As I have mentioned before, the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church remembers Eric Liddell (1902–1945) with a feast day on February 22.
God whose strength bears us up as on mighty wings: We rejoice in remembering thy athlete and missionary, Eric Liddell, to whom thou didst bestow courage and resolution in contest and in captivity; and we pray that we also may run with endurance the race that is set before us and persevere in patient witness, until we wear that crown of victory won for us by Jesus our Savior; who with thee and the Holy Spirit livest and reignest, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
On July 17, 1924, less than two weeks after his Olympic victory, at his graduation in McEwan Hall of Edinburgh University, Sir Alfred Ewing – Principal and Vice Chancellor said: “Mr Liddell, you have shown that none can pass you but the examiner. In the ancient Olympic tests the victor was crowned with wild olive by the High priest of Zeus, and a poem written in his honour was presented to him. A Vice Chancellor is no High Priest, but he speaks and acts for the University; and in the name of the University, which is proud of you, and to which you have brought fresh honour, I present you with this epigram in Greek, composed by Professor Mair, and place upon your head this chaplet of wild olive.”
The scroll reads (in English):
“The University of Edinburgh congratulates
Eric Henry Liddell
Olympic Victor in the 400 Metres.
‘Happy the man who the wreathed games essaying
Returns the laurelled brow,
Thrice happy victor thou, such speed displaying
As none hath showed till now;
We enjoy, and Alma Mater, for the merit
Proffers to thee this crown:
Take it, Olympic Victor. While you wear it
May Heaven never frown.”
Eric stated, when compelled to make a short speech, after being carried aloft by cheering crowds and fellow students to the doors of St Giles Cathedral for the University Service: “Over the gate of Pennsylvania University are inscribed these words, ‘In the dust of defeat as well as in the laurels of victory there is a glory to be found if one has done his best.”
(Yours truly in front of St. Giles a few years ago)
Liddell returned to Northern China to serve as a missionary, like his parents, from 1925 to 1943 – first in Tianjin and later in the town of Xiaozhang. In 1943, he was interned at the Weihsien Internment Camp (in the modern city of Weifang) with the members of the China Inland Mission and many others.
Langdon Gilkey, who survived the camp and became a prominent theologian in his native America, said of Liddell: “Often in an evening I would see him bent over a chessboard or a model boat, or directing some sort of square dance – absorbed, weary and interested, pouring all of himself into this effort to capture the imagination of these penned-up youths. He was overflowing with good humor and love for life, and with enthusiasm and charm. 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.” (The Guardian)
Early in 1945, six months before the camp’s liberation, Liddell became ill. In a letter he told his wife that he feared he was having a nervous breakdown. In fact it was a brain tumor, untreatable in those circumstances, and on February 21 he died.
He was buried in the garden behind the Japanese officers’ quarters, his grave marked by a small wooden cross. The site was forgotten until it was rediscovered in 1989 by fellow Scotsman, Charles T. Walker, in the grounds of what is now Weifeng Middle School. When he decided to erect a memorial, offers of help and money came flooding in from Scotland, England and Hong Kong. A gravestone, made of red granite from the Isle of Mull and carved by a mason in Tobermory, was placed near the site in 1991.
Mr. Walker and a group of prominent Hong Kong business and civic leaders announced the formation of the Eric Liddell Foundation, which sponsors athletic training for youngsters from China, Hong Kong and Britain.
Cheng Hon-kwan, a director of the foundation and a member of Hong Kong’s Executive and Legislative Councils, was a student at the Tiensin school. In 1941, he was 14 years old, and Mr. Liddell, who had returned from relief work, was his science teacher. “He was very well liked by the students,” Mr. Cheng recalled. “We all knew he was an Olympic gold medal winner and that he had not run on Sunday. Everyone thought of him as a hero. He was tall and very fit, but he was bald headed by then. My impression was of a very lively, very likable man.” (NYT)
A toast to Eric Liddell, Christian gentleman.