John Rae was born on 20th May, 1838, in a country home in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. He, the eldest of a family of three boys, when but a young lad, experienced the loss of a father. His mother was a very pious, prayerful woman, and always mindful that God should be acknowledged in the home; John thus had to lead in the giving of thanks at meal time and in prayer at family worship. Though knowing nothing of the new birth, he was not without soul conviction, and had for a long time a desire to know more about eternal things. However, he went on for some years classed as a very exemplary young Christian, and at the age of twelve gave an address on missionary work, for which he was commended by friends. This, of course, pleased his saintly mother, whose one desire was to see her three boys engaged in religious work.
When in his teens he went to work as an apprentice at a watch-making business, and succeeded well until he had to leave and return to the farm where his family still lived, and where he was put in full charge of the work. He remained there until he was twenty-one years old. About the year 1859, during the marvellous movement of the Spirit of God all over the British Isles when hundreds were brought to Christ, the late Reginald Radcliffe, a Liverpool lawyer, visited Johns home town, preached the gospel one Saturday night, and passed on elsewhere. Hearts were reached, and work done for eternity. How John yearned to have peace with God. His years of religion utterly failed to give this. He and a companion talked that night about these all-important matters, and just after he had parted from his friend the question came home to his mind, "How do I know that God is willing to save me? I know that He is able". Right then that Scripture flashed into his mind: "Him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out" (Jn 6.37). Seeing his welcome, he simply came as he was, and, trusting Christ, was born of God. Upon reaching his home, he went to his mothers room, and said, "Mother, I feel a supreme love to Christ to-night".
His mothers ambitions were about to be realised, as she thought, now that John had decidedly confessed Christ and desired to preach, so she encouraged him to go in for being a "minister". He soon developed a decided gift in the gospel, and was appointed as a home missionary in Greenock. Souls were saved and many were blessed by his efforts at that time, but a change was soon to take place in the order of things. He became quite concerned about believers baptism. He approached his minister, under whom he laboured as a city missionary, telling him boldly how God had been pressing this truth upon him. The minister strongly opposed this step, but, nothing daunted, John determined he must be baptised at any cost.
He was baptised, and now joined with a group of "baptists" thinking that it was a little nearer Gods order, and very soon became an active missionary among them. He was still mightily used of God in the salvation of sinners. Those who heard him preach soon learned his worth. However, greater changes were yet to take place. The Lord was gently leading His servant on in the truth of God, and in that path of faith and absolute dependence upon Himself, till at last he felt that he could no longer remain under any human yoke, wishing to teach and preach the truth of God as directed by Himself alone. However, this meant something to him, being married, with a growing family. He freely confided in his wife who encouraged him to put God and His claims first.
Where should he go, or what should he do? These became burning questions. He had learned of a little company of believers in the community, so he went to one of their gatherings to observe the Lords Supper. This impressed him much, and as soon as he felt free he left the work in which he was engaged and, together with his wife, came into fellowship with an assembly of believers. This was a big step, and one that brought down the disapproval of his relatives and friends, but the smile of God was more to him than human approval.
For a number of years he laboured in various parts of Scotland, residing in Greenock, Helensburgh, Elgin, Forres, and New Deer. At the latter place he resided for eight years before setting out for Canada, a desire long laid upon his heart to fulfil.
In June, 1884, he landed in Canada, making his first home at High Bluff, Manitoba. There he farmed for two seasons, hoping to make farmers of his four sons. This, however, utterly failed, and God graciously squeezed him off the farm and back to his loved work as an evangelist. He removed to the town of Portage La Prairie where he remained for about two years, and his testimony there was blessed. After this he moved to Brandon, Manitoba, where he laboured faithfully, and soon a little assembly was planted. John Rae found many open doors throughout the territories of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and North Dakota. For fully thirty-five years he laboured on these vast prairies. Souls were saved and little assemblies formed here and there. He was truly the pioneer evangelist of Western Canada, and knew what it was to "endure hardness, as a good soldier".
A great part of his time in his later years was spent in visiting various assemblies, looking up isolated Christians, and caring for old and young who had in any way become discouraged or turned aside. He was in a special way a shepherd, and by his gentle manner and kindly counsel won many hearts. He undertook many long journeys by rail in these years, rendering valuable service along the Pacific Coast, from Nanaimo, British Columbia, down to Oakland, California, and various cities in between, such as Portland, Seattle, Victoria, and Vancouver. His last long trip was taken in the autumn of 1918, in which he encircled a large portion of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, calling upon the various companies of Gods people, and to the sorrow of some told them that he was paying his last visit. On his return to Estevan, where he had made his home for the previous twelve or thirteen years, he seemed to completely collapse, being worn out by the long journey. When speaking of this trip and the field of activities, he said, "Its getting far too big for me now". He seemingly failed to realise that it was he who was becoming too feeble to continue his former activities and accomplish the work of former days.
During 1919 he rarely went any distance from home, but attended regularly the meetings in the little hall adjoining his house until about the early part of the winter, when in the extreme cold he felt unable to walk the few steps to the hall. He gradually got weaker, but remained buoyant in spirit and exceedingly happy. Frequently in speaking to his friends he said he was just waiting for his new body. On 28th January, 1920, about 2am, still exceedingly weak, but his mind clear as ever, he went to be with the Lord. He was in his eighty-second year, "old, and full of days". His remains were taken to Vancouver, and laid in Mountain View Cemetery, to await the glorious resurrection morning.