his plans for a youth ministry dude ranch in Millers. "So with great subtlety, we called it River Valley Ranch, because it is attractive."

With that characteristically straightforward appeal, he persuaded a Maryland court to grant him a tax exemption on a 472-acre parcel near the Pennsylvania border.

"When he wanted to, he could bring out that Scottish brogue, and you had no choice but to listen," said his son Stephen Bisset with a laugh. "He certainly wasn't soft-spoken, let's put it that way."

In a black ten-gallon hat, satin neckerchief and cowboy boots, Mr. Bisset presided over 60 horses, a small herd of buffalo, a bunkhouse full of cowhands and several hundred Bible-study kids.

"He was great with kids - had a great sense of humor and a gentle guiding hand," recalled Mary Ruth Bisset, who came to the ranch as a teen-age camp counselor and later married Mr. Bisset's son Tom.

"But he was also the man in charge, no doubt about that. He had an almost aristocratic bearing about him, even though he was a minister and truly didn't own a thing. He was a bit on the stocky side, but he had this presence that made him seem larger - larger than life, you might say."

Mr. Bisset was born in a mill town near Glasgow, the son of a steelworker. As a boy, the future evangelist became smitten with images of the American West he found in a book owned by his brother.

"I always had a desire to be a Westerner," he told The Sun in 1992.

In 1930, he drew closer to his dream when his family immigrated to the United States. By then, he and his brother Peter had been converted in a revival movement that had swept through Scotland when they were boys.

In 1934, Mr. Bisset left his family's home in Paramus, N.J., to attend a Bible school in upstate New York, where he met his wife-to-be, Barbara Orange.

The couple married in 1936, then moved to Jersey Shore, Pa., where he headed a small congregation before moving to Chicago to train for missionary work in 1942. Stymied in his attempts to get an overseas visa by World War II, however, he migrated to Baltimore three years later to become pastor of the Overlea Baptist Church.

Joined by his brother, Mr. Bisset conducted old-time tent revivals in the parking lot of the church on summer nights, calling sinners home with his commanding baritone.

"He was stubborn, powerful, outspoken and strong-willed," recalled Stephen Bisset of Laurel. "He wore a kilt sometimes, and he also wore a cowboy hat. It was an interesting combination. ... Oh, he had charisma, no doubt about that."

By 1948, he had taken the show to the airwaves. With his brother Peter and the Rev. Paul Plack, Mr. Bisset provided the third voice in the weekly "Peter, Paul and John" radio ministry on station WFBR - a mix of singing, sermons and Bible reading.

The next year, the trio took the show to WBMD and beefed it up to a daily half-hour program. With the departure of Mr. Plack in 1952, the brothers founded the "Peter and John Radio Ministry," which acquired River Valley Ranch, a religious bookstore and, by 1964, radio station WRBS-FM.

The brothers also founded Arlington Baptist Church in Pimlico, which later moved to Randallstown, and Grace Bible Church in Manchester.

But it was the ranch - with its weekend rodeos, stagecoach rides and roundups - that claimed Mr. Bisset's heart and attention. There, he served as director from 1952 to 1998, preaching the virtues of "a Western vacation with spiritual values."

Services will be held at 10 a.m. Wednesday at Arlington Baptist Church, 3030 N. Rolling Road.

In addition to his son, Mr. Bisset is survived by his wife of 66 years, Barbara G. Bisset of Millers; a daughter, Sharon Bisset, also of Millers; two other sons, Thomas Bisset of Lutherville and Charles Bisset of Kaslo, British Columbia; and six grandchildren. His brother died in 1995.

Donations may be made in his name to the Founder's Legacy Endowment of the Peter and John Radio Fellowship, 8711 Liberty Plaza Mall, Baltimore 21133.

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