The world knows the name Eric Liddell as the winner of the gold medal for the 400 meter race in the 1924 Olympics (portrayed in the film Chariots of Fire). Many know, further, that he did not originally train for that race: he had trained for the 100 meter race, but, dismayed to find that the race was to be held on Sunday, the Lord’s day, he refused to run it and was allowed to switch to the 400 meter. Perhaps fewer still know that he was born to missionary parents and went back to China as a missionary himself.
The biography Eric Liddell by Catherine Swift (Men of Faith (series, Bethany House Publishers) details his parents’ testimony and early experiences in China. (Incidentally, this book includes the best concise exposition that I have ever read of the famed Chinese Boxer Rebellion, in which many missionaries were killed or driven from China.) Eric was born Jan. 16, 1902, in Tientsin in North China. His parents were originally from Scotland: Eric’s first visit there occurred during his parents’ first furlough when Eric was five.
At this time missionary children were usually educated in boarding schools, so Eric and his older brother Robbie stayed behind at the London Missionary School when their parents went back to China. Eric was thin, in frail health, and very shy at first, but flourished under the headmaster’s practice of his motto, “Healthy minds in healthy bodies.” Although gaining confidence and overcoming much of his shyness, he remained a relatively quiet personality. He began attending voluntary Bible classes in his teens, never taking part in the discussions, but thinking over them when he was alone.
He played cricket and rugby well and especially enjoyed running (interesting since there was concern during an early childhood illness that he might never run), winning many athletic honors: yet he was known for his humility and his not letting any of it go to his head.
Eric had a rather odd running style: “He had a habit of running with his head rested back on his shoulders, gazing up at the heavens instead of where he was going. His knees came right up as though he was trying to hit his own chin, and he lifted his feet far too high off the ground. His arms waved about sporadically and his fists punched at the air, making him look more like a boxer than a runner.”
During Eric’s college years he became well known for his running. At one point some students began evangelistic work in the area and had a particularly hard time reaching the men. One student thought of asking Eric to speak, thinking what fame he had would attract the men. Though he hated “the limelight,” Eric agreed to go. He very quietly and humbly spoke of God and his love for Him and trust in Him. That experience awakened in him a desire to more openly share His Lord with others and began a public ministry.
When Eric began training for the 1924 Olympics in Paris, it never occurred to him that the match would be held on Sunday, as well as two relays he could have competed in. When he saw the schedule, long before the event, he simply felt he could not participate and violate his convictions and dishonor the Lord and His Day. He did not make a big fuss about it — but others did. He received much criticism and was even accused of being a traitor to his country. The authorities tried to get the schedule changed, to no avail, then they asked Eric to compete in the 200 and 400 meter races instead. On Wednesday of the Olympic Games, Eric ran in the 200 meter race, winning a bronze medal, which no Scotsman had even done. Then on Friday, as he was leaving his hotel for the 400 meter race, his regular masseur handed him a slip of paper. Later in a quiet moment, Eric unfolded the paper to read, “In the old book it says, ‘He that honors me I will honor.’ Wishing you the best of success always.” This reinforced to Eric the word he had been resting on, “Whosoever believeth in me shall not be ashamed,” and encouraged him. To everyone’s surprise, he not only won the gold medal in that race, but set a new world record.
Just a few weeks later he publicly announced his plans to be a missionary in China, teaching at a college in the city in which he was born. He spent another year in England, holding campaigns and studying theology.
Eric ministered in China for several years, married, had two daughters and was expecting a third while unrest brewed: nationalists and Communists were fighting each other while the Japanese were creeping in. Eventually the Japanese gained control of their area and were talking about sending all missionaries to internment camps. Eric sent his wife and daughters to Canada. The Christians who were left found creative ways to get around the ban on church services, such as inviting each other to “tea” on Sundays. Just a few weeks before Eric expected to leave, all British and American missionaries were sent to an internment camp several miles away. Eric quietly ministered there in many ways. In another book, A Boy’s War, David Michell, who was a boy in the internment camps at the time, tells of his memories of “Uncle Eric,” as he was known to the children. Eric fell ill and gradually grew worse: eventually he and others knew from his symptoms that he had a brain tumor. His last words were, “It’s complete surrender,” a phrase he had used often in his life and ministry.
The world was stunned to learn of Eric’s death at the age of 43 just a few weeks before World War II ended. Memorial services were held in many places. His life still reaches out even now, nearly 60 years after his death, as an example of quiet, humble servitude and a life that honors God.
Here is a video of Eric Liddell’s and Harold Abraham’s races in the 1924 Olympics:
And this is pretty neat: Day of Discovery took Liddell’s three grown daughters back to China for the first time since their father had sent them to safety in 1941:
One quote of Liddell’s that I have in my files is “Circumstances may appear to wreck our lives and God’s plans, but God is not helpless among the ruins.” I don’t remember the context in which he said these words, but they are a fitting epitaph to his life.
(You can see a list of other posts in the 31 Days of Missionary Stories here.)
(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)