Liddell was born in Tientsin (Tianjin), China, of missionary parents serving with the London Missionary Society (LMS). His schooling was at the LMS School for Sons of Missionaries at Blackheath and Eltham College in England, and at the University of Edinburgh (B.Sc., 1924). He excelled in rugby and track and in 1924 was chosen to represent Britain in the 100-meter dash at the Olympic games in Paris. The 1981 Academy Award-winning film Chariots of Fire powerfully depicts his decision not to enter the 100-meter race because the preliminary heats were scheduled on Sunday. Instead, he competed in the 400-meter race, for which he was not as well prepared. The victory of “The Flying Scotsman” in Olympic-record time has ranked him for all time among the most memorable of Olympic heroes.
In 1925 Liddell returned to China with the LMS and taught at the Anglo-Chinese Christian College in Tientsin. In 1934 he married Florence Mackenzie, daughter of Canadian missionaries. With Japanese hostilities increasing, Liddell arranged for his wife and young family to return to Canada, planning to follow when he could no longer continue missionary work. World War II intervened, and along with about 1 ,500 others, he was interned in 1943 in Weihsien (Wiefang) Prison Camp, Shantung (Shandong) Province, where he was admired and loved by the scores of imprisoned children from the Chefoo School of the China Inland Mission who were separated from their parents. As teacher, friend, and guide, he modeled a godly life that brought inspiration and spiritual strength. He died from a brain tumor six months before the war ended.
Eric Liddell’s father, James Liddell, had served in Mongolia as a missionary with the London Missionary Society (LMS) from 1899 with his wife Mary. They were later assigned to Siaochang, where Eric and his two siblings grew up, attending the local Chinese school and playing with Chinese children.
The Liddells returned to Scotland in 1907 for a one-year furlough. In 1909, Eric and his brother Robert entered Eltham College in London, the LMS boarding school for boys, where Eric began to excel in rugby, cricket, and track. For the next eight years, Eric and Robert saw their father not at all, and their mother only when she returned for a year in 1914.
Already during his school years, Eric gave evidence of the modesty, Christian faith, and practical concern for others (he visited the sick at a nearby hospital) that would mark his adult life.
In 1921, Eric entered Edinburgh University with the goal of teaching science at the Anglo-Chinese College in Tianjin. Throughout his collegiate career, he excelled in track, eventually qualifying for the 1924 British Olympic team in several events.
As a sports celebrity, he was given opportunities to address Christian events, including evangelistic meetings for working-class men. He quickly developed into an effective public speaker with a simple style that directed his hearers to God and presenting Christians with the spiritual needs of China. Liddell regularly brushed off his fans’ adulation by giving credit to God, who had endued him with strength to run fast.
Although the film “Chariots of Fire” portrayed Liddell as learning about the Sunday trial for the 100-meter race only just before the Olympics, in fact he had known the schedule for months, during which intense pressure was put upon him to compromise his principles.
After the 1924 Olympics, Liddell remained in Scotland for one year of training for ministry and missionary work at the Scottish Congregational College in Edinburgh. Peter Marshall, the future chaplain to the U.S. Senate, was profoundly influenced by a speech Liddell gave during this time, in which he said that God often hides “triumphs under tragedies.”
When he departed for China in 1925, he was given a tumultuous send-off, but he displayed trade-mark modesty and deflected attention from himself by starting to sing, “Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun.” The crowd completed the hymn as his train pulled away, their attention re-directed from their human hero to his God.
Liddell arrived in Tianjin just after the 1925 Shanghai Incident, in which foreign troops had fired upon Chinese protesting working conditions in factories. The nation was in an uproar, and leftists had organized strikes and boycotts. Anti-Christian agitation, partly incited by atheistic Communists but fed also by decades of Western imperialism, the presence of foreign troops in certain cities, and the relative opulence in which some missionaries lived, threatened the fledgling Chinese church and their foreign supporters.
As instructor in science, religion, English, and sports at the Anglo-Chinese College, Liddell represented the “educational” wing of Christian missions. The idea was to change China by raising up a generation of elite students imbued with Western science, notions of democracy, and Christian principles.
Liddell soon won the affection and respect of his students, not only through sports, but also as a winsome Bible teacher and available friend. His victories in the 1928 Far Eastern Games in Port Arthur (Lushun) only added to his prestige.
He returned to Scotland for a year’s furlough in 1931, during which he completed his studies at the Scottish Congregational College in preparation for ordination. In great demand as a preacher, he filled pulpits in England, Ireland, and Scotland almost every Sunday, proclaiming the love of God, the supremacy of Christ, and the spiritual claims of China.
“Wherever we go, we either bring people nearer to Christ, or we repel them from Christ. We are working for the great kingdom of God - the time when all people will turn to Christ as their leader - and will not be afraid to own Him as such.”
