I am a big believer in Christian biography. I think it is helpful and important for us to read about the Christians who have gone before us. It’s not so that we can copy them word for word, but so that we can be inspired by their walk with the Lord Jesus. So now we look at a woman who, despite a lack of education or financial wealth, followed God’s calling to China.
CALLING TO MISSIONS
Gladys Aylward (Ale-wood) was born near London in 1902 to an average, working class family. Her father was Thomas, a postman, and her mother was Rosina, a housewife. She had a younger sister and brother.
Gladys never did well in school—she said she never passed a single exam—and left school when she was 14. It’s possible that today she would have been diagnosed as dyslexic. After shuffling through several kinds of jobs, she eventually took work as a housemaid.
During this time, she took drama classes, which would serve her well later on in her missionary career, because it taught her how to speak well to people. If you listen to one of her presentations online (just Google it!), you will see what I mean. She is very easy to listen to, even despite the old recordings. She’s like a potato chip, you can’t stop listening to her!
She came from a Christian family; both her parents were involved in church. Her father was in the church leadership. Her mother was an energetic speaker for the women’s temperance movement. Gladys said that her family was a happy one, “finding our joy in the church and each other” (Purves, 6).
However, Gladys’ job as a housemaid took her away from her Edmonton home into the West End of London. Life was very different there: rich people dressed in fine furs, poor children on the street without a home, prostitutes with their powdered and made-up faces. All this showed her a world that was different from the protected world she grew up in. She started to see the immense need for Jesus in the lives of people.
But there were also temptations that drew her away from God—One Tuesday evening when she was 23, Gladys was on her way to one of those temptations—a party with some of her friends—when they encountered a group of young people going into a church service. The street was very crowded, and Gladys was short (only five feet tall), and became separated from her friends.
She found herself shuffled about until she was sitting in the church service! The speaker, a young man talking about missions to China, seemed to be speaking directly to her. As she left afterwards, the pastor’s wife, who knew her from another place, said, “Miss Aylward, I believe God is wanting you” (Purves, 9). God can be very direct in his call!
Over the next few weeks and months, Gladys became intensely interested in missions to China. She read and studied about China. She saw the great need for missionary work there.
But the other Christians that she spoke to about it did not share her passion. They preferred not to get crazy about religion. She even tried to convince her brother to become a missionary. He would have no part in it and told her “Me go to China as a missionary! That’s a job for an old maid. If you’re so keen why don’t you go yourself” (Purves, 12). For the first time, she thought of being a missionary herself.
What burden has God laid on your heart? Is there something that you wish that somebody would do something about? What about you doing it?
Remember the words of Isaiah—
8 Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me. (Isaiah 6:8)
REJECTION AND DETERMINATION
When Gladys told her father of her plan to become a missionary, he was not encouraging at all. He had a very limited idea of what missionaries do—
“You can’t nurse can you?”
“No.” she answered.
“You can’t teach can you?”
“Oh go on, get out…all you can do is talk!”
She went to a quiet spot under the stairs and started to have a little weep. Her father didn’t understand. But then she realized that God hadn’t called him…he called her. There she prayed, “O Lord. Alright then, I’ll talk…and I’ll talk and I’ll talk. And I’ll just keep on talking. But, it will be for you.” (https://youtu.be/3_xngUfIL6U, about the 4 minute mark).
The most obvious place for her to go in order to become a missionary to China was the training school for the China Inland Mission, the mission that the famous Hudson Taylor had founded. The interview did not go so well:
“Why do you want to go to China?”
“I believe God wants me to work for him there.”
“Good, but what qualifications do you have? What exams have you passed?”
“I see. Well…What do you feel about the life of Hudson Taylor?”
“Who was he?” (Purves, 13).
Despite the interview, they gave her a one-term trial. And you know what? It didn’t go well.
After three months, she was expelled for doing so poorly in her studies. They told her that she was too old to learn Chinese (she was in her mid-twenties). As a side note, they were wrong. She would learn to speak and write Chinese fluently—in five different dialects! When she spoke in England later in her life, she used her Chinese Bible and translated on the spot!
The mission director took pity on her, however, and found her a job as a housemaid for a retired missionary couple, the Fishers. Gladys was crushed because he thought her to be only fit to be a housemaid.
The Fishers turned out to be nice people and, being former missionaries to China, helped Gladys learn all she could about China. They encouraged her not to give up on God. Later, Gladys would say of them—
I learned many lessons from them; their implicit faith in God was a revelation to me. Never before had I met anyone who trusted Him so utterly, so implicitly and so obediently. They knew God as their Friend, not as a Being far away, and they lived with Him every day.
They told me stories of their own lives overseas. “God never lets you down. He sends you, guides you and provides for you. Maybe He doesn’t answer your prayers as you want them answered, but He does answer them. Remember, no is as much an answer as yes.”
“How am I to know if He wants me to go to China or to stay in Bristol?” I queried.
