J. Russell & Gertrude Morse and Four Generations of Ministry to Southeast Asia and Beyond
By Russell Johnson
Starting from humble beginnings, the Morse family has made an eternal impact in lands few others had ever tried to reach. The Morses’ journey has taken them through some of the highest mountain passes in the world, where they discovered dozens of tribes who had never heard the name of Jesus.
The early years were often devastating and discouraging. Several of the Morses’ friends were buried on unnamed mountainsides halfway around the world from their families. In time, some of these missionaries were left homeless by surging floods. Others struggled to survive in villages where they did not know the languages and customs. Some were imprisoned and tortured by communists. Their faith was tested in every season. But through decades of perseverance, the gospel of Christ prevailed.
Since those earliest years, thousands have embraced God’s amazing grace. People who had never heard of Jesus discovered his gospel of hope. Many became active in sharing the light of God’s Word with others still living in darkness. The story of the Morse family and the dozens of missionaries who joined them is nearing 100 years. Three themes are woven through the tapestry of this mission:
PRAYER—Only God. Faithful prayer gave birth to a mission that gave birth to a movement.
POWER—Only the Holy Spirit. God’s Helper alone could have mobilized the people and resources into this harvest of changed lives. The Lord’s strength has provided comfort and endurance in the face of hardship and persecution. The power of his Spirit has sustained good people in the face of excruciating odds.
PURPOSE—Only Jesus. What started as a Gospel “mustard seed” effort has grown to impact millions. As we near a century of the Morse mission, four generations of missionaries and full-time Christian servants have encouraged millions. Multitudes are experiencing a relationship with the loving God and a living hope in an eternal Savior.
(MAIN IMAGE, from left to right: Robert, Ruth Margaret, Eugene, Gertrude, LaVerne, and J. Russell Morse.)
Beginning a Ministry and a Movement: 1898–1922
This movement started with a mother’s prayer for one more child to dedicate into God’s service as a missionary. Ruth McKenzie Morse discovered the answer to her prayer in the birth of Justin Russell Morse on February 4, 1898, in Alexandria, South Dakota.
J. Russell Morse would become a “Johnny Appleseed” of the gospel throughout Southeast Asia.
In the 1920s, America was recovering from the trauma of World War I. J. Russell was in his early 20s and studying at Phillips University in Enid, Oklahoma. He and his new wife, Gertrude (Howe) Morse, attended a meeting held by veteran medical missionary Dr. Albert Shelton, who issued an impassioned plea for missionary recruits to join him in the work at Tibet’s border. The newlywed couple, sensing God’s leading, responded to the call. They did not know that Dr. Shelton had only eight months to live. The Lord was preparing this young family to lead in ways only he could sustain!
On August 13, 1921, J. Russell and Gertrude, along with their 4-month-old son, Eugene, and other new missionaries boarded a steamship and traveled with Dr. and Mrs. Shelton to Southeast Asia. They arrived in the port of Haiphong (Vietnam), then continued the next leg of their journey by narrow-gage train and packhorse caravan. For more than 80 days they traveled on foot on unmarked passages, often climbing through treacherous mountain passes. Some mountain peaks were more than a 15,000 feet high. The determined team finally arrived at the mission station in Batang on December 23, 1921.
Tragically, a short time later, Dr. Shelton was shot by bandits while returning home from a medical trip; he died Feb. 17, 1922, with J. Russell and Dr. Harding at his side. Among Dr. Shelton’s last words to his trusted friends: “Hold the fort and carry on the work.” At 24, the Morses inherited a mission vision that only God’s guidance, power, and provision could sustain. Witnessing Dr. Shelton’s life and sharing in his death deepened their resolve to serve the Lord with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength.
Persistent in Preaching the Gospel: 1922–1946
The next few years were extremely difficult. In the face of daunting tasks, prayer lives were forged. This Midwest family—which had already traveled halfway around the world, climbed some of the highest mountains, traversed ravines, crossed the wildest rivers, and learned some of the most difficult languages in the world—they faced bandits, diseases, and tremendous spiritual warfare. Through all of this, they persisted in visiting and preaching the gospel in remote areas, often where white men had never been.
