The ‘Muscular Christianity’ of Eric Liddell, Gold Medallist and Missionary
The ideals of ‘Muscular Christianity’ (see my last post) were taken up by a number of Evangelical groups in Victorian and Edwardian times. They recognised the compatibility of sport and Christianity, but their ethos differed from Kingsley’s, which was largely liberal and high Church. As evangelicals, they emphasised that sport, though a valid recreational activity, must come second to gospel ministry.
A shining example is Eric Liddell, Olympic athlete, international rugby player, and Christian missionary. His story became widely known through the Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire (1981). He was born in 1902 in Tianjin, China, son of a Church of Scotland missionary. At school in England he showed great athletic ability, and was the fastest man in Scotland by the time he was a student; he was nicknamed “the Flying Scotsman”, after a locomotive.
Selected for the 1924 Paris Olympics, Liddell made headlines by refusing to run in a 100 metres heat on Sunday, on conscience grounds. He was forced to withdraw from his best event. A compromise agreement let him race in the 400 metres. As he went to the starting blocks for the final, an American team masseur slipped a piece of paper into his hand with a the words: “Those who honour me I will honour” (1 Samuel 2:30). Liddell ran and won Olympic gold – but also the respect and admiration of millions.
Liddell returned to China and from 1925-43 was a missionary in Hebei province, a region of great poverty but also great danger from Japanese aggression in the run-up to World War 2. He taught in schools, coaching boys in Christian truth and in sport, and helped design a sports stadium, where he continued to run when he could.
His physical toughness and discipline were matched by iron principles. When the Japanese were attacking China, Liddell rescued two wounded Chinese soldiers, despite the significant risk involved. He refused to travel with an armed guard when visiting the sick and needy, even though he could have been shot on sight. Relying on a gun instead of God was not acceptable to him. The situation grew so dangerous that the British government advised its nationals to leave the country. Liddell’s family left, but he stayed to work at a mission station set up to help the poor.
In 1943 he was interned by the Japanese in a large camp at Weifang. When British Prime Minister Winston Churchill heard of it, he used his influence to secure Liddell’s freedom in a prisoner exchange. But Liddell declined and instead offered his place to a pregnant woman who was also in the camp, so that not only she but also her unborn child might be spared. This decision was especially costly since he had a wife and three daughters he had not seen in well over a year.
The bedrock of these principles is clear from something he wrote in his Morning Prayers for Schools: “Obedience to God’s will is the secret of spiritual knowledge and insight. It is not willingness to know, but willingness to DO [obey] God’s will that brings certainty.”
However, Liddell’s health was failing. What he did not know was that he had developed an inoperable brain tumour. Even so, he served tirelessly at the camp (this link gives more details). He sorted arguments by refereeing a football or hockey match! He did all he could to keep men and boys in good physical shape. He died in 1945, honoured by all, and was buried behind the officers’ quarters. His grave was only rediscovered in 1989.