James Fraser, born in London, was an accomplished pianist and engineer, with a promising career ahead of him. A little booklet on the neglected multitudes who didn’t know Jesus challenged the direction his life was going. He caught a vision for a life of whole-hearted surrender to God, and joined the China Inland Mission at the age of 22. Fraser was stationed in a remote location in the Yunnan province of China. He was drawn to the unique culture of the unreached Lisu people, who lived in mountain villages on the border of China and Burma. As a lover of nature and a mountain-climber, he loved making frequent treks into the mountains to meet and share the good news of Jesus with the Lisu. He received a warm welcome, living in their mud-floor huts and learning their language.
After initial success, Fraser persevered through many difficult years, facing loneliness, depression, near-death experiences, tough physical conditions that tested his endurance, and discouragement (after the first Lisu family to follow Jesus reverted back to ancestral worship). In the midst of ministry “not working,” he learned about spiritual warfare and began to actively resist the devil in prayer. He starting praying in faith for the Lisu, anticipating that God had already answered his requests.
Back in England, a prayer team for the Lisu emerged. Fraser wrote to them, “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.”
The turning point in prayer birthed a turning point in the ministry. Six years after arriving in China he and fellow missionaries began to see scores of families coming to Jesus and finding freedom from the fear of evil spirits that had dominated their lives before—600 new believers were baptized within a four month period. Within two years a gospel movement was being led by indigenous believers to evangelize families.
Fraser excelled at organizing people into strong indigenous churches, and his approach influenced work across China and other nations. From the beginning, he trained churches to be self-supporting, funding their own pastors and missionaries apart from outside aid. Through the efforts of the indigenous evangelists that he mobilized, 60,000 were baptized.
As revival spread, Fraser developed an alphabet for the Lisu people, which still stands today as their official alphabet, and also designed a musical notation system to transcribe their oral history songs. Fraser immediately began translation of the gospel of Mark and a hymnbook (as the Lisu people were very musical), and later worked on a catechism and the book of John. Eventually, with the help of several others, including his wife Leila, an entire New Testament translation was completed.
James O. Fraser died prematurely of cerebral malaria in West Yunnan at the age of 52, leaving his pregnant wife and two children. He was never satisfied with the “success” of his ministry, longing to see more of God’s power and glory unleashed in China, even up until his death. Fraser is considered one of the most successful missionaries to East Asia. Now, nearly 80 years after Fraser’s death, it is estimated that 80–90% of the Lisu people follow Jesus.