For the Glory, the Biography of Eric Liddell: Why a Gold Medalist Gave Up Everything for God and China

You may have seen the highly acclaimed movie Chariots of Fire about the 1924 Olympics victory of Eric Liddell (rhymes with “riddle”), the Scottish runner and devout Christian who was ready to walk away from the Paris Olympics rather than compete on the Sabbath day. If you enjoyed the movie, you might be interested in learning the more complete story behind his controversial refusal to run on Sunday in the event he had trained for, settling instead for a different event, the 400 meter run where he stunned the world by winning it with ease and setting a new Olympic record.

Far more important than where and how he ran, though, is how he lived his entire life, especially his life after 1924. Eric Liddell, born to missionary parents in 1902 in Tianjin, China, returned to China to serve God as a missionary under dangerous circumstances that would cost him his life. He willingly gave up what could have easily been more Olympic medals in 1928 and a lifetime of honor and comfort as one of the world’s best athletes. His story is told in great detail in one of the most thoroughly researched biographies I have read: For the Glory: Eric Liddell’s Journey from Olympic Champion to Modern Martyr by Duncan Hamilton (New York, Penguin Press, 2016). In addition to Hamilton’s book, additional photos, videos, and other primary information can be found at the Eric Liddell Center’s website.

If you pick up For the Glory, either the tangible (best: made with real paper!) or electronic book (actually, I bought both), start by turning to the back and reading the acknowledgement to get a feel for just how much work has been put into this biography. Then read the Notes to see the myriad interviews and primary source materials behind the content. Then look at the extensive index. Having done an index myself for a book, I know how much work that takes.

This is not a casual biography. It is thorough, reflecting a profound fascination in the life of  a rare and puzzling man of enormous faith, who is proudly claimed by Scottland as well as China. While China in general doesn’t get his religion, love cuts past all boundaries, and those who knew him here know that he loved and served China heroically. He deserves to be honored and cherished here, and indeed, the Chinese government has established a museum honoring him.

He died in captivity in a prison camp for foreigners during the Japanese occupation of China in World War II. But even in the midst of desperate circumstances, Liddell lived out the Sermon on the Mount in quiet service, helping people daily to survive, to have hope, to feel love, and to find joy in Christ when they were willing.

Duncan Hamilton is careful to warn the readers that when one reads nothing but praise for the goodness of a character in a biography, one obviously must suspect that a great deal of truth has been ignored by a biased author. But he pleads for understanding because in the case of Eric Liddell, it seems that every witness, everyone he could find who knew him, could only speak words of praise. He was the real thing: a man who lived the Christian faith in purity, honesty, and self-sacrifice, willing even to sacrifice his life for the kingdom of God. Nobody among the many the author interviewed could recall a single act of pettiness, malice, or selfishness from Liddell (p. 8).

Even in the midst of competition, he was a gentleman and humble servant. He would lend his trowel (used to dig holes at the starting line for a better push off) to runners who didn’t have one. He would trade positions with others to let someone on the outside get a more desirable inside lane. He would seek out those who seemed troubled and talk to them, even sharing tips on sprinting with his competitors. In freezing cold weather he once loaned his jacket to a competitor, going without to serve someone else. But once the race began, “he was fearsomely focused,” never letting his empathy for others diminish his urge to win (p. 10).

To Liddell as a humble servant of God, the Olympics victory was simply a tool or rather a gift from God to help him reach others in sharing his faith. He took no credit for his victory. He spoke kindly of his rivals, attributing their losses to bad luck or a bad day, hardly noting his own achievement. The glory of men was not what his life was about. As a result, he was quite willing to walk away from fame and mortal glory to pursue a higher cause. “A fellow’s life counts for far more at this [missionary work] than the other [running]” (p. 352).

Regarding the story of the 1924 Paris Olympics told in the movie, the commitment of that 22-year-old young man to the Sabbath day was remarkable and could well be included in future lesson manuals or General Conference sermons. The movie, though, makes it seem as though the Sunday schedule for the 100 meter event came as a big surprise to Eric as he was boarding the ship from England to France. It makes it seem that he struggled with the decision. But his decision was easy and had been explained to the British Olympic Association many months before he boarded that ship. There was no contest. His stand was non-negotiable.

