Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4)
Gladys Aylward was born in 1902 in London, England.
While working as a parlor maid in the home of Sir Francis Younghusband she would often take down and read the books he had in his library on China. God was placing a love for the Chinese people in her heart.
After attending a religious meeting where the speaker encouraged people to dedicate their lives to God, Gladys realized with certainty that God was calling her to be a missionary to China. She went to the China Inland Mission Center in London to train. She did not do well there and they advised her against going.
Gladys was certain about her call so she worked hard and saved her money. She wrote to Jeannie Lawson, a missionary who had been serving in China for many years about coming to work with her as her assistant. Mrs. Lawson accepted Gladys, but Gladys would later learn that Jeannie Lawson did not think Gladys would actually show up!
Gladys could not afford the fare on a ship so she traveled to China via the Trans-Siberian Railway. At this time, 1932, Russia was a communist country and there were severe problems there. When Gladys arrived at Vladivostok an officer tried to detain her. They would not let her back on the train. They forced her to stay in a rundown hotel room.
With the help of an unknown woman, Gladys escaped and sailed to Japan. God was in control and even though her trip turned out much differently than she had expected, she knew that she was right about her call to be a missionary in China.
When Gladys arrived in Tientsin she thought Mrs. Lawson would be waiting for her. But Mrs. Lawson had not traveled to Tientsin because she really didn’t think Gladys would make it. Gladys was disappointed but had little money and no other choice but to try and catch up with Jeannie Lawson.
Traveling by bus, train, and mule, Gladys eventually caught up with Mrs. Lawson in Yangchen, in the Shansi province. This area, south of Peking (now Beijing) was very mountainous. The town of Yangchen was on a major trade route. This would play a part in the ministry that the two women would have. Unfortunately, it was also play a part in the coming war when the Japanese would invade China.
Mrs. Lawson was a tough boss, but wise and strong in her love for the Lord and the Gospel and the Chinese people. She thought of a way to witness to them. She and Gladys and their cook, Yang, turned the building that they were living in into an inn. They placed straw and food out for the mules. It was Gladys’s job to go out in the evenings and get the caravans to stop for the night at their inn.
Gladys was nervous the first time she tried her new task. She still did not know Chinese very well, but no language was necessary as she went outside and grabbed the lead mule by the rein and led it into their courtyard. The mule willingly followed hoping for the food and rest. The men in the caravan stopped in the inn for the night.
This night and many more to come, Jeannie and Gladys gave the men noodles and a clean place to sleep. The travelers got even more than they bargained for – free entertainment! Mrs. Lawson would tell them stories about Jesus. Her stories became very popular with the mule drivers. Many of them became Christians.
One day Jeannie Lawson fell and hurt herself badly. She died only a few days later. Now Gladys and faithful Yang were alone to run the inn. Mrs. Lawson had kept it going with an allowance from her home. That was gone too. Taxes were due. Gladys did not know how to pay them.
God had a plan. A few weeks later, Gladys met the Mandarin of Yangchen. The horrible of practice of footbinding had recently been outlawed but many women were still trying to follow the ancient custom. The Mandarin needed Gladys to by his foot inspector because she could go into the women’s quarters where men were not allowed. He was willing to pay.
Gladys was ecstatic. This job would not only give them some money so they could pay their taxes and other expenses, but it would give her many opportunities to share the Gospel. Gladys traveled to many places in the district to reach the women. This was also part of God’s amazing providence. Later her knowledge of the mountains would help her when she needed to get orphans out of Yangchen during the Japanese occupation.
Up until this time many Chinese were suspicious of Gladys as they had been of Mrs. Lawson. The women were referred to as “White devils”. The Chinese people shunned them and even children would occasionally throw mud at Gladys.
Again God provided a way to help with this situation. The Mandarin summoned Gladys one day to help out with a prison riot. Gladys was not sure why she, a woman, was asked to go into the prison yard and try and quiet the men. The soldiers in charge of the prison had given up. The convicts were on a rampage and many men had been hacked to death by some of the others.
