31 Days of Missionary Stories: J. O. Fraser: Pianist and Engineer Turned Missionary

I first came across the name of J. O. Fraser in writings of Isobel Kuhn, whom I have mentioned here many times. The Lord used him to call Isobel to the mission field, and in later years he was her superintendent in China. Two good biographies of him are Behind the Ranges by Geraldine Taylor and a later one, Mountain Rain, by his daughter, Eileen Crossman. Both books contain many of Fraser’s letters and journal entries. They both appear to be out of print, but thankfully used copies and Kindle editions are available. His name is not as well known as Hudson Taylor and Amy Carmichael, but his remarkable life and character are well worth reading.

FraserJames Outram Fraser was born to a prominent English family in London in 1886. He was trained as both an engineer and a classical pianist. As a young man he came across a tract written to Christians urging them to give their lives to reach the lost in China. Something in it touched a heart prepared, and he at that time gave Christ “not the latch key, but the master key” of his life. He looked on that moment as his conversion.

After applying to the China Inland Mission and training, he went to China as a missionary. One market day in his village, he met some men from a tribe called the Lisu. His heart went out to them. They lived in the mountains of the area, six days journey northward. “I was very much led out in prayer for these people, right from the beginning. Something seemed to draw me to them; and the desire in my heart grew til it became a burden that God would give us hundreds of converts among the Lisu.” Workers were scarce in China: to go to the Lisu meant that James would have to go alone as an itinerant pioneer missionary traveling out to them from time to time as he could, and the Lisu villages were so spread out that he could not stay for long at one place. Other areas were more promising, but James felt led to the Lisu.

So he traveled to them and visited them. They were greatly open, friendly, cheerful, hospitable though living in poverty and squalor. James dressed as they dressed, ate as they ate, traveling on foot or by donkey up and down steep mountain ranges (and, by his description, thoroughly enjoying it!) He told them about the one true God. They listened well. Some were interested, but they lived in great fear. They did not worship idols. They worshiped demons themselves. They didn’t particularly want to or enjoy doing so, but they were trapped. The demons could quite literally make their lives miserable.

He learned much over time and with experience about how to work with the Lisu and about dealing with unseen principalities and powers. One article that came to him just when needed showed him “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…The passive side of leaving everything to the Lord Jesus as our life, while blessedly true, was not all that was needed just then. Definite resistance on the ground of the cross was what brought me light….’Resist the devil’ is also Scripture (James 4:7). And I found that it worked. That cloud of depression dispersed. I found that I could have the 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.”

He also leaned much on the intercessory prayer of others. He asked his mother to gather some prayer helpers, folks who would definitely undertake for his ministry in prayer. He began to correspond with them about what he was learning about prayer.

Little by little the seed of the Word was planted and the ground of hearts tilled. Little by little battles were fought for spiritual territory the evil one had claimed for himself; little by little ground was won. Just when James was ready to conceded that God’s time was not now for the Lisu, he made one “last” trip through all the villages, and then it was that the Lord of the harvest brought forth a bumper crop.

He found that even with as little teaching as he was able to give them before having to travel on to the next village, they taught others all they knew. The Lord eventually raised up more workers, and the church grew in numbers and in grace.

James wrote to his prayer helpers,

They [the Lisu] have not yet grown to military age in this spiritual warfare; they are babes in God’s nursery, not warriors in God’s army. But you have centuries of Christianity behind you, you have had Christian education, Christian influence, an open Bible, devotional helps, and many other things to help you in your growth to spiritual maturity. So now you belong to those of full stature in Christ, who are able to ‘help with power against the enemy.’ The vast difference between you and them is that you are ‘grown up’ in Christ, while they are babes and sucklings; and the work of pulling down Satan’s strongholds requires strong men, not infants.

He was asking his supporters to treat their prayer as more than a sideline. “I am trying to roll the main responsibility of this prayer-warfare on you,” he told them. “I want you to take the BURDEN of these people upon your shoulders, I want you to wrestle with God for them.”

