One Hundred Year Family Legacy

Joni and Nangsar Morse share their story

The Morse family is the stuff of legends, starting with one young couple answering God’s call to join the mission field in Tibet in 1921. It all started with J. Russell Morse his wife and sons Robert and Eugene. An epic journey from China to Burma then Thailand, and continues today with Russel’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren with Joni Morse, along with his wife Nangsar and their children.

Consider the extraordinary legacy of this fam­ily. When Russel arrived in Tibet in 1921, he was nearly killed by feuding warlords and moved into a mountain­ous area of China near the Burmese border. Ordered by the U.S. consul to leave the region during an outbreak of civil war in 1927, the family made a 70-day trek through snowcapped mountains into Burma. The Morses eventually re­turned to work again in Yun­nan, a remote region of Chi­na where cannibals roamed, Tibetan bandits burned villages, and the chief trade with the outside world was carried on by opium dealers. The nearest hospital was four weeks away by foot. Between 1927 and 1937, the Morse family established some 30 churches and baptized 2,000 converts.

World War II caused the family to be evacuated to Burma.  During the period from 1942 to 1945, Russell, and his sons Eugene and Robert found themselves in the unique position of being able to serve their country while at the same time continuing in missionary work. Because of their knowledge of the people, languages, and geography of the “Hump” area, the Morse men were summoned by the Allied armed forces.  Russel advised the Allies to use a different and safer air route to fly over the Himalayas to Kunming. Meanwhile, young Robert organized tribes to assist airmen who crashed. They walked 21 days through the jungles to Fort Hertz, later known as Putao. Their assignment was to organize and supervise ground search and rescue operations for crews of downed aircraft that were flying over that area. At the end of the war, the Morses received commendations from General Arnold, General George, and General Stratemeyer. On February 10, 1987, at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, J. Russell Morse, Eugene R. Morse, and Robert H. Morse were each awarded the Bronze Star Medal by the U.S. Air Force for outstanding service during World War II.

J. Russell & Gertrude Morse married and answered God's call to join the mission field in Tibet in 1921

In December 1946, after an absence of nine and a half years from the U.S., the Morses returned for a much-needed furlough. Both Eugene and Robert married in 1948 and took their brides, Helen Meyers and Betty Meriwether, with them back to China in early 1949. Eugene was imprisoned briefly in 1949 after the Communists seized power, and Russel was held in solitary confinement and tortured for more than 15 months. Yet the family remained undaunted. During this time, the Morses and several thousand converts created one of Burma’s most pros­perous areas and one that became 90% Christian. They were able to show what Christians working together could achieve. In a valley where there had only been jungle, 35,000 members of the nomadic Lisu and Rawang tribes created 30 villages. Malaria was virtually wiped out.

In 1949, The Communist takeover of China was a major disruption for all Christian work.  The mission had to evacuate all personnel from their stations. The Morses, along with thousands of Lisu Christians and tens of thousands of non-Christian Lisu, were forced to flee to North Burma and settle in the Putao plains. This was a large valley, which previously was almost completely unpopulated except for pockets of Rawang, Shan, and Duleng villages due to the high incidence of deadly malaria. With permission from the government, the Morse family led these Lisu refugees, along with a fresh infusion of Rawang settlers from east of the Mali Hka and Nmai Hka Rivers, to establish model villages across much of the Putao plains. The new settlers worked hard to develop this valley and transform it into their new home. The account of this early work in China and Burma is given in the book, The Dogs May Bark but the Caravan Moves On by Gertrude H. Morse.

In December of 1965, the Morses were uprooted yet again, this time by soldiers of Socialist Dicta­tor Ne Win. The night the order came, 600 Lisu packed the thatch­ roofed church to hear Russel, then 67, read from Mat­thew 10: 23: “When they persecute you in one town, flee for the next; for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the son of man comes.” The family was ordered to leave the country by midnight on December 31, 1965. When it became apparent that they were not going to be able to meet the deadline, the group decided to walk out overland to India. Despite many appeals made to the Indian authorities, permission to cross the border into India was refused. As a result, the Morses spent the next six years living in the jungle. 

Two days into the trek through the jungles, families just walked out of the jungle and started joining the Morse Families. Over 4,000 people. During this six-year wilderness experience in the jungle, no one knew where they were. The US government didn’t know where, yet God provided. Hidden Valley was an area that was previously uninhabited and unexplored except by hunters. It was an area of northern Burma that was un-demarcated and un-administered by any government. During the six years in the jungle, the Morses and thousands of native Christians struggled to live off the land while waiting for definitive word from the Indian border officials for permission to cross over. The group eventually carved out self-contained villages in the wilds, where community life was guided by Christian principles. During this prolonged time of waiting, the Morse family was able to continue Christian teaching and training of national leaders.

A real sense of peace and harmony prevailed throughout this new community for the entire six-year period, right up to the time when a border patrol commission from the Burmese government stumbled across the lost villages in early 1972. The missionaries were called together and plans were put in place to escort them to lower Burma. The Morses now became guests of the military government and spent the next three months at the Mandalay Central Prison. After giving their reasons for their prolonged stay in the jungle, they were allowed to leave the country. Needless to say, the government did all it could to dislodge and disrupt the peaceful communities that had been created deep in the jungles without their knowledge. Most of the people were forced to move out of the area and made to relocate near military outposts. Many were forced to serve as porters for the military and some were killed. The story of their experience is described in detail in the book, Exodus to a Hidden Valley by Eugene R. Morse.

Then in 1972, the missionaries were ordered out of Burma for good. They settled in the city of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. They flew from Rangoon to Bangkok, Thailand, and then returned to the United States to rest, get reacquainted with their homeland after an absence of eleven years, and seek the Lord’s will as to future work. That same year, plans were made to establish a new base of operations and outreach in Thailand.

Russel’s grandson son Joni, his wife Nangsar, and their children became missionaries in Thailand. In fact, over the past four decades, 150 churches in 150 villages have been established among the Lisu, Lahu, Akha, and Chinese. This ongoing work has resulted in over 25,000 believers who have given their lives to Christ. The expanding work necessitated the establishment of multiple ministry hubs to meet the growing need for Bible training, and the development of grassroots leadership. These training centers provide ongoing short-term training to equip the increasing numbers of emerging church workers. Each one of these centers provides training for hundreds of people a year. At least three of the centers in Burma have become four-year Bible schools.

Thailand’s young people are among some of the most “at risk” children in the world. In an attempt to meet the growing educational needs of village children who live in areas where no schools are available, they have established student boarding facilities in key villages and towns located near established government schools. These dormitories have also become ministry hubs from where evangelism and church planting efforts can be launched and coordinated. Many of the children who come to stay in the dormitories are from non-Christian families. Most of these kids end up accepting Christ during their first year of stay at the dormitories. Not long before the parents of these young people also become Christians as church planters follow up on them in their villages. Currently, we have established four student centers in Thailand. Each of the centers now has over forty students enrolled.

Today, the fourth generation of the Morses continues to serve God in various including China, Tibet, Burma, Thailand, India, Nepal, Cambodia, Laos, and Malaysia, as well as other regions of the world. Many members of the Morse family are still based in Thailand with ministries throughout Asia. Other family members are based in North America and continue to be involved in missions, reaching the unreached for the Lord and raising up disciples of Jesus. 

If you were inspired by this story, we would love to tell you more about Eastside. We have a relentless love and commitment for all to know God. We are committed to finding unique ways to serve our local communities and help our global neighbors. If you want to learn more about ways to make a difference in Thailand, visit

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