Josephine Bakhita v. Eric Liddell

We're back for another exciting matchup as Josephine Bakhita takes on Eric Liddell. Who will run away with the victory? That's up to you!

Yesterday, in the tightest race of Lent Madness XIV to date (by far), Blandina squeezed past Simeon Bachos 51% to 49% to advance to the Saintly Sixteen. You see, your (single) vote does actually count!

Obviously you watched Monday Madness yesterday. But if you want to watch the rerun (we really should put these into syndication), you can watch it here.

Time to vote!

Josephine Bakhita

Josephine Bakhita was born in 1869 in what is now the Darfur region of Sudan, among the Daju people. By her account, she enjoyed a happy childhood in a relatively prosperous family in the town of Olgossa. However, in February of 1877, raiding slave traders put an end to that. She was captured and marched barefoot for more than 600 miles to be sold.

For the next 12 years of her life, Josephine was enslaved. So deep was the trauma from her kidnapping that she forgot her own birth name. She had various owners—some were benign; others tortured her with beatings, whippings, and cutting. Finally, in 1883, she was sold to the Italian Vice Consul of Sudan, Calisto Legani, who took her to Italy with him. Once there, he gave her as a gift to serve as a nanny for a friend’s family.

With her young charge, Josephine traveled to Venice to accompany the young girl to study with the Canossian Sisters. There, for the first time, Josephine found language to describe her sense of God’s presence and love. By her own account, she had always had a belief in a creator of the universe and a sense of a protective presence, but now, she understood what that presence was. With this new understanding, she also began to discern a call to enter the sisters’ community herself. Meanwhile, the girl’s family returned to pick up their daughter, but Josephine declined to leave. For three days, she raised such a ruckus that no one knew quite what to do until finally the mother superior went to the Italian authorities on Josephine’s behalf. The court determined that since slavery had been outlawed in the Sudan before Josephine was captured—and also, by the way—was illegal in Italy, Josephine was now free… and should have been free the whole time.

Presented with agency over her own person and the freedom to make her own choices, Josephine decided to stay with the sisters. On January 9, 1890, she was baptized and named herself Josephine Margaret, and she entered religious life in 1896 as a Canossian Daughter of Charity. She ended up in Schio, Vicenza, where she lived until her death, working as the doorkeeper and cook and occasionally traveling around to other convents to prepare fellow nuns to work in Africa. She became known for her gentle voice and her smile, and during World War II, the people of the village attributed their safety to her protection. She died in 1947.

Collect for Josephine Bakhita
O God of Love, who delivered your servant Josephine Margaret Bakhita from the bondage of slavery to the true freedom of your service; Grant to the wounded your healing grace in mind, body, and spirit and to your church the zeal to combat exploitation and slavery in all its forms; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Megan Castellan


Eric Liddell

Eric Liddell was born to Scottish missionaries in Tientsin, China, on January 16, 1902. When he was six years old, he and his older brother, Robert, were enrolled in a boarding school in London that served the sons of missionaries. While at the school, he began to distinguish himself as an athlete, excelling in cricket, rugby, and track and field.

Liddell’s true gift was speed. He began to attract international attention while at the University of Edinburgh. He competed for Great Britain in the 1924 Olympics in Paris. Although his strongest event was the 100 meters, he refused to race because the heats were scheduled on a Sunday. Instead, he ran in the 400, a distance that he was not known for. Nevertheless, he won the race and set Olympic and world records. He also won the bronze medal in the 200-meter race.

Perhaps more relevant to the current competition for the Golden Halo, Liddell decided to follow his parents’ footsteps and became a missionary to northern China in 1925, at the peak of his athletic career. After his first furlough in 1932, Liddell returned to China as an ordained minister in the Congregational Union of Scotland and married his wife, Florence Mackenzie, a daughter of Canadian missionaries. They had three daughters together, the youngest of whom he would never meet.

In 1941, Japanese aggression toward China prompted his wife and children to return to Canada for safety. Liddell stayed in China and moved to Xiaozhang to give his ailing brother, Robert, a medical missionary, a chance to furlough. When the fighting between Japan and China reached the town, Liddell returned to Tianjin. In 1943, Liddell was interned at the Weihsien Camp. He became an important leader in the camp, advocating for access to food, medicine, and supplies. He was called on to resolve disputes and was known to be an impartial arbiter between various groups and also taught and organized activities for the youth in the camp.

He wrote his last letter to his wife on the day that he died. He was suffering a nervous breakdown on account of all the work and responsibilities he had assumed. Further, he was suffering from an inoperable brain tumor, and the malnourishment and stress at the camp exacerbated his poor health. He died on February 21, 1945, five months before the camp was liberated.

