Woman on a Mission: The Story of Gladys Aylward

"Huangshan China Yellow Mountain Landscape" by Chi King (cc-by-2.0) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Huangshan,_China_(YELLOW_MOUNTAIN-LANDSCAPE)_XII_(1071076723).jpg
A Five Day Hike

A 20 minute podcast does not do Gladys Aylward’s story justice.  If you enjoy what you hear on this podcast, there are some really interesting books that go into greater detail about her story.  One famous book about her life is The Small Woman, by Alan Burgess.  You can find two more books about her in the source list below.  

What stood out to you about this story?  

Things that stood out to me about Gladys Aylward were her courage and bravery in the face of opposition.  Her belief that God had called her to China led to a fierce resolve. She didn’t wait for doors to open, she sometimes forced them open herself.  Building this fierce resolve seemed to increase her spiritual muscles and the attributes that she would need for the hard things God called her to do in China.  Those attributes are also the things that caused the Chinese people to love and respect her.

I’d love to hear your thoughts or epiphanies about Gladys Aylward’s story. Join our Facebook page at PRN – Pause, Renew, Next to join in the conversation, or  feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section below.

May you be encouraged on your journey with Jesus!

Pause, Renew, Next!

Source materials:

Atwood, Kathryn J. (2017). Women Heroes of World War II. Chicago, Ilinois: Chicago Review Press Inc.

Benge, Janet; Benge, Geoff (1998), Gladys Aylward: The Adventure of a Lifetime YWAM Publishing

Movie listed in the podcast: The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958)

Full Transcript

Hi, I’m Tammy, and you’re listening to PRN: Pause. Renew. Next. a podcast about soul-care, Scripture, and stories of faith. If you like this podcast, please subscribe and tell your friends. Enjoy!

Welcome to PRN: Pause. Renew. Next. The Podcast. I’m Ginny Detweiler, and today we are going be talking about the faith story of a woman who lived an incredibly adventurous life. Really her story could be made into a movie – it’s got it all: it’s got adventure, it’s got action, it’s got drama, it’s got tragedy, some comedy. I’m just kidding – really it’s already been made into a movie, and the name of it is The Inn of the Sixth Happiness with Ingrid Bergman. If you don’t already know who I’m talking about, today we’re gonna be talking about Gladys Aylward, and we’re gonna be starting back in the 1930s when she was still in her twenties.

At that time she had recently become a Christian and had felt a very strong call to go to China as a missionary. In fact, she was accepted by the China Inland Mission to study to be a missionary in China, but after a few months they let her go because she didn’t show enough progress in the Chinese language. She was not dissuaded. She decided to work as a domestic house worker for Sir Francis Younghusband who was a British Army officer and Explorer and had spent much time in Asia. While she worked she began saving money, and soon she had worked up enough courage and enough money, that she went to try to buy a ship passage.

But when she got there, the teller was less than encouraging. He said “Ma’am, don’t you know you only have three pounds? You need at least 90 to be able to get to China.” But she was not discouraged. She said, “Well surely there’s a cheaper way to get there than that!” And he said, “Well ma’am, there is. You can go on a train. But don’t you know there’s a war right now between China and Siberia? If you go by train, there’s a good chance that you’ll die long before you get there.” But she again was not discouraged, and she said, “Sir, it will take me so long to save that money, surely all be over by the time I get there.”

So she worked and worked and saved money. She worked every chance she could, and each week she would take her money and put money down on her ship passage. All this time she really had no plan about what she was going to do when she got to China. She didn’t even know where in China she was headed, but she saved nonetheless.

During that time, one day she had an important conversation. Someone told her about a missionary lady in China named Jenny Lawson who had recently decided to retire and had gone back to China to live there. And so our friend Gladys decided that that’s exactly where she would go. She would go help Jenny Lawson.

One day she did save up enough money, and she got on a train and headed across Europe on to the trans-Siberian railway. Slowly, as they went into Russia, there were less and less civilians on the train and more and more soldiers, until she was the last civilian left. Although the soldiers only spoke Russian and she only spoke English, they communicated well enough with hand motions and gestures. And it was very clear that the soldiers wanted her to get off, but she was not going to get off. She said “I have paid my money to get to China, and I’m going to get there.” But finally they stopped, and they could hear gunfire, and the soldiers made her get off the train and walk back to the last train station.

