Eric Liddell

Something Greater Than Gold



By Dr. Bill Pottenger, Lehigh UBF



Dear Friends,


Good morning! You may recall that our ability to say “Good morning!” is a gift of God – by the grace of God, we can say “Good morning!” because Jesus is risen!  Good morning! J


Like many things in our lives of faith, the way in which I came to read the books that I’m reporting on this morning is unusual. You see, like many of you, I had seen the blockbuster movie Chariots of Fire when it came out years ago. I will give a brief review of it for those of you who have not seen the movie (based on Focus on the Family’s review).


“Chariot of Fire”


In 1981, Chariots of Fire captured four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It boasts no marquee stars. There's a noticeable absence of big-budget special effects. But for families interested in a film with heart, character and a respect for one man's faith in God, it remains one of the most spiritually uplifting motion pictures ever made.


Chariots of Fire retells the true story of Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, two men driven by a need to run. Both exhibit unbelievable speed, train religiously and share a passion to compete in the 1924 Olympics. But there’s a deeper issue. What begins as a classic conflict of man against man evolves into a study of inner strength as the two must find victory in being true to their own hearts and convictions.


A cocky Englishman (and self-conscious Jew), Harold Abrahams bests all runners at Cambridge. He dismisses the notion of “second place,” convinced that any man who doesn’t break the tape is a failure.


Eric Liddell, on the other hand, is a committed Christian. This local hero “runs for God” and works at his family's mission in Scotland. Even more impressive than his athletic prowess is the way he competes. When knocked down in a race, he doesn't complain or point fingers. He perseveres. After winning a Gold Medal in the Olympics, Eric heads for China in fulfillment of God’s call to the life of a missionary.


I was deeply touched by the story of Eric Liddell as portrayed in the movie Chariots of Fire. We have a copy of the movie and now and again we watch it because it is so inspirational. I knew that Eric has gone on to become a missionary in China, following in our Lord’s footsteps, but did not know a lot about his life after he won the Olympic Gold Medal. However, one day during our Wednesday prayer and fellowship lunch meeting at Lehigh I met the wife of emeritus professor Doug Feaver. Doug had been a Classics professor at Lehigh for many years, but had retired to become a YWAM missionary in Hawaii at University of the Nations. After serving the Lord for many years in Hawaii, at 80 years old Doug and his wife Margaret returned to Bethlehem, PA. Subsequently, Doug became a regular attendee at our Wednesday prayer and fellowship meetings. (As an aside, I should note that the Feaver’s return to Bethlehem closed a circle for me personally because in the late 70s as an undergraduate at Lehigh, I had attended a Saturday evening prayer, fellowship and Bible study at their home in Bethlehem!)


In any case, one Wednesday a few weeks ago Doug invited his wife Margaret to join us at our Wednesday meeting. To my great delight I learned that Margaret, the daughter of missionaries to China, had been in China at the same time as Eric Liddell. What’s more, during World War II Margaret’s missionary parents and younger siblings had been imprisoned in the same concentration camp, Weihsien, as Eric Liddell! I remember clearly how this connection brought home to me in a new way the reality of the sacrifice that these missionaries had made.  Here was a person whom I had known over 25 years ago through the Saturday evening meetings whose family members had known Eric Liddell personally! It really amazed me. As we discussed these things at our prayer lunch, Margaret mentioned that she had some biographies of various people who had served as missionaries in China. I was excited to hear this, and she offered to send me some of them. I think you can guess the rest of the story now – the book I am holding in my hand is one of the books that Margaret sent me. The title is “Eric Liddell: Something Greater Than Gold” by Janet and Geoff Benge. It is one of the Christian Heroes: Then & Now series published by Youth With A Mission (YWAM).  This is but one of the three books Margaret eventually sent me. The second, which I will also be talking a bit about today as well, is “A Boy’s War”, an autobiographical account of Missionary Kid (M.K.) David Michell’s experiences during World War II in China. David too was imprisoned in Weihsien Concentration Camp along with Margaret Feaver’s family and Eric Liddell. It was published by Overseas Missionary Fellowship.  The third book I brought with me today is one that I have not had a chance to read yet – I just received it – but it is an autobiography by Margaret Feaver entitled “Precious Pearls, An Inheritance of Tears and Treasures”, published by Amuzement Publications, Salem, OR.


Olympic Race


With that introduction, it is my privilege to present a book report on the life of Eric Liddell as recorded by Janet and Geoff Benge and David Michell. Let us pray. (Time of prayer.)


