One of the things my wife and I love to do on Sunday afternoons is to listen to recorded sermons from our favorite pastors. We listen to the current message from our dear local pastor who sends it to us, and then we click onto the D. James Kennedy Ministries website (djkm.org) and listen to several of the messages that this great hero of the faith recorded many years ago (he went home in 2007). In addition to great Bible exposition, Dr. Kennedy always managed to weave Christian or American or world history into his messages, and they are always fascinating to us. He also often admonished his flock to be good citizens, stalwart patriots in the mode of our original Founding Generation. He was never hesitant to rail against the evils and injustices that our own government was committing against the American people. To my mind, D. James Kennedy was the sort of shepherd of the flock that all pastors should be, but that so few actually are.
A few Sundays ago we were listening to one of Dr. Kennedy’s messages, when he began to tell us about an amazing servant of our Lord, a missionary to China (and later to Taiwan) who, under God’s direction and in obedience to Him, went to China in the early 1930’s and single-handedly (well—one Christian plus God are a majority) accomplished more than many other missionaries accomplished. Dr. Kennedy told us the story of Gladys Aylward’s missionary achievements in that huge and war-torn nation, and of an amazing conversion to the Christian faith on the part of a world-famous Hollywood actress. It is this story that I’d like to share with you.
My sources for this amazing story are several: The recorded sermon by Rev. D. James Kennedy, an article on the website “God Reports”, titled Actress Ingrid Bergman Found Jesus After She Played Role of Missionary, by Chad Don, published March 7, 2016, and an article from Wikipedia, titled Gladys Aylward (undated), from all three of which I quote freely while trying to tell this amazing tale in my own words.
I was familiar with the lives of some Christian missionaries of the past, and I’ve always admired them for their willingness to obey our LORD’S gentle yet persistent call to go where He would have them go, and present the “Good News”—the Gospel—to those who had never heard it, and in many cases ease their physical burdens. In addition, some of my own Patriot Readers Group, a large number of people to whom I often send my articles and other information of concern to my fellow Christians and patriots, includes several retired Christian missionaries as well as currently active pastors. But I had never heard of English missionary Gladys Alyward until we heard Dr. Kennedy talking about her. So let me tell you a bit about her fascinating life, and an even more amazing conversion unto eternal life on the part of a famous Hollywood actress, brought about by Gladys’ life of faithful service to her LORD after she had passed away.
Her name was Gladys May Aylward (1902-1970). Born into a struggling working-class family in Edmonton, North London (England), even before she went home to be with her LORD and Savior she had been the subject of several books (the most popular of which was titled The Small Woman, by Alan Burgess (published in 1957), and whose story (not very accurately, however) was made into the motion picture The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, in 1958. That film starred Ingrid Bergman, a famous (and somewhat notorious by that time) actress. More on her later.
In working class England life was a struggle, and so it was for the young Gladys. During her early teen years she worked long and hard as a housemaid for the upper classes. It was during those years that she became a Christian, and became fascinated by the stories of the faithful missionaries who had gone out from England and many other nations to serve her LORD and bring the Gospel to those who had never heard it. As Gladys told it, she was called to become a Christian missionary to China, a huge and troubled country to which many missionaries had been sent, and from which some had never returned. Gladys, barely 5 feet tall, was eventually accepted for training by the China Inland Mission, but had to take a preliminary three-month course for aspiring missionaries, learning the basics of the notoriously difficult Chinese Mandarin language. However, she found the study of Mandarin too much for her, and because of her lack of progress in learning the basics of that language, the people who ran that mission told her that she was not suitable for missionary service in China.
Dejected but determined to go to China, she inquired with a travel agent as to the costs of going by herself (at age 26 at that time) to that mysterious nation on the other side of the world. She was told that a sea voyage would cost around 80 pounds Sterling, but a train trip across Europe and across Russia and Siberia on the Trans-Siberian Railroad would cost only 40 pounds Sterling. Although she was warned of the dangers of the overland route (through the communist tyranny of Soviet Russia), she determined to earn money for the overland route, and took work again as a housemaid for wealthy families in order to earn the money.
Eventually, by the early 1930’s Gladys had saved enough money, and spent her entire savings on a train ticket which would, she was assured, take her to Yangcheng, in Shanxi Province in China, where she had previously made arrangements to be the housemaid for 73-year-old missionary Jeannie Lawson, who ran an “inn” of sorts for Chinese caravan merchants, which gave her an opportunity to witness for Christ to the locals. Apparently Lawson also had taken in some Chinese orphan children, and needed help. So God sent Gladys Aylward to her. During her harrowing journey on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, as she was crossing Siberia, she was detained for a short time by Russian troops, but managed to escape from their custody with the help of some local citizens. Soon God sent more help to Gladys, in the form of a Japanese ship on a nearby river, whose captain took pity on her and took her to Japan with him. With the aid of the British Consul to Japan, Gladys travelled across that country to the coast, where she found a ship that would take her to China.