They learned to depend totally on God, who sustained and delivered them. In the years ahead, the Lisu people became very receptive, and soon dozens of churches were established along the Mekong River and the passes into the Salween Valley.
They introduced the God of creation, the message of Christ’s love, and the hope of Heaven to thousands. J. Russell witnessed the hunger in their hearts, later recalling how he awoke in the middle of the night, opened the front door, and saw a multitude of people sleeping on the ground waiting to hear more about the God of the Bible. The Morses walked the mountain trails and met the physical needs of the sick, baptized new believers, planted Bible schools, and soon were establishing preacher training events.
In 1931, after a 30-day walking venture across rivers with no bridges and over mountains that had little more than a path, J. Russell said he had never been more tired . . . and never more happy to see people responding to the gospel.
During the 1920s, two more sons, Robert and LaVerne, were born to the family. Then in the 1930s, Gertrude gave birth to their youngest child, a daughter, Ruth Margaret. In the years that followed, they adopted two sisters, Anzie and Drema Esther. Later, Anzie died of typhoid. The work continued through the next generations, as their children served alongside of their parents to share the gospel with the surrounding villages and neighboring countries.
In the early 1940s, the Japanese invaded and bombed China and massacred millions. Allied forces repeatedly flew missions over “The Hump” from Northeast India to resupply the nationalist Chinese—a dangerous mission in which more than 3,000 planes were lost due to weather and high mountains.
Allied forces needed search and rescue teams to save downed pilots, so J. Russell and sons Robert and Eugene volunteered; they organized local Christians in this effort, as they were familiar with the terrain, people, and languages. Years later, all three missionaries received Bronze Stars. Their story was told in the action picture magazine Mission Rescue published by the Standard Publishing Company.
After the war, the family returned to the U.S. for a brief furlough and much-needed rest. During this time, Eugene and Robert met their future wives, Helen and Betty.
Also during this furlough, a handful of Restoration Movement leaders met with J. Russell, Eugene, and Marian Schaefer in the Southern California home of Mr. and Mrs. John Chase. That prayer meeting gave birth to the National Missionary Convention.
The NMC’s purpose was to encourage hundreds of missionaries and future servants to enlist in the work of reaching those who had never heard the name of Christ; the event is now known as the International Conference On Missions (ICOM). Over the past 70 years, this annual celebration of service has seen thousands from around the world be enlisted, equipped, and encouraged for mission work. (See more about the NMC and ICOM in Emily Drayne’s Horizon’s article in this issue.)
What started with a prayer meeting in California was moved by the power of God’s Spirit to engage thousands in missions for the purpose of reaching millions for Christ.
Staying the Course through Calamity: 1946–1953
When Eugene and Robert with their wives, they did not know they were on the doorstep of a revolution that would change world history. After World War II, the Communist Revolution led by Mao Zedong (formerly written as Mao Tse Tung) began a scourge that slaughtered tens of millions of Chinese and thousands of Americans and missionaries.
Upon the Morses’ return to China, the emerging communist armies prevented them from reaching their mission stations. They were forced to turn back to the city of Kunming. With the advancing communists only hours away, LaVerne rented an airplane that made three trips into Likiang and rescued Eugene’s family and mission workers. Ruth Margaret, age 14, escaped Kunming via a Lutheran airlift, before the communists took over in 1949. The entire family escaped the Communist Revolution except for J. Russell, who stayed behind to help with the wounded and sick.
On March 22, 1951, J. Russell was arrested and imprisoned. He could not communicate with the outside world for 15 months. He was kept in solitary confinement, starved, tortured, beaten, and humiliated to the point of death (which would have come as blessed relief). The graphic images of missionaries executed convinced many that J. Russell had suffered the same fate. Pictures of missionaries appeared in national magazines, alerting the American public of their peril.
