This week, our focus is in the life of Gladys Aylward. She was a missionary to China. In case you missed it, we’ve already looked at the life of William Wilberforce and John Bunyan. Please check them out too.
In order to understand her life better, consider the following scenario:
You are a lady in your late twenties and you live in Kenya. You receive a calling from God to be a missionary to Iraq. You accept the calling and do the next thing, which is, apply for a position in the Missionary Society to Iraq( supposing it’s there) as a possible candidate.
They accept you for training, but they can’t take you at the end because of your limited educational background. And the door to Iraq seems closed.
But with the calling still there, you resort to go there on your own, without any organizational backing, but you have a big problem. You don’t have the cash to buy a plane ticket to there. However, you could still make it by road, as it is way cheaper, but that would mean passing through the war ravaged Syria and Lebanon in order to get to Iraq, which is very risky. What would you do?
We know of a lady who faced that predicament. And let’s see what she did. Welcome to the life of Gladys Aylward.
She was born on February 24,1902, in Edmonton, North London. Her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Aylward, named their baby girl Gladys May.
She started school once she came of age, but she just didn’t like school. At age 14, she dropped out of school and went to work in a Penny Bazzar, then at a grocery store, then as a nanny, and eventually as a parlor maid in wealthy households.
Not that she enjoyed working in those positions or the jobs paid well, but Gladys continued doing that because it meant living in the city which came with privileges like attending drama classes, since she wanted to be an actress.
Conversion and calling.
All along, Gladys had paid no attention to her spiritual life. But on this day, for some reason she can’t explain, she went to a certain religious meeting. While in there, she realized for the first time that God had a claim on her life. And she accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and saviour over her life.
She then joined a campaign known as Young Life Campaign, and it was in their magazine that she read an article that changed her life. The article was about China, and the fact that a majority of it’s population had never heard about Jesus.
Gladys then made it her mission to go convince her friends to go to China, but none was willing. She eventually approached her brother, who declined blatantly. This is what he said, ” Not me! That’s an old maid’s job. Why don’t you go yourself? “
That sobered her, and she decided that instead of convincing other people to go, she could just go herself. And so she applied for a position to the China Inland Mission.
She was admitted to the Women’s Training Home, for a three month training which involved classroom work, Bible Study, personal devotions, teaching Sunday school in rough neighborhoods, and hearing to reports from China- the difficulties of getting there and living there.
However, at the end of the training, she was not accepted because of her mediocre educational skills, despite her excelling in the practical settings. Furthermore, they were concerned that in her age – late twenties, she would have difficulties learning the Chinese language, and they therefore couldn’t take her. But they did offer her a job of helping Dr. and Mrs. Fischer, former missionaries to China who had just returned to Bristol.
Working for the Fischers became a blessing to her, because, she learnt a lot of lessons from them. She notes that, “never before had I met anyone who trusted him so utterly, so implicitly and so obediently. They knew God as a friend, not as being far away, and they lived with him every day.”
Defying the odds.
She left the Fischers and went to work as a rescue sister in Swansea, a port town. Her work involved trying to persuade women to go home, or go with her to the rescue mission. The ministry was a challenging one, and it helped her realize that if God did take her to China, then she’d need to have a thorough knowledge of the Bible, so she began reading from the first page.
She got to the part where God guided Abraham to a strange place, and when Moses defied difficult people to follow God. The insight she got was, “if I were to go to China, I would have to be willing to move and give up what little comfort and security I had”
And so she left Swansea for London, to work so that she could save money for her fare to China. She kept on with her Bible reading, and when she got to the story of Nehemiah, she was mesmerized because like Nehemiah, she was in service too. But that didn’t stop Nehemiah from going where God wanted him to go. Then she heard like a voice in the room saying, “Gladys Aylward, is Nehemiah’s God your God?”
“Yes of course,” she responded. ” Then do what Nehemiah did, and go”.
“But I am not Nehemiah”………”No, but I am his God”
She believed those were her marching orders and she kept thinking of how to get to China. Since she didn’t have the recommendation of a mission board, it meant she’d have to go by herself which was super expensive. But she knew if God was calling her, he would provide for her too.
And so she went back into service, as a parlor maid in the house of Sir Francis Younghusband, a legendary adventurer, so that she could be able to raise her fare there.
On arrival at Sir Francis’s home, all her assets amounted to a Bible, a copy of Daily Light ( a devotional), and three coins which amounted to twopence halfpenny. Aware of her poverty, she prayed, “O God, here’s everything I have. If you want me, I am going to China with these”
She received an answer to that prayer, when minutes later, her mistress called her and told her that she wanted to refund the amount she spent on her fare which amounted to three shillings.
