Small Woman, Big Adventure

Posted by Craig Borlase on 26 December 2013

She was unconventional and Gladys Aylward’s missionary work in China made an impact that can still be noticed today.

She may have started out as a domestic servant, but after she attended a revival meeting, Gladys Aylward knew she was destined to become a spiritual one. 

She was 26 when she decided that she would go to China to preach the gospel. Yet the decision was just the first step: it took perseverance to persuade someone to let her go. Eventually she heard of a 73 year-old missionary looking for an assistant. She didn’t hang around.

For most residents of the city of Yanchen, Jeannie Lawson and her young disciple were the only Europeans they had ever seen. The women were distrusted from the start and had to work hard to get their message across. 

The solution was simple: hospitality. Yangchen was an important stop-off on a key trading route, and Aylward and Lawson set up an inn to capitalise on their potential audience. Within weeks the project was working: they served good food, offered accommodation and cared for the mules. They also spend evenings telling their residents all about Jesus.

Lawson died soon after the inn was started, but Aylward stayed and found herself given increasingly remarkable opportunities to spread the gospel. Through the favour of local leaders she was given access to everyone from prisoners to women, orphans to soldiers. By the time Japan invaded China in 1938, Aylward was caring for 200 orphans, and carefully shepherded them to safety on a twelve day trek ahead of the advancing army.

As the war ended Aylward established a settlement for Lepers in Szechuan, near the borders of Tibet. In 1947 she returned for an urgent operation in England, remaining there to preach and live until her death in 1970. 

Her story is so full of miraculous events and remarkable sacrifice that it was made into a book (‘The Small Woman’) and a film called ‘The Inn of the Sixth Happiness’ starring Ingrid Bergman in 1958. On reading a summary of the plot, one writer commented: ‘in order for a film to be good, the story should be believable.’ It’s astounding what a little blend of passion and obedience can achieve.  

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