I caught a blurb the other day about The Flying Scotsman, Eric Liddell, the subject of the movie Chariots of Fire. Although I’ve never seen the movie in its entirety (full disclosure: I fell asleep when I tried to watch it 30 years ago), I have been aware for a long time of the amazing stand Eric Liddell took for the honor of the Lord when he refused to run his strongest event, the 100 meter race, in the 1924 Olympics. The race was scheduled to take place on a Sunday which conflicted with his Christian convictions about keeping the Sabbath Day holy.
As a young Christian 30 years ago, this impressed me; as an older Christian now, trying to understand the depths of Sabbath-keeping, I recognize an inner rudder that is missing for me regarding the Lord’s Day. Having grown up in America, Sabbath-keeping is not generally observed in our culture as a whole, nor is it taught or emphasized even in most of our churches. I decide weekly, it seems, if I am too busy to not do my bills on a Sunday or too inconvenienced on that day to avoid a trip to the store… and I haven’t even begun to wrestle with the implications of eating out each Sunday. But Eric Liddell had made his Olympic decision years and years before the event, embracing his conviction of Sabbath-keeping as a natural outflow of his Christian beliefs.
So that’s what I knew about Eric Liddell; that and the fact that having refused to run his pet race, he ran the 400m race in which he was not favored to win. Against all predictions, though, Liddell won the 400m, explaining that he ran the first 200m as hard as he could, and then for the second 200m, “with God’s help, I [ran] harder.”
I knew all this about Eric Liddell as well as his famous quote: I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure. As it turns out, Liddell knew his God-given purpose and it did not ultimately take him to a race track. The blurb I heard the other day, alluded to the end of Liddell’s life and after doing a bit of on-line surfing, I found the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey would have put it.
I found it on a fun, little, serendipitous site called: Today, I Found Out, subtitled, “Feed Your Brain.” An article written by Karl Smallwood titled, “The Heroic Death of Chariot’s of Fire’s Eric Liddell,” fills in some of the blanks of Liddell’s life after the Olympics. Most of what follows is gleaned and transcribed from his article.
Liddell was originally born in China to missionary parents. He eventually was reared and educated, though, in Scotland. A year after his Olympic victory, Liddell went back to China to serve as a missionary himself. He began serving as a teacher (science and sports) in the college city of Tianjin (where he was born), but after being there for 12 years, he became an ordained minister and served as an evangelist and humanitarian in the Xiaozhang County. One might wonder if Liddell ever regretted giving up athletics at the peak of his career to become a missionary and humanitarian. Today it would mean giving up a life of fame and fortune in the form of sponsorships, coaching, and radio broadcasting. Eric Liddell’s answer reveals his eternal vision, “It’s natural for a chap to think over all that sometimes, but I’m glad I’m at the work I’m engaged in now. A fellow’s life counts for far more at this than the other.”
With the onset of WWII, the Japanese began their attack on China. Conditions became so dangerous that the British government advised their British citizens to leave the country. His pregnant wife and two daughters did leave the country, but Liddell stayed to work at a mission station setup to help the poor.
Eventually Tianjin fell under Japanese control and Liddell was sent to an internment camp in Weihsien in March of 1943. Though his situation was certainly dire, his spirit didn’t wane and while some people in the camp selfishly hoarded their supplies, Liddell spent his time teaching children and sharing what he had. When a few rich businessmen managed to convince the guards to smuggle them in extra rations, Liddell’s natural charisma was such that he was able to convince them to share the food with everyone, and he was the first port of call when any dispute in the camp needed to be settled.
Langdon Gilkey, a fellow prisoner with Liddell, later recalled, “Often in an evening I would see him bent over a chessboard or a model boat, or directing some sort of square dance – absorbed, weary and interested, pouring all of himself into this effort to capture the imagination of these penned-up youths. He was overflowing with good humor and love for life, and with enthusiasm and charm. It is rare indeed that a person has the good fortune to meet a saint, but he came as close to it as anyone I have ever known.”
Smallwood goes on to show us further the kind of man we’re dealing with here, “If you’re not impressed yet with Liddell’s integrity.” While in the camp, Liddell was ravaged by malnourishment and ill health. (It was later found that he had a brain tumor, but he knew nothing of this.) Despite this, when Winston Churchill managed to secure Liddell’s freedom in a prisoner exchange, Liddell declined and instead offered his place to a pregnant woman who was also in the camp, saving not only her life but her unborn child as well. Besides his declining health, this must have been a particularly difficult decision given that he had a wife and three daughters he hadn’t seen in well over a year; one of them, Maureen, he never got a chance to know. Much like most of his life’s work, he didn’t do this for any sort of fame or recognition. In fact, he didn’t even mention this fact to his family in subsequent letters. In his last letter to his wife as his health deteriorated, he simply mentioned that he thought he was perhaps overworked.
On the 21st of February 1945, just a few months before the camp was liberated, Liddell died. According to a fellow missionary, Liddell’s last words were, “It’s complete surrender,” in reference to how he had given his life to his God. In his book, Don’t Waste Your Life, Pastor John Piper says, “All heroes are shadows of Christ.” How beautifully we recognize this in the life of Eric Liddell (1902 – 1945).