Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Missionary Eric Liddell

by C.J. Chase

I was thinking of doing a theme for my history posts in 2014. But what to choose? Focus on a single time period? Hmm, maybe. Bad boys of North American history? Okay, that one sounded kind of fun.

But then I came across this article in Christianity Today: “The Surprising Discovery about Those Colonialist, Proselytizing Missionaries.” If you haven’t read it yet, you simply must. (It’s long, however, so wait until you have finished reading and commenting on my brilliant post, ‘k?) In short, a doctoral candidate used statistics to analyze the relationship between 19th century Protestant Christian missionary activity and modern democracy in places such as Africa and Asia. He discovered a very strong correlation exists between those missions of 100+ years ago and better outcomes for the societies today. For example, most of Africa was under European colonial control at the time. Those colonies where missionary activity was allowed or even encouraged have become the African countries of today with the highest rates of literacy, the best health outcomes, and the lowest rates of corruption. The colonies where missionary activity was discouraged continue to lag behind despite 50 years of independence from colonial rule.

As I finished the article, I knew I had found my theme for 2014. Who were these faithful people who had followed God’s call to save souls in some of the most remote areas of the world and ended up bettering the lives of millions over 100 years later? In rembrance of his January birthday, I decided to start with one of the more familiar names.

Eric Liddell was born January 16, 1902 in China to Scottish missionaries. He went to Britain as a boy to attend boarding school, and it was there he discovered his gift for running. Yes, running. Do you remember the award-winning movie Chariots of Fire?

After Liddell’s surprising gold-medal win in the 400 meter race at the 1924 Olympics (he had refused to compete in the 100 meter—his best event—or as part of the 400 meter relay because both events were held on Sundays), he returned to China in 1925 and joined his parents in their work. He taught school and was Sunday School superintendent at his father’s church.

In 1934 he married Florence Mackenzie, a daughter of Canadian missionaries to China. By that time, parts of China were already under the control of the invading Japanese Imperial army. When Britain went to war with Japan’s ally Germany, the situation became fraught with danger. In 1941, Liddell sent his pregnant wife and two daughters to her family in Canada while he stayed behind to help the suffering Chinese. He never met his youngest daughter, never saw his family again. In 1943, the Japanese interred all “enemy” foreigners in camps. Liddell died in 1945, just months before China’s liberation. 

Eric Liddell’s story has been well documented, so I’m not going to give a lot of details here. You can find more at The Eric Liddell Center or get a copy of Chariots of Fire. The soundtrack alone is worth the cost. Just be aware that the screenwriters played a little fast-and-lose with some of the timelines to add drama. (I hear writers do that on occasion. Not that I, ahem, would know anything about that.)

Here are two other video clips. The first is original footage from Liddell's Olympic-winning race. And then I included the opening credits of the movie...just to give you uplifting music to go with the rest of the story.

Modern mission work in China began in 1807 and all but ceased when the communists seized power in 1949. Click on this link to view a list of known Protestant missionaries who served in China during that century and a half. It looks like a lot—until you consider how many millions of people lived in China even then. If each one of those named discipled even 100 people, how many Christians might one expect to find in China today?

In 2007, Asia Times published an article by the great foreign affairs writer Spengler (a.k.a., David Goldman) “Christianity Finds a Fulcrum in Asia.” (CJ’s note: the link to the article in Asia Times seems to be broken, but I found it reprinted here.) Spengler cites a conversion rate to Christianity of ten thousand Chinese per day. Per day. Now look at that list of missionaries again. Already, China has more Christians than any other country in the world with the exceptions of the US and Brazil. China is on track to be the country with the most Christians by mid-century.

Spengler goes on to discuss the ramifications of this explosion of Christianity, particularly for the future development of democracy in China. And that brings me back full circle to the doctoral dissertation I mentioned above, and the far-reaching impact of missionary work.

Asked if he regretted leaving behind the fame and glory of athletic competition, Liddell is reported to have said, "A fellows life counts for far more at this [missionary work] than the other."

After leaving the corporate world to stay home with her children, C.J. Chase quickly learned she did not possess the housekeeping gene. She decided writing might provide the perfect excuse for letting the dust bunnies accumulate under the furniture. Her procrastination, er, hard work paid off in 2010 when she won the Golden Heart for Best Inspirational Manuscript and sold the novel to Love Inspired Historicals. Her current release, The Reluctant Earl, is now available  in online bookstores. You can visit C.J.'s cyber-home (where the floors are always clean) at www.cjchasebooks.com


  1. Interesting, CJ. I love missionaries. They are truly special, wonderful people. I know this will surprise you, but I've never seen Chariots of Fire. But, I know the music and it's firmly in my head for the day, and I haven't even looked at the video yet. It's lovely music.

  2. Very interesting! I saw Chariots of Fire as a kid, so I don't remember much. How tragic, but at the same time, how beautiful.

  3. So sad, and then I remember hearing one of our church's missionaries to Nepal talk about the vast growth of Christianity in China, even now under communism. It's men and women like Liddell who sowed those seeds. Amazing.

  4. Sorry everyone. I was out for a little bit in the middle of the day. We're expecting snow (!) and in quantities we seldom see here, so we went out for a few essentials -- you know, like lunch at Chick-Fil-A since we probably won't be going anywhere for a few days.

    And Suzie, you simply must see Chariots of Fire. Must.

  5. Thank you, CJ. Yes, I've seen Chariots of Fire and although I can't remember much except for the music, I've always thought of it as inspirational. And Canadian. heh.

    I didn't know about the missionary stats though, so thank you for enlightening me. Very interesting.

  6. What an amazing story, C.J. I don't think I knew anything about Liddel's life after "Chariots of Fire". The statistics are fascinating. When I hear all this negativity about Christians I often think about how the majority of hospitals and schools were started by Christians living out their faith. Almost all charities, soup kitchens, clothing ministries... the list goes on. I'm not surprised at all at the relationship between missionary activity and schooling in Africa but this still amazed me. Thanks so much for today's post!


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