The half-starved Chinese prisoners in Yangcheng were rioting. In the center was a man with a large bloody kitchen meat cleaver. All were shouting. Several men had already collapsed on the ground, mortally wounded. The warden called to A-Weh-Deh, “Go in and stop them!” The woman known to foreigners by her English name, Gladys Aylward, stood trembling at the entrance. “Why me?” she gasped. The warden challenged, “You tell us your God is all powerful. Is He or is He not?”
“He is,” she declared, seeking to bolster her courage, as she stepped into the sandy courtyard. “But only through the help of Jesus will I prevail, for the Gospel of God in our Bible states, ‘I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.’”
One pair of eyes after another eyed the “Foreign Devil.” Hardly imposing, a whisper thin woman about thirty years of age, standing 4’10” tall, Gladys spoke to the man with the cleaver with unexpected authority, “Give me the cleaver,” she commanded. Astonishingly, he did. Then to the prisoners, “Now form yourselves into ranks and tell me what this is all about.”
Gladys May Aylward was born on a cold February day in 1902 in London. Her family were hardworking, honest people, and faithful in their attendance at the Anglican church. Gladys never forgot the day when in Sunday School the clergyman spoke of missionaries who worked far off in China. She left the church in a daze, her mind whirling. From then on she dreamed one day of serving the Lord there, even though she had to quit school to go to work at 14 and had no money.
Twelve years passed but the call remained steady in her heart. She applied to the China Inland Mission, but was turned down. “You really don’t have the capacity to learn a difficult language like Chinese,” the principal told her as kindly he could, “and we prefer candidates who are younger and more able to adapt.”
While working as a parlor maid for Sir Francis Younghusband, a famous military officer who had served in the Far East, she discovered that he had an impressive library, from which she borrowed liberally. Then one day she learned of Mrs. Jennie Lawson, an elderly widow working as a missionary in China, who had written, asking for someone to go and help her. Gladys saw this invitation as her opportunity. She wrote Mrs. Lawson, and started putting a down payment on a railway ticket to the coast of China which, though more dangerous, was half the price of the sea route. After working extra hours and week-ends, virtually spending nothing on herself, and then selling her hope chest, she had enough for the passage by year’s end.
“Bundled up in an orange frock worn over a coat, Gladys was a curious looking traveler, resembling a gypsy more than a missionary” (Tucker p. 250).
On October the 15th, 1932, Gladys set off on the long train journey to the land of her calling. She knew that she had no money to buy food on the way, so packed her suitcase with corned beef, baked beans, fish, crackers, hard-boiled eggs and other items. She experienced mixed emotions on the journey. She felt very much alone, but had an abiding peace that she was doing the will of God. She arrived in China on the 8th of November, 1932 (Preacher’s Blog).
An overland trip of a month took her to Yancheng, where she met the widowed Scottish independent missionary then in her seventies.
Mrs. Lawson’s missionary strategy was to establish The Inn of the Eight Happinesses. Yangchen was an overnight stop for mule caravans that carried coal, raw cotton, pots and iron goods on six-week or three-month journeys. Lawson and Gladys provided forage for the mules, a nourishing supper, and then would entertain the men with Bible stories as a Christian witness.
As time when on, Gladys became fluent in Chinese and learned to work with Lawson who was in increasing stages of dementia. She died, a short time after Gladys’ arrival, thus leaving her to manage the inn only with the help of an older Chinese helper. One day she was visited by the local Mandarin (magistrate), a man held in the highest honor and even fear by the local citizens. He asked that she assist him by becoming his “foot inspector,” making sure that the new laws against the ancient custom of female foot binding were being complied with. As a result, A-Weh-Deh (“the virtuous one”) became increasingly known and respect by the citizenry not only of Yancheng, but also of the villages in the whole territory.
Wherever she went, she not only examined feet, but also spoke of the Lord Jesus and the salvation He offered to all who believed. “After 2,000 years, the Gospel had finally come to these mountain villages, and it was she, a tiny woman from a modest house on 67 Cheddington Road, delivering it in a sing-songy mountain dialect of Chinese” (Wellman p. 103). Only two years before she had been a parlor maid in an English manor. Over the years, little groups of believers in each of these villages began meeting together to worship the Lord—fruit of her ministry.
In was during this time that the Prison Riot occurred. Noting the miserable condition of the prisoners, the basic cause of the riot, she insisted that the warden allow the men to work to provide better clothing for themselves. She was able to secure two looms for them to make cloth for clothes and to sell, plus a mill for grinding grain. She encouraged hygiene and visited often to speak of Jesus and to encourage them. One man who responded was a leader named Feng.
