Wednesday, February 22, 2017
ON THIS DAY IN 1945 Eric Liddell, Olympian for Christ, died in a Japanese concentration camp.
IN CHINA, Eric Liddell asked his students if they believed Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. When they said they did, he would say “let’s add it on to the end of the Apostles Creed and when you finish saying the Apostles Creed say, ‘I believe in the Sermon on the Mount’.” This was more than rhetoric with him. After the Japanese incarcerated him in a detention camp, he prayed for them. Had not Christ said “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you?” He challenged fellow-prisoners to pray for the Japanese, too. This was in keeping with his entire adult life.
Born the son of missionaries, Liddell was a highly athletic rugby star and running champion while studying for the ministry in Scotland. Eventually his swift feet took him to the 1924 Olympics in Paris, where he set a world record in the four hundred meters. His refusal to run on Sunday drew world attention to his faith. After his victory, a friend says the two of them took a pair of American girls to a Tango Tea Dance.
Following the Olympics, he completed his education and became a missionary in China, where he met and married his wife Florence. He sent her and their daughters to safety in Canada after the Japanese invaded China, but remained himself in danger from Chinese Communists and Japanese invaders. He and Kenneth McAll learned to trust God implicitly for their safety. When McAll was offered a pistol to protect himself against bandits, Eric shouted, “Don’t touch it! If you have that in your pocket you will depend on it rather than God and I would refuse to travel with you.”
The Japanese incarcerated foreigners in concentration camps. There Eric worked selflessly as a teacher, prisoner representative, and volunteer toting loads for weaker prisoners. Even after he developed headaches from a massive brain tumor, he never complained. Finally he was assigned to one of the camp’s hospital beds.
He often wrote to Florence and his three girls, the youngest of whom he had never seen. In a letter near the end of his life, he told Florence he had suffered a “slight nervous breakdown” but assured her he was much better after a month in hospital. “Special love to you and the children,” he added. He then turned to his friend Annie Buchan and said, “It’s full surrender” before drifting into a coma from which he never recovered.
Eric Liddell died on this day, 21 February 1945. Everyone in the camp mourned, for by then his infectious smile and concern for others were widely known. Norman Cliff, one of the young men who witnessed Liddell’s life in the prison camp, believes the champion runner would have taken no credit for his life, but would have said instead, “When you speak of me, give the glory to my master, Jesus Christ.”