Collect for Eric Liddell
Almighty God, you have surrounded us with a great cloud of witnesses: Grant that we, encouraged by the good example of your servant Eric Liddell, may persevere in running the race that is set before us, until at last we may with him attain to your eternal joy; through Jesus Christ, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

David Creech


Josephine Bakhita: Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Eric Liddell: unknown (Sports event handout)[1], Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


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122 comments on “Josephine Bakhita v. Eric Liddell”

  1. Say a prayer for brave Eric Liddell
    Who made peace in that prison camp hell.
    Though he died in that place
    Cheer him in today’s race:
    To the Saintly Sixteen him propel.

  2. Josephine Bakhita, at the base of the baptismal font proclaimed that, truly, she was a daughter of the King. Although deemed worthless by her enslavers, God, through his grace, blessing, and strength, empowered her to survive and do His work. Bakhita means fortunate and she was indeed fortunate, but in a spiritual sense, not a worldly one. Josephine Bakhita was not only fortunate; she was blessed by God.

  3. It's all in how you tell the story. Eric Liddell's story could not be written more blandly than here.

    While interned, he organized games for the many children but would not referee on Sundays. When the children fought without him there to referee, he sacrificed his scruples about work on Sunday and refereed. Unlike the Olympics 100, it wasn't about his or Britain's glory, but about the good of hundreds of children.

    He wasn't having a nervous breakdown the day he died of that brain tumor. He "was able to believe that spirit triumphs and commend his soul to God" with his last words about absolute submission.

    I voted for this Eric Liddell, not the one described by Lent Madness writer.

    1. I so agree. I didn't think that Josephine Bakhita's story was well written either. I think that details are held back so that there's more to say about the saints who get through this first stage but it doesn't help their cause here.

    2. I also object to saying he had a nervous breakdown down when what he had was a brain tumor! I also object because of the negative connotations that “nervous breakdown” has in our society. He was exhausted by his multiple responsibilities AND cancer!

      Having said that, I hope people don’t vote against a blurb writer instead of for either Eric or Josephine, as seemed to happen with yesterday’s match up.

      1. As one of the writers yesterday, I can understand why you feel that way about that discussion. My intention was to clarify what I felt were assumptions and misunderstandings that changed the entire view of the person being described -- and of the conditions that prevailed around him. Just as some folks are doing today. I think it's all fair.

    3. Thank you, Carolyn. Thanks for providing some more important details. I too appreciate a well-told story.

    4. Agreed. Was disappointed there was no menton of Chariots of Fire as most people would be familiar with him from that movie. Perhaps to not unjustly sway the results one or another? His greatest qualification is, after all his work in China and his lifelong sacrifice as a missionary. "When I run I feel his pleasure" is still one of my favorite quotes ever. Whether it can actually be attributed to Eric I'm not sure but no doubt it was his heart.

      1. I too loved the movie, Chariots of Fire. The line quoted is my all time favorite. It was a hard choice, but Eric gets my vote.

  4. There is no competition here, in my own opinion obviously. Josephine Bakhita is a huge inspiration to me. To find God in the midst of experiencing the worst of what humans can do to one another; sell them into slavery, passed from one cruel hand to another, and although that isn't really brought out here she was treated incredibly cruelly, to have all choice taken away, and yet to find a way to make a choice and to 'raise a ruckus' until that choice is respected, to continue to believe in love and good, and God, Now, that is a true saint.

    1. I was moved by her story as well, so she got my vote. Both choices today were good ones.

    2. Her story reminds me of Joseph story in that the worst of beginnings was in the end a blessing for her as she found her calling and her God.

  5. Good grief! Do you have to make the choices so difficult? I literally had to resort to 'Eeny-meeny-miny-mo' to decide between these two worthy candidates. Liddell ended up getting my vote, but it could have gone either way.

    Now I suppose I'm going to spend the rest of the day with Vangelis' 'Chariots of Fire' theme music in my head

  6. Both of today's saints were separated from their families as children. Eric was sent to boarding school at six. Josephine was trafficked at not quite eight. He would have a chance to see his family again in this life. She would not. He could choose to not run the 100 Meters in Paris in 1924. She had no choice about marching "barefoot for more than 600 miles to be sold."

    Eric's life is depicted in Chariots of Fire (1981) [see ]. Josephine's life would probably make for a good movie, but alas, such a film has not (yet) been made. (Has Forward Movement ever considered making films about the lives of the Saints?)

    Eric won a gold medal and Chariots of Fire won four gold statues of a guy named Oscar, including for Best Picture. Josephine should have a chance at winning some gold, in the form of a halo.

    And may we all work to end the trafficking of people of all ages. Modern day slavery still exists. There are organizations working to combat it. Remember, in your prayers, them and those they seek to set free.

    1. You said exactly what I feel about these 2 people. Both had incredible faith and suffered during their lives. Eric had more choices available to him and Josephine did not until she was able to choose God.
      My vote is for Josephine.

