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For all of us it can be difficult to grasp a sense of something when it is actually happening; often comprehension comes only when it is over. Not, though, for Eric Liddell. He could always identify precisely when his life changed forever. It was April 6, 1923. The time was shortly after 9pm. On that day and during that hour, Liddell became a public speaker for God.

Please be a little patient with me. I’ll come to back to that. 

The core of Liddell’s devout faith will be known to anyone who has seen the movie, Chariots of Fire, named Best Picture at The Oscars in 1982. In it Liddell refuses to run on the Sabbath at the Paris Olympics in 1924 – even though it means sacrificing his place in the 100m, a race he is one of the favourites to win. He changes events, switching to the 400m, and takes an improbable gold medal in a world record time. But the film didn’t explain how Liddell, a quietly shy, gentle and profoundly modest man, found the inner-strength to make such a public declaration of his religion. Or how he resisted the temptations of fame and the guarantees of wealth that came afterwards, choosing instead to become a missionary in China. Or how his belief in God proved unbreakable, first throughout the terrible conflicts and famines afflicting that country in the 1920s and 1930s and then during his two-year incarceration by Japanese troops in the Second World War.

One of Liddell’s fellow internees said of him: ‘It is rare indeed when a person has the good fortune to meet a saint. He came as close to it as anyone I have ever known’.         

Questions are always going to be asked when someone is portrayed as if they’re too virtuous and too honourable to be true. But I know from my research on Liddell – for my book For the Glory – that nothing about him was mythologized. He really wasthat good a person. And the beginning of his story showed me how great lives – and the winding, often arduous but fulfilling routes these take – often begin with the very smallest of steps.

For Liddell, these were taken in an anonymous spot called Armadale, which is 25 miles west of Edinburgh. It was an industrial town; not a place to attract postcard photographers.  

 Liddell had been asked to address 60-odd workers in a miniscule, draughty hall. He had never preached before. Indeed, he had never declared his love of God except to those who knew him well; he was known only as an athlete. ‘He’d been a secret disciple,’ explained a friend.  Liddell accepted the offer nervously, afraid his voice would fail him through lack of courage. But the morning after saying ‘yes’ to the invitation, he slit open a letter from his sister Jenny, who was living in a missionary compound in Tientsin, China. She had sent him a passage from Isaiah: 41.10. ‘Fear not, for I am with thee; do not dismay, for I will guide thee’. No one posting a letter from China to Britain could know when it might get there. Mail could take up to a month or more to land on the mat. Reading and re-reading the quotation convinced Liddell that its arrival, over rough lands and rougher seas, was more than chance.  It had come into his hands when he most needed reassurance. For Liddell, the timing was proof that divine inspiration was shaping his path.  He believed God had spoken to him.

No one wrote down or could subsequently remember what Liddell said in Armadale.  What followed it, however, was described as ‘a life of dedicated service that only death could end’.

Before Armadale, Liddell conceded: ‘My whole life had been one of keeping out of public duties’. After it, Liddell sensed he was ‘being called to do a piece of work’. That work was as a preacher and a mentor; though Liddell confessed that he felt ‘absolutely unqualified’ to be either. He nonetheless pressed on, believing: ‘If He called me to do it, then He would have to supply the necessary power’.

One sermon presented the quintessential Liddell. He called on his congregation to make ‘faith the perfect work’ and said that ‘the stature of the perfect man’ in pursuit of that comprised nine credentials:  patience, kindness, generosity, humility, courtesy, unselfishness, good temper, gentleness and sincerity. The imperative on that list was sincerity. He called it ‘the basis of faith, mutual trust and co-operation’ and regarded a lack of it as negating the other eight qualities, rendering them near worthless.

Liddell believed ‘Jesus’ life is the most beautiful life there has ever been,’ which is why his own was a perpetual attempt to mirror it. He tried to ‘be like him in character’ and also ‘be like him in outlook,’ he said.

And all this began for him in front of 60 men in a tiny corner of Scotland. 

Duncan's new book, For the Glory, will be released on May 10. Pre-order it here. 

DUNCAN HAMILTON is an investigative journalist and a celebrated, award-winning sportswriter who has been nominated for the foremost sports prize in the UK (the William Hill) five times and won it twice. His most recent book is Immortal, a biography of footballer George Best, which was named a best sports book of 2013 by both The Times and The Guardian. The author lives in West Yorkshire, UK.

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