Eric Liddell’s life is inspirational. From my previous remarks you already know that Eric won a Gold Medal in the 1924 Olympics. What you may not know is that in so doing he forsook the opportunity offered to him to run in his best race, the 100-meter sprint. You see, Eric was a Godly man who trusted in the Lord Jesus. As a man of faith, he believed that that the Sabbath must be kept holy, and never ran in races on Sunday. After arduous training, how he must have been tempted by disappointment when he found that the 100-meter Olympic race was to be held on a Sunday! As a man of integrity and faith, however, Eric refused to compromise, and despite pressure from influential men, refused to run in a race on a Sunday.  God honored Eric’s faithfulness by opening a door for him to run in the 400-meter race, and before the race the British team’s masseur sent a note to him that read “In the old book it says, ‘He who honors me, I will honor.’ Wishing you the best of success always.” Although Eric was not favored by men to win the race, God had a different plan. Although the 400-meter was not Eric’s best race, by the grace of God Eric not only won that day in 1924, but also broke the world’s record! The news of this amazing upset spread around the world, and truly in that moment God honored Eric Liddell for his faithful trust in Him. In my mind, this kind of event fulfills the call in Matthew 5:16 that says “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” Based on the many evangelical meetings and sermons at which Eric spoke about his faith, I am certain that many people came to faith and ‘praised our Father in heaven’. J


Eric showed his dedication to God when, after his miraculous win of the Gold Medal in the 400-meter race in the Olympics, he quietly announced his intent to go to China as a missionary: “It has been a wonderful experience to compete in the Olympic Games and to bring home a gold medal. But since I have been a young lad, I have had my eyes on a different prize. You see, each one of us is in a greater race than any I have run in Paris, and this race ends when God gives out the medals. It has always been my intention to be a missionary, and I have just received word that I have been accepted as a chemistry teacher at the Anglo-Chinese College in Tientsin, China. From now on, I will be putting my energy into preparing to take up that positions


A Missionary to China


Once in China, Eric faced much adversity due to the Sino-Japanese war during WWII.  This was a difficult time for the Chinese and the missionaries in China, and Eric struggled emotionally to face the fact that his call was to a war-torn region of inland China. He realized that he would have to leave his wife and children on the coast while he risked his life inland.  The risks he faced daily are exemplified by the time he and a Chinese friend were bicycling home from a wedding to a missionary hospital in Siao Chang when they heard the ping of bullets around them. Both jumped off their bikes as more bullets whizzed around them. Suddenly the bullets stopped, and several nationalist Chinese soldiers sheepishly apologized  - they had mistaken Eric and his friend for communist or Japanese enemies! In a letter written to his wife Eric said “When I am out it is giving, giving, giving all the time, and trying to get to know the people, and trying to leave them a message of encouragement and peace in a time when there is no external peace at all.”


Even traveling on leave was dangerous. Once, when Eric and his wife and two daughters were on leave, they crossed the Atlantic on their way from Scotland back to China. No less than three ships were sunk by U-Boats! At one point, a torpedo struck the ship that Eric and his family were traveling on, but miraculously for some reason it was a ‘dud’ – it did not explode.


As conditions worsened in China, Eric and his wife Flo were forced to face the reality that his wife and children would have to leave China – the war was coming closer and closer and foreigners living in China were increasingly in danger of being interned in prison camps or worse by the Japanese. Sending his wife and daughters back to Canada was probably the most difficult thing Eric did in his life. His parting words to his wife Flo were “Those who love God never meet for the last time.”


“If you take care of the things that are dear to God…”


This leads to the part of these stories that touched my heart the most. So many children of missionaries were separated from their parents during this time. Margaret Feaver, the wife of Professor Emeritus Doug Feaver that I mentioned earlier, was separated from her family who were later interned at Weihsien Concentration Camp in China. David Michell, also a missionary kid and author of “A Boy’s War”, was separated from his parents. Sometimes the missionary parents in other parts of China would not hear any news for months – they had no idea where their children were nor even whether they were still alive! You see, many of the M.K.’s (Missionary Kids) had been enrolled on the coast of China at the Chefoo School in Chefoo. The history of this school traces back to the great man of faith Hudson Taylor, who in 1879 had been ordered by his doctor to rest and recover from illness. In the balmy atmosphere of Chefoo, China, Hudson recovered rapidly, and as he talked with a missionary couple about their children’s education, they considered the possibility of starting a school for M.K.’s. Within moments a Chinese farmer walked up and offered his field for sale, and with childlike faith Hudson realized that God was showing them His purpose to start a school for M.K.’s in Chefoo, which would also serve as a place for missionaries worn-out from service to rest. For over 60 years the Chefoo School served many children of missionaries to China, who were enrolled at a very young age of about six years old.


