January 3 – Gladys Aylward

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Gladys Aylward, Christian pioneer

 Gladys Aylward was born in London in 1904 and through attending revival meetings dedicated her life to the service of God becoming convinced that she was called to preach the Gospel in China. At the age of 26, she travelled to China by the Trans-Siberian Railway and eventually met up a 73 year old missionary, Mrs Lawson in the inland city of Yangchen.

Yangchen was an overnight stop for mule caravans that carried coal, raw cotton, pots, and iron goods on six-week or three-month journeys. The two women decided to set up an inn and alongside caring for t heir travellers and their mules told stories about a man named Jesus. Gladys became fluent in Chinese but suffered a setback when Mrs. Lawson died after a severe fall. Gladys Aylward was left to run the mission alone, with the aid of one Chinese Christian, Yang, the cook.

A few weeks after Mrs. Lawson’s death, the Mandarin of Yangchen arrived in a sedan chair, and told her that the government had decreed an end to the practice of foot-binding. The government needed a foot-inspector, who would patrol the district enforcing the decree, and he offer Gladys the job, realizing that it would give her opportunities to spread the Gospel.

On another occasion Gladys was summoned by the Mandarin to deal with a riot in the men’s prison. The convicts were rampaging in the prison courtyard, and several of them had been killed. The warden of the prison said to Gladys, “Go into the yard and stop the rioting.” She said, “How can I do that?” The warden said, “You have been preaching that those who trust in Christ have nothing to fear.” She walked into the courtyard and shouted: “Quiet! I cannot hear when everyone is shouting at once. Choose one or two spokesmen, and let me talk with them.” The men quieted down and chose a spokesman. Gladys talked with him, and then came out and told the warden: “You have these men cooped up in crowded conditions with absolutely nothing to do. No wonder they are so edgy that a small dispute sets off a riot. You must give them work. Also, I am told that you do not supply food for them, so that they have only what their relatives send them. No wonder they fight over food. We will set up looms so that they can weave cloth and earn enough money to buy their own food.” This was done. There was no money for sweeping reforms, but a few friends of the warden donated old looms, and a grindstone so that the men could work grinding grain. The people began to call Gladys Aylward “Ai-weh-deh,” which means “Virtuous One.” It was her name from then on.

Over the course of her time in China Gladys rescued several children from poverty by adopting them and giving them a home. In 1936, she officially became a Chinese citizen. She lived frugally and dressed like the people around her and this was a major factor in making her preaching effective.

In the spring of 1938, the Japanese bombed Yangcheng, killing many. The Mandarin gathered the survivors and told them to retreat into the mountains. He also announced that he was impressed by the life of Ai-weh-deh and wished to make her faith his own. There remained the question of the convicts at the jail. The traditional policy favoured beheading them all lest they escape. The Mandarin asked Ai-weh-deh for advice, and a plan was made for relatives and friends of the convicts to post a bond guaranteeing their good behaviour. Every man was eventually released on bond.

As the war continued Gladys often found herself behind Japanese lines, and often passed on information, when she had it, to the armies of China, her adopted country.

Gladys eventually gathered up over 100 children and walked with them for twelve days to the government orphanage at Sian, eventually delivering her charges into competent hands at Sian, and then promptly collapsed with typhus fever.

As her health improved, she started a Christian church in Sian, and worked elsewhere, including a settlement for lepers in Szechuan, near the borders of Tibet. Her health was permanently impaired by injuries received during the war, and in 1947 she returned to England for a badly needed operation. She remained in England, preaching there.

Miss Gladys Aylward, died 3 January 1970.



Almighty and everlasting God,

we thank you for your servant Gladys Aylward,

whom you called to preach the Gospel to the people of China.

Raise up in this and every land heralds and evangelists of your kingdom,

that your Church may make proclaim the unsearchable riches

of our Saviour Jesus Christ;

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.