Official Foot Inspector: Gladys Aylward

Women’s History Month: March
Female Missionaries

“What’s your dream and to what corner of the missions world will it take you?”
~Eleanor Roat

Commonly young women interested in going to the mission field have been single, and just as commonly mission boards have not wanted to send them. Who knows exactly why the China Inland Mission (CIM) turned down Gladys Aylward and Amy Carmichael. Yes, I know. They said Gladys was too old to learn the language and Amy was too sickly. But could the real reason have been merely that they were unmarried? So were Mary Slessor and Lillian Trasher. So was Narcissa Prentiss until she married Marcus Whitman. So was a certain Pentecostal friend of mine: she was not accepted by the mission board until she, at twenty-eight, married a young man six years her junior. Then the board was happy to sponsor her. The head man even told her: “I always believed that you were called”—a fine time to tell her after he’d so often turned her down! I suspect the reason a mission board declines an unmarried woman is that it does not want to be responsible for her. A woman alone is vulnerable. Even dependent. And a mission board cannot afford any bad press. Its livelihood depends on good PR. Still the exploits of some young female missionaries have shamed the boards that denied them, and their gutsiness and independence have only served to affirm what God knew all along: that they were instruments of His will. 

Gladys May Aylward (1902-1970) was born, eldest of four children, into the home of an ordinary working-class family, London. Her dad was a mailman. She was reared Anglican. At an early age she became a domestic and worked in high-profile townhouses and estates on London’s West End. Her last employer, Sir Francis Younghusband, hobnobed with people like Winston Churchill, Cecil Rhodes, Mahatma Gandhi, and WB Yeats, the Irish poet. She trained herself to speak pure “Oxonian” (Oxford accent). But her heart’s desire was to go to China as a missionary. Toward that end, she educated herself as best she could. When the China Inland Mission (CIM) refused her because she was a poor student, lacked adequate training, did not know the language, and, it was assumed, was too old to learn—only in her mid-twenties—she decided to go on her own.

Meanwhile, like George Whitefield, Gladys took up field preaching, on Friday, in Hyde Park, out of reach of the Younghusband Rolls Royce. With all the money she had she purchased passage to China (1930) on a trans-Siberian railway and, because it was wartime, experienced a harrowing journey via The Hague, Holland, Germany, Poland, Russia, Moscow, Siberia (where she slept alone in a train tunnel overnight, with the wolves howling), Manchuria, Vladivostok, Sea of Japan, Kobe, Japan, Pacific Ocean, then China and the Great Wall. On her arrival, she donned native costume and worked with older missionary, Jeannie Lawson, at an inn, cleaning the place and serving guests, something she was eminently qualified to do.

The local Mandarin appointed her foot inspector (1932) to enforce the new law forbidding footbinding. It was a job in which she met with success, despite cultural resistance and occasional violence. As if Providence had designed her for this very mission, her dark hair and diminutive size allowed her to blend in with the people. One could hardly pick her out of a crowd of Chinese. She had to let the people inspect her own size-three feet: imagine if she had worn a size eight!

Traveling about the countryside afforded her wonderful opportunity to evangelize and learn the language. As if validating her call, CIM missionary David Davis observed he’d never met anyone more articulate in the Shansi Mountain dialect: “You speak one tu-hwa [dialect] after another, and so rapidly.” The people loved her; they called her Ai-weh-deh (“Virtuous One”). She took in orphans, adopted some, quelled a prison riot (1933), sought prison reform, and risked her life to help the disadvantaged. She even became a Chinese citizen (1936). When the Japanese invaded the area (1938), she was injured. Though wounded herself, she led one hundred orphans to safety over rugged mountains—another harrowing, unromantic journey.

She experienced years of hardship (1940s), during which time Nationalist Chinese, warlords, Japanese, and Communists were vying for the country. At one point she awoke in a Baptist hospital in Sian. When she awoke, she was told that she’d been suffering with a 105° fever, typhus, pneumonia, malnutrition, and exhaustion—and this was only one of her experiences. For five years she lived in tiny rooms with refugees, worked with lepers, witnessed to Buddhist monks, taught English to students, served as a “Biblewoman,” and did chores.

Supplied by Russian Communists, and thundering across the land with a million troops, Communist Chinese finally won. All foreign missionaries were removed, and refugees fled to Hong Kong. Gladys retreated to England (1949), spent several years there, then tried to return to mainland China. The Communists would not allow it, of course. The nearest she could get (1953) was Nationalist China or Taiwan, where she founded an orphanage (1958) and lived out the remainder of her life. One of her benefactors was Madame Chiang Kai-shek, whom she knew personally. Gladys was even received at Buckingham Palace and walked in the garden with Queen Elizabeth. She never married. Her story was told by Alan Burgess in The Small Woman (1957); my source was Sam Wellman, Gladys Aylward: Missionary to China. Shortly after Burgess’ book came out, the story was made into a movie, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958). A London school, Weir Hall, was renamed in her honor. She is buried on the campus of Christ’s College, Guandu, New Taipei, Taiwan.

“The gospel is only good news if it reaches the lost in time.” ~Anonymous

“I am not tired of my work, neither am I tired of the world; yet, when Christ calls me home, I shall go with the gladness of a boy bounding home from school.” ~Adoniram Judson

“If missions languish, it is because the whole life of godliness is feeble. The command to go everywhere and preach to everybody is not obeyed until the will is lost by self-surrender in the will of God.” ~Arthur T Pierson

Copyright © 2012 Alexandra Lee

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About Christseekerk

Minister, Editor, Writer, Senior Citizen, Grown Children, Grandchildren. Interests travel, writing, reading, walking, golf.
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One Response to Official Foot Inspector: Gladys Aylward

  1. Pingback: Women in the Arts—Film | Aesthetics

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