A life remembered for an Olympic platform ended in plot 59. On crude cross fashioned from repurposed scrap wood, shoe polish spelled out his name. Born and buried in two very different Chinas, Eric Liddell’s life ended in a prison camp, far from the athletic prowess and pomp by the world tends to remember him.
Though he is best known for his story as captured in the movie Chariots of Fire, the remainder of Eric Liddell’s life secures for him a legacy that continues to send ripples far into eternity.
Born to Scottish missionaries living in China, Eric always called the Chinese his people. As such, he stepped away from his burgeoning athletic career when it was at its height of potential to head back to China as missionary of the London Missionary Society. There, he taught in a Bible college where he met his much younger wife, Florence. After a long engagement during which Florence was trained abroad as a nurse, the two were married. Shortly thereafter, the couple welcomed two daughters, Patricia and Heather.
During their early years as a family, Eric spent the majority of his time as a traveling missionary in the remote villages far away from the safety and comfort of the missionary compound where his family stayed. When the tensions between the Japanese and the Chinese escalated during World War II, the families of the LMS missionaries were sent to safety. Eric Liddell bravely packed up his family on a Japanese ocean liner to head to Canada while he himself stayed in a tenuous China in hopes that things would resolve quickly.
Ever the optimist and the committed missionary and pastor to his remote people, Liddell had no way of knowing how bad the situation in China would grow. He and all other ex-patriots were sent to Weihsien, a former Presbyterian missionary compound turned Japanese internment camp. Separated from his family and missing the birth of his third daughter, Maureen, Liddell served as an in situ pastor, missionary, friend, honorary uncle, peacemaker, and confident to the other internees.
Multiple years of the malnourishment of prison camp life and a brain tumor that was undiagnosed, led Liddell to an early death. Even up until the day he died, Liddell was teaching others the way of discipleship to Christ, despite immense physical and emotional pain. The last words he spoke were, “It is complete surrender,” and the last words he scribbled in his journal were, “All will be well.”
At his funeral, the Salvation Army band that was also interned at the camp played his two favorite hymns, Abide with Me and Be Still My Soul, whose lyrics he had made watchwords of his missionary life.
In a world and culture obsessed with fame and fortune, Eric Liddell modeled a life hidden in Christ and committed to His glory. At great cost to himself and his precious family, Liddell ran a very different race than the one the world and his own flesh might have marked out for him.
Rather than use his worldwide platform as an Olympic gold medalist to cushion his nest egg and/or his ego, Liddell stood on it to declare the gospel to audiences who would have never stepped foot in a church. He ran from fame and wealth into obscurity and poverty because of a greater affection for His Savior who modeled downward mobility.
A quiet life lived in daily, costly surrender to Him landed him in Plot 59 outside an obscure prison camp. No matter. The athlete had completed his most significant race.
For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me, but also to all who have loved his appearing. 2 Timothy 4:6-8.