One day she saw a poor woman sitting by a wall with a small, very dirty child. “Is that your child?” Gladys asked her. “It looks very sick.” “What is that to you?” the woman replied with hostility. “Do you want to buy her or not?” Shocked at the idea of selling a human being, Gladys asked the price. All she had was nine pence. The woman agreed, probably sure that the infant would die anyhow. Though Gladys gave her the official name of Mei-en (“Beautiful Grace”) she always called her Ninepence. This was the first child she adopted. Soon she had more, many more, especially as the country erupted into war.
The local Mandarin (magistrate) liked to talk with her. He spoke of his long years of education in the Confucian classics. As Gladys listened, she came to appreciate the Confucian ethical content but noted the lack of a provision of spiritual power such as she knew through the Holy Spirit, the missing hope of forgiveness through the sacrifice of Christ, and a total absence of expectation of life beyond the grave.
He also shared news with her: the periodic flooding of the Yellow River, the problems of poverty and ignorance of the populace, but most of all the invasion of the Japanese with planes and troops coming ever nearer. She felt more and more identified with the people and decided to become a Chinese citizen.
One day the Mandarin invited her to a special dinner. The prison warden was there, as were other officials, and several wealthy merchants. Then he stood and gave a speech:
From the other side of the world Ai-Weh-Deh journeyed to China, owing allegiance only to her living God. She brought her Christianity to Yang-cheng. She had not sat hidden inside a temple contemplating how virtuous she was. She had unbound the feet of infants. She had helped the poor. She had visited the jails. She had taken orphans under her roof. She had nursed the wounded.
Her faith was alive. More than anyone the Mandarin had ever met, Ai-Weh-Deh demonstrated the power of love. She loved China so much she became a citizen…The Mandarin admitted he had debated with her the merits of her faith against the merits of his old Confucius ways, a hundred times. But Confucianism lives in my head, not in my heart, as Christianity does in Ai-Weh-Deh and her converts. [As a result] I wish to become a Christian! (Wellman, p. 155).
She made friends with officers of the Chinese Nationalist army, led by Chiang Kai-shek. At one time she thought she was in love with Colonel Linnan who wanted to marry her. But she realized they had two very different goals in life, and above all, he was not a Christian. Through Linnan she came to see that China not only faced the danger of the Japanese invasion, but that another Chinese army, the Communists, while now collaborating with the Nationalists, would one day provoke a civil war.
Meanwhile the war uprooted people. Four times Yangcheng was bombed and overrun by the Japanese; each time the people returned when the invaders left. Then one day Gladys was informed that the Japanese had put a price on her head; her friends urged her to leave. As the invading army came closer, she gathered up her children and made preparations to seek sanctuary in the far West in Xian. Other joined them. A whole orphanage was entrusted to her care. Soon she was leading 100 children, some of them mere infants.
The prison warden wondered what to do with the prisoners. They couldn’t travel in chains. Custom dictated that he behead them all. Shocked, Gladys presented a scheme to the Mandarin to place them under the care of relatives who would be responsible for them. No one took Feng, the leader, so she did, and he was a great help to her on the long march to safety.
The Long March
“You can’t go by the roads,” her friends warned her, “or the Japanese will see you and strafe you with their planes.” Through little used trails and over high mountains she led her brood. Their cloth shoes wore out, the small children began to cry, and all were hungry. Arriving at the broad Yellow River, she asked herself, “Whatever can I do now?” Then, unexpectedly, the Nationalist army allowed her to use their boats to ferry everyone across.
Once, while alone, some Japanese soldiers saw her and tried to shoot her. Running into a field of grain, she escaped, though bullets tore through her clothes and one plowed a furrow in her back.
When they finally reached Xian, Gladys was exhausted and ill. She collapsed and was in a semi-coma for weeks. She had a fever of 105 degrees, typhus, pneumonia, and malnutrition. Finally she recovered, and was happy that all the children had been received by one family or institution or other.
She continued working with refugees, lepers, anyone who needed help. She brought to the hopeless the hope of Christ. An American doctor observing the lepers, noted: “Their bodies are so contorted with disease, they cannot kneel. Their hands are so crippled, they can barely receive the elements. Yet their eyes flame with joy and hope. All because Gladys Aylward brought them Christ” (Wellman p. 190).
Once on a long trip she found a Buddhist monastery hidden in a deep valley amid high mountains. She was surprised to discover that they were expecting her. “Here at long last is the messenger we have waited for,” they said, as they accepted her message of salvation through Christ (Wellman p. 191).