Gladys asked the Mandarin, “How can I do that? They will kill me too.” He responded, “Oh, no, they can’t! You say you have the living God inside you. They can’t kill you. You must stop them!” Gladys thought that God would keep her alive if it was meant to be. And so, Gladys walked right into the prison courtyard and told the men to be quiet.
The men quieted down and eventually told Gladys why they were rioting. Gladys helped to bring about prison reform. About this time the people stopped calling her the “White devil” and began to call her Ai-weh-deh, “the righteous one.”
Some time later Gladys came upon a woman beggar and a child who was apparently kidnapped by the woman to help her in her begging. The woman was willing to sell the little girl for ninepence. So Gladys bought the girl and named her “Ninepence”. Later Ninepence brought a little boy into their home. Ninepence promised to eat less if only they could keep the boy. Of course, Gladys said “Less” could stay and be part of the family.
Gladys became a Chinese citizen in 1936. She dressed like her people and this helped to make her witnessing effective.
Yangchen was bombed by the Japanese in 1938 and most of the townspeople fled. Though her heart was aching for her people, Gladys had the joy of hearing from the Mandarin that he had decided to become a Christian!
With her heart aching Gladys moved to Tsechow. She was hoping to be safe here. While she was here some Chinese nationalist soldiers stopped at the mission looking for a place to stay. General Chiang Kai-shek was a Christian and had told the Chinese soldiers that they would be safe at Christian mission sites.
The man in charge of the soldiers was Colonel Linnan. He had come to ask Gladys to help the Chinese by becoming a spy! Dressed like an old Chinese woman, Gladys could move around in the mountains that she was very familiar with and report on the movements of the Japanese troops. Gladys did this for some time; Colonel Linnan stopped by the mission and received her reports often. They soon fell in love.
Eventually the Japanese in the area became very strong. Colonel Linnan wanted Gladys to flee to a safer part of China with him but she could not leave her people. Though there was a price on her head for her capture, Gladys decided to leave in her own way taking her orphans, nearly 100 in number, to safety.
Gladys went to Yangchen and got the children together and began their incredible twelve-day march over mountains and rough terrain with very little food. Sometimes friendly Chinese would give the children as much food as they were able. Other times they slept on the cold mountainside after no supper.
On the twelfth day they reached the Yellow River. There was no way to cross. The children were tired and hungry and growing weaker by the day. But God answered their prayers again. As they were singing and praying a Chinese soldier heard them and told them where they could get a boat. The soldiers helped the children across.
There were still some difficulties to come. Some villages would not open their gates to the children. Eventually they found a train to take them. Gladys became very ill after so many days of sleeplessness, lack of food, and exhaustion. She and the children finally arrived at Sian. After seeing that the children were safe and fed, Gladys collapsed.
Local Christians took Gladys to a hospital. When she recovered she began a new work. She helped missionaries care for refugees.
Because she never fully recovered from injuries that she had received in China she needed to return to England for an operation in 1947. She wanted to return to China but the communists were not letting missionaries back in. Gladys helped China by traveling all over Britain and speaking on behalf of the Chinese people.
In 1957 Gladys sailed for Taiwan where she helped in orphanages, taught Bible classes, and preached the Gospel.
Gladys continued to help orphans, even taking one in during the last days of her life on New Year’s Day in 1970. Gladys fed and bathed the baby and tucked the child into a crib. Gladys went to sleep that night in Taipei and woke up in Heaven.
There are many books, articles, and even a movie about Gladys Aylward. The movie stars Ingrid Bergman and is titled, “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness”. I highly recommend it. It is fairly accurate but more of the Christianity could have been brought out. For example, in the movie the children are singing “This Old Man” when they are crossing the mountains. In fact they were singing, “Count Your Blessings”.
When upon life’s billows you are tempest-tossed,
When you are discouraged thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.
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