Gladys Aylward


The Small Woman with a Big Heart for China



By Mary Brogi, Washington UBF



“But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” (1 Corinthians 1: 27-28)


Have you ever had a strong urge to do something great but no one seems to take you seriously? Or do you ever feel that God couldn’t possibly use you because of your own limitations?  Then we need to meet this woman whom God used amazingly regardless of her humble human backgrounds.  Her name is Gladys Aylward.  She was a tiny British woman with no formal training, no special talents or social status, yet she believed she heard the call of God to be a missionary to China. 


God said, “Get Out!”


            Gladys Aylward was born in England in 1902.  After accepting Christ at an evangelical meeting and reading a magazine article calling for missionaries, she felt a burden from God to go to China.  At the age of 26 she enrolled with the China Inland Mission.  At the end of 3 months of training she was told that she was not qualified to be a missionary because she did poorly on the examinations.  Gladys was dismissed.  Disappointed but still determined, she went to work for a retired missionary couple from China as a housemaid.  Knowing her sense of failure, the couple encouraged her to trust God wholeheartedly and to study the Bible.  When she read the Bible, God spoke to her clearly through Genesis 12:1 “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will show thee…” The voice “Get out” echoed powerfully in her mind that she asked “To where?”  God said, “To China!”


Without money and mission support, she couldn’t go.  So she worked for a famous explorer as a parlor maid.  In her tiny room, where she thought she should have been in China, she put down her Bible and emptied her purse with a few pennies.  She prayed earnestly, “Oh, God.  Here is my Bible.  Here is my money.  Here is me!  Use me, God!”  She kept reading about China and about women missionaries in China.  She started saving her meager wages to pay for a ticket to China one day. 


            Later, when she heard that a 73 year-old elderly missionary, Mrs. Jeannie Lawson, needed an assistant to continue the mission in the city of Yangcheng, Gladys immediately volunteered and wrote a letter to her.  With a single letter of invitation from Jeannie, Gladys set out for China.  But, she didn’t have enough money to pay for a sea fare so she bought a one-way train ticket, half the price, but a much longer and dangerous journey to take.  No one had ever imagined of going to China by train!  In October 1932, at age 30, with no education, little money, and no mission board to support her, she got on the train by faith.  All she had were her passport, her Bible, her tickets and her 2 luggage bags with a frying pan hanging in one of her bags.

            Once the train passed half of the east of England, Gladys left to board a ship to Holland.  Then she got on another train to go to Russia.  The train passed through Germany and Poland and yet another train moved toward Moscow.  Half way across Siberia at the station in Chita she was told the train would not take her to Harbin in Manchuria because of the war between the Russians and the warlord Chang Hsueh-liang.  But Gladys remained in the train while all the civilians one by one got off until only the Russian soldiers got on.  In the end, she was the only woman on the train. 


When the train finally stopped somewhere, suddenly everybody was gone.  When she heard gunfire, she got off the train.  Someone told her to go back to Chita and find another train to Vladivostok.  She had no choice but to walk back to Chita right away because the snow would soon cover the railroad tracks.  In the midst of freezing cold and in the black night, she walked through a tunnel.  She prayed, “Oh, God. Give me courage.”  She heard what she thought were dogs barking. But she learned later that it was a pack of wolves howling in the Siberian wildermess.  When she could no longer walk, she slept under her 2 luggage bags tented into a temporary hut.


Finally, Gladys got back to Chita the next day.   She demanded that the railway officials let her go toward China because she was sold a ticket.  So, they allowed her to take a train to Vladivostok, but there she was confined by the Russian KGB.  Next day knowing that she was a British citizen, the Russian took her passport and persuaded her to stay in Russia and work for the “great communist state,” but she refused.  Suddenly a mysterious English speaking woman appeared and told her to get out of Vladivostok right away because the secret police would force her to stay in Russia.  Actually, what they did was to change her profession on her passport from “Missionary” to “Machinist” so that they could say she volunteered to stay in the Russian work camp.  


Later, when the secret police did return with her passport, he tried to force himself on her.  Gladys screamed,  “God, protect me!  God, protect me!”   Finally, he gave up, but swore at her angrily, threw the passport at her and let her go.   Surely it was only God’s protection that got her though so many encounters with such terrible people.  From there she boarded on a Japanese freighter to Kobe and then a steamer boat to the port of Tientsin in China, finally the country she longed to see. 


            As Gladys landed on Chinese soil, she remembered her two sorrows as a child. One, that “all of my friends had beautiful golden hair, but mine was black.  And when all my friends were still growing, I stopped.”  She said, “When I just arrived in China, I looked around at all the people to whom Jehovah God had sent me and I saw that every single one of them had black hair and every single one of them stopped growing when I did.  And I said, “Lord, You know what You are doing.’”


