One night in London a petite English parlor maid named Gladys Aylward (1902-1970) attended an evangelistic meeting, where she accepted Christ as her savior. Joining the Young Life Campaign, she was deeply impressed to serve as a missionary in China. Surmounting one obstacle after another, she made her way to that vast land and briefly connected with established missionaries. Caring for Chinese orphans while leading both children and adults to Christ, Aylward briefly returned to Britain in 1949. Ten years later she returned to China and founded the Gladys Aylward Orphanage. Her astounding story is related in The Small Woman by Alan Burgess, but far less reliably in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958), starring Ingrid Bergman, a much taller Swedish actress. Aylward despised the Hollywood film because it so egregiously misrepresented her ministry.
The Wheaton College Record, October 22, 1959, announces Aylward’s visit during an international tour sponsored by World Vision:
…Miss Gladys Aylward is guest speaker at SFMF next Wednesday evening at 7:15 in Pierce Chapel. Her [biography] has been published by Reader’s Digest in condensed form and also served as the basis for the film Inn of the Sixth Happiness. In 1930 with less than eight dollars in her pocket, Miss Aylward traveled across what was then “impossible” Siberia to northwest China to begin missionary work. When war broke out with Japan her loyalty to Nationalist China caused her to spy on the invaders. As a result of this she was ruthlessly beaten, and then as a fugitive without food or money, led 100 homeless children across the mountains to safety. Illness forced Miss Aylward to return to England after more than 20 years of service, but she has returned to Formosa for more work among the nationalists.
Later commenting on her tour and its effect on her audiences, Aylward said, “There is much to do [in China] and I still have no one to help me except my own children. What I would do without them I do not know. I often wonder where all the young people who go through Bible colleges go to, for they do not come here.”
During an era that produced such extraordinary missionaries as Amy Carmichael and Jim Elliot, Gladys Aylward, however short in statue, surely stands tall among the the most dedicated and bold ambassadors for Christ.