“He will show you in His own good time. Keep on watching and praying.” (Aylward and Hunter)
It would be seven years between that night that she attended the church service and her setting foot in China. At one point she pondered Genesis 12:1—
1 Now the Lord had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee: (Genesis 12:1)
It occurred to her that people like Abraham who were sent by God to faraway lands simply up and left. So she went down to a travel agency and asked how much it would cost to get to China.
The safest way was by sea, but the cheapest way was to take a train across the Soviet Union on the Trans-Siberian railway. It was the cheapest, but also the most dangerous, right through the heart of Communism and a civil war.
Despite this, she asked the clerk to make out a ticket and she would pay for it in installments. The clerk muttered to himself, “We do like to deliver our customers alive and not dead” (Purves, 17).
Then Gladys went to work for Sir Francis Younghusband, who had been a soldier and explorer in, of all places, China. Through him and the books in his library, she learned even more about China. God never let Gladys forget his calling on her life!
I think this is so key. Do you have a burden that you can’t get rid of? Does God keep putting reminders in your path?
If God has burdened you with a mission or ministry, are you stepping out like Abraham and doing it? If not, why not? What is keeping you back?
THE TRIP TO CHINA
At church one day, she found out about a lady missionary in China, Jeannie Lawson, who was 73. Mrs. Lawson had put out a request for a younger person to join her and to carry on the work after she was gone. Gladys wrote Mrs. Lawson, who responded with “If you come, I have work for you.” Gladys was thrilled to finally be able to tell the travel agency man where in China to make the ticket out to!
One day in 1932—at the age of thirty—she was able to buy that ticket.
Gladys’ family were very supportive, if not a bit scared, of her trip to China. In later years, her mother would go around speaking in churches about Gladys’ mission—the talk she gave was called, “Our Glad In China.” Her mother would be perhaps Gladys’ greatest human supporter.
A friend gave her a suitcase. Another friend gave her an old fur coat. Her mother sewed secret pockets in her coat and undergarments for her tickets, passport, traveler’s check, and even her pocket Bible and pen. Her church gave her a send-off service and promised to pray for her.
She packed two suitcases full of canned food: corned beef, baked beans, fish, meat cubes, coffee essence, tea, and hard-boiled eggs. They were, as you can imagine, very heavy, but Gladys took comfort in the fact that the suitcases would get lighter as the days went by.
In an old army blanket, she put a few clothes, a kettle and saucepan and a small spirit (alcohol) stove.
On October 15, 1932, Gladys boarded the train at Liverpool and watched her family disappear from view. She wrote, “Like Abraham and Moses, I had left all behind me and was moving out into a place unknown with only God to help me” (Aylward and Hunter).
On one part of her trip, she talked to a couple ladies who asked where she was going—
“I am going to China.”
“To China! Oh, I suppose you have a young man there, and are going to be married.”
“No, I have not got a young man. I am going to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Gladys and the ladies talked for awhile and then one of them promised her:
“My dear, I am going to make a pact with you. For as long as I live, every night at nine o’clock I am going to pray for you. I want you to write your name in my Bible, and let me write mine in yours. If we never meet again on earth, someday we will meet above.” (Aylward and Hunter)
Is there anyone—perhaps a missionary—that you have promised to pray for for the rest of your life?
When she got to Moscow, she was way out of her element. Everything was so different. She saw soldiers walking about with loaves of bread under their arms, eating chunks every now and then.
Women and children as young as five were working under heavy loads. Her heart went out especially to the children, as God was already molding her for the future work for which she is most famous for—her work in saving Chinese children during World War II.
As she traveled, she fought loneliness and boredom. At one point, she had gone four days without hearing a single English voice.
On October 22, they crossed the border into Siberia. A couple days later, a man who spoke some English got on the train and told her that the train would be held up at the next border. Gladys began to worry. How would she make her connections?
To give herself courage, she got out her Bible to read one of her favourite parts where God brought the children of Israel out of bondage. A piece of paper fell out which she had been given in Bristol. ‘Do not be afraid of them, remember the Lord’ (Nehemiah 4:14).
She was so overcome, that she wept. Here she was worrying about her journey, while God had been helping her all the way. She realised how weak she was, and that her courage was only borrowed from him, but he would never let her down. She knew she would not turn back, even if she could. (Purves, 26)
Do you turn to God’s word for encouragement when you are afraid or worried or discouraged? Perhaps to a favorite verse like Isaiah 41:10?
10 Fear thou not; for I am with thee: Be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; Yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness. (Isaiah 41:10)
Church, don’t neglect the Bible in your daily lives! God gave it to us for our encouragement. Use it! Wear it out in the battle against your fears, doubts, and worries.
The train she was on came to the edge of a war zone. China and the Soviet Union was in an undeclared war! The train would stay there for days or weeks to pick up the dead and wounded to take back. She walked back dragging her suitcases through the cold and snow to the last station to catch another train.