Back in England
Her friends insisted she take her first furlough after 17 years, to see her family and recover her strength. Through a popular biography (The Small Woman by Alan Burgess); a Hollywood movie of her life, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, starring Ingrid Bergman, which received numerous awards;[i] and a BBC interview on “This is Your life,” she became an international figure. She was invited to many places to tell her story and dined with such dignitaries as the Archbishop of Canterbury and even Queen Elizabeth. For a time she was possibly the best known missionary in the world (Tucker).
Elisabeth Elliot recalls a conversation she had with Gladys after hearing her speak in Canada:
I sat on the sofa and talked of missions, missionaries and particularly of single missionaries. I had been widowed four years earlier, and she, of course, had never married. Not that she had never thought of marrying, however. She told me how she had worked happily for six or seven years in China alone, when a missionary couple came to work nearby. She then began to ponder the privilege that was theirs and to wonder if it might not be a lovely thing to be married.
She talked to the Lord about it. She was a no-nonsense woman and very direct and straightforward and she asked God to call a man from England, send him straight out to China, straight to where she was, and have him propose. I can't forget the next line. With a look of even deeper intensity, she shook her little bony finger in my face and said, "Elisabeth, I believe God answers prayer. He called him," and here there was a very brief pause and an intense whisper, which carried more power than her loudest voice. “He called him, but he never came” (Elliot).
The Last Days
But after ten years in England, China beckoned again. Gladys settled in Taiwan, and once again began working with orphans. She opened the Gladys Aylward Orphanage, and within days it was filled with children. She used her fame and prestige to raise money for them. When the burden became too great as her strength began to fail with increasing age, the Lord sent Kathleen Langton-Smith from England to help her with administration. Then one day a wealthy man came to her with a proposition. “I’m opening a very large orphanage and am looking for children to care for,” he informed her. “Oh, what a blessing,” she replied. “I’ll give you most of mine and Kathleen and I’ll only keep twenty babies for ourselves to care for.”
On New Year’s morning, 1970, just one month shy of her sixty-eighth birthday, after speaking to soldiers' wives at the American army base, Gladys went to bed without supper, and later that night slipped into the presence of the Lord she had served so faithfully. Her body now lies in a marble tomb on a hill in the garden of Christ’s College at Taipei, the capital of Taiwan (Swift).
In an interview during her later years, she had expressed her surprise at God’s call to serve Him in China with all her educational limitations. She confided:
I wasn’t God’s first choice for what I’ve done for China. There was somebody else…I don’t know who it was—God’s first choice. It must have been a man—a wonderful man. A well-educated man. I don’t know what happened. Perhaps he died. Perhaps he wasn’t willing…And God looked down…and saw Gladys Aylward (Thompson, p. 183).
Burgess, Alan. The Small Woman. New York: Dutton, 1957.
Elliot, Elisabeth. Gateway to Joy.
Swift, Catherine. Gladys Aylward. The Courageous English missionary whose life defied all expectations. Minneapolis: Bethany, 1989.
Thompson, Phyllis. A Transparent Woman: The Compelling Story of Gladys Aylward. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971.
Tucker, Ruth. From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983.
Wellman, Sam. Gladys Aylward. For the Children of China. Ulrichsville, OH: Barbour, 1998.
[i] Though a well-produced and heartwarming movie, it was a thorn in the side of Gladys. It deeply embarrassed her because the movie was so full of inaccuracies. She felt the love scenes soiled her reputation. However, Ingrid Bergman was so moved by her role in this movie that she was eager to meet the missionary. She even flew to Taiwan where she lived, but only days before she arrived, Gladys got the flu and died.
The story goes on to say that Ingrid “fell down by ‘the Small Women’s’ bed and wept, saying she was unworthy to play the life of such a woman of God. Katherine, Gladys’ co-worker, then had the opportunity to lead Ingrid through the steps to peace with God, showing her that Christ had died for her sins. Ingrid prayed the prayer of repentance and received Jesus as her Savior and Lord”. Twelve years later, in 1982, Ingrid died of cancer. Wilson adds, “Although her movie career had won her many accolades, Ingrid’s greatest reward was receiving eternal life through Jesus Christ.” (Christy Wilson, Jr., More to be Desired than Gold, South Hamilton: MA, Gordon-Conwell Seminary Book Centre, 4th Edition, 1998, p. 6. A collection of true stories given in his missions lectures at Gordon-Conwell Seminary.)