Now remember, she was in Siberia. She walked through the snow miles to get back to the last train station, and when she got there she had no clue what she was going to do. She only had a one pound note that was stuck in her corset and no plan as to what she could do from there.

She was detained by Russians who changed her passport from saying “missionary” to “machinist”, and it was clear that they planned to send her to be a free worker somewhere in Russia. Thankfully, she escaped with the help of some locals, who helped her get onto a Japanese ship. But as she was about to get onto the ship, six Russian officials chased her and surrounded her. Quick thinking, she threw her bags onto the ship, and threw the one pound note up into the air so they were confused and grabbing for it, and then jumped onto the ship herself.

Eventually she did make her way to China. When she got there, she found Mrs. Lawson had moved, and she had to track her down. Nothing was as she expected: not the trip; not Mrs. Lawson; not even the people or her reception in China after all the work that she’d gone to do to get there.

Mrs. Lawson herself was a lady in her 70’s, and she was not really warm and fuzzy. She had white hair and blue eyes and was very, very blunt.

The people there did not receive Gladys well either. In fact, one day in town the children laughed at her, and some ladies threw mud at her. She ran home crying, and Mrs. Lawson was not sympathetic. She said, “Well they think that were foreign devils, but there’s no use crying about it. We just have to persuade them differently.”

So they came up with a plan to begin an inn. At that place, there was not a road. There were just mule trains that would pass through. So their plan was to take their home and make it into an inn for the muleteers. However, they wouldn’t come inside, so Mrs. Lawson said, “Gladys, I want you to stand outside, and when they come by you’re gonna pull the reins and pull them into our courtyard, so that they can’t escape.” So she did! Can you imagine poor little Gladys in her 20’s or 30’s is standing out there and pulling little muleteers into their inn so they had to stay. Well, it didn’t go well at first, but in the long term it worked out very well, because they got a great reputation for telling great stories. And what stories did they tell? But Bible stories of course.

Sadly, Mrs. Lawson died within the first year that Gladys arrived. And that really left her in another bind, because now what was she going to do? How would she be a missionary by herself? Thankfully, in that year she’d learned quite a bit of the language. And she could kind of keep up the inn, but she really didn’t know what was going to come next.

But God had it figured out. He sent the Mandarin of the province to visit her, and the Mandarin asked her: would she go on a special mission for him around to area villages and give orders for the women to stop practicing foot binding. Now that had been a practice for many, many, many generations, and the women there really were crippled because they could not walk on their little feet from where they had bound them for so long. So the new edict said that anyone under the age of 10 had to have their feet unbound. And it was Gladys’s job to go around and spread the news. The Mandarin gave her some soldiers to accompany her to give her a little oomph when she told them. Still, Gladys wasn’t so sure about this idea, but the Mandarin said, “Well I can’t send a man to do the job, and all the women have had bound feet and won’t be able to walk that far. You’re the only one that can do it.” And so she had a new job, and actually she was respected and loved, and she became known as the storyteller because everywhere she went she would tell stories from the Bible about God and about the Gospel.

One day, Gladys was approached by a child seller who was trying to sell her a child. Gladys was outraged. She went to the Mandarin to talk about it. He heard her, and he agreed that it was outrageous and that it was evil, but said that there was nothing he could do about it.

So Gladys went back and bought the child. She named her Nine Pence because that’s how much she spent. And Nine Pence became her daughter. She adopted her. Soon there was a little boy outside, and Nine Pence asked if she could eat a little less and if Gladys could eat a little less, that maybe they could adopt that little boy too. And soon she adopted him. And don’t you know, before long, she had 19 children.

Well by this time, she decided it was probably a good idea to become a Chinese citizen. And when she did, she took the name 艾偉德, which is the name that the Chinese people had given her, and it meant “virtuous woman.” And during that time she took in more and more children and really started an orphanage.

Soon war broke out, and for the Chinese people that was nothing new because they were unofficial wars all the time. But this was different. Japan had invaded China, and little did they know they were in the middle of World War II. Soon Japan bombed their town, and there was great destruction and fear.

