Mr Rea was born in Co. Armagh, near to Portadown. He was saved in 1866. He had been fairly wild and reckless but almost as soon as he was saved the change was seen. He began to testify to the grace of God and did so until the end of a fruitful and useful life. Two years after his conversion he began preaching in a full time capacity in association with the Irish Evangelization Society, in company with men who feared God and preached the gospel faithfully. But, reading the Scriptures with care, he learned that the evangelist should be Gods freeman, not controlled by men or committees. As a result he severed his connection with the Society and, until the end came, he sought to go where the Lord would guide him and ever depended upon Him to provide for him. A great sense of impartiality and the lack of the fear of man marked him, and wherever he went he preached boldly what he believed to be the truth of God. The day of Christ alone will fully reveal the fruits of his ministry.
Writing at the time of Mr Reas death, Mr Henry Pickering said, "Twenty five years ago, when Mr Rea was in the full vigour of manhood, spiritual and temporal, it was well worthwhile walking ten miles any night to hear his burning words of gospel grace, flowing forth with a natural eloquence, a spiritual penetration, a deepening and soul conviction, soul awakening, soul saving force, which we have never seen equalled in any of our gospel halls before or since". Many are the stories of campaigning days in the north, south, and west of Ireland, in Liverpool, London, Barnstaple, Glasgow, Aberdeen and in many other parts, sometimes alone, at other times with fellow labourers of kindred spirit. In his early days he encountered fierce opposition, at times in danger of death. In Ballymena no building was found to cope with the substantial crowds. In his large tent seating 2,000 he saw great work done in Belfast and Dublin.
Mr Rea had a wholesome fear of making spurious converts, and discouraged after meetings of the sort in which people were asked to stand up, profess faith, sign covenant cards, and such like. He preached the word solemnly and faithfully leaving God to do His own work, which He never fails to do. Many of his former fellow labourers had gone home before him but despite suffering much in his body, he kept at the gospel. His intention was to accompany his son Tom, who was an earnest evangelist and much used, on yet another preaching tour of the west of Ireland, but God ordered it otherwise and he was laid aside. The last hours on earth were full of peace and heavenly joy; among his last words to his son who watched by his bed were, "This is the best time I have had on earth, how lovely. The morning of heaven is dawning. I am lying just outside the gate I long to go in". Clasping his hands, he sang a favourite verse and with the name of the One he had served on his lips, he passed into the presence of his Lord and Master. His friends Messrs Martin, McLaughlin, and Darling conducted the services which closed with the singing of his favourite hymn The City Foursquare. Many wept and turned away from the grave to try and serve as he had done.