A Mother For the Chinese People


In Yangcheng, Jeannie Lawson managed an inn for muleteers driving mule trains across the mountains.  The inn was called “The inn of Eight Happinesses.”  Jeannie and Gladys prepared food for mules and meals and warm beds for the muleteers to stay overnight.  But no one came fearing these 2 European women were “foreign devils.”   So Gladys had to yank the rein of the lead mule to the courtyard, but the men refused to come in.  Eventually the muleteers had no choice but to follow their mules to the inn.  They were given good food and warm beds and their mules were well cared for.  And there was free entertainment in the evening.  Jeannie told stories about a man named Jesus, hoping that these men might tell the stories wherever they traveled. 


            A few months after Gladys arrived in Yangcheng, Jeannie Lawson suffered a severe fall and died.  Gladys was left to run the mission alone.  She studied the Chinese language all the harder because now she had to tell the Bible stories to the muleteers in the inn.


            Gladys’ work was recognized by the Mandarin, the highest official in the region.  He appointed Gladys as a foot inspector to go to all of his jurisdictions to inform people of the new decree of the Chiang Kai-shek’s Government and to unbind women’s feet as quickly as possible.  At first, Gladys didn’t want to do the job since she had a mission at the inn.  However, she realized this was another door God was opening to her. So she accepted the position with one condition that she would speak to the villagers about Jesus Christ freely.  The Mandarin agreed.


            Once the decree was announced Gladys went to unbind the women’s tiny feet.  To further make her point she took off her cloth shoes and let every woman and girl inspect her own feet if they wished.  They had never seen a woman with such monstrously large feet!  (Gladys wore size 3 shoes!) The feet of girls over 10 years old seemed beyond rehabilitation.  They were hideously deformed and their toes were curled grotesquely back under the feet.   Since Gladys was fully devoted to relieve the suffering of the Chinese people, it moved the heart of the Mandarin.  Later, he confessed that he wished to become a Christian like Gladys because he saw in her the power of love of Christ.   Meanwhile, her official position and her compassion for the people also helped calm the suspicion of the villagers who used to throw mud at her calling her “foreign devil.”


            During her second year in Yangcheng, there was a riot in the men’s prison that no one could control.   The Mandarin sent her there to stop the riot.  What was a foreign missionary woman to do in the chaotic prison where convicts such as murderers, bandits and thieves were rioting and killing each other?  Gladys asked, “Why don’t you send the soldiers to stop it?  If I went in, they will kill me!”  The prison governor said, “How can they kill you?  You tell everybody that you have the living God inside you.  You preach it everywhere –in the streets and villages.”  Gladys prayed, “Oh God, give me strength” and she went in.  There were several dead bodies in the courtyard of the prison and blood everywhere.  A convict with a meat axe with blood on it was ready to strike.  Gladys prayed in her heart, “God, do your will.”  She stepped toward the man and commanded, “Hand that axe to me.”  Should he strike this “foreign devil?”  Suddenly his face dissolved into meekness and he handed her the axe.  She restored order in the hellish prison and later even helped to improve the prison conditions.  Gladys’s nickname changed from “foreign devil” to “Ai-Weh-Deh,” which means a “Virtuous one.  Gladys simply depended on God for help and served the Chinese people. 


Gladys disliked and disapproved some of the unreasonable, inhumane Chinese customs and laws, but she didn’t protest trying to change them.  She just exemplified the love of Christ because of her compassion for the people. Gladys adopted several children who were abandoned and being sold.  Many more orphans flocked around her at the inn until she had about 200 children under her care.  Her love and servantship would eventually win the respect of the poor Chinese.  She lived frugally like the villagers and she dressed like them.  In 1936 because of her love for the people of China Gladys officially became a Chinese citizen.


In the spring of 1937, the Japanese bombed the city of Yangcheng, killing many and causing the survivors to flee to the mountains.  Within China the Communists were fighting the Nationalists.  There was war everywhere.  The Japanese army occupied and left, then came again and left.  Each time Gladys and her orphaned children fled to mountains and lived in caves.  Every time the Japanese army left, Gladys came to check on the inn walking days sometimes, and once getting hit by a bullet on her shoulder.  During this dangerous trip, she prayed, “Oh! Sweet Jesus, deliver me from the battle.”  When she came back to the inn, she helped bury the dead and nursed wounded soldiers.  One night, a party of Japanese soldiers came demanding women.  When Gladys refused, one soldier slammed his rifle into her head and other soldiers kicked her ruthlessly into unconsciousness. 


Knowing that she might not go back to England alive, she wrote to her parents, “Life is pitiful, death so familiar, suffering and pain so common, yet I would not be anywhere else.  Do not wish me out of this or any way seek to get me out, for I will not be got out while this trial is on.  These are my people, God has given them to me, and I’ll live or die with them for Him and His glory.” 


