Fraser was born in 1886 into a well-to-do and prominent English family. His father was an outstanding veterinary surgeon who also was involved in politics. His mother was a very godly woman who nurtured him in the faith from childhood. Those who knew him later in life testified to the fact that he had the stern self-discipline of a Henry Martyn, the consuming passion for souls similar to that of David Brainerd, and the sustained zeal of his prayer life recalling the fervor of Praying Hyde.
He was very athletically inclined and had a good physique. During summer holidays he and a cousin liked to go mountain climbing in Switzerland. It was also reported that on one occasion he rode his bicycle 199 miles without once stopping. These activities were all good preparation for what the Lord had for him a little later on.
He did well in school, graduating with honors from a school of engineering by the age of 21, and looked forward to what could have been a very prosperous profession in the engineering field. But about the time of his graduation, he was handed a little paperback book entitled Do Not Say. Written by a missionary to China, it challenged the reader to give his life to reach the unreached people of that great nation. It spoke to James' heart, and rather than going into the field for which he had prepared, he made his preparations to go to China under the China Inland Mission. He arrived on the field when he was 22 years of age.
He threw himself heartily into the formidable task of learning the Chinese language and, as did all the CIM missionaries, adapted Chinese clothes, lived in Chinese quarters, and ate the Chinese food. He made great progress in the language, but his heart was to reach the unreached tribal groups in the southwest province of Yunnan in the very rugged mountains that bordered Burma.
For some months he was confined to the lowlands, where he continued his language study, but in the market places he had occasional contact with the tribal people who came out to the large markets of the Chinese cities. In due time he was able to go into the mountain areas to reach these lovable people who were bound by demonism. His career was largely an itinerant ministry through the mountains to the many scattered small villages where he lived with the people, ate their fare, and shared their simple houses. These people had no written language at that time. Living as closely as he did with them and having a very quick mind, he learned the Lisu language, devised an alphabet (and script) for it, and began translation work of the Bible and other helps for these people. The work was very slow at first, because they were bound by demon worship. But as time went on, ones and twos and then scores of these simple mountain people turned to the Lord.
We at GFA have repeatedly emphasized the importance of indigenization of a ministry from the very beginning, and a good textbook on indigenous principles is one of the biographies of J. O. Fraser. From the very onset, these people were encouraged to and did build their own chapels and finance their own ministry. On Fraser's long—many times a month to six weeks at a time—itinerations, they, without pay, traveled with him and carried his few belongings on the difficult mountain journeys. It was entirely indigenous from the very onset and was no doubt one of the major factors for the very rapid growth among these people.
He also introduced to the people the systematic study of the Bible through simple rainy-season Bible schools. At a time when they were not involved in the farming of their hillside plots of ground, they gathered at one place or another for a month of Bible study. At first, it was the very simple, the very rudimentary truths of the Gospel; but as time progressed it became a more in-depth type of study.
Because of his administrative abilities, he was on several occasions posted at other places, even in the headquarters office temporarily. But his heart was always with the tribespeople, and he returned to them as soon as possible. From small beginnings, thousands of these people came to Christ through the ministry of this very dedicated man and later through his co-workers.
One of the secrets, along with the indigenization principle, was the power of prayer. He had a circle of friends in England who prayed very specifically and diligently for him. These were prayer cells, first organized by his mother and then expanded across Great Britain and elsewhere, where small groups of people would gather on a regular basis to pray specifically for his ministry. He carried on a very extensive correspondence with these small groups of prayer friends. He attributed much of the success to the prayers of these saints of God.
He really had no settled home. He was on the go almost all the time in an itinerant type of ministry. Two of his most faithful co-workers were John and Isobel Kuhn. Isobel had heard Fraser speak in Bellingham, WA, at the Firs Conference Center. She was impressed by his dedication, sincerity, and missionary stories. The Lord used that conference to deepen her desire to go as a missionary. She subsequently left the career she was pursuing and went to Moody Bible Institute to prepare for missionary work in China. She met John Kuhn at Moody, and they served together among the Lisu people in China. Later, after having to leave because of the Communist uprising, they served together among the tribal groups in Thailand.
In his early 40s, Fraser finally married Roxie Dymond. She was half his age, but they were a good match. They worked well together, but their married life was rather brief; for at the age of 52 he became ill and, in 1938, died what would seem to have been a premature death. The impact that this man left on the hill tribes of southwest China remains to the present.
If you wish to learn more details of this remarkable man, several excellent biographies are available. The first that I recommend is Behind the Ranges by Mrs. Howard Taylor, which was first published in 1944. The second, entitled Mountain Rain, was written by Fraser's daughter, Mrs. Eileen Crossman. Due to her father's early death, she really did not know him well; but by utilizing CIM archives and her father's extensive correspondence, she has written an excellent biography of him.