The controversy over his refusal to run and the turmoil it caused as the Olympics approached was the British Olympic Association’s fault for not taking Liddell seriously and thinking they could simply talk him into running his event on Sunday after all. Further, they had the preliminary schedule in 1922 (p. 71), but didn’t pay attention to the Sabbath day issue (an issue that had marred the previous Paris Olympics in 1900) and didn’t give a copy of the schedule to Liddell and his coach until the fall of 1923. The two men immediately pointed out the problem: all the events Liddell had trained for included Sunday races that would not be run.

Had the British Olympic Association done their job properly, they probably could have worked with the International Olympic Committee many months before the event to adjust the schedule and avoid trouble. There was no need for a crisis or any surprise. Liddell had already dropped out of a major event in 1923 to avoid running on the Sabbath. The British Olympic Authority waited until it was too late to deal with the situation, putting Liddell in a very difficult and unpopular situation. To many in the media and throughout the land, it looked like this gifted runner was abandoning his country at the last minute in favor of his own needs and preferences. His position was not commonly held up as an example of a good man abiding by his personal convictions, but as an example of selfishness and even cowardice (perhaps he is afraid of those fast American runners, it was suggested, and so is using this as an excuse to avoid an embarrassing loss). Liddell faced a great deal of criticism and pain, but refused to back down.

Liddell had been naive. He’d expected his decision to be seen as an honest matter of integrity. He consequently assumed it would pass without much adverse comment, which goes to show that those incapable of malice rarely suspect it in others. However muh he pretended otherwise, the backlash wounded him. Only much later did Liddell admit this to a friend. (p. 75)

The BOA tried to suggest a compromise based on French practice, where the Sabbath day ended at noon. Thus, Liddell could pray in the morning and then run in the afternoon. Problem solved. But Liddell was also quick on his feet in this situation: “My Sabbath lasts all day” (p. 73). The BOA then tried catechism, arguing that God’s gift to Liddell would be wasted if he didn’t run, and wouldn’t that be the best way to serve Him? “Such an approach seemed entirely logical to anyone who was not devout — and entirely misguided to those who were” (p. 73). Liddell explained that he had a commandment from God and he would keep it. To his credit, Liddell’s coach, Tom McKerchar, understood and supported Liddell’s decision. McKerchar’s dedicated role was enormous in helping Liddell prepare for the race and cope with many other challenges along the way.

Abandoning the various events that the young sprinter had prepared for and settling for a very different event, the 400 meter run with a Sabbath-friendly schedule, logically reduced whatever chances Liddell had for a medal. His final run in that race was one of the great moments in Olympic history, especially in light of the background and the improbability of adapting to a radically new race in just a few short months of preparation. He ran for glory and won it — for God’s glory. But that was just the beginning of the course Eric Liddell would run. His was truly an endurance course that would sap all his strength in the end, while crossing the finish line again in glory and for the glory of God.

Liddell was just reaching his prime and could easily have won more medals and more fame in the 1928 Olympics. Instead he chose to prepare to minister to others and in 1925 would go to China to serve in a land where he would be a stranger and foreigner, not one of the greatest celebrities in the land. There he would meet and marry another missionary servant, Florence Mackenzie.

The greatest achievements and losses in Liddell’s life may have been during the war he endured in China. It was a war that separated him from his family — he would die without having ever seen his youngest daughter (their third child) and having not seen his wife for four years. The emphasis of the book is on his life during the Japanese occupation of China and especially in a prison camp, where he would die of a brain tumor. “In his own way he proved that heroism in war exists beyond churned-up
battlefields. His heroism was to be utterly forgiving in the most
unforgiving of circumstances” (p. 9).

The author, perhaps dazzled by the saintly image of Eric Liddell, struggles to raise a pointed question about Eric’s decision to leave his family and stay in China when it was clear that missionaries should be evacuating. The London Missionary Society, out of touch and irresponsibly bureaucratic, even negligent, it seems, required him to stay, and Liddell felt obligated by his contract. At this point the author could well have raised the question, shouldn’t Liddell’s contract/covenant with his wife have been given higher priority? If the contract says stay in your office, shouldn’t one ignore the contract and flea when the building is burning down? His decision would have painful consequences, and glorious examples of love and service as well. He and other missionaries would soon be arrested by Japanese authorities and sent to dismal camp where Liddell would pass away, after lifting nearly everyone else and showing how a true Christian can live as a Christian in the midst of the darkest corners of mortality.

