Eric Liddell – Running for God

View our short video about Eric Liddell below or on our Trinity Grace Church Youtube channel

Faith under fire

Eric Liddell Christian athlete

The fiery test of war has its impact upon great and small, the famous and the obscure. With many we will not know the struggles and pain they went through, their heroic actions and their courage under fire.

Eric Liddell is a man whose faith amid the fires of conflict is rarely mentioned.

Yes he is well-known; famous for his exploits on the Rugby field, and more so on the Athletics track. At the 1924 Paris Olympics he achieved bronze in the 200m and gold in the 400m. In the midst of this his faith in Jesus Christ remained firm under fire. Not the fire of warfare & conflict, but the fires of pressure to conform to public opinion and to seek fame and fortune at the expense of following Jesus Christ.

As we see some of these events depicted in the film, “Chariots of Fire”, Eric courageously refused to run on a Sunday, because he knew the importance of putting the worship of God first in his life.

Meeting of London Missionary Society North China District Committee and Chinese colleagues in the Tientsin Churches. Taken February 1926.
The photograph includes James D. Liddell and Eric Liddell.

What is little known about Eric Liddell, is that in 1925 he went to China as a missionary. He forsook all the possibilities of fame & fortune in the UK, and decided to serve Jesus his Saviour, by preaching the gospel to the Chinese. Yet after some years in that country, the clouds of conflict gathered, and eventually the land was invaded by the Japanese. Eric refused to leave. He continued to follow & preach Jesus in that land, and showed compassion to the Chinese, helping them to escape from the invading force. He remained firm in his faith under fire.

Eric Liddell in China during World War II

Eventually, he was rounded up with other foreign nationals, and placed in the Weihsien internment camp. Still this could not dampen his faith. He kept on serving Jesus in the camp, organising sports to encourage morale, and taking Christian services.

Sadly, Eric didn’t see the end of the war, dying of a brain tumour in the camp on 21st February 1945. Eric kept firm in his faith all through his life, even though he faced the fires of conflict. He truly loved Jesus who had saved him from his sin, having Jesus’ words as a watchword for his life, “For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his soul” (Mark 8v36). Surely these need to be a watchword for all of us.

Man of Faith

It may be that you have read one of the many books written about Eric Liddell, or that you have watched the DVD on this website. If so, you will have been struck by the fact that there are three aspects of his life that stand out as of particular importance:

  • 1. His tremendous ability as an athlete.
  • 2. His refusal to run on a Sunday.
  • 3. His deep and constant desire to serve the Lord Jesus Christ as a missionary in China.

Our focus here is on Eric’s Christian faith.

Eric Liddell – Christ had his heart

Of course, Eric is rightly famous as a wonderful sportsman – a superb athlete. However, the thing that influenced every aspect of his life was his genuine Christian faith: he gave all glory to God for the strength and joy that he found in the field of athletics, and his profound love for the Chinese people and his longing to take the gospel to them was his response to Christ’s love towards him. The words of Paul in 2 Corinthians chapter 5 and verse 14 were surely in his mind: “The love of Christ constrains us”, i.e. what carried Eric forward in missionary service was the realisation that Christ had loved him and died for him; He could do no other than serve such a wonderful Saviour!

It was this Christian faith that shaped his whole life. This too, of course, was the reason he would not take part in athletic competitions on a Sunday. It was this love for Jesus Christ that gave him such spiritual courage and strength. We are not to think that it was easy for him to take the stand that he took in the 1924 Paris Olympics. In another sense, of course, it was easy, for he knew that it is better to obey God than men. Perhaps Eric had read the words of William Carey: “If true godliness prosper in your own soul, duty will be easy. If personal religion is low, your work will be a burden. Personal religion is the life-blood of all your usefulness and happiness.”

We shall never truly understand Eric Liddell’s life, the choices which he made, and the stance he took with regard to Sunday observance unless we grasp the fact that “Christ had his heart”. It was because of this conviction of Christ’s love for him that we see in Eric’s life the power and vitality of true religion.

What about we who profess faith in Christ today? Do we know the power and vitality of true religion? Do we love Sundays? Do we follow Eric’s example in observing Sunday as a day set apart for legitimate rest and the worship of our God, or do we treat it as our day – a day to do what we want? Let us remember that Sunday in scripture is called ‘The Lord’s Day’ and not ‘our day’. Are our lives characterised and lived in obedience to God and love for our Lord Jesus Christ?

