Two years ago I travelled China’s Shandong Provence; specifically to the city that Eric Liddell knew as Weihsien and which is now called Weifang. I walked around the site of the camp where he died of a brain tumour six months before the Second World War ended. The earth that held him during that war holds him still. No one can identify where Liddell was buried. So, instead of a grave, he has a monument – an enormous slab of rose granite shipped from the Isle of Mull in the Hebrides. The inscriptions on it include the quotation from Isaiah, chapter 40, verse one:
‘They shall run and not be weary, and they shall walk and not be faint’.
A few, scant lines cover the cardinal points of his 43 years and 37 days: his birth, his Olympic success, his death.
Alas, there is no room to explain the Biblical passage that most influenced him. But I know it was The Sermon on the Mount, which became the key-stone of his faith. Liddell argued each passage required reading ‘over and over again’.
He confessed how intimidating The Sermon had originally appeared to him. The strictures it laid down had seemed unachievable to him. ‘The first time you read it you feel that it is impossible,’ he said. Clarity came to Liddell only after he returned to the text, looking at it anew. ‘The second time you feel that nothing else is possible,’ he added. The Sermon became Liddell’s manifesto, and he became the exemplar of it to a literal degree. He believed it constituted ‘the technique of being a Christian’ and also counted as a ‘working philosophy of life’.
He showed all that in the camp. What Liddell did there tells you everything you need to know about the lovely heart he had.
It’s important to appreciate that Liddell went to China clear-eyed about the sort of missionary he intended to become. He didn’t want to be seen only as a ‘do-gooder,’ dispassionately aloof from the world in which his words were heard. He wanted to demonstrate ‘the value of life and an idea of service’ and give the Chinese ‘the love of God in their hearts’.
When the country was at its most turbulent, he found himself shot at, shelled and detained by bandits. He saw atrocities: even the slaughter of whole families, including children. He witnessed the ravaging effects of poverty, pestilence, famine. With no concern for his own well-being, he saved the life of Chinese man whose neck had been slashed by the sword of a Japanese soldier. He once calmed an entire village that was being bombed from the air.
This work was everything to Liddell. He married in the mid-1930s and soon had two daughters, Patricia and Heather. When his wife, Florence, fell pregnant again, Liddell insisted she and his daughters return to her parents’ home in Canada for protection. Shortly afterwards, he was taken prisoner. He never saw his third daughter, Maureen.
At its worst, Weihsien contained more than 1,800 prisoners, crammed into a space no bigger than two football fields.
The camp was filthy and insanitary. The pathways were strewn with debris. The living quarters were squalid. Such awful and claustrophobic conditions brought consequences. There were verbal squabbles, sometimes flaring in physical fights, over the meagre portions at mealtimes. There were disagreements, also frequently violent, over privacy and personal habits and hygiene as well as perceived idleness, selfishness and pilfering.
But Liddell was different. The Sermon on the Mount was the template he used to help others practically and spiritually.
Liddell’s forbearance was remarkable. No one could ever recall even a minute act of envy, pettiness, hubris or self-aggrandisement from him. He didn’t criticise or bicker. He became the camp’s conscience without ever being pious, sanctimonious or judgmental. In his sermons, and during weekly scripture classes, an internee said of him: ‘You came away as if you’d been given a dose of goodness’. With infinite patience, he also gave special attention to the young, who affectionately called him ‘Uncle Eric’.
As conditions deteriorated in every way, internees began to openly question their religious faith and the purpose of the church. Some asked Liddell the following directly. What was the point of praying – for food, for comfort, for rescue – when those prayers weren’t being answered? Where was God? Why wasn’t He listening? Also, why had He ‘allowed’ Weihsien to happen in the first place? Liddell’s beliefs never wavered. ‘His faith grew stronger than ever in such troubled times’ said a friend. ‘He didn’t blame God for the situation we were all in. He believed God was in that situation with us. That was his message and he never stopped preaching it. He’d say to us all ‘Have Faith’.
Again, The Sermon on the Mount was paramount to him. He dwelt on one passage. ‘Love your enemies. Bless them that curse you. Do good to them that hate you. Pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you’. He urged the internees to pray specifically for the camp guards. ‘I’ve begun to pray for the guards and it’s changed my whole attitude towards them,’ he told them before adding: ‘When we hate them we are self-centred’.
All of us live incomplete lives. At our end something is always left unsaid, undone, unseen. But Liddell’s life seems scarcely half-finished. You can’t avoid thinking of the birthdays he never celebrated, the weddings he never attended, the grandchildren he never held.
But Maureen – the daughter Liddell never met – believes that what happened to her father was ‘meant to be’; and also that his premature death had a purpose, which God has gradually revealed. ‘We’re still talking about him now, aren’t we?’ she says. ‘He still influences so many lives. He’s still with us’.
Indeed he is.