Keep in mind that Gladys was still a young woman, barely over 30, and with no “official” Christian mission to support her financially. Essentially she was financially destitute and had to depend on the kindness of Chinese locals through whom she travelled to her destination—locals that considered her to be “a foreign devil”. Eventually she arrived at her destination in Yangcheng, and began working with missionary Jeannie Lawson at her “inn”. Soon enough, the two women decided to enlarge and open an “official” inn, and they named it The Inn of the Eight Happinesses, or “bastu kezhan” in Chinese. They named their inn after the eight Chinese virtues: Love, Virtue, Gentleness, Tolerance, Loyalty, Truth, Beauty, and Devotion. For a short time both women not only provided much appreciated hospitality (food and a place to sleep and care for their animals), but would also share many Bible stories about their Savior, Jesus, with the men in hopes of spreading the message of Christianity, which was just beginning to be known in that part of China.
Sadly, not long after this, Gladys’ friend and employer, Jeannie Lawson, passed away, leaving Gladys alone and with virtually no income. But she bravely persisted in running the “Inn of Eight Happinesses”, even though by the first half of the 1930’s China was facing great social upheaval (invasion by Japan and extensive communist infiltration and violence against the Nationalist government). Most Chinese people where Gladys lived struggled in great poverty, and eked out a hand-to-mouth existence. Being basically without an income except the meager money she charged to the caravan men who came to the inn, she prayed to her Heavenly Father to help her. And help her He did!
A short time later Gladys received a notice from the local “Mandarin” (sort of like a mayor of a city) to come to see him. She was too afraid to do so, but soon the Mandarin came to Gladys’ inn and talked with her, officially welcoming her into the area, and after chatting for a time, he offered Gladys a PAYING job as a “foot inspector”. She was to tour through the local countryside and villages to enforce the new Chinese law against binding the feet of baby girls in order to stop the growth of their feet, making their feet very small (and supposedly more attractive) when they reached adulthood, but essentially crippling them for life. This new law had met with much resistance since its inception, including violence against the former “foot inspectors”, but Gladys met with much success, being admired as one who cared for the poor locals, plus she was earning an income from the Nationalist government.
One day, in her travels, Gladys met a young Chinese mother who offered to sell her own sickly infant daughter for anything Gladys had. She had only 9 pence with her, and moved to tears, Gladys gave that miniscule amount of money to the child’s mother and officially adopted her. She named her new adopted daughter “Beautiful Grace”, and nursed her back to health. In God’s Providence, this was just the beginning of Gladys’ orphanage ministry that eventually grew to 100 orphaned or abandoned children.
Soon the local authorities, trusting Gladys, called upon her to do what she could to quell a riot at a local prison. The prison’s brutal warden, mocking Gladys and asking her to “prove her boasting” that her God was capable of doing anything, asked her to go in among the rioting prisoners and calm them. They had killed several other prisoners already in protest of having to live in such squalid and harsh conditions. So they opened the gates for Gladys, and she walked in among the rioters, and went right up to the apparent ringleader, who threatened her with a large knife. She demanded that he hand over the knife to her and, soon, he did just that. She had all of the prisoners form into ranks and tell her why they were rioting. Her report to the authorities and a later series of negotiations on behalf of those prisoners led to reforms in the prison and somewhat improved living conditions.
Although the Chinese people were essentially distrustful of all foreigners, Gladys slowly won them over by caring for them, doing good works for the local people, who soon began to call her “Ai-weh-deh”, which meant “Virtuous One”. In 1936 Gladys renounced her British citizenship, burned her passport, and became a citizen of China, continuing to take in orphans into her “inn”/orphanage, and even adopting several orphans herself.
By 1938, however, her area, including the town she lived in, was attacked by the military of Imperial Japan. Rather than face certain massacre of herself and her orphan children, Gladys embarked with ALL of them on her own “long march” to reach Chinese Nationalist controlled territory. They marched for 12 days, over 300 miles through harsh terrain and cold temperatures, over mountains, sleeping out in the cold open air. Several times they all had to run to escape Japanese bullets and avoid military checkpoints. One bullet did slightly wound Gladys, who was finally able to get her column of orphans to the Yellow River. Praying for help because the invading Japanese had seized all of the local boats, a boat “miraculously” appeared and offered to carry them all across the river, which it did.
