The Small Woman Who Did Great Things for God
By Anne Adams
A popular story relates how many years ago a young English woman envied her tall blonde friends their beauty, while she was less than five feet tall with black hair. Surely God had made a mistake! Yet years later she changed her mind when she arrived in the country where she would serve him as a missionary. For when she looked around there on a Chinese street she realized God’s purposes. She would be working with dark, short statured people – exactly like she was! “Oh, God,”she is said to have gasped. “You knew what you are doing!”
While that story may or not be true, it was not only Gladys Aylward’s appearance that helped her in her work as a missionary in China, but also her total dedication to God and her adopted country. However, Gladys’ journey from English parlor maid to becoming “Ai-weh-deh” or “virtuous one” (her Chinese name) involved a series of adventures
that may well demonstrate that God not only designed her appearance but was also a constant presence in her life.
Gladys Aylward was born near London in 1902 to a working class family and as a young girl entered domestic service. After becoming a Christian at a revival meeting and responding to the speaker’s urge to dedicate herself to God, Gladys felt she was called to go to China as a missionary. Yet while she became a probationer with London’s China Inland Mission Center when she could not pass their examinations she decided she would attempt to go on her own. As she continued to work and save her money, Gladys learned of an older woman missionary named Jeannie Lawson who needed a younger woman to assist her in her work in China. Mrs. Lawson accepted her application but could not help with her traveling expenses, so Gladys came up with new idea. She couldn’t afford ship passage, but she did have enough for train fare – across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railroad and into China. In October, 1930 Gladys left London with her few possessions, and arrived at Vladivostok where she then traveled by ship to Japan, then on to China, where she rode a mule to the community of Yangchen, south of Beijing to join Mrs. Lawson. However, she discovered that the local people mistrusted foreigners like Mrs. Lawson – and now Gladys.
Yahgchen was situated on a major commercial route used by the mule trains that transported such goods as coal, cotton and iron goods, and to serve and witness to these mule teamsters Gladys and Mrs. Lawson opened an inn. However, when they first opened, Gladys decided to take the imitative to attract customers. The next time a mule train approached the inn, she ran out to grab the harness of the lead mule and lead him into the inn courtyard. Since mules knew entering such a place knew it meant food and rest the other mules readily followed, leaving their drivers no choice but to stay. Gladys and Mrs. Lawson provided good food and warm beds and stories of a man named Jesus. Within a short time the mule teams stopped on their own and while their stories brought only a few converts, it was a beginning. Meanwhile Gladys practiced her Chinese until she was fluent. Then after Mrs. Lawson died from injuries after a fall Gladys and their Chinese cook were left to operate the mission/inn.
Then Gladys had a visit from the local Mandarin who had had an unusual offer – he wanted her to conduct local inspections to enforce a new national ban on foot-binding. For many years the young girls of upper class Chinese families had their feet bound even in infancy so that as they grew their foot was abnormally bent and shortened. This
meant that a girl with such feet could only walk slowly, with tottering steps. While the culture considered this graceful, others saw it as not only cruel but a means to limit the mobility of young women to assure their chastity. The Mandarin wanted Gladys to tour the local homes where as a woman she could enter the women’s quarters to enforce the ban, and because her feet were not bound she could travel easily. Gladys welcomed the opportunity to become more a part of the community and witness at the same time.
Another time the Mandarin again sought out Gladys but this time to help quell a riot at a local men’s prison. Soldiers were afraid to intervene and when the warden insisted Gladys enter the prison yard she hesitated. “You have been preaching that those who trust in Christ have nothing to fear,” was the warden’s reply and with that reminder
Gladys entered the yard.
She calmed the men and after consulting them returned the warden to report their grievances. The prisoners were housed in cramped conditions with nothing to do and with limited food. Gladys suggested that they be provided the opportunity to work to earn money for their food and after some of the warden’s friends donated looms to weave
cloth and a grindstone to grind grain prison conditions improved. For her loving service and example, Gladys acquired the title “Ai-weh-deh” or “virtuous one.”
Gladys began to adopt the children she would later rescue when she took into her home a ragged malnourished boy she found begging and when the boy brought her another similar child she welcomed him to her family. Because she lived and dressed as her neighbors, they more readily accepted her, and listened to her message. She occasionally
visited the Mandarin’s home and while he did not accept her faith, he enjoyed their conversations. She was so totally dedicated to her adopted country that she became a Chinese citizen in 1936. When war with the Japanese came in 1938 Yangchen was bombed by Japanese planes then occupied temporarily by Japanese soldiers. The Mandarin led the survivors into a mountain retreat, and at the same time announced that because of Gladys’ life witness he had decided to adopt her faith. As the war progressed Gladys continued to serve her adopted country by passing on information she discovered when she found herself behind Japanese.
Then Gladys received word that the Japanese were returning to invade the area, and that there had been discovered a Japanese circular offering a reward for her capture or death. With this imminent threat, Gladys decided it was time to flee with 100 children she had taken in. Her destination was a government orphanage in Sian and for 12 days
they traveled, sometimes lodging with sympathetic hosts and sometimes staying outdoors. When they arrived at the Yellow River and needed to cross they discovered that this would be almost impossible since local boat owners were hiding their craft to prevent Japanese seizure. At the children’s urging Gladys joined them in prayer and song, which attracted a Chinese patrol and when their leader heard their story he offered to find them a boat. He succeeded and after Gladys and the children crossed they successfully reached the orphanage. However, within a few days after their arrival, Gladys became seriously ill with typhus fever.
She gradually recovered, then established a church there at Sian, continuing her service for God with lepers near the borders of Tibet. However, the injuries she had received during the war left her impaired, and that along with the arrival and growing presence of the Communists proved too much of a challenge. In 1947 she returned to England where she continued to evangelize until she settled in Taiwan and set up an orphanage where she died in 1970.
Quite possibly Gladys and her adventures could have remained obscure, known only to God and those involved, but it was not to be. In 1957 Alan Burgess published Gladys’ story as “The Small Woman” and it soon came to the movie screen as “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness” starring Ingrid Bergman as a much taller Gladys.
The life and ministry of Gladys Aylward was amazing not just because of all she did but because she accomplished so much of it on her own, depending entirely on the Lord. And provide he did – to enable the small woman to accomplish big things for him.