Returning to China, he found the Anglo-Chinese College in turmoil, with several Chinese administrators in a row having difficulty with the stag. Liddell was given extra duties, including correspondence, records for faculty and staff, athletic games, and religious activities. He also began writing a regular column for the London Missionary Society magazine.
In 1934, he married Florence Jean MacKenzie, daughter of Hugh MacKenzie, who had served as a missionary in Tianjin for many years. The next year, he was re-assigned by the LMS to Saiochang, where he had lived with his parents three decades before, and where his brother Robert served as medical missionary. His wife and two daughters (Patricia and Heather) remained in Tainjin, which was deemed safer. Before leaving the school, he saw 49 of his students baptized.
Liddell arrived in Saiochang at a time of drought, locust plague, famine, and war. Traveling by bicycle or on foot, he served as an itinerant preacher, communicating with the help of an interpreter, Wang Feng Chou, until his childhood Mandarin fluency returned.
His brother went on furlough in the summer of 1938, leaving the clinic to Liddell, who was given rudimentary training. Patients of all sorts, including wounded Japanese soldiers and Chinese bandits, were welcomed with Christian love and care. Refugees found a haven, and his co-worker Annie Buchan provided soy milk for babies whose malnourished mothers could not nurse them. Liddell preached daily to desperate people, offering them hope in Christ.
Constantly in danger, Liddell made many trips to Tianjin for money to buy coal, which he transported back to Siaochang, risking his own life to save a wounded peasant on one such journey. Japanese occupation of the city and opposition to his ministry did not deter him from continuing his work.
When Liddell and his family sailed to Canada on furlough in 1939, they left a Tianjin occupied by the Japanese and increasingly unsafe for anyone, including foreigners. They returned after a year to even worse conditions. Again, Florence and the girls remained in Tianjin while Eric resumed itinerant preaching from his base in Siaochang. Japanese attacks on the surrounding villages and stepped up harassment of medical missionaries multiplied the number of wounded while diminishing resources to treat them.
Cycling from one place to another, Liddell sought to pastor his scattered flock and spread a message of joy in the midst of deepening sorrow. Finally, in 1941 all missionaries were expelled from Siaochang, returning to Tianjin, where Japan’s alliance with Germany made its treatment of British nationals more and more harsh. Liddell’s wife and children sailed back to Canada in May of 1941 as rumors spread that all Westerners would soon be interned.
Sure enough, in March of 1943 foreigners were taken to Weihsien (Weifang), Shandong, where a former missionary compound had been turned into a crowded camp for missionaries, merchants, civil servants, and their families. Order was quickly brought out of chaos as various work committees were set up.
Liddell assumed more responsibilities than anyone else, as teacher of math and science for the children, coach and teacher of sports, minister in the chapel, supervisor of two dormitories, and interpreter for the Japanese. He also helped to fetch water and coal, empty garbage, and clean the rooms. Soon he had formed a Christian fellowship, in which he served as Bible teacher and counselor. The Sermon on the Mount and Paul’s portrait of love in 1 Corinthians 13 were two favorite sources for his sermons.
As the months dragged on, more and more people came to him for advice and comfort, always finding in him a source of hope. He even broke his own rule against sports on Sundays in order to referee hockey games for the restless youth. Although he sorely missed his own family, he never complained, but turned his attention towards the children in the camp, becoming their beloved “Uncle Eric” in the process.
His immense physical reserves finally began to give out, inducing fatigue and sadness. He especially regretted not giving his wife and family more of his time. Despite his chronic headaches and other symptoms, no one suspected that a brain tumor was slowly killing him, for he typically did not speak of deteriorating condition. Even the doctors were surprised by his death. Long dependent upon Liddell to cheer them up, the grieving internees could only lament the loss of their hero, as did all of Scotland, where immense memorial services were held when the news reached them.
Eric Liddell dearly loved and deeply missed his wife Florence, but was encouraged by the friendship of fellow LMS missionary Annie Buchan, who had known him from childhood, worked as a nurse in Siaochang, and tended him during his last weeks in the camp hospital. Their relationship, which seems to have been completely pure, stands as an example of how Christian brothers and sisters can demonstrate the love of Christ to each other.
The story by David J. Michell is reprinted from Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, Macmillan Reference USA, copyright (c) 1998 Gerald H. Anderson, by permission of The Gale Group; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan. All rights reserved.
- Caughey, Ellen. Eric Liddell: Gold Medal Missionary.
- Liddell, Eric H. The Sermon on the Mount (1937), Prayers for Daily Life (1942), and Disciplines of the Christian Life (1985).
- Magnusson, Sally. The Flying Scotsman (1981).
- Michell, David J. A Boy’s War (1988), The Spirit of Eric Liddell (1992)
- Ramsey, Russell W. God’s Joyful Runner (1987)
- Thompson, D. P. Eric H. Liddell, Athlete and Missionary (1971).
- Weatherby, William J. Chariots of Fire (1983).
- Williamson, Denise. Chariots to China: A Story of Eric Liddell.