22 February 2013

With the Saints in Lent (10): Eric Henry Liddell, 22 February

The Revd Eric Liddell, rugby international, Olympic medallist, and self-sacrificing missionary in China

Patrick Comerford

The Revd Eric Henry Liddell (1902-1945), who is remembered today [22 February] in the Calendar of the Episcopal Church achieved international renown as an Olympic gold medallist, as an avid rugby player. He was totally devoted to his faith, and the influence of his religious convictions on his place in the 1924 Paris Olympics is told in the 1981 Oscar-winning movie Chariots of Fire.

Eric Liddell was born on 16 January 1902 in Tianjin (Tientsin) in North China, the second son of the Revd James Dunlop Liddell, who was a Scottish missionary with the London Missionary Society.

At the age of six, he was sent with his older brother to Eltham College, Blackheath, a boarding school in London for the children of missionaries. He later studied science in Edinburgh University, and at schoolhe excelled at athletics.

Athletics and rugby also played a large part in his university life. He ran in the 100 yards and 220 yards races for Edinburgh University and played rugby for the university club, gaining a place in the backline of a strong Scottish team. In 1922 and 1923, he played for Scotland in seven out of eight Five Nations matches.

Liddell won a position on the British track and field team for the Paris Olympic games in 1924. He won the gold in the 400 metres, setting a world record, and a bronze in the 200 metres. His best event as a university athlete was the 100 metres and he was highly favoured to win gold in the Olympics.

However, Liddell, chose not to run the 100 metres in Paris because the heat was to be held on Sunday. He refused to break his personal commitment to Sunday observance even if that meant not running in his best event in the Olympics.

The award-winning film Chariots of Fire tells the story of Eric Liddell and his place in the 1924 Paris Olympics.

After graduating in Edinburgh, Liddell returned to North China, near where he was born, and he served as a missionary from 1925 to 1943. He worked first in Tianjin and later in the town of Xiaozhang, Zaoqiang County, Hengshui, Hebei province, an extremely poor area that had suffered during China’s civil wars and had become a particularly treacherous battleground with the invading Japanese.

He returned to Scotland only twice, in 1932 and again in 1939. On one occasion he was asked if he ever regretted his decision to leave behind the fame and glory of athletics. Liddell responded: “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.”

During his first furlough from missionary work in 1932, he was ordained a minister of religion. On his return to China he married Florence Mackenzie, the daughter of Canadian missionaries in China, in Tianjin in 1934. They had three daughters, Patricia, Heather and Maureen.

Because of the war between China and Japan, Liddell and his family endured significant hardships. In 1941, after the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor, the British government advised expatriates to leave China. Florence Liddell took the children and fled to Canada. Eric and his brother Rob stayed on and continued their work.

In 1943, Eric Liddell was interned in the Japanese concentration camp at Weihsein. Having won the respect of his captors, camp survivors remembered him for his ministry among them.

One of his fellow internees, Norman Cliff, later wrote a book about his experiences in the camp called The Courtyard of the Happy Way which detailed the remarkable characters in the camp. Cliff described Liddell as “the finest Christian gentleman it has been my pleasure to meet. In all the time in the camp, I never heard him say a bad word about anybody.”

He died on 21 February 1945, five months before the camp was liberated. His last words were: “It’s complete surrender,” – a reference to how he had given his life to God.

In 2008, the Chinese authorities revealed that Eric Liddell had refused an opportunity to leave the camp and instead gave his place to a pregnant woman as part of a Japanese-British agreement on prisoner exchange.

Since 2009, Eric Liddell has been honoured on 22 February with a feastday in the Liturgical Calendar of the Episcopal Church (TEC).


God whose strength bears us up as on mighty wings: We rejoice in remembering your athlete and missionary, Eric Liddell, to whom you gave courage and resolution in contest and in captivity; and we pray that we also may run with endurance the race set before us and persevere in patient witness, until we wear that crown of victory won for us by Jesus our Saviour; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 40: 27–31; Psalm 18: 21–25, 29–34; II Peter 1: 3–11; Mark 10: 35–45.

Tomorrow (23 February): Saint Polycarp of Smyrna.

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