What Characterizes the Spirit of Eric Liddell?

By David J. Michell




The spirit of Eric Liddell has come through many of the events and experiences of his life. What is the message of Eric Liddell for today, ninety years since his birth and almost fifty since his death? Many things characterize his spirit.



         His integrity immediately comes first to mind. His sterling devotion to his Christian principles at the 1924 Olympics has ensured his place in history. His clear stand without compromise intersected people's lives with truth. Furthermore, his decision to stay in China to help the Chinese people in the distress and suffering of World War II was a reflection of the same principle to honour God and put other people ahead of his own desires and safety.

Long before "Chariots of Fire," this integrity influenced many young people. One of these was fellow Scot, Peter Marshall, late Chaplain of the United States Senate. Catherine Marshall in A Man Called Peter wrote, "To him, (Peter) Eric was a hero, not just because of his great athletic ability, but because of his modesty, his undeniable charm, and the great strength of his Christian witness. His influence on Peter's life can scarcely be measured." As a young man in Scotland Peter Marshall wanted to follow his hero as a missionary to China, but instead came to discover God's call to church ministry.



Sincerity marked all his relationships. In one of his Sunday afternoon talks in Weihsien Camp, he spoke about the importance of being true to God and true to oneself without hypocrisy or pretence. He told us the origin of the word "sincere," coming from the Latin "sine" (without) and "cera" (wax). The word's derivation came from the custom of a sculptor using wax to cover up a blemish in his work. The finished sculpture that could pass the test of heat being applied and remain perfect was the one that was sincere (without wax).



Eric's life spoke of self-control and inner discipline. He was a man who was comfortable spending time alone looking within and asking himself, "Am I truthful?" "Am I honest?" "Am I pure?" "Am I selfish?" He gave himself tests of God's moral law by which he could measure himself:

Let us put ourselves before ourselves and look at ourselves.

The bravest moment of a person's life is the moment when he looks at himself objectively without wincing, without complaining.

The Disciplines of the Christian Life


In Weihsien Eric assembled study material which he circulated in camp under the title of "A Manual of Christian Discipleship."

A. P. Cullen, fellow-missionary in LMS and fellow-internee, spoke of Eric as one with great strength of determination and firmness of purpose. He is "the most remarkable example in my experience of a man of average ability and talents developing those talents to an amazing degree... He was literally God-controlled, in his thoughts, judgments, actions, words, to an extent that I have never seen surpassed and rarely seen equalled."

Eric inspired the best effort in others - Patricia, his oldest daughter, who last saw him when she was only five, remembers him saying, "If you are going to do something, do your very, very best, and try very, very hard."



His sense of humour is one aspect that "Chariots of Fire" didn't capture sufficiently, his widow often told me. Eric was full of practical jokes and fun. Sometimes when he taught us as we sat on boxes in our little prison camp room, we took him very seriously until the telltale twinkle in his eyes showed us he was playing a trick on us.

In Weihsien Camp he was a person who could be trusted to manage the canteen. When such rare commodities as eggs, peanuts, peanut-oil and apples became available for purchase through the efforts of some of the Allied Nations, Eric saw the bright side and remarked, "Even if we don't have money to buy the apples, we can at least enjoy the smell."



Eric's example in humility and selflessness is surely one of the most impressive of his attributes.

Acknowledged as a champion of two distances in running - the 100 metres and 400 metres - he is rightly also a winner of the secondmile. Jesus said, "If someone asks you to go one mile, go with him two miles" ("The Sermon on the Mount"). Eric was a second-mile person, helping anyone he could. His kindness and goodness were apparent and he didn't look for thanks. He could walk away from the fame and glory this world offered because he played to the pipes of heaven.



"Chariots of Fire" succeeded in part because of its brilliance in production, direction, story, music, costuming and in so many other ways. But another key part to its success was the way it inspired us with a true-life hero.

In our world today, be it in Olympic or national sports, there is so much of self-grandeur and commercialism and the evils that accompany the outlook of winning at all costs. It was not so with Eric Liddell.