Gladys and her orphans finally arrived in Xian, whereupon she collapsed, being wracked by typhoid fever, which kept her bedridden in a delirium for several days. In 1949 Gladys returned to England for her first (and only) sabbatical to regain some strength, and to care for her elderly mother. She and the authorities knew that her life in China was in danger from the Chinese communist butchers, for they were already known to be hunting for Christian missionaries to kill or imprison. In England she gave many lectures to church and local groups, thrilling her audiences with her adventures, which to her were just opportunities to serve her LORD. By the mid-1950’s several books had been written about Gladys Aylward and her missionary activities in China, the most popular book being titled The Small Woman, by Alan Burgess, which helped make Gladys a “household name”.
After her mother died, Gladys tried to return to Mainland China, but the communist government rejected her application. She lived for a time in British-administered Hong Kong, and finally went to live permanently in Taiwan in 1958, becoming a close friend to Madame Chiang Kai-Sheck, wife of the leader of the Nationalist government on Taiwan (and herself a devoted Christian woman). In Taiwan she soon founded the Gladys Aylward Orphanage, which she administered until her death in 1970.
AND NOW, THE REST OF THE STORY
From Alan Burgess’ book, The Small Woman, Hollywood picked up the movie rights. The film, purported to be based on Gladys’ life, was titled: The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, and one of its internationally known and admired stars was Ingrid Bergman, who was in her early 40’s at this time. Gladys reportedly detested the film after watching it, claiming it took many “liberties” (common in Hollywood films) with the truth. The film’s producers had made it into a romantic story subplot, none of which had happened (as Gladys assured her admirers—she had “never even kissed a man”). The selection of Bergman to play Gladys the missionary totally disturbed her, and she announced to all that the love scenes in the film had “destroyed her reputation”.
At just this time, Gladys sought advice from her friend, Madame Chiang Kai-Sheck, who told Gladys to “trust Jesus about it”. Now everyone in those days knew that Ingrid Bergman had left her husband and children in the late 1940’s and had an “affair” with Italian movie director Roberto Rossellini, even having a child with him. (Bergman made many memorable films, and was an accomplished actress—my favorite was the old classic film, Casablanca, made in 1942 with Humphrey Bogart). But the U.S. in the late 1940’s was not the U.S. of today, and Bergman faced such backlash and personal attacks that she was forced to leave the U.S. and live in Europe with her new, temporary husband, Rossellini.
WITH GOD NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE
I hope you believe that statement, above. It’s true, you know. You’ll recall that Madame Chiang had advised Gladys to “trust Jesus about it”—i.e. about what to do about having been “humiliated” by the film supposedly made about her missionary activities. Well, our LORD did answer her prayer. Here’s how, for it surely was not in the manner that Gladys or Madame Chiang must have expected. According to J. Christy Wilson, author of the book: More to be Desired Than Gold: A Collection of True Stories: “Ingrid Bergman became so deeply moved playing the part of Gladys Aylward that she made a special trip to Taiwan in 1970 just to meet her. Just days before Bergman arrived, however, Aylward died of influenza and passed into the presence of the LORD in her sleep. Bergman visited the empty room where Gladys had lived, and fell down beside Aylward’s bed weeping uncontrollably, saying she was unworthy to have played the life of such a woman of God in the film.
“Aylward’s co-worker (at the orphanage she ran) then led Bergman through the sinner’s prayer of repentance—the steps to peace with God, showing Bergman that Christ had died for (all) of her sins. Bergman prayed the prayer of repentance with this Christian lady and received Jesus Christ as her personal Savior and LORD.”
As Pastor Kennedy recounted this amazing story in his message that Sunday, you could have heard a pin drop in that large auditorium, for it had held the people in spellbound fascination and thankfulness that our LORD had wrought such a change in Bergman. But had you ever heard this story before? I hadn’t. Here was this famous actress, known the world over, asking God to forgive her for her life of sin, the same as all Christians have done for millennia, her fame and money and adulation by her fans now meaningless. Ingrid Bergman was now “a child of God”, “a follower of the Carpenter of Nazareth”. Her last film was a TV movie based on the life of Golda Meir (1898-1978), first female Prime Minister of Israel. I remember watching Bergman’s excellent performance, not realizing that she was fighting breast cancer even then. Just before she passed into eternity to be with her LORD Jesus in 1982, Bergman took part in the Easter Sunrise Service of The Presbyterian Church in Palm Springs, California. She read from Scripture about Jesus Resurrection, in preparation for her own soon-to-be-made journey.
And THAT was “the rest of the story”!