The railway officials at that station misread her passport. Instead of “missionary,” they thought it said, “machinist.” The town could use a machinist to teach others to be machinists! They tried to convince her to stay—
“We need people like you in this country—our new country—new civilization—a land free from the fetters of capitalism.”
“No, I will not stay,” I replied quickly. “I have seen all I want to, thank you—all the dirt, the squalor, the bad roads, the thin, underfed women, the awful poverty.”
“But we will alter all that. That is why we need people like you—men and women who know how to handle machines, who can work in factories and train our people.”
“But I am a missionary! I am going to China; I know nothing of machines.”
He looked at me so strangely that a cold chill ran over me. “China is far away. You stay in Russia; we will look after you!” (Aylward and Hunter).
Eventually she made her way to a Japanese steamer where, having no money, she turned herself over to the captain as his prisoner! Not the most conventional means of travel, to be sure, but it worked. Gladys described what happened next—
Eventually the boat reached Japan and here I found I was the first off because, being a prisoner, I was handed over to the British Consulate. A young man arrived to get me, and told me I was the biggest fool he had ever met! Even to think of setting out on such a journey was crazy! (Aylward and Hunter)
From Japan, she got on another ship—no longer a prisoner—and on November 10 (three weeks after leaving home), she made land at Tientsin (tin-sin), China.
FINDING MRS. LAWSON
Gladys had expected to meet Mrs. Lawson right away, but instead, the older missionary had sent someone else to greet her. Mrs. Lawson had moved up into the mountains, a four-day journey away, and so Mr. Lu was to be Gladys’ escort. Half the trip was made on train, but the other half was by mule. Gladys said this was very painful:
We crossed three mountain ranges and forded numerous rivers, and I will never forget that first journey with a mule litter. I thought I would be broken in little pieces before we reached Yangcheng, and every bone in my body ached and protested. (Aylward and Hunter)
So she gets to the place where Mrs. Lawson is staying. She almost falls off the mule and can barely walk because she is in so much pain from the ride. Mrs. Lawson comes out. Gladys bows politely and Mrs. Lawson says, “And who are you?”
“I am Gladys Aylward who wrote to you from London.”
“Oh, yes. Well, are you coming in?” (Aylward and Hunter)
Then, the next thing that Mrs. Lawson says is: “I suppose you will be hungry”!
Well, sometimes first impressions are not the best things to go by. Gladys was initially taken aback by the indifferent unfriendliness of Mrs. Lawson. I suppose she expected Mrs. Lawson to come out and give a big hug and dote over her aches and pains from the trip. To be thankful that help had come!
Sometimes our pride keeps us from getting to know people because they don’t give us the consideration that we think we deserve. Have you ever refused to get to know someone because of the bad first impression that they made on you?
Gladys and Mrs. Lawson did develop a friendship and a somewhat good working relationship. They were very different people.
Gladys helped her start an inn for the mule drivers to stop for the night. It was called the “Inn of the Eight Happinesses.” The name had no special meaning, Gladys and Mrs. Lawson just thought it sounded nice. They would feed these mule drivers and give them a place to sleep.
But after supper, they would tell Bible stories. Mrs. Lawson would tell the stories mainly, and one of their Chinese converts would also tell Bible stories—sort of. Yang loved Noah, so Noah made his way into every story. Noah and Jesus in Jerusalem. Noah and Paul in Rome.
At first, Gladys, unable to speak the language, could only directly help in one way: grabbing the harness of mules that passed by and literally pulling them in the courtyard of the inn. As she did that, she called out the Chinese phrase Mrs. Lawson taught her:
‘Muyo beatcha, muyo goodso, how, how, how, lai, lai lai.’
…she hoped she was saying, ‘We have no bugs, we have no fleas, good, good, good, come, come, come.’ (Purves, 44)
Over time, Gladys learned to speak Chinese and, when Mrs. Lawson died after suffering a fall less than a year after Gladys arrived, she was able to take over the mission that the two of them created.
Gladys went on to have a two decade career in China, ending only when the Communists took over and forced missionaries out.
In those years, she won the respect of the authorities around her and changed the lives of many around her. She especially ministered to children (at one point she took 94 young children over a mountain pass to escape the Japanese army) and prisoners (once single-handedly stopping a prison riot).
Gladys’ life tells us that God can use anyone to accomplish his purposes. If you are burdened by God to do something, then you need to go to God and trust him to bring it to pass.
If it is a real burden from God (and he won’t let you forget it if it is), then it doesn’t matter how poor or untalented or young or old you are—he will be your God through it all.
Aylward, Gladys, and Christine Hunter Gladys Aylward. Gladys Aylward: The Little Woman. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1970.
Purves, Carol. Chinese Whispers: The Gladys Aylward Story. Leominster, UK: Day One Publications, 2004.