Again the Mandarin came and asked for her help. He said, “China is having to do a scorched earth policy, because Japan comes and invades and takes all of our supplies, so we’ve got to get rid of everything.” Gladys was very sad because China was like her new homeland and she loved it dearly. Some Chinese officials came and asked her if she would work as a spy for China. Because she loved China so much, she said that she would at least as far as her conscience would allow.

Time Magazine did an article about her that became really popular in the United States and gave her a kind of 15 minutes of fame. By this time, she was taking care of 200 children in China, and they needed to move to a safer area. There was a man who helped her and took 100 of them to a safer area, and she was waiting for him to come back and return to take the other 100. But he never returned. Later she would find out that he had been killed by some Japanese soldiers, and when they had killed him they found the Time article on him, and now she was a marked woman too.

Soon an officer came to the door and warned her that she needed to leave, but she said, “Christians never retreat.” He said, “艾偉德, you need to know that Japan has marked you.” And he pulled out a paper that had her name along with two others, one of whom was the Mandarin, and said that they were wanted dead or alive. She went upstairs and prayed, because although she wasn’t afraid to die she wanted to make sure she was making the right choice. She opened her Bible and read, “Flee ye to the mountains.” And so she decided she would go.

She had to take the children to safety herself. All she had was 94 children, the clothes on their backs, a cast iron pot, millet enough for two days to feed the children, and she had all the children carry their shoes around their waists. They tied them around their waist because the soles of their shoes were made of bark and they were only supposed to be good for a month. They would need them much longer than that.

In 12 days they finally got to the Yellow River, and she knew, if they could make it to the Yellow River, that after that they could take a train or a boat the rest of the way. When they reached the town next to the river, there were no people anywhere. Finally they found a little old man by himself underneath the tree. Gladys spoke to him and asked where all the people were. He said they had run away because they knew Japan was coming for them. She asked why did he not leave, and he said it’s because his children had already been killed by Japanese soldiers, and he’d rather use his last breath to spit on them than to run away. He urged her to run back into the mountains. He said. “You by yourself might make it, but with all these children there’s no way you will survive.”

But she went on anyway, and they sat by the Yellow River and waited for a boat. Four days went by and no boats came. The children said, “艾偉德, why can you not make the Yellow River part like Moses did in the Old Testament?” And so they prayed together.

Now, at this time Gladys was not doing well physically. She was exhausted. But even more than that, she had sustained an injury earlier from a Japanese soldier who butted her head with the end of a rifle. Since that time, she had dizzy spells, and times where she just wasn’t herself.

So as they sat by the Yellow River and waited and waited and waited they sang, and they prayed. And finally an officer appeared. Gladys went and talked to him, and she said, “Is there any way that you can help us? We need a boat.” And the man said, “Of course I would love to help you, but know that even if you get on a boat there’s a good chance that Japan will shoot you from the air. In fact,” as he watched the kids playing in the reeds he said, “Japan has been coming by and shooting into those reeds, but for some reason this week we haven’t seen any of the airplanes.” So sure enough he got them a boat and ferried them across. It took three trips, but they all made it across. And when they got to the other side, they got on a train.

Of course, as you would suspect after listening to the rest of this story, you can bet that that train didn’t make it very far before it too was detained, because Japan had targeted China’s railroads. 艾偉德 could not imagine what they would do now. She was so tired. She was told that the only way that they could make it to where they need to go was to go through the mountains. They looked up. The mountains were so high, they were hidden by clouds. Gladys asked how many days it would take to travel them by foot, and she was told four or five days.

This is the one time in the whole story where she lost it. She sat down in front of all those 94 children and cried and cried and cried, and some of the kids also started crying. But soon she stood up, wiped her face, and said, “Everyone needs a good cry every once in a while, but now it’s time to move.” And so they got up, and they started walking, and they climbed those mountains for five days until they reached the other side. And amazingly, even though everybody was completely exhausted, there were no major injuries.