With the declaration of war by America and Britain on Japan by late 1941, the situation for American and British missionaries had become so bad that they were no longer permitted to travel freely in China, and rumors of threats of internment by the Japanese were making the rounds. A year or so later on November 5, 1942, the threats became reality and the Chefoo School faculty, staff and students were ordered to leave the property. Although they were not immediately interned at Weihsien Concentration Camp, this began a period of several years during which many of these children, some as young as six years old, would not see their parents nor parents their children, nor have any clear idea of whether they were alive or dead. Eric Liddell was also interned at Weihsien, and it was in this concentration camp that David Michell’s life was touched by that of Eric Liddell. True to his calling, Eric continued to give up until the last moment of his life, including serving the frustrated youth imprisoned in Weihsien by organizing various sports activities to take their minds off their plight. These same youths and children were separated from their parents, many of whom were serving as missionaries in other parts of occupied China.


The most touching part of these books came in the following words of a missionary mother separated from her children (Alice Taylor, granddaughter of well-known missionary to China, Hudson Taylor, from pages 138-142 of “A Boy’s War” by David Michell):


I sent frequent letters to Chefoo, telling the children where we were, and somehow, miraculously, a few letters came to us from the children. They’d had Sunday dinner with Grandpa, Kathleen, fourteen, had earned another Girl Guides badge. Jamie, ten, had breezed through his exams. Mary had just celebrated her ninth birthday. John, eight, had been sick, but was much better. And, briefly, there had been some ground skirmishes between Japanese troops and Chinese guerillas, but the school had escaped harm, and the fighting had subsided.


I would take out the children’s letters and re-read them until they became frayed at the edges. I agonized over the lack of news. “James,” I would say, “Do you think the children are all right? It’s been so long since we’ve heard anything.” With his quiet faith James reassured me. But I saw the worry in his eyes. And I knew that his very human fear for the children’s safety was just as great as mine. I pictured them over and over – the times we spent together reading and talking and singing around the organ. I remembered them the way they looked the day James and I Left Chefoo – Kathleen in a navy-blue jumper and white blouse, her long, wavy hair falling past her shoulders; Mary with her blond bob and pretty blue eyes; our sons, young and full of promise. “Heavenly Father, keep them safe,” I prayed. “Watch over Grandpa Taylor.” The air raids sent us running for shelter day after day. Epidemics raged among the Chinese soldiers. In parts of China food was so scarce because of drought that people were eating tree bark. In the midst of this – with missionaries helping with relief programs, passing out food and clothes to refugees – James and I started the Northwest Bible Institute to prepare young people for the ministry. Somehow, we knew, God’s work had to go on, and we spent long hours developing a curriculum and preparing teachers, then enrolling students.


One day, after teaching a class, I was just entering our house when the newspaper deliveryman came. The paper’s large Chinese characters announced: “Pearl Harbor Attacked. U.S. Enters War.” As I absorbed the news, I realized why there had been a long silence from the children. Chefoo has been in the Japanese line of attack.

“Oh, dear God,” I whispered, “my children, my children…” I knelt beside the bed. Not even tears came at first, just wave after wave of anguish. As the fear penetrated deeper, I remembered the horror stories of Nanking – where all the young women of that town had been brutally raped. And I thought of our lovely Kathleen, beginning to blossom into womanhood…


Great gulping sobs wrenched my whole body. I lay there, gripped by the stories we had heard from refugees – violent deaths, starvation, the conscription of young boys – children – to fight. I thought of ten-your-old Jamie, so conscientious, so even tempered. “What has happened to Jamie, Lord? Has someone put a gun in his hands? Ordered him to the front lines? To death?” Mary and John, so small and so helpless, had always been inseparable. “Merciful God,” I cried, “are they even alive?”  Kneeling there by the bed, pleading with God, I knew without any doubt at all that I had no other hope but God. I reached out to Him now, completely. “Please help my children. Let them be alive, please!” Then, as if in a dream, I drifted back to a time when I was a girl of sixteen in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. I pictured our minister, Pa Ferguson, sitting there telling me words he had spoken years ago. “Alice, if you take care of the things that are dear to God, He will take care of the things dear to you.” That was Pa Ferguson’s translation of “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33). It was his way of making his point to the teenagers he was working with.


In the stillness of the bedroom I pondered Pa Ferguson’s words. Who were the ones dear to God? The Chinese to whom God had called me to minister. And who were the ones dear to me? My children. I did not know whether my children were dead of alive; nevertheless a deep peace replaced my agony. This war had not changed God’s promise. With that assurance I felt the aching weight of fear in my stomach lift. “All right, God,” I said finally, “John and Mary and Kathleen and Jamie are in Your care. With all my heart I believe that You will guard them. I know that You will bring us back together, and until that days comes, I will put all my energy into Your work. I promise.” We had a pact, God and I, and I knew He would keep His part of it. And I must keep mine. So it went each day – taking care of the things dear to God: Like the day at the house of Mr. Chang, whose body and mind were devastated by disease. “He will not let anyone near the house,” his wife warned. I walked to the window and called: “Mr. Chang, we have come to pray for you. You can be healed. Please let us come in.”  And he did! He turned his life over to God. And I knew that God was watching over my children.