 I feel like a businessman who perceives that a certain line of goods pays better than any other in his store, and who purposes making it his chief investment; who, in fact, sees an inexhaustible supply and an almost unlimited demand for a profitable article and intends to go in for it more than anything else.

The DEMAND is the lost state of these tens of thousands of Lisu and Kachin — their ignorance, their superstitions, their sinfulness; their bodies, their minds, their soul; the SUPPLY is the grace of God to meet his need — to be brought down to them by the persevering prayers of a considerable company of God’s people. All I want to do is, as a kind of middleman, to bring the supply and demand together.

The Lisu language had not been reduced to writing, so James developed a script which later became known as the Fraser alphabet and eventually translated the New Testament and other aids into Lisu.

One unique mark of his ministry was that the work was indigenous from the beginning. According to Wikipedia:

Fraser maintained a consistent policy of training the Lisu converts (usually whole households and whole villages at a time) to be self-supporting and to pay for their own books and church buildings. They raised their own funds for the support of pastors, of wives and children of their travelling evangelists and of festivals and other occasions. Unlike other missionaries of his generation, Fraser would not pay local preachers to go out, or for building local church structures, and this was something that put the Lisu in good stead for the years of Japanese occupation and the Communist persecution, particularly during the Chinese cultural revolution. Nevertheless tens of thousands of them fled during this era to neighboring Burma and Thailand. Fraser also left church government in the hands of Lisu elders; very little imprint was made on them that had a home church character, other than the tremendous prayer support the Fraser organised back in England for the Lisu and his work.

He also established the Rainy Season Bible Schools (Isobel Kuhn writes much about these),  systematic Bible study during the times when they could not work at their farming.

When James returned from furlough, he was needed in a different area of China: those in charge felt his experience would be best suited to the needs of that region. He was greatly disappointed. F.B. Meyer prayed, “I can’t say I’m willing, Lord, but I’m willing to be made willing,”  and James seemed to know that kind of prayer as well. He “knew the barrenness of obeying reluctantly. Recognition that God’s will was ‘perfect and acceptable’ would be costly, but it was always fruitful.”

He had not planned to be married, but the Lord definitely led in his marriage at the age of 42. He was drawn more into the administrative side of the work as God raised up more laborers in the field, and they counted his help and guidance as greatly valuable. All were stunned at his death at the age of 52 from malignant cerebral malaria.

In character he was known as a godly man with a quick mind, “ahead of his time” in missionary work and methods, kindly, humorous.  One traveling with him once said, “Mr. Fraser is a gentleman to his fingertips. There was nothing of lightness or flippancy. Wisdom governed him and every propriety was observed…He was the perfect gentleman in the dirtiest and dingiest Chinese inns…Every courtesy was observed. Every kindness was done. The depth of his inward life in Christ was never more manifest than in his attention to those hundred and one little things which make comfort for others.”

I discovered a DVD called Breakthrough: The Story of James O. Fraser and the Lisu People, but I have not seen it. Here is a trailer for it:

You can read more about Fraser online here:

About James O. Fraser (Overseas Missionary Fellowship site, formerly the China Inland Mission)
Quotes of J. O. Fraser
J. O. Fraser: Biographical Sketch
The Prayer of Faith

(You can see other posts in the 31 Days of Missionary Stories here.)

6 thoughts on “31 Days of Missionary Stories: J. O. Fraser: Pianist and Engineer Turned Missionary

  1. Pingback: 31 Days of Missionary Stories | Stray Thoughts

  2. Barbara, being a pianist and an engineer, I am vastly interested to read more about Fraser. Thanks for the heads up — I am just now catching up on your posts. They have been most enlightening. Once again, thank you for taking all the time to write your posts.

  3. Pingback: 31 Days of Missionary Stories: Pedestals? | Stray Thoughts

  4. Pingback: Saturday Review of Books: October 26, 2013 | Semicolon

  5. I really love Fraser my self. I read about him in Leslie T. Lyall’s book ‘a passion for the impossible’. I didn’t really know he later married. I am really stirred up by your write-up. God bless you.

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