Marching with the Orphans


Since she sided with the Nationalist soldiers and gave them important information, the Japanese identified her as a spy.  They posted a $100 reward for her capture.   Now Gladys and her orphans were no longer safe.  She had to move her orphans to a government orphanage in Sian, located a few hundred miles away.  She and her 100 orphans, 70 of them between the ages 4 and 7, set out for a long walking trip, avoiding main trails and sleeping in shelters and mountainsides. The young boys were helpful to scout and inform them of the movements of the Japanese or the Communists ahead of them.  The most helpless ones were the older girls whose feet used to be bound.  They were weak and crippled. 


After 12 days of walking they arrived at the Yellow River.  But there were no boats to take them across.  All boat traffic had stopped because of the war.  Exhausted and hungry they camped by the river.  As days dragged on, the orphan children asked Gladys naively,  “Why don’t we cross like Moses crossed the Red Sea?”  “God can do anything.  Ask Him to get us across!”  So, they all knelt and prayed.  Then they sang hymns.  The singing of 100 little ones reached a Nationalist patrol officer.  He eventually got them a boat, but warned Gladys how dangerous it would be to cross.  The enemy planes along the river might shoot them ruthlessly.  It was again God’s miracle and protection that after 3 trips all 100 children and Gladys were safely on the other side of the river. 


Then they had to get on a train, which came to a dead stop because the Japanese destroyed the bridge.  Their only hope was to walk across the rugged mountains avoiding the Japanese army.   Now, the children were all in rags.  They lost their shoes, chopsticks, and bowls.  They had long run out of food.   The children’s bodies seem to grow weaker and their heads moved powerlessly as they trudged along the rugged mountains.  But Gladys was the sickest of all. 


What was Gladys to do?  She prayed, “Oh, God.  Give me strength.  Give me wisdom.”  It was not clear to me how God fed them, but somehow, they kept going.  At one point on the trail, Gladys flopped beside the trail.  She broke down and cried.  Soon the entire group of children seemed to be wailing uncontrollably.  Gladys forced herself to stand up and said, “It’s good to have a big cry once in a while.  Now, that’s enough – all of you.  We’ll sing a hymn and march down.”  Then they walked on.  God was surely guiding the poor children.  Finally after 27 exhausting days and shivering nights, she brought all of her 100 children, not missing one child, safely to the orphanage in Fu Feng and her body collapsed.  She had been suffering from typhus, pneumonia, and relapsing fever of 105 degrees, malnutrition and supreme exhaustion.


            Once she gradually regained her strength, she resumed her ministry in this new region, sharing the gospel with the villagers, prisoners and among lepers.  She was far more than a nurse or a comforter.  She brought the hopeless the hope of Christ.  She was a mother-shepherd to the Chinese people.  However, her health was permanently impaired by injuries received during the war.  After almost 20 years in China, with the help of her mission colleagues who raised money for her trip, Gladys returned to England for a badly needed operation and remained in England preaching there.  While in England she often felt depressed because of her heart for China.  She tried to return to China, but the Communist closed China to all foreigners.  Thousands were fleeing China.  No one tried to get in – except for Gladys. The only place she could go was the island of Farmosa, Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist stronghold, which is now called Taiwan.  Once she settled in Taipei, orphans started coming to her.  She attracted orphans like a magnet.  There Gladys Aylward, the small woman who was unqualified to be a missionary served until her death in 1970.


What struck me most about this woman were her determination and willingness to obey God’s calling at any cost, her simple dependence on God through prayer, and her compassion for the Chinese people.  Gladys loved to speak in metaphors; “God had a man, well-educated, strong, handsome, as talented as one of the Cambridge Seven, all lined up to go to China in 1930.  But one of those great mysteries in God’s plan happened.  The man was not available.  So God looked around and saw a simple London parlor maid, homely, poor, and ignorant – but willing!  Finger jabbing at them she would shout, ‘Look inside your own hearts and see if you are willing to obey God.’”


            The God who called Gladys is the same God who called many self-supporting UBF missionaries all over the world.  I don’t know how they go or why they go, but one thing I do know is that they all go willingly whether they are qualified or unqualified.  With one hundred dollars in his pocket, an airline ticket, and a Bible, one young missionary came to America in 1978.  Many others also came by faith in obedience to Jesus’ world mission command.   This was how God blessed our ministry here in Washington.  Today, there is a young, able missionary in China, who is crying out for two assistants to help him to teach the Bible to students in Yanbian.  Who will go for God?  Who will be willing to go to save souls in Muslim and Communist countries?    For me and my family, I never picture us to go outside College Park.  But who knows!  When God says, “Get out!” we will get out.