Gladys May Aylward (1902—1970) was a British missionary to China who escorted nearly one hundred orphaned children on a dangerous journey through the mountains to safety during the Japanese invasion of China in 1938. Alan Burgess’s 1957 biography of Gladys Aylward (The Small Woman) focused the international spotlight on the humble woman and inspired a popular movie titled Inn of the Sixth Happiness, starring Ingrid Bergman.
Gladys Aylward grew up in Edmonton, North London, one of three children born to postman Thomas John Aylward and his wife, Rosina. In her early teens, Aylward began working in domestic service and became a Christian at eighteen. Feeling called to missionary work in China, she enrolled in the China Inland Mission’s three-month preparatory course. The mission eventually rejected her because of her lack of education and “advanced age” (she was 28 then), which they felt rendered her incapable of learning Chinese.
Determined to follow God’s call, Gladys Aylward saved her meager salary and worked several side jobs to scrap together enough funds to get to China entirely self-supported. In 1932, with almost no training, she set off from Liverpool with just over £2 and a tattered suitcase filled with food and clothing. The money wasn’t enough to cover ship transport, so she traveled by train through Siberia, then by boat, bus, and mule through Japan before finally arriving in the isolated mountainous region of Yangchen in Northwest China, just south of current-day Beijing. There, Aylward joined the elderly Scottish missionary Jeannie Lawson.
In search of a practical, non-threatening way to reach the local people with the gospel, the two women opened an inn for traveling laborers. As evening hospitality for their guests, the women shared Bible stories about Jesus, which the Chinese people loved and repeated along their journeys. As Christ’s message spread and took root in people’s hearts, the China Inland Mission’s prediction was proven wrong. Gladys Aylward became fluent in the language and lifestyle of the Chinese people. She also obtained naturalized Chinese citizenship in 1936.
Respected and admired by the people of Yangchen, Aylward was appointed “foot inspector” by government officials to administer the recently passed law against the ancient “foot binding” custom of young Chinese girls. Her success in this official role also afforded her widespread opportunities to share the gospel as she traveled the region. Before long, the people affectionately christened her “Ai-weh-deh,” which means “the virtuous one.”
After the death of Jeannie Lawson, Aylward carried on the mission, ultimately establishing a home for orphans in Yangchen. In 1938, when the Japanese invaded, dropping bombs on the city and forcing survivors into the highlands, Gladys rescued more than one hundred orphaned children by walking them through dangerous mountains and across the Yellow River. By the time she deposited her wards safely in an orphanage in Xian, she was wounded, sick with typhus fever, and completely exhausted. Although she struggled with ill health for the remainder of her life, Aylward continued ministering to injured war victims in the surrounding villages, caring for their bodies and offering Christ’s salvation to their souls. She founded a Christian church in Xian and ministered at a leper settlement in Szechwan.
In 1947, Aylward returned to England, where she spoke extensively and established the Gladys Aylward Charitable Trust for orphans. In 1953, she returned east and founded an orphanage in Taipei, Taiwan, in 1955. She remained there until her death on January 3, 1970. The ministry in Taiwan still exists today as Bethany Children’s Home.
Gladys Aylward’s brave and adventurous life was chronicled in the Hollywood movie The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, which was released in 1958. Profoundly embarrassed by the attention the film brought to her, Aylward also struggled with the liberties it took and the romanticized version of her life it portrayed. Before her death, she wrote, “My heart is full of praise that one so insignificant, uneducated, and ordinary in every way could be used to his glory for the blessing of his people in poor persecuted China” (Hammond, L., “Not to Be Forgotten: Gladys Aylward 1902—1970 Missionary to China,” Priscilla Papers, Volume 18, no. 3, 2004, p. 25).
Here are some other quotes attributed to Gladys Alyward:
“Oh, God, here’s my Bible, Here’s my money. Here’s me. Use me, God.”
“Here I was worrying about my journey, while God was helping me all the way. I made me realize that I am very weak; my courage is only borrowed from Him, but, oh, the peace that flooded my soul . . . because I know that he never faileth. I would not, if I could, turn back now, because I believe that God is going to reveal Himself in a wonderful way.”
“I wasn’t God’s first choice for what I’ve done in China. . . . I don’t know who it was. . . . It must have been a 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, . . . and God said, ‘Well, she’s willing.’”