There were times when I rode into the hills with our new baby, Bertis, strapped on my back and held open0air meetings with people in remote villages.  “This is for You, Heavenly Father,” I would say in prayer, “Because these are Your children, dear to You.” And I knew that He was caring for my children too. And in the compound, when I worded as a mid-wife delivering babies, I would say t God, “thank You for letting me deliver this child.”” And I thanked Him for delivering my children from harm. In time we received word that everyone in Chefoo School had been captured and crammed into a concentration camp in Weihsien along with 1,300 other captives. But we had no way of knowing, from day to day, whether the children were alive. People would say to me, “You have such grate strength, Alice, carrying on, yet knowing that your children have been captured.” And I would say, “My strength is God’s strength. I know He will not forsake my children. I know this.” Through it all – the scarcity, the sickness, the dying, through the bombings when I didn’t breathe until I heard the explosions and realized I was still alive – I did what I knew God wanted me to do. I took care of the Chinese. I passed along His Word to doctors, to army officers and troops, to students, to parents and grandparents. Over and over, day after day. In spare moments after school I began sewing clothes for Kathleen and Mary. “What is that you’re making, wifey?” James asked, using his usual term of endearment. “Some pajamas for the girls, James, for when they come back. I hope I’ve judged the sizes right.” He was silent. Just looked at me.


Then one Sunday morning, as I held services in a village twenty miles from Genghsiang, one of the students from the Bible institute appeared in the crowd, pushing my bicycle, and announced, “They say that the Japanese have surrendered.”  The crowd burst into excitement. But for days, confusion reigned. Families had been torn apart, homes demolished, records lost or burned. Communication and transportation were haphazard. I longed to hear some word, just to know… And as I sat one September evening in our home during a faculty meeting, my mind wandered once more to the children. Again I pictured them as I had seen them last, waving goodbye. I heard their voices, faintly, calling excitedly. Then I heard their voices louder. Was I imagining this? No, their voices were real! And they came bursting through the doorway. “Mommy, Daddy, we’re home – we’re home!” And they flew into our arms. Our hugs, our shouts filled the room. We couldn’t let go of one another. It had been five and a half long, grueling years. Oh, they had grown! But Kathleen still wore the same blue jumper she had worn when I last saw her. It was as though God had miraculously preserved the children and returned them to us.


Later medical checkups showed their health to be excellent. There were no emotional repercussions, and when we went to the States a year later, our children were two years ahead of students their own age. While many in Japanese concentration camps suffered horrors, the children of Chefoo were spared. They received dedicated care from their teachers, and when there was not enough food to go around, the teachers helped the children to gather wild edible plants. The children continued their lessons, and they attended church. Jamie looked after Grandpa Taylor, who was flown back to England after the war. And today Jamie – James Hudson Taylor III – works with Overseas Missionary Fellowship (the continuation of the China Inland Mission) [as General Director] in Singapore. For our family that advice from Pa Ferguson long years ago will always hold special meaning. I pass it along to you, for it is truly so: “If you take care of the things that are dear to God, He will take care of the things dear to you.”


Dear friends, devoted followers of Jesus whom you know and love, let us too “take care of the things that are dear to God, for He will take care of the things dear to you.” As we are instructed in the Bible, “casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.” (1st Peter 5:7)


Eric Liddell’s wife and children were never to see their father again in this world. They, like Eric, made the ultimate sacrifice – Eric Liddell died from a brain tumor in the Weihsien Concentration Camp just a few months before Allied forces rescued the prisoners. It is amazing what God did through this one man – every single written record by anyone imprisoned in Weihsien at that time mentions Eric Liddell. M.K. David Michell and other former POWs from Weihsien later placed a plaque in Eric Liddell’s honor at the site of the former concentration camp in China. These written records are an unmistakable tribute to his sincere, wholehearted dedication to his God, the God and Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.


In closing, let me share with you the tribute that M.K. David Michell (in “A Boy’s War”) wrote to Eric Liddell his fellow prisoner of Christ (sung to the theme song of Chariots of Fire):


Destined for Glory


We’re destined for glory, far brighter than gold

In the race of a lifetime, swift, eager and bold.

Both eyes fixed on Jesus, His joy our desire;

Strong feet run to follow, like chariots of fire.


His pleasure’s worth more than wealth and fame

His truth above all.


To hear God’s “Well done,” and praise His name,

Our soul’s highest goal.


We’re destined for glory, far brighter than gold

In the race of a lifetime, swift, eager and bold.

Both eyes fixed on Jesus, His joy our desire;

Strong feet run to follow, like chariots of fire.



In Jesus’ Name, Amen.