Though made famous by his gold-medal 400-meter run at the 1924 Paris Olympics, Eric Liddell left an impact on more than just the sporting world. A missionary in China, he was interned at Weihsien Camp during World War II, where he spent the last years of his life devoting himself to the well-being of his fellow internees.
Eric Liddell: Athlete
Eric Henry Liddell was born on January 16, 1902, to Reverend and Mrs. James Dunlop Liddell, Scottish missionaries in China with the London Mission Society. At six years of age Eric was sent from China with his older brother to board at Eltham College, a school for missionary children, in England.
Eric and his brother grew up in Britain, joyfully reunited from time to time with their parents, sister, and younger brother during furloughs. Eric studied science at Edinburgh University, making time for rugby and running.
As the 1924 Olympics approached, Eric focused on his running. Though he trained for the 100 meter event, when he learned that it would be held on a Sunday, he withdrew, refusing to compromise his Sabbath, much to the consternation of his countrymen back home. He chose instead to speak at a church in Paris that Sunday, and to try for the 400 meters, not his best event.
He won the bronze in the 200, but his qualifying times for the 400 were less than promising. As soon as the race began, however, Eric sprinted past his competitors, crossing the finish line in a record 47.6 seconds, winning the gold, and earning himself the nickname “The Flying Scotsman” and instant world-wide recognition.
Such popularity notwithstanding, one October, 1924, edition of his university paper, The Student, noted that, “his modesty is entirely genuine and unaffected.” That was only one of many times Eric would be described this way.
Eric Liddell: Missionary to China
In 1925, soon after Eric graduated from Edinburgh University, he returned to China as a missionary. He taught at a school in Tientsin where he fell in love with Florence MacKenzie, daughter of Canadian missionaries. He and Florence married in 1934.
In 1939 Eric left the school to work in a London Mission hospital in Siaochang, where fighting was especially intense between the Japanese and communist Chinese forces. He and his colleagues frequently risked their lives bringing aid to the wounded.
Florence was pregnant with their third daughter in 1941 when Eric asked her to take the girls and return to Canada. The Japanese had spread through much of China, and conditions were growing increasingly dangerous. The British government encouraged its nationals to leave, but Eric considered it his duty to stay behind.
Life in China became even riskier for Eric after war was declared between Japan and the allied nations. In 1943, Eric was taken by the Japanese and placed in the Weihsien Internment Camp.
Weihsien Internment Camp
Living at Weihsien was one trial after another: bedbugs and rats infested the sleeping areas; there was not enough food to go around; and malnutrition, disease, and mental breakdowns were prevalent.
Despite all this, the camp’s nearly 2,000 internees from thirteen different countries organized themselves commendably. Ultimately subordinate to the Japanese officers, they established nine committees to govern camp life. They pooled their books to create a library. They held debates, lectures, and a variety of classes.
Eric Liddell at Weihsien
Though there were many at Weihsien who put the needs of others before their own, Eric Liddell was arguably “one of the most popular people in the camp,” according to Janie Hampton in her book How the Girl Guides Won the War. This was for good reason. Hampton writes that he “did more than any other person for Weihsien’s adolescents.”
Eric taught science from a textbook that he had reproduced from memory and organized sporting events for the children. Though doctors at other camps suggested refraining from sports to save the internees’ energy, Eric operated under the belief that athletics would be beneficial, boosting the spirits of the young people.
With an infectious smile and his characteristic enthusiasm, he took on chores for the sick and elderly. Rev. Dr. Norman Cliff, a young Weihsien internee, said of Eric: “Here was a man who was the embodiment of what the Christian faith was all about.”
Despite his own dismay at being separated from his family, Eric became family to the other internees. The children knew him as “Uncle Eric.” He gave the teachers from the interned Chefoo School a break one day a week when he watched their parent-less charges, according to one account from child internee David Mitchell.
Mitchell also notes that Eric and a roommate woke early every morning to spend one hour in the light of a peanut oil lamp studying the Bible and praying. Of Eric’s relationship with Christ, Mitchell writes, “That friendship meant everything to him.”
Eric Liddell: The Final Days
Though beginning to suffer from severe headaches, Eric continued to serve others. In February, 1945, he finally collapsed. What he mistook for exhaustion was actually a brain tumor.
At his request, the camp’s Salvation Army band stood outside of his hospital window and played the hymn “Be Still, My Soul.” A few days later, on February 21, Eric Liddell, aged forty-three, passed away.
“The whole camp was in mourning, everybody loved him,” said internee Margaret Vindon in Hampton’s book. The camp’s Guide and Scout companies formed an honor guard for Eric’s funeral, burying him in a cemetery in the Japanese quarters. A stone was later erected on his grave.
Eric Liddell’s Legacy
Eric Liddell achieved fame and status as an athlete, but remained humble and generous. His faith in Christ translated into a practical love for those around him, leading him back to China, keeping him there despite the risk, and compelling him to cheerfully serve his fellow internees till God called him home. “I don’t need explanations from God,” Eric once said. “I simply believe Him and accept whatever comes my way.”
- Hampton, Janie. How the Girl Guides Won the War. London: HarperPress, 2010.