James O. Fraser

Missionary to the Lisu People

At the age of 20, James Fraser had a very promising future. Soon to become an honors student in engineering, a field of study which at the beginning of the 20th century held immense prospects world wide, and with the gifting to become a concert pianist, Fraser’s career plans seemed clear. However, the words contained in a small booklet given to him by a fellow student challenged his life-plan assumptions down to the core.

“A command has been given: ‘Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature.’ It has not been obeyed. More than half the people in the world have never yet heard the Gospel. What are we to say to this? Surely it concerns us Christians very seriously. For we are the people who are responsible …”

“If our Master returned today to find millions of people un-evangelised, and looked as of course He would look, to us for an explanation, I cannot imagine what explanation we should have to give … Of one thing I am certain¾that most of the excuses we are accustomed to make with such good conscience now, we should be wholly ashamed of then.”

James O. Fraser

Total Surrender

As Fraser read these challenging words from a little booklet with a strange title, Do Not Say, he found that the attitude of mind called into question was the very one he was taking, albeit subconsciously, by the way he was living and planning his life. What followed was not so much a call to China, but a simple, wholehearted submission and dedication of his life to be a true disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ. There were to be no divided allegiances but a total giving of himself to the One who gave his all. Clearly, the sacrifice involved was real as Fraser knew he had good prospects, but the ambitions he had dreamed about gave way to a much greater ambition of living his life unreservedly for God.

Growing up, Fraser had developed his powers of perseverance through a variety of ways. His passion and love of music was clearly seen by his ability to play without any scores the best classical music, hour after hour. He once walked 44 miles in one day to London and back, and on another occasion rode 199 miles on his bicycle without dismounting. He was equally persevering in his studies, excelling in mathematics and passing the London University Matriculation, twelfth in all England. Little did he know that this strength to persevere was to be sorely tested during the next 30 years of his life in a remote part of China reaching out to the Lisu people.

After graduation, Fraser wasted no time in applying to the China Inland Mission, founded by Hudson Taylor, for training to prepare him for overseas missionary service. In 1908 he set sail for China.

Drawn to the Lisu

Fraser was selected to work in Yunnan province, a neglected rural area in southwestern China. Fraser was in his element as he loved the outdoors and mountain climbing. While immersing himself in the Chinese language and culture, Fraser noticed different tribal groups in the Chinese marketplace including the Lisu. These people did not speak Chinese, wore their own traditional costumes and had never heard of the Lord Jesus Christ. It was to these people that Fraser was drawn.

The ensuing years of his life saw many hardships, both physical and spiritual. He established the beginnings of a small church in the city of Baoshan and then, traveling on horseback over rugged mountainous terrain, he took the gospel to the Lisu and other tribes in villages scattered over the Salween Valley. Living in hard conditions and often on meager food, he suffered with bouts of loneliness and depression, passivity, near death and discouragement as finally the first Lisu family turned to the Lord, only to then turn back to ancestral worship.

For years Fraser had been praying for a spiritual breakthrough among the Lisu, especially after he realized that they needed to be set free from bondage to demon worship. But during a period of intense spiritual oppression he received a copy of The Overcomer, a magazine he had not heard of before. Through these articles by Jessie Penn-Lewis, Fraser realized afresh that Satan was indeed a conquered enemy. Satan had attempted to destroy him as a missionary as he had dared to invade territory the enemy had controlled for ages. However, through Christ’s death and resurrection the victory was assured.

“I read it [The Overcomer] over and over … What it showed me was that deliverance from the power of the evil one comes through definite resistance on the grounds of the cross. I am an engineer and believe in things working. I want to see them work. I had found that much of the spiritual teaching one hears does not seem to work. We need different truth at different times. ‘’Look to the Lord,’ some will say. ‘Resist the devil’ is also Scripture (James 4:7). And I found it worked. That cloud of depression dispersed. I found that I could have victory in the spiritual realm whenever I wanted it. The Lord Himself resisted the devil vocally: ‘Get thee behind me, Satan!’ I, in humble dependence on Him, did the same. I talked to Satan at that time, using the promises of Scripture as weapons. And they worked. Right then, the terrible oppression began to pass away.”

Such revelation did not bring immediate results with seeing a breakthrough among the Lisu, whom he saw trapped in bondage to fear and given over to alcohol and gambling. Fraser was learning that only through intimacy with God and a life of prayer could the powers of darkness be overcome, both within himself and in those to whom he was reaching out.

James O. Fraser
James O. Fraser

Prayer of Faith

Fraser learned the importance of the prayer of faith and realized much time had been wasted through ineffective praying, believing God would answer instead of knowing that he had answered already and therefore receiving the answer when the prayer was offered. With this revelation Fraser asked in faith for hundreds of Lisu families to give their lives to Christ. When the transaction was done, he rose with the deep restful conviction that he had already received the answer. Some years later when the Lisu started coming to faith, Fraser remarked that some may now say that his prayer had finally been answered but that this was incorrect. He had received the answer to his prayer the day he had prayed on January 12, 1915. As God taught him about prayer and faith, he shared these truths with his prayer partners in England.

Having others praying for him and his work among the Lisu was a key factor to seeing the breakthrough among the Lisu. Started by Fraser’s mother, over time a prayer team developed back in Letchworth, England. Fraser wrote to them,

“I will not labor the point. You will see from what I am saying that I am not asking you just to give ‘help’ in prayer as a sort of sideline, but I am trying to roll the main responsibility of this prayer warfare on you. I want you to take the burden of these people upon your shoulders. I want you to wrestle with God for them.”

Six years after arriving in China, the breakthrough occurred. Within a four month period, 600 Lisu representing 129 families had turned away from Satan and followed Jesus Christ! An indigenous church planting movement was ignited with Lisu believers leading scores of other Lisu villages and families to Christ.

The conversion of the Lisu is one of the greatest stories in mission history. Today, there are an estimated 300,000 Lisu Christians in China, with more among the Lisu living in Myanmar and Thailand. Before his untimely death at only 52 from cerebral malaria in 1938, Fraser devised a written script for the Lisu nationality (recognized by the Chinese government in 1992) and was instrumental in translating the Christian New Testament into Lisu.

For some years Fraser oversaw the whole work of the China Inland Mission in China’s Yunnan Province. His missionary views were not always received. For example, he felt indigenous methods must be adopted, he did not wish the Lisu to expect or become dependent on financial support from outside sources, and he believed in missionary wives being equal partners in the work. He married late in life, aged 41.

Spiritual Dissatisfaction

Towards the end of his life, Fraser became increasingly dissatisfied with what some considered successful ministry and longed for a powerful visitation of the glory of God and Holy Spirit revival, both among those serving as missionaries and among the Chinese and Lisu Christians. He was impacted through the ministry of missionary-revivalist Jonathan Goforth and found some kindred spirits in Andrew Gih and John Sung of the Bethel Band in China. He had also seen great blessing and revival come to the churches in west Yunnan through the ministry of Anna Christensen from Denmark. Fraser had seen God work among the Lisu, but a desire to see a far greater and deeper demonstration of the power of the Holy Spirit, as evidenced in the Book of Acts, led Fraser to shut himself away and spend hours in prayer. Within weeks, this apostle to the Lisu was gone.

Today, Fraser is remembered as one of the most successful Christian missionaries in East Asia in modern times.

James O. Fraser

~By Stuart Simpson, actor portraying James Fraser in Breakthrough