Missionaries founded hundreds of schools in China. Eric Liddell was an Olympic champion who surrendered fame to serve his Lord in one of them. Liddell was born in Tianjin to Scottish parents who served with Robert Morrison’s London Missionary Society. He and his older brother Rob were sent to England for schooling, and both committed their lives to Christ there. Liddell’s speed earned him a place at the 1924 Paris Olympics, but he refused to run in his specialty, the 100-meter dash, because the trial heats fell on a Sunday. He ran the 400-meter race instead, and his upset win in a world record time made him world famous. Just before the race a friend slipped him a note saying, “He that honors me, him will I honor,” a paraphrase of 1 Samuel 2:30. Eric and Rob both returned to China as LMS missionaries.
Liddell spent 12 years in Tianjin teaching at a Chinese boys’ school, 6 years as an evangelist in the rural Hebei village, Xiaozhang, and 2 years in Weifang in a Japanese prison camp. No matter the location, he started his days with an extended time of Bible study and prayer, which gave him a firm foundation in the vastly different circumstances he faced. During his time as a rural evangelist, he once took the risk of rescuing two wounded Chinese soldiers. As he thought about what might happen if the Japanese caught him, the Lord comforted him with Luke 16:10: “He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much, and that he that is unjust in the least is unjust in much.” Liddell had the joy of seeing one of the soldiers become a Christian.
Liddell’s life ended in the Japanese prison camp, a 150 x 200 yard enclosure crammed with 1,800 foreigners. Biographer Sally Magnusson admitted that she “started the search for Eric Liddell a little warily. There was surely a pair of clay feet there to be revealed...a holier than thou attitude.” In fact, she found that, “In a camp rife with criticism and back-biting and gossip, there was no one who had a bad word to say of Eric Liddell...There is something immensely touching about the tributes to his life from this period, something about the kind of details that all remember, that leaps out with the force of truth.…” Fellow Scotsmen later erected a memorial stone for him in Weifang. In Tianjin, a historical marker once identified his former residence at 38 Chongqing Road, and athletes still compete at the nearby Minyuan Athletic Field which Liddell designed.
In 1934 Liddell married Florence Mackenzie, the daughter of Canadian missionaries in Tianjin. The couple endured some teasing because Florence was 10 years younger and had been his Sunday School student. Daughters Patricia and Heather were born in Tianjin in 1935 and 1937. While Liddell worked as a rural evangelist, he saw his family only a couple of days a month. As the specter of war between Japan and the western powers loomed, he sent his family to Canada in May 1941, planning to follow them soon. Maureen, their third daughter, was born there 4 months later and never saw her father on this earth. On February 21, 1945 Liddell died in prison camp from a brain tumor.
His last words, spoken to co-worker Annie Buchan, expressed his relationship to his Lord, “Annie, it’s complete surrender.”
Woodbridge, John (ed.) More Than Conquerors. (Moody Bible Institute, 1992), p. 222.