He helped many fellow inmates in camp and set a sterling example, as always, of love and service, becoming the key force that people looked to for leadership and help. But the scope of his preaching was greatly curtailed, his life cut short, and his widow and children left in lasting sorrow for the man who stayed behind. Perhaps it was God’s urging to do what he did, but perhaps this was one of Liddell’s few serious mistakes in life.

Yet even if leaving his family to stay in China in the midst of a brutal war was a mistake, it must be considered in the context of Liddell’s upbringing. At age 7, he and his nine-year-old brother Rob were left behind in Scotland by his mother so they could attend school there while she returned to China to be with his father serving as missionaries in China, his birth place. As a child, he had been taught, at least through example, that missionary work must take precedence over family togetherness. He would not see his mother again for over 4 years. Perhaps if his family life had been more traditional, he would not have considered long-term and possibly permanent separation from his own children and his wife for the missionary cause.

In exploring such issues, I don’t mean to deride this saint of man who is far better than I am. Instead, as I consider the many factors that lead good people to feel they must leave family behind for long periods of time (a common challenge in China for both local Chinese and foreigners living here), I feel it is valuable to explore and challenge the assumptions that are made and to ask sincerely, “Is this a mistake? Is there a better way?” For Liddell’s case, I don’t know the answer, but feel it merits discussion. I wish the issue had been explored more fully in the book. But this is hardly a criticism of the this excellent biography, only a suggestion and personal wish from me.

Why did Liddell abandon everything his Olympic victory made possible? “‘Because I believe God made me for China,’ he always replied” (p. 124). In reading about his life, we can learn much about what it means to serve China and its people, a land to which many others are drawn. Liddell often quoted Robert Louis Stevenson: “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only that is foreign.” Eric became a traveler that knew and loved the land and its people. But it was not just the Chinese he loved. He even treated his captors with kindness and patience, even when he was being harassed. “Take it all with a smile,” he would sat. “However troublesome, don’t get annoyed” (p. 216). “The angrier someone [such as the soldiers in his camp] would become, the more measured his response. Liddell behaved toward them in war exactly as he would have done in peace because he knew no other way to act. Tact, cheerfulness, and the warmth of his personality defused confrontations…. He even refused to condemn or criticize the soldiers who attempted to bully him” (p. 218). One of his colleagues explained that for him, he saw the Japanese soldiers not as enemies or bullies to be feared or hated, but men to be “sought as sheep far from the fold” (p. 218).

Liddell showed genuine heroism during the war scenes he faced and during his imprisonment. Before he was forced into a camp, he showed extreme courage in rescuing two Chinese soldiers as an unplanned detour on a dangerous trip of his own. While traveling by bike from Tianjin to Xiaochang where he was stationed, he learned that a wounded Chinese soldier had been laying in a derelict temple for five days without treatment. The locals were afraid that if they offered help, they and the entire village might be punished by the Japanese. Like a true good Samaritan, Liddell could not simply pass by and ignore the dying man. He went out of his way to arrange for a cart to get the man to a hospital, and convinced a local carter to come with him as Liddell rode on his bicycle to assist. If he was caught by the Japanese en route, he could have been executed. During their dangerous trek, he learned of another wounder soldier in need of help, and also rescued him. Miraculsouly, the small group avoided detection as Liddell prayerfully pursued back roads, worried about the approaching troops heralded by a Japanese plane overhead. The first man died, but the second wounded man, who had been the subject of a sloppy attempted execution by a sword-wielding Japanese commander, survived in spite of a terrible gash to his face. Touched by the way Liddell risked his life to save him, that man became a Christian. Perhaps he has family still here in China who are also Christian and remember Eric Liddell. I would love to meet them!

I hope you’ll read For the Glory and learn about one of Christianity’s great hero’s.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

3 thoughts on “For the Glory, the Biography of Eric Liddell: Why a Gold Medalist Gave Up Everything for God and China

  1. Liddell has always struck me as an exemplary Christian, and it's good to see Jeff fleshing out his story here.

    Today happens to be the 40th anniversary of the ordination of another exemplary Christian, Anna Pauline Murray, ordained as an Episcopal priest on Jan. 8, 1977 and added to that church's "community of saints" in 2012.

    — OK

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