Gladys Aylward felt she was called to China as a missionary: yet, as she sat in an office of the China Inland Mission, the principal of the Women’s Training Center told her he felt she could not learn a difficult language like Chinese at her “advanced” age of almost 30. He did tell her there was an elderly couple just returned from China who needed assistance, and she agreed to go help them. Their talk of China continued to fan the flame of interest, and after hearing about many older single women missionaries in China, she decided to try to go to China on her own and be of help to one of them.
She went back to her former employment as a parlor maid to earn money to go. Her new employer had been an adventurer with a library full of books, many of them about China, some of which he had written himself. She was able to feast her soul on these and on study of God’s Word after her work was done. She was especially encouraged by the story of Nehemiah, wanting to go on a mission for God while he was the king’s cupbearer; she saw a parallel to her own situation. By making herself available to other manors to work during her time off, the Lord blessed with providing the finances to go; meanwhile, she had contacted a lady missionary and received word that she wanted her to come.
On October 15, 1932 (81 years ago today) She set off on a harrowing journey to China which included riding a train until it could go no farther due to fighting in Russia, having to walk back to the nearest station alone, spending the night huddled up under her luggage during a Siberian winter, having her passport stolen with the occupation changed from “Missionary” to “Machinist,” with the help of kind strangers narrowly missing being sent to a work camp against her will. Finally arriving at her destination after several days and various means of travel, she found the lady she was to work with, Jeannie Lawson, and the building she wanted to make into an inn badly in need of repair and cleaning. When they were finally ready, but with no customers after several days of advertising, Jeannie told Gladys to go out and grab the lead mule of the passing mule train and lead it into the inn, and the rest of the mule pack, with the muleteers, would follow. This Gladys did several times until the muleteers began coming out of their own preference. A Chinese cook, Yang, prepared meals and told rather mixed-up versions of Bible stories until the muleteers were comfortable enough with Jeannie and Gladys for them to tell Bible stories.
After some months of this work, and many of the muleteers becoming Christians (even some who weren’t Christians passed the stories along to others), Jeannie suffered a severe fall from which she never recovered.
Shortly thereafter the local Mandarin told Gladys that the government had outlawed the long-held practice of foot-binding and asked her to go throughout his district to inform people of the new law and to inspect the women’s feet. After some consideration Gladys agreed to go, but warned him that she would speak of the Lord Jesus Christ to the people. He had no problem with that, and thus the Lord provided an unparalleled and unexpected way to evangelize the area with government escort.
At one time Gladys was officially summoned to a prison: the prisoners were rioting and killing each other, and the soldiers were too afraid to intervene. The warden wanted Gladys to go in and stop the fighting, because she spoke of a God Who was all-powerful and would protect her! Gladys realized the truth of what she proclaimed was on trial, so she agreed to go into the prison. By the grace of God, the prisoners listened to her. She saw that they were near-starving and had nothing to do with their time, and she was able to speak to the warden on their behalf and also to start visiting them with the gospel.
Once Gladys came face to face with a woman on the street trying to sell her ill, malnourished child. She tried to speak to the Mandarin about it, but he refused to interfere and told Gladys not to, either. But she couldn’t leave the child in her plight, so Gladys “bought” her. That eventually led to her taking in a number of children through various means.
In 1936 Gladys became a Chinese citizen.
In 1938 the Japanese bombed and overtook the city, causing survivors to flee. At this time the Mandarin became a Christian. Eventually Gladys took over 100 orphans by foot over mountains, then waited for miraculous provision of a boat to cross the Yellow River to an orphanage in Sian.
A film of her story was made during her lifetime, entitled The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, starring Ingrid Bergman as herself. Gladys called it “lie upon lie.” It upset her greatly that Hollywood changed details and names: there was a significant meaning to the inn’s real name, The Inn of Eight Happinesses. Worst of all was the depiction that she had dumped the orphans in Sian to go live “happily ever after” with a Chinese colonel.
She passed away at the age of 67, a shining example of overcoming obstacles by God’s grace.
(You can see a list of other posts in the 31 Days of Missionary Stories here.)