Christians across America began to share in a movement of prayer, including an Inglewood, California, congregation that engaged in a 24-hour, 7-day season of fasting and prayer. God responded when J. Russell was released from prison with no formal explanation. He made his way to the border of Hong Kong, arriving on June 20, 1952, with $1.42 in his pocket. At the time, he had no idea that God’s providence had led his wife and son LaVerne to the precise place where they would find the exhausted missionary. Gertrude and LaVerne had traveled to Hong Kong in search of information, not knowing they would discover their husband and father a free man.
God had more missions in store for the Morse family. (You can read more of their stories in The Dogs May Bark, but the Caravan Moves On, by Gertrude and Helen Morse.)
After J. Russell’s release, they returned to the United States for a time of refreshing. The family visited many who had faithfully prayed for his release. While traveling across America, they spoke to many churches, on college campuses, and at mission rallies, where many new missionaries were recruited. Hundreds of missionaries were encouraged to stay the course, recalibrate their efforts, and reach the lost in need of amazing grace. During this time, LaVerne met and married Lois Elliot.
God’s Work through Adversity: 1956-Present
Even after the tragic deaths of dozens of missionaries and the devastation to thousands of Christian families, the Lord laid on the Morses’ hearts the need to return to Asia. They were relentless, and God led them to their new mission base in northern Burma. There, in the Putao Plains, they established the North Burma Christian Mission in 1956. Faithful prayer led to the power to persevere that helped the missionaries to see God’s purpose in the harvest of changed lives.
During the next 15 years, tens of thousands came to Christ. The kingdom of God moved forward and took new territories that most people had only read about. The Lisu and Rawang peoples, with whom the Morses primarily worked, were fervent in their faith. They were natural evangelists, taking the gospel to dozens of other tribes and peoples . . . and reaching into southern China, Thailand, Laos, India, and Cambodia. This was a season of “Golden Harvest” as thousands responded to the gospel of hope, planting hundreds of churches that are faithful to this day.
But then the Morse family encountered strong adversity yet again.
In 1965, Burma ordered all foreigners and missionaries to leave; the country closed its doors. The family learned the army was coming. In the middle of the night, they, along with thousands of others, began a journey of more than 100 miles on foot. It led them high into the mountains where the Morse family would see few outsiders for more than six years.
As they settled into several villages, the Lord’s work began moving forward in places never before visited by outsiders. The people there heard the saving grace of God through Christ Jesus for the first time. The hunger for hope escalated and thousands responded. These years and experiences became instrumental in training the younger generation for their future work in Thailand. (Reader’s Digest published Eugene Morse’s article “Exodus to Hidden Valley” describing that time.)
Early one morning in 1972, the missionaries awoke to the sound of army helicopters. The Burmese government arrested the entire family. They were escorted through the jungle to a prison where they were held for three months. One day a helicopter took the small children and elderly to a separate prison. This imprisonment, 20 years after J. Russell’s confinement in China, only welded their determination that Satan would not have the last word.
Within months they were released into Thailand where the family reassembled in Chaing Mai, and they discovered many other Asian tribes open to the gospel of Christ. The family continues to reach into the countries on every border until this present day.
While most of the family was in Hidden Valley from 1965 to 1972, LaVerne became a missions professor at Cincinnati Bible Seminary and started Asian Christian Services, which empowers Asian leaders in local ministries to this day. Ruth Margaret Johnson, daughter of J. Russell and Gertrude, engaged in a life devoted to prayer and generosity toward Asian missionaries her parents had helped to disciple.
The grandchildren to this tribe of missionaries are engaged in the Lord’s work around the world. It’s truly remarkable to see how the Lord has taken average people with uncommon determination, grit, courage, and commitment . . . and brought about a harvest impacting millions. The Lord has raised up many steadfast families who are now woven into the tapestry of God’s mission in Asia. In Heaven alone will we fully realize the impact of lives whose eternal trajectory has forever been changed.
Even though they have gone to be with the Lord, J. Russell, Gertrude, and their children’s witness still speak. Their message to leaders across the Restoration Movement is this: God’s Word is still heralded through the generations!
Russell Johnson is a grandson of J. Russell and Gertrude Morse. He serves as vice president and relationship manager with The Solomon Foundation, Parker, Colorado.