When they reached the other side and tried to get on the trains, they were told, “The trains here are longer running. The only trains that are now running are coal trains, and you can’t ride on those.” Gladys and the children were so tired, so Gladys told them to pull out their little bed rolls and lay on the platform, just like she had all those years ago in Russia, and she fell asleep. Soon she was awoken by one of the Train officials who said, “We heard your story and will let you ride on the coal trains if you want.”

So all the kids climbed on top of the coal cars, and they made little boxes around themselves made out of coal so that when they went around curves the kids would not fall off.

I know, right? This is insane. This whole story is wild and crazy, but none of the children die in this story, and that’s the amazing part.

When they woke up the next morning, everybody was completely black from all the coal dust. So there was no way that the Japanese could see them: they were completely camouflaged. And the only danger they were in, besides potentially rolling off, was a bombing, which did not happen. So three days later they finally arrived in the city where they were supposed to drop the children off at the orphanage.

But again they were not allowed to get off. Nobody was allowed to get off the train. They said, “You’re gonna have to keep on moving.” Gladys at this point was so tired that she was going in and out of consciousness. Three days later they finally arrived in another city where there was an orphanage, and they were able to get off. And Gladys took all of the children to an orphanage and dropped them off, and then continued on her way.

Two days later, she passed out and fell into a coma. That’s how bad off she had actually been all of that time. And she stayed in a hospital for a couple of months. She was there at a Baptist Hospital.

And when she woke up, she heard English speaking people, and they said that she had been so bad off, not only had she had fever and exhaustion and malnutrition, but she also had typhus and pneumonia. In fact, it took her years to get fully well.

After World War II another civil war broke out in China. And you know that one: it was the communist regime where Mao Zedong became the new communist leader. During that time, Gladys also went through some hard times. There were a lot of people becoming Christians, and there was a university where two hundred students have recently become Christians, and she knew many of them. One day the communist leaders brought all the students out and read out the names of the students who had said that they were not for the communist government. And that was two hundred students. One by one they read their names. The first girl came forward. And they said, “Now are you for communism? What do you believe in now?” And she said, “Two months ago I believed in Jesus Christ, but after you have treated us so harshly I believe even more in Jesus Christ.” And they took her out and beheaded her in front of everyone. And Gladys watched as they killed all 199 one after the other in the same fashion. She was devastated as she watched the first girl die, but she stayed throughout the entire massacre and prayed a prayer for them that Mrs. Lawson had taught her many years before. “Lord, let me not be afraid to die, but if I am to die let me die well.”

Soon the time came that she had to leave China, which she loved dearly. Not because she was afraid of her own life, but because she feared that she was drawing attention to those she was trying to help. So she left, and when she went back to Great Britain she tried to continue to help the Chinese refugees. She was not able to go back to China because she was denied entry due to the communist government. So although she loved the Chinese people, and she never stopped loving them, she went and worked in Taiwan instead. She worked in an orphanage there, and she died in her late 60’s, still helping orphans.

Tell me, what stood out to you about this story? As I was listening to her story and learning all about her, there were some really important things that stood out to me. Number one, how God was there for her every step of the way, even when a lot of us would have thought that He had gone missing. I mean, how many people go through and see as many hardships as she saw. Nothing seemed to come easy for her, but to me her courage, bravery, and the belief that God had called her to something led her to a fierce follow-through that rarely do we see in today’s culture. She didn’t wait for doors to open, she forced them open herself. She built a fierce resolve that seemed to build spiritual muscles and attributes that she would need for the hard things that God called her to do in China. Those are also the things that caused the Chinese people to love and respect her.

What stands out to you about her story? I’d love to hear about it. Join our Facebook page at PRN: Pause. Renew. Next. to join in the conversation, or, of course, feel free to comment on the website: pauserenewnext.com.

If you have enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and spread the word to your friends. You can like us at Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. New podcasts will be released each Tuesday and new blog posts each Friday.

This is Ginny Detweiler with PRN: Pause. Renew. Next. The Podcast. May you be encouraged on your journey with Jesus!

5 Replies to “Woman on a Mission: The Story of Gladys Aylward”

  1. I knew I recognized that name. I’ve seen the movie a few times and cried. I know there was some Hollywood critic license. What a courageous woman!

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