By God’s grace we may know that level of love to Jesus Christ, which so wonderfully marked out the life of Eric Liddell. We are saved by the same God, redeemed by the same Saviour, indwelt by the same Holy Spirit.

May we each know the power of true religion prospering in our souls as we become men and women of faith.

Eric Liddell and Sunday Observance

People may ask what all the fuss is about in keeping Sunday set apart as a different day from the rest of the week. After all, Eric Liddell belonged to a bygone era, a time when old fashioned religious observance was more prevalent, a vestige of a way of life imposed upon our society, over the centuries, by the established church.

To think in these terms is way off the mark, and the secularists of our day, in promoting this view, have left our nation spiritually impoverished – a nation that has lost its soul and cultural identity. Sunday, or to give it another name, the Christian Sabbath, is not a man-made institution, but is as old as humanity itself ordained by God at the very beginning of creation (Genesis 2:1-3).

Eric Liddell – Sabbath observer

Misguided Christians have also done much harm in promoting confusion regarding the relevance of Sunday as a unique day of rest and worship, arguing that Sabbath observance belonged to Jewish ritualism and was abrogated at the beginning of the Christian era.

The Lord Jesus Christ kept the Sabbath himself and gave clear teaching on its importance, particularly in Mark 2:27 where he shows that the Sabbath is a gift to humanity. This should be enough to dispel any notion of the continuing relevance and value of this day of rest, so critical in enabling us to meet our spiritual needs in the seven day weekly cycle.

The New Testament has many examples from the apostles of Sabbath observance, both of the Jewish Sabbath and the Resurrection Day, the first day of the week. By the time the apostle John writes the Book of Revelation, the transition from the seventh day to the first day of the week as the Sabbath day of rest is well and truly established (Revelation 1:10).

These things are the reasons why Eric Liddell would not dishonour his Lord and Saviour in running on the Lord’s Day.

Ignatius, one of the early church fathers, martyr, and companion of John the Apostle, said: “Let us keep the Lord’s Day on which our life arose.”

A Short Biography of Eric H. Liddell (1902 – 1945)

Eric Henry Liddell was born on 16th January 1902 in Tientsin (Tianjin) I North China, second son of the Rev. & Mrs. James Dunlop Liddell who were missionaries with the London Mission Society.

He was educated from 1908 to 1920 at Eltham College, Blackheath, a school for the sons of missionaries. Eric, with his older brother Rob, were left at their boarding school while their parents and sister, Jenny, returned to China.

During the boys’ time at Eltham College, their parents, sister and new brother Ernest came home on furlough two or three times and were able to be together as a family – mainly living in Edinburgh.

Eric Liddell – A bronze statue unveiled in Tianjin – August 2015

In 1920, Eric joined his brother Rob at Edinburgh University to read for a BSc in Pure Science. He graduated after the Paris Olympiad in 1924. Athletics and rugby played a large part in Eric’s University life. He ran in the 100 yards and the 220 yards for Edinburgh University and later for Scotland. He played rugby for Edinburgh University and in 1922 played in seven Scottish Internationals with A.L. Gracie.

As a result of having insufficient time for both running and rugby, he chose the former, aiming for the 100 meters in the Paris Olympics. When he learned that the heats were to be run on a Sunday, he switched to the 400 metre competition as he was not prepared to run on a Sunday. He won a gold medal for the 400 metres and a bronze medal for the 200 metres at the Paris Olympics.

After the Olympics and his graduation he returned to North China where he served as a missionary from 1925 to 1943 – first in Tientsin (Tainjin) and later in Siaochang. During his first furlough in 1932 he was ordained as a minister.

On his return to China, he married Florence Mackenzie (of Canadian missionary parentage) in Tientsin in 1934. They had three daughters; Patricia, Heather and Maureen, who now all live in Canada.

Living in China in the 1930s was potentially very dangerous and in 1937 Eric was sent to Siaochang where he joined his brother Rob. He was now crossing the Japanese army lines.

In 1941 life in China was becoming so dangerous that the British Government advised British nationals to leave. Florence and the children left for Canada.

During 1941 – 1943 Eric stayed in Tientsin, then in 1943 he was interned in Weishien camp until his death in 1945.