Gladys Aylward was a British-born independent missionary who worked in China. When Gladys arrived in China, she didn’t have any missionary training and faced a lot of hurdles in the beginning. However, she soon found success as an evangelical Christian missionary. She took Chinese citizenship in 1936, and was appointed a ‘foot inspector’ to enforce the new law against footbinding young girls and she achieved decent success. During the 1938 invasion by Japan, Gladys helped more than 100 orphans to safety in Sian. She returned to England after 1949 as the Communist government was after missionaries. While in England, she gave numerous lectures about her work. She sought approval from the Chinese government for returning to China which was rejected. After staying in Hong Kong, she finally settled in Taiwan in 1958 and funded the 'Gladys Aylward Orphanage.' During her last years, she extensively worked in Taiwan for the poor through the ‘Gladys Aylward Children’s Home.’ She died in 1970 at the age of 67.
Early Life & Childhood
Gladys Aylward was born on February 24, 1902, in a working class family. Her parents, Thomas John Aylward and Rosina Florence, lived in Edmonton, London, at the time of her birth.
Her father was a postman, while her mother was a postal worker. Gladys was one of the three children born to the couple.
She enrolled in a three-month course at the 'China Inland Mission' following an offer to go to China as a Christian missionary, but as she could not make any substantial progress in learning the Chinese language, her training was discontinued.
In 1920, at the age of 18, Gladys had her first spiritual experience while attending a meeting of evangelicals. It is said that Gladys was trying to go away from them, when someone grasped her hand and told that she was wanted by God. She got scared by the incident, but it left quite an impression on her mind.
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Aylward was in her late 20s when she came across an article about how people in China hadn’t heard of gospel and this article completely turned her life around.
She went to Bristol to work as a housekeeper for a retired missionary couple and learnt a great deal about the work.
She next went to South Wales to work for helpless women and continued working for the upliftment of the poor and needy people.
She wandered on the streets, understanding about the problems of homeless women, prostitutes, and took them back to the hostel run by the mission. She continued working for the downtrodden but could not earn enough needed to reach China to fulfil her mission.
She then moved to London to work as housemaid. One night, she placed few coins on her Bible and screamed to God to help her figure out the way to take her to China. It was like magic when a housemaid opened her door and told her that she was needed downstairs. Gladys couldn’t believe her eyes when the mistress offered to reimburse her travel fare.
In 1930, she spent her savings to go to China. While travelling by the 'Trans-Siberian Railway,' she was apprehended in Russia, but managed to escape and board a Japanese ship. From Japan she took another ship to reach Yangcheng, China.
Upon her arrival in China, she started working with Jeannie Lawson, a veteran missionary. During the initial days, Gladys stayed with Lawson in her home.
She used to read Bible stories to her guests who would popularize the missionary work. Soon, Lawson and Aylward opened ‘The Inn of Eight Happiness,’ which was dedicated to the eight virtues - love, virtue, gentleness, tolerance, loyalty, truth, beauty, and devotion. As soon as it was opened, people boycotted it and called Gladys a ‘foreigner evil.’ She was dragged on streets but all this only made her vision stronger and she continued preaching and helping orphans.
They provided shelter to travelers, preached stories of Jesus, and visited nearby villages to sensitize locals about their missionary work. Lawson died at 74 due to a severe injury and at the time of her death requested Gladys to continue with the work.
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Gladys was appointed as an assistant to the government as a ‘foot inspector.’ Her job was to tour the country and enforce the law against ‘footbinding’ young Chinese girls and she achieved decent success despite a lot of opposition. In 1936, she earned the citizenship of the ‘Republic of China.’ During the 1938 invasion by Japan, she rescued more than 100 orphans to shelter.
She returned to England in 1949, delivering lectures on her experience and work. She planned to return back to China, after the death of her mother, but the Communist government rejected her request. She then stayed in Hong Kong, before moving to Taiwan in 1958, where she set up the ‘Gladys Aylward Orphanage’ and continued working until her death.
Personal Life & Legacy
Gladys never married but adopted five children. However, there is no count of how many unofficial children she had adopted during her lifetime.
She died on January 3, 1970, at the age of 67, due to influenza. Memorial services were held across the world in her honor.
By the time of her death, Gladys had become a revered figure and she deserved every bit of it. Her work continues at many children’s home in Taipei and the ‘Hope Mission’ in Hong Kong.
The ‘Gladys Aylward Charitable Trust’ still works in England.
The 1958 film ‘The Inn of Sixth Happiness’ was based on her life. It starred Ingrid Bergman in the lead role. The film was based on the events of the book ‘The Small Woman,’ which was published in 1957. It was authored by Alan Burgess, who also dramatized her story in a ‘BBC’ show called ‘Gladys Aylward: One of the Undefeated,’ in 1949.
Numerous short stories, books, films, and plays narrate the story of Gladys Aylward.
A school in London was renamed the ‘Gladys Aylward School’ after her death. It was previously known as ‘Weir Hall and Huxley.’