Happily clutching the money, she took the first opportunity she got, to go to the travel agency to start making payments for her passage sail to China. The booking agent was skeptical. He thought she could never afford the 90 pound fare to China. But he “accidentally” mentioned that travelling by rail would cost half the amount. And Gladys knew immediately knew she’d travel by train. The booking agent tried arguing with her that it would be impossible because of the war between Russia and China, but she was adamant, and he eventually gave in and decided to accept her little deposits until she raised the full amount.
Through God’s Providence, she took less than a year to come up with the fare she needed. This was after saving every penny she made from her job as a parlor maid, and the extra work she took in the evenings to help serve at parties or whatever she could find to do.
God also provided someone – Jeannie Lawson, an elderly Scottish widow in China, who had been praying for a young woman to go and assist her. And after Gladys wrote to her, she replied and told her she could come. This was indeed a great provision, because China is big, and given that she was going alone, she needed someone to receive her and somewhere to stay, even as she learnt the language and traditions of the Chinese people.
And so on October 15,1932, Gladys set out of London, armed with a suitcase filled with food for the entire journey, as she had no money to buy meals along the way.
The journey to China proved to be one risky one, one in which we see God providing and protecting for his children. The booking agent wasn’t overstating when he told her, “but I told you, madam,we don’t like to deliver our customers dead”. God provided English when she needed it at the customs, more English to warn her on the change of routes by the train, so that she was able to watch out for alternate routes, protecting her from wolves at night, and from the cold Russian winter after she spent a night in the cold. God provided his messenger to warn Gladys to get out of a hotel in Vladivostok, Russia, when she could have been retained, after her passport was altered. The part that stated her occupation which was “missionary” was replaced with “machinery” who were badly needed in Russia then. The girl warned her, and helped her escape to a Japanese ship, which took her to China.
China at last.
At last, the ship docked in Tienjin, China. And as she looked around, she realized that God had been preparing her for that, since before her birth. Years later, this is what she admitted to Elisabeth Elliot, “growing up, I had two heartaches. One was, while all the other girls had golden curls, I had black hair. The other was,everybody else kept growing, while I stopped at four feet, ten inches. But in Tientsin, as I stood in the middle of the people God had prepared me for, I was amazed. They all had black hair, and none of them had kept growing.”
Gladys then travelled to Yangchen to meet Mrs. Jeannie Lawson, who had recently bought an inn ( The Inn of the Eight Happiness) whereby muleteers who passed by that road, could spend the night there. And as they rested, she could tell them Bible stories.
Work in China.
Her first job was to tend after the mules after persuading the muleteers to spend the night in their Inn. This was a hard task given that they were regarded as the “Foreign devils” by the locals and no one wanted to spend the night in their inn. Working in the inn by tending to the mules and bringing in muleteers, provided an excellent way for her to learn Chinese, and as the year came to an end, she could make herself understood in Chinese.
They had a short, but difficult relationship with Jeannie, whom had nothing in common except their love of God, and the knowledge that they were supposed to be in China. A year later, Mrs Lawson was dying and Gladys nursed her, and she passed the mantle to her.
Gladys was appointed a foot inspector by the Mandarin, (the local representative). This was after binding feet was banned by the government. Foot- binding was a process whereby little girls toes were bent under and wrapped tightly so that the foot was kept as small as possible maybe only three or four inches long. And the Mandarin approached Gladys to go look for a feet inspector since she had unbound feet, and her feet were so big – size 3. This became an opportunity from God, because, as she couldn’t find someone to be a foot inspector, she had to do it. And being a foot inspector meant she could travel to whichever part of the country with protection from the government, transportation, and a steady income. That meant she could execute her appointed work while at the same time sharing the gospel far and wide.
Stopping a prison riot.
One day, a riot erupted in prison and she was called to deal with it. The soldiers were too afraid to deal with it, that’s why they called her. When she was hesitant, the prison official told her, “You preach the living God everywhere. If you preach the truth – if your God protects you from harm – then you can stop this riot.” And that’s how Gladys single handedly stopped a riot.
The things she was able to do, including fleeing with 100 children during war, makes her an extraordinary woman for sure. She trusted God, obeyed Him to go to a place he wanted him to, and despite the odds, travelled without any organisational backing. Her faithful life is one we should emulate.
She died in 1970, in Taiwan. Years later, she was able to get back to Britain with the help of friends, but she couldn’t settle there forever. So she moved to Taiwan to work with orphans.
The writer has drawn greatly from the following books:
- Faithful women and their extraordinary God by Noel Piper.
- Small Woman by Alan Burgess.