Editor’s note: “Today in history,” a new occasional feature, will explore often-overlooked moments in Christian history. In remembering our past, may we be encouraged to face the future.
The movie Chariots of Fire immortalized the Olympic feats of Eric Liddell.
After he refused to run in a 100-meter heat on a Sunday during the Paris Games in 1924, British officials ridiculed him and branded him a traitor. He came back to set a world record in winning the 400 meters for Great Britain.
But the Olympics were just part of an amazing life that ended with his death of a brain tumor in a Japanese prison camp in occupied China on February 21, 1945.
The son of Scottish missionaries, he was born in China in 1902. When he was five years old, his family traveled to Scotland for a furlough. When his parents returned to China a year later, Eric and his older brother, Robert, remained in London at a boarding school.
Later, at the University of Edinburgh, Eric starred in rugby and track. The year before the Olympics, a friend of Robert’s asked Eric, an introvert, if he would speak at an evangelistic meeting. He hesitated, then agreed.
“My whole life had been one of keeping out of public duties but the leading of Christ seemed now to be in the opposite direction and I shrank from going forward,” he wrote. “At this time I finally decided to put it all on Christ — after all if He called me to do it, then He would have to supply the necessary power.”
He began speaking at churches and evangelistic meetings nearly every weekend.
“The more time Eric gave to sharing his faith, the faster he seemed to run,” Joel S. Woodruff of the C.S. Lewis Institute wrote.
Liddell completed his education after the Olympics and returned to the mission field in China, where he served as a teacher and coach at the Anglo-Chinese College in Tientsin. He also taught Bible studies.
He married in 1934 and, after Japan invaded China three years later, began working as an evangelist based in Siaochang, spreading the gospel to the poor.
“He slept on dirt floors, ate whatever the villagers were eating, and traveled by bike with an interpreter from town to town,” Woodruff wrote.
In 1941, the increasing danger posed by the Japanese led him to send his pregnant wife and their two daughters back to Canada to live with her parents. His wife gave birth to a daughter there that he would never meet.
Two years later, the Japanese moved into his province in Eastern China and sent Liddell and two thousand other people, mostly British, to an internment camp near Weifang.
In 2007, a report began to circulate that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had arranged for Liddell’s release through a prisoner exchange, but he refused to leave the camp, letting a pregnant woman go instead. But friends and family couldn’t confirm it, and Duncan Hamilton dismissed the report as false in his book For The Glory: Eric Liddell’s Journey from Olympic Champion to Modern Martyr.
The truth was remarkable enough.
He taught math and science to the children in the camp, who called him “Uncle Eric.” He led Bible studies and organized sports activities.
Survivors of the camp, including theologian Langdon Gilkey, spoke glowingly of his integrity, kindness, and generosity.
“It is rare indeed that a person has the good fortune to meet a saint, but he came as close to it as anyone I have ever known,” Gilkey said.