09 (September 2016)

For the Glory – The life of Eric Liddell from Olympic Champion to Modern Martyr

For the Glory – The life of Eric Liddell from Olympic Champion to Modern Martyr
John Keddie
John Keddie John is a minister in the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing). He was ordained and inducted to Burghead in 1987. He also ministered at Bracadale and retired in 2011.
31 August, 2016 4 min read

This is a biography of the celebrated Olympic champion and missionary to China, Eric H. Liddell (1902-1945). The publishers’ dust-jacket claim that it ‘tells for the first time the full story of the life of Eric Liddell in extraordinary, vivid detail’ seems to ignore no less than six previous, fairly full biographies of Liddell!

Having said that, Duncan Hamilton has produced a biography of considerable journalistic ability, substance and research. Although there is nothing particularly new about Liddell here, much effort has gone into valuable background material relating to most periods and experiences of Liddell’s life, especially latterly in China.

The book itself is rather uneven in presentation. One gets the impression it started off as an attempt to sketch Liddell’s life in China in some detail (post-1925 up to his death 20 years later), and that then his earlier years (which are actually well covered in earlier biographies) were added later, but less fully covered.

There is noticeably little information about Eric’s or his parents’ forebears. There is little said of his schooldays, or his relationship to his brother, probably the most influential relationship of his life. There is also very little of his rugby-playing, a sport he seemed to enjoy more than track-running. By contrast, there are rather flimsy speculations about a supposed ‘romantic’ attachment to wildlife artist Eileen Soper before Eric left for China (pp. 63, 126-7).

Much of the book’s background material is interesting, lending itself to the creation of atmosphere, especially in the later chapters (13 and 14) concerning life in China, though even here there are relatively few direct references to Eric Liddell. But it is clear that extensive research went into this part of the story.

One unfortunate aspect of the book is its tendency to knock officialdom. The ‘aristocratic’ or ‘elitist’ officials of the British Olympic Association (BOA) are not spared (e.g. pp.65ff.). While, no doubt, the BOA was not above criticism, the question arises as to what alternative there was. Hamilton also accepts some rather disparaging caricatures of the Lord’s Day Observance Society (p.70), even though Liddell himself actively supported Lord’s day observance and often spoke at rallies of the Lord’s Day Association of Scotland (an organisation then independent of the LDOS in England).

Hamilton reserves his strongest criticisms for the London Missionary Society (LMS) (pp.171ff.). Again, although the LMS was doubtless not beyond reproach, Hamilton’s relentless criticisms are largely uncalled for. Referring to Liddell’s transfer from educational work in Tientsin to country evangelical work around Siaochang, after 1935, he avers that, ‘the LMS turned the screw on Liddell in an unchristian manner’. Just how the LMS was acting in an ‘unchristian manner’ is not explained.

But, in any case, Liddell had been ordained to the Christian ministry in Scotland, in 1932, with a view to such a ‘switch’. He afterwards confessed that this change led to the most useful and blessed period of his missionary service, and was something to which he believed the Lord had called him.

Of course, all this raises an important issue about this book, that is, the author’s failure to grasp what the evangelical Christianity of Liddell was about. There is here no reference to the grace of God, no reference to the salvation of souls (something highlighted by Liddell in reports home, from his days at the Anglo-Chinese College), and, notably, no concept of any anticipation of the glory beyond, at the passing of a saint.

It is, essentially, a ‘secular’ view of Eric Liddell. This means there is no real explanation of what made Eric Liddell tick. That is not to say the author has no sympathy with his subject. But it means Liddell’s vibrant faith, hope and love for Christ, as a Christian, do not shine through.

It also makes this biography a contrast to the earlier ones, not least the first by Liddell’s close friend and evangelist D. P. Thomson (Scotland’s greatest athlete, 1970), upon whose shoulders all subsequent biographers have stood.

And it also raises the question of the book’s title. To what can For the glory refer to, if not to ‘the eternal glory awaiting’? Is it the ‘the glory of sport’ (part of the Olympic oath) or ‘the glory of human achievement’? Perhaps, in contemporary fashion, the book allows every reader his own point of view, but even that was not what Liddell was aiming at.

While unsatisfying and, in this reviewer’s opinion, unsatisfactory from a Christian point of view, there are still some excellences in this book, not least its description of the closing experiences in the Japanese internment camp at Weifang. Hamilton movingly depicts the hard and harsh experiences of the internees, and Liddell’s closing days.

The book has a number of mistakes. There is its reference to Forrest Smithson —1908 Olympic 110m hurdles champion, who later became a Baptist minister and who posed taking a hurdle Bible in hand (p.69). Mistakenly, the author describes this as a protest over Sunday events. There were, however, no such Sunday events in 1908; it was simply a photo indicating his regard for the Bible!

Also Liddell’s journey on the Trans-Siberian railway to China in 1925 (p.133) is incorrectly described as London-Paris-Berlin, whereas it was London-Folkestone-Flushing-Berlin–Riga-Moscow, etc.

The dust-jacket picture is an oddity. It is a photoshopped composite, with a background from the finish of the British Empire vs. USA, post-Olympic, 4x440yards relay (Liddell winning), yet the actual finish scrubbed and a photo of Liddell from the 400m. at Paris superimposed (albeit reversed, with the number of necessity re-reversed!). What publishers will do to get the right effect!

This is undeniably a handsome, if pricey, volume. But, sadly, it is not a well-rounded view of an outstanding sportsman and devout Christian soul. There is little if anything of Christ in this biography, and nothing of the eternal hope of the Christian. Liddell’s one great hope was ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory’ (Colossians 1:27).

John W. Keddie


John Keddie
John is a minister in the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing). He was ordained and inducted to Burghead in 1987. He also ministered at Bracadale and retired in 2011.
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