Eric Liddell is best known from the Academy Award winning movie, Chariots of Fire, as the Scottish sprinter who refused to run on Sunday. This dialogue often is remembered: “I believe God made me for a purpose – for China. But He also made me fast! And when I run, I feel His pleasure.” Although Eric never spoke these words, they communicate his devotion to God and the ways he lived it out.
Eric’s parents, James and Mary Liddell, were missionaries in China, where he was born on January 16, 1902. When Eric was five, his father took a furlough to Scotland, and Eric did not return to China until he did so as a missionary in 1925. During his early years, Eric was described as shy and “weedy.” Eventually, he blossomed into quite an athlete, excelling in running and rugby, although he did not outgrow his shyness so readily.
As a runner, he became known as the “Flying Scotsman.” His ungainly gait was unorthodox: he pumped his knees almost to his chest, churned his arms wildly, and, toward the end of the race, threw his head back as if to look at the sky instead of the finish line. His competitor, Harold Abrahams, once remarked: “People may shout their heads off about his appalling style. Well, let them. He gets there.”
Eric confronted an entirely different challenge – speaking in public. He was recruited to share his Christian testimony to a group of coal miners. Although Eric still was shy, he recently had promised the Lord Jesus that he would serve him with whatever gifts he had been given. He agreed to speak, and, as this event led to other opportunities to preach the Gospel, his life was filled with fresh purpose and exhilaration.
Eric’s promise to serve the Lord Jesus would be tested soon during preparations for the 1924 Olympics in Paris. Eric was considered an odds-on favorite for the 100-meter race. But, when the calendar was released, Eric realized that the qualifying heat was scheduled for a Sunday. Although the movie Chariots of Firedepicted this revelation as coming when Eric boarded the ship for France, in actuality, he received the news in fall 1923. When he announced that he would not be able to compete because of his convictions against running on the Lord’s Day, he was met with a firestorm of criticism, not only from the members of the British Olympic Council but also from his fellow Scots, who were dismayed that their countryman valued religion above patriotism. Eric, however, never wavered in his decision. The final solution was for Eric to train for the 200- and 400-meter races, events for which he was not favored at the Olympics.
On July 11, 1924, a blazing hot day in Paris, Eric lined up with five other runners for the 400-meter final. That morning, he had received a note that read: “It says in the Old Book, ‘Him that honours me, I will honour.’” Eric was gratified to know that he had at least one person’s support. Of the six runners, Eric drew the outside lane, which was problematic since, due to the staggered lanes, he would be unable to see the other runners and gauge his pace against theirs. Ultimately, however, it made no difference because Eric led the pack from start to finish. He attacked each stage of the 400 meters as if he were running a 100-meter sprint. As he neared the finish line, his opponents and the spectators expected him to lessen his pace, but instead he threw his head back and sped to a victory and a world record at 47.6 seconds.
Among the many worldwide accolades that Eric received, one notable word of praise came the next week at his graduation from Edinburgh University. When the Vice Chancellor called Eric’s name, he added this personal commendation: “Mr. Liddell, you have shown that none can pass you except the examiners.”
A year later, Eric stunned the running world when he announced his retirement from the sport in order to enter into mission service in China. Several years later, he discussed his decision: “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.”
In 1925, Eric sailed to China, where his first assignment was to teach in Tientsin, northern China. There he met Florence Mackenzie, the daughter of Canadian missionaries, who was only fifteen at the time. Three years later, he surprised her with a marriage proposal. The engagement was extended until she finished nursing training, and they were married in 1934. Within three years, their daughters Patricia and Heather were born.
By this time, however, China was threatened by Japanese aggression, and, in the summer of 1937, Japanese planes attacked Tientsin without warning, bringing death, destruction, and the surrender of the city. Soon, Eric’s life often was in danger, so he escaped with his family to Canada and then to Scotland. Out of their refuge, however, they were drawn back to the mission in China. While Florence and the girls stayed in Tientsin, Eric went to rural Siaochang as a village pastor. The Japanese had ravaged that area, killing men, raping women, and burning homes. As Eric ministered to the Chinese, many came to faith in Christ. Finally, in 1941, Eric said goodbye to his daughters and his wife, pregnant with their third daughter, Maureen, whom he never saw, as they boarded a ship for Canada.
A few months later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and then restricted further the activities of foreigners in China. No longer allowed to teach or preach, Eric managed to compose a devotional guide, A Manual of Christian Discipleship, which is still available. In March 1943, he was herded with other foreigners into Weihsien Internment Camp. Here, despite squalor, hard labor, and suffering, Eric exhibited grace and devotion to God and to his fellow inmates, especially the children, who called him “Uncle Eric.” Although Winston Churchill made arrangements for a prisoner swap that included Britain’s famous runner, in an act of selflessness, Eric gave his chance for freedom to a pregnant woman.
During the winter of 1944, Eric began to suffer from headaches, nausea, and seizures, and his quick wit disappeared. He died from a brain tumor on February 21, 1945. His last words were: “It’s complete surrender.”
Complete surrender was the theme of Eric’s life – whether as a runner, a missionary, or a prisoner of war. This theme is evident in questions that he included in Discipleship: “Have you learned to hear God’s voice saying, ‘This is the way, walk ye in it’? Have you learned to obey? Do you realize the tremendous issues that may be at stake?” And again: “If I know something to be true, am I prepared to follow it even though it is contrary to what I want? Will I follow if it means being laughed at by friend or foe, or if it means personal financial loss or some kind of hardship?” When he finished his course, Eric had clearly answered his own questions, “Yes!”
Dr. Rex Butler is a professor of church history and patristics and currently occupies the John T. Westbrook Chair of Church History.