On October 15, 1932, a poor, short, dark haired parlor-maid boarded a train in London with a one-way ticket to China.
Gladys Aylward was born in Edmonton, London on February 24, 1902. She was the daughter of a mailman and oldest of two sisters and a brother. As a child, she was disappointed in two things: one, that she had black hair, while her school-mates and light colored hair; two, that she was short—only four feet ten inches.
Later in life, when she was twenty-eight, she read about China, and felt called to be a missionary there. She studied for three months in a missionary society college before she was turned down. Although she was told that she would never be able to learn Chinese, or survive in China, Gladys was determined that God wanted her in China.
Working as a parlor-maid for two years, she was only able to save up enough money for a train ticket to China, and left on October 15, 1932 with one suitcase and 2 pounds, equivalent to about 4 US dollars. After a harrowing journey through snow, bitter cold, and gunfire from the Russo-Chinese war, she reached Tiensin. In China, she praised God for her different looks, because every person around her was also short and dark haired.
Working with another missionary, Mrs. Lawson, Gladys built and ran an Inn, providing, food, beds, and Bible lessons to travelers.
Soon after, a government official informed her that a law forbidding the binding of women’s feet had been passed. They needed a woman whose feet were not bound to go about the country inspecting women’s feet to see that they were not bound. She accepted, realizing this would give her a wonderful opportunity to spread God’s Word.
In 1936, Gladys became a Chinese citizen. The Chinese were much more willing to listen to her because not only did she look like them, but she lived like them too. She lived in a small room with just two planks for a bed, two stools, two cups and a basin. A card hung on her wall saying “God hath chosen the weak things – I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Sometime between 1936 and 1940, Gladys noticed a beggar with a very sickly child. She discovered that the beggar had kidnapped the girl to help bring in more money. She bought the girl for nine-pence. Not long after, Nine-pence (for that was the girl’s name) brought in a little boy, and said she would eat less so they could feed him. Less, the little boy, was the second individual added to a quickly growing orphanage. In 1940, shortly after being severely beaten by Japanese soldiers, Gladys Aylward walked with 100 children from the ages of 5 to 15 over mountains and other rough terrain into Sian. It took 12 days. Once she arrived, she collapsed into delirium from exhaustion, malnutrition, pneumonia and typhoid fever. At first, she wasn’t going to leave, stating that “Christians never retreat!” When the Japanese offered a reward for several important people, including Gladys, she decided to make that trip with the children to safety.
While she was recovering, the man she loved, Colonel Linnan came to visit her. He proposed, but she turned him down. She wanted to get married, but knew that she could not marry him and continue the work God had for her. Denying her fleshly desires, she said good-bye to him and never looked back.
In her later life, she had a constant thorn in her side. Hollywood had produced a movie about her called “Inn of the Sixth Happiness.” Although it was heart-warming and well-produced, it was incredibly full of inaccuracies. Gladys was horrified when Hollywood portrayed her in “love scenes” with Colonel Linnan. Gladys, as the most chaste of women was miserable over what she considered to be her ruined reputation.
After living in England for 10 years, in 1958, she moved to Taiwan and started another orphanage. She remained there until she died on January 3, 1970.
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Morgan, R.J. (2000, c1997). On this Day. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers. “October 15.”
John M. Fritzuius, copyright 2005, www.tlogical.net/bioaylward.htm
Sam Wellman’s Biography Site, www.heroesofhistory.com/pag46.html
Photo from Evening Standard/Getty Images. Retouched by Clinton Macomber.