Gladys Aylward: A Woman with Mustard Seed Faith

Gladys. Her name is what first captured my attention because my dad used to call me Gladys. I wouldn’t call it a nickname because he was the only one who called me that. 

Gail. Gladys. What’s in a name anyway?

Well, grab a cup of tea and let me share with you what I learned about Gladys through the pages in the book Gladys Aylward the Little Woman.    

Gladys was born 24 February 1902 in Edmonton, London, England. She died 03 January at the age of 67 in Taiwan where she is buried in a small cemetery on the campus of Christ’s College in Guandu. 

Did you catch that year? 1902. That’s a long while ago, yet the lives of those who lived over a century ago still have things to teach us. 

It is in the dash between those dates where Gladys left such a prodigious legacy. 

Most girls from the working class in England went into what Gladys called “service” because of fewer options. So that’s what Gladys did. She became a parlor maid. But her big ambition in life was to act. She was determined to make it on the stage one day, and so in the evenings Gladys would go to drama class. 

One night “for some reason I can never explain, I went to a religious meeting.”

That one choice would change her life forever. 

Gladys realized it was God who had the claim on her life, not her. Jesus became her King and soon after she read an article about China that staggered her. Millions upon millions had never even heard the name of Jesus. She tried to talk to her friends about it and none seemed interested nor were they concerned. She even asked her brother if he would go to China. He said, “Not me. Why don’t you go?”

Gladys began asking herself why wouldn’t I go? And thus, set in motion her decision to be a missionary in a country she had no idea what would be asked of her.  

The story of Gladys intrigues me because she trusted God in small ways and then as I kept reading, God used her more because of that mustard seed faith. Gladys placed her Bible, a copy of Daily Light and all the money she had in front of her while sitting on her bed. Right then, Gladys decided she would go to China when she had saved enough money for a train ticket. 

The train ticket would be $47.10. That is a significant number as Gladys had to her name two and a half pence. (2 and ½ cents in US dollars.) It would take at least three years for Gladys to save that amount. But that’s where her faith came in. She did the small things with great anticipation. Gladys believed God would provide. In so many providential ways, He did.  

Gladys became a housemaid in London where she helped at a dinner party and made $7.50. 

She details a time where the mistress of the home invited her to a dinner party. Gladys proclaimed she had nothing to wear to such an event, to which the lady then gave access to her wardrobe telling Gladys to pick out whatever she’d like. Later, Gladys would be gifted that outfit to wear on the train to China. 

Many availabilities were given to Gladys including one Mrs. Lawson who had been praying for a woman to come to China and help her with hospitality for needy travelers in her home. Opportunities arose for Gladys to be able to save for that train ticket. What should have taken 3 years to save $47.10 for the fare only took mere months to gather. 

Gladys was off to China and Mrs. Lawson by way of Liverpool Street Station. She was seen off by her parents and friends. What a sacrifice it must have been for her parents to know that would likely be the last time they would see their daughter again. Her parents chose faith over fear and didn’t hold their daughter back. 

That kind of faith back in the 40’s is the same faith playing out in 2023 as I personally know of a situation where the parents have had to say goodbye to their child who is called to be a missionary outside of the United States. I thought of them continually as I read Gladys’s story. It takes a lot of faith to let a child live out what they feel God has called them to do. 

Gladys met a couple on the train whom she was immediately drawn to. “We had only met for so short a time, yet we had felt strangely drawn to each other.”

Have you ever felt that way about someone you only just met?

After saying goodbye to this couple Gladys writes, “…I became conscious that I was holding something in my hand. I looked down and found I was holding an English pound note. Strange to give me that, I thought. He knows I am going where English money is no good…that pound note helped me out of a very difficult place. I might almost say it saved my life.” 

I couldn’t wait to get to the part in the book where indeed, that one single pound note did in fact, save Gladys’s life. Angels are around us, people. They are. 

Getting to China wasn’t easy for Gladys. She had to go by way of Siberia. It was cold. Really cold. God provided warmth. She would meet with dead ends, but God always made a way. There was an instance where an evil man tried to do horrible things to Gladys, but she screamed the name of Jesus so loud, he ran in fear. 

And as for that pound note? Well, she needed to get on a boat. Fast. She was told a man would knock on her door and she would need to go with him. Gladys had to trust a man she did not know, and right after the above incident happened with that evil man. But Gladys believed. She had faith. 

Just when she was literally walking the plank to get on said boat, the Russian soldiers grabbed her, pulling her back. It was then that she remembered the pound note. She took it from her secret pocket and cried, “Look, I buy myself off!”

“The soldiers stared at the note and relaxed their hold. I leaped onto the boat which was just beginning to move, and left part of my coat in the hand of the soldier who had grabbed me…”

My heart leaped from my chest as I read that account. I can’t imagine how scary that must have been for Gladys.  

Gladys made it to China, where incredible things happened. She helped so many needy travelers at the Inn Mrs. Lawson had started. She became an assistant to the Government of the Republic of China as a foot inspector. I found these chapters so compelling. A law had gone into effect forbidding foot binding. (Oh, my goodness. What a horrible custom for girls to have had to endure. I found the research riveting yet appalling.) Gladys had been a champion for those women and girls. That alone made Gladys a woman worth knowing.   

One day Gladys came upon an infant whose mother wanted to sell her. Gladys bought the child for ninepence. (that’s .14 cents US, people) Gladys named her, you guessed it, Ninepence. Gladys had been lonely. She writes, “One day I was feeling utterly depressed, and had prayed almost in desperation that God would send someone to help me.” And then came Ninepence. Before long, Gladys had nearly 20 children in her care. “I could not complain of being lonely. Indeed, often I craved for a few moments of peace.” 

Gladys never married, nor did she have children of her own, but she cared for over 100 orphans and did courageous things to lead them out of occupied China.  

Gladys was known as the virtuous one. Moral, honorable, ethical, upstanding. Words I would want said of me. She believed in God’s promises, and she believed in the power of prayer. God kept Gladys safe and continually watched over her. 

Her life is proof.