The full story of Eric Liddell takes us far beyond the drama of the track to a wider world that shows us a role-model for life in many different ways.



As an athlete he had few equals. As a sportsman he played fair, shaking hands with his competitors before a race began. He had a marvelous way of encouraging aspiring athletes to develop their skills. In Weihsien he spent many hours coaching budding track champions to better their starts and improve their times. Eric even gave Stephen Metcalf, a schoolmate of mine and later one of my fellow-missionaries in Japan, his own running shoes.



Married at the age of 32, Eric's role of husband and father were all too brief. The trials of war made separation the norm, yet Florence could say, "I think we had more fun and happiness in our eleven years than lots of couples have in a whole lifetime of married life. He was a perfectly grand husband and so sweet with the children."

The older two girls he was to see so little of, and the third not at all, because of the war. Yet, instead of bitterness, he gave his affection to us youngest children who were without our parents, and we all called him "Uncle Eric."



Throughout his life, though shy by nature, Eric was a friend who exuded cheerfulness and approachableness. Young and old felt quickly at ease in his presence. Among track and sports competitors, he generated a feeling of comradeship.

In the darkest days of our prison camp life, Eric would be seen walking the well-worn camp paths at the foot of the bleak walls, talking with a young person and lifting their spirits as he shared his faith and friendship.

Eric was a friend of China and the Chinese people. Like his parents before him, he gave his life for China. Above the gateway of the Xiaochang Hospital and Mission were the Chinese characters, "Jong Wai Yi Jia" - "Chinese and foreigners all in one home." Eric also had a love for the Japanese, even though they were his captors.



Norman Cliff was one of the older Chefoo boys I looked up to in Weihsien. In June 1991 we were both part of the Eric Liddell Foundation group led by Charles Walker to the Second Middle School, Weifang, China, the site of our old prison camp. Norman and I spoke about Eric at the dedication of the magnificent seven-foot-high rose granite memorial stone to Eric Liddell, the gift of Edinburgh University and now standing in the Garden of Inspiration close to where Eric died and was buried.


Norman spoke of Eric as a peacemaker:

He had ensured a better understanding between the old and the young, more tolerance between the many nationalities and social groups in the camp, as well as a happy relationship between the Japanese guards and the prisoners.


Norman read the Prayer of St. Francis, which sums up perfectly the ideal Eric strove for:


Make me a channel of Your peace;

Where there is hatred let me bring Your love,

Where there is injury, Your pardon, Lord,

And where there's doubt, true faith in You...


Make me a channel of Your peace.

Where there's despair in life let me bring hope,

Where there is darkness, only light,

And where there's sadness, ever joy.


Make me a channel of Your peace,

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

In giving of ourselves that we receive,

And in dying that we're born to eternal life.



As a missionary Eric was a peacemaker in the best sense of the word.

He came to bring a message of righteousness and love, two sides of the coin of God's character, which bring peace and harmony into the life of every individual who embraces them. He was very conscious of the privilege and responsibility that was his as one sent by God to speak and live for Him. Absolute surrender to the will of God was a theme frequently on his lips. This meant a discipleship to Jesus Christ as Lord over every part of his life.



As a Christian gentleman, "A verray parfit gentil knight," to borrow Chaucer's famous line, he modelled his life on the perfect life. His conscious goal was to be like Jesus Christ. Like Brother Lawrence, he "practised the presence of God." Little wonder that the day after he died, someone said, "Yesterday Jesus Christ lived among us, today he's gone."

Langdon Gilkey, author of Shantung Compound, wrote of him, "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."

Eric's Christianity had a happiness to it that was infectious. His happiness was grounded in his serene faith in God. He often urged the people around him to have faith. His strength was quiet faith. His centre of gravity was outside this world and all its acclaim. The crown he valued was not one that would fade, but was eternal.

"When I run, I feel God's pleasure," were memorable lines of his. For him there was no division between the sacred and the secular. His whole life was for God and His glory. In what is said here of Eric Liddell, we know he would take none of the credit and would not even want it said.