Perhaps the most celebrated Christian martyr ever called to lay down his life in China is the Scottish-born Olympic champion and world-record holder, Eric Liddell. Born to missionary parents in Tianjin in 1902, Liddell returned to his homeland as a teenager. Even as a young man his life was marked by a deep faith and consecration to Christ, and he considered all worldly achievements nothing compared to the joy of walking with God.
Liddell was already an outstanding athlete at the age of 16. He captained his school cricket team, and possessed an exceptional turn of speed. After entering Edinburgh University in 1920 his sporting career blossomed. He excelled in running events, especially the 100-meter sprint, and his speed enabled him to play international rugby for Scotland. Many athletic victories came Liddell’s way, including a winning run for the British Empire team against the United States.
With the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris looming, Great Britain placed its hope in 'the flying Scot' to bring home multiple gold medals. Sport was not the priority of Liddell’s life, however. In 1923 he joined the Glasgow Students’ Evangelistic Union, and gave himself wholeheartedly to the service of God. He continually asked himself, “Does this path I tread follow the Lord’s will?”
Eric Liddell's devotion to Christ was complete, and he viewed his athletic ability as a God-given gift by which he could glorify Jesus. This opportunity came in a unique way during the Olympics.
A short time before the Games commenced, Liddell discovered that the heats for the 100-meter sprint were scheduled to be run on a Sunday. The prospect of running on the Lord’s Day was abhorrent to him and he withdrew, thus giving up the almost certain prospect of winning a gold medal in his strongest event.
The Olympic 100-meter competition went on without him, and a world that idolizes its sports stars was left reflecting on Liddell’s radical obedience to Jesus Christ. For weeks his decision not to run was vehemently criticized by the press in Britain and other parts of the world. Much pressure was brought to bear on him, but nothing would alter his convictions. He later explained his decision:
“Ask yourself, if I know something to be true, am I prepared to follow it, even though it is contrary to what I want, or to what I have personally held to be true? Will I follow it if it means being laughed at, if it means personal financial loss, or some kind of hardship?”1
Liddell did compete in the 400-meters, which was not held on a Sunday. He won a gold medal and set a new world record for the event, and also won a bronze in the 200-meters. The deep admiration Scotland held for Liddell was later seen at his university graduation. One account said, “Scotland loved this young man. He demonstrated on the field just the sort of determination, stamina, and honest excellence that—though perhaps not flashy—the Scots love to see in a native son.... He was literally paraded around the streets of Edinburgh to the adulation of its inhabitants.”2
For the next few years people flocked to see the Olympic champion. This opened many doors for Liddell to share his faith. Although he had returned to his homeland for education, his plan was always to return to China after he had graduated. Despite his success and popularity, Liddell shocked Scotland by returning to China to engage in missionary work in 1925.
Liddell fell in love and married Florence Mackenzie at Tianjin in 1934, and their union produced three beautiful daughters. For years he faithfully worked at the Anglo-Chinese College in Tianjin, where countless missionaries passed through from far-flung fields, sharing their victories and struggles.
Liddell inwardly longed to experience pioneer work for himself, and in 1936 he sensed the Holy Spirit was leading him to a new ministry. A vacancy opened at Xiaochang in Shandong Province, but the opportunity coincided with the arrival of the Japanese army. It was considered too dangerous for a family to live in the war zone, so to accept the appointment Liddell would have to spend periods of time away from his beloved wife and daughters. After wrestling with the decision for a year, he was convinced that God was calling him to accept the position.
Shandong was in a state of chaos due to the war. Liddell spent much of his energy rescuing wounded soldiers, knowing that if caught he would be sentenced to death by the Japanese. With the outbreak of The Second World War in 1939, the danger for missionaries intensified. Florence and the three girls travelled to safety in Canada, but Eric decided to remain in China. In 1943 he and all his missionary colleagues were arrested and held in a Japanese internment camp at Weifang in Shandong.
For Eric Liddell, being imprisoned with more than 2,000 other foreigners (including 327 children) meant an opportunity to teach and encourage the downcast, and he threw all his energy into his activities. One account of life in the internment camp said:
“Of the missionaries in Weifang, none aroused more admiration and affection than Eric Liddell of the London Missionary Society, and former Olympic hero. On arrival at the camp, the Employment Committee appointed him teacher of Mathematics and Science, and organizer of Athletics. Later he also became the Warden of Blocks 23 and 24. As sports activities decreased with the diminishing vigor of the inmates, Liddell gave more and more of his time to keeping the restless youth in the camp entertained with chess, square dancing and other pastimes.”3
After nearly two years of incarceration and separation from his family, Liddell’s health began to break down. He battled depression, and interpreted the symptoms to mean he was wavering in his faith. He didn’t realize he was suffering from a malignant brain tumor. The end came quickly, and on February 21, 1945, the missionary and Olympic champion went to be with Jesus Christ, just months before the end of the War.
The story of Eric Liddell was celebrated in the award-winning 1981 movie, Chariots of Fire. In 1991 a memorial stone was sent from Scotland to place on Liddell’s unmarked grave in Shandong. After much research the grave was located within the grounds of a school in Weifang. A service was held at which,
“Communist cadres, Asian missionaries, Scottish businessmen, British diplomats, and family and former friends of Liddell gathered for the ceremony, which included a number by the school band and Scottish bagpipes as well as fond remembrances from Liddell’s friends. At the end of the ceremony a small group of Christians bowed their heads in prayer in front of the memorial stone but were sent away by authorities.”4
Although just 42 when he died, millions of people have been touched by Eric Liddell’s self-sacrificial life and death.
1. Woodbridge, More than Conquerors, p. 223.
2. Woodbridge, More than Conquerors, p. 223.
3. Norman Cliff, Prisoners of the Samurai: Japanese Civilian Camps in China, 1941-1945 (Rainham, Essex: Courtyard Publishers, 1998), p. 81.
4. “Eric Liddell Memorialized in Weifang,” China News and Church Report (June 1991).
© This article is an extract from Paul Hattaway's book 'Shandong: The Revival Province'. You can order this or any of The China Chronicles books and e-books from our online bookstore.