      1. I love both of these saints, and I think it’s unfair to compare them and pin them against each other. Also, the description of Eric Liddell in this post was unfair and incredibly bland. In fact, it’s not even accurate (Eric went to Siaochang with Rob in 1937. Rob left well before 1941 and Eric remained). This post didn’t do Eric justice at all. Some of these comments also don’t do him justice. Think about his story this way:

        Throughout his life, Eric had numerous opportunities to be wealthy, famous, and live a comfortable life, but he chose God each and every time, sacrificing all things material. He died in a concentration camp with nothing (even wearing a worn shirt he made out of his wife’s curtains), and he never got to meet his third daughter. He had been separated from his wife and children for four years and never saw them again, which broke his heart. He sacrificed literally everything to honor God, and his selfless service to others of all nationalities led countless people to Christ.

        It takes incredible character to consistently obey God throughout one’s life the way Eric at the expense of all things material. He chose to follow God even when he knew that part would lead to much suffering.

        Eric could have been regarded as the fastest man in the world by competing in his best event, the 100 meters, but he chose to follow his convictions and honor God — even when he was labeled a traitor to his country for doing so. Then, after Eric remarkably set the Olympic and World record in an event that was fairly new to him, he became a celebrity overnight and was offered money to speak about athletics and write books; and even offered opportunities to endorse various products. However, Eric turned this all down and announced that he was going back to China to become a missionary science teacher and sports coach. He turned down a life of fame and fortune to live an obscure and simple life helping others in a land where he was a nobody.

        As a teacher in Tianjin, Eric persuaded the school’s leadership to get more subsidies for poor students to attend, and he even trained some of the first Chinese Olympians! His love story with his wife reads almost like a fairytale with their winsome and loving commitment to each other. But when Eric again could have chosen comfort and happiness with his wife and children, God called him in 1937 to serve in Siaochang as hospital superintended and an itinerant evangelist. This meant sacrificing his life of comfort again and being separated from his family for months at a time.

        By then, the Sino-Japanese war plagued Northern China. During his mission work, Eric was shot at. He was robbed by bandits. He was also detained and held at gun point by Japanese soldiers, but he bravely risked his life to travel in harsh weather conditions to smuggle much needed medical supplies, coal, and contraband money across enemy lines to help impoverished Chinese peasants who were displaced from their homes; and to keep the mission hospital running. Eric slept on the floors of the Chinese villagers and their sorrows became his sorrows. He taught illiterate peasants how to read and taught them hymns. Eric witnessed many of his Chinese friends get murdered by brutal Japanese soldiers during the war. Eric even risked his life to rescue two men left for dead by the Japanese. He carried them (with the help of a Chinese friend) for over 20 miles by foot and bicycle in a mule cart across enemy lines with Japanese planes circling overhead. When Japanese or bandits or communist soldiers were wounded, Eric taught the other missionaries at the hospital to treat everyone equally and with love. “They are all men Christ died for,” he said.

        Then, by 1941 when the Japanese destroyed the mission hospital, Eric had another difficult choice to make. His wife and children were going to Canada for safety, but Eric believed God wanted him to stay in China despite the danger of WWII. He referred to the Chinese as “my people” and said, “I can’t abandon them when they need me the most.” For that sacrifice, he eventually ended up in a concentration camp — never to see his family again. Yet, in the camp, Eric is remembered as the person who brought hope and love to the 1800 prisoners, including hundreds of children who were separated from their parents. He was seen regularly helping to clean the broken and overflowing latrines, carrying coal buckets for the elderly, pumping water for those too weak to do it themselves, and sweeping the filthy floors of the camp. He turned a horrible situation into something beautiful for his fellow prisoners. He taught science and math to children and teenagers with limited supplies and even wrote a chemistry textbook from scratch to teach a group of teenager girls the basics they would need to matriculate into university. He organized sports, games, plays, and puppet shows for the children with makeshift supplies to keep them focused on positive things. He persuaded the greedy business men of the camp, who had smuggled in food, to share with everyone — especially the children and the sick. Eric even risked his life to continue visiting a little girl with typhoid fever who was quarantined to the camp morgue and had no family. He was kind to all people regardless of class, race, or nationality. One destitute prostitute in the camp even wept when Eric died, saying, “He’s the only man who ever helped me and never asked for anything in return.” And even when Eric’s health had deteriorated, he gave a most prized possession (his running shoes) to a teenager in the camp whose shoes had completely fallen apart during the cold winter. The Chinese government even claims that Eric turned down a chance for freedom through a prisoner exchange, and instead gave his spot to a pregnant woman. Regardless of whether that last fact is true, Eric Liddell lived a life of selfless service to God and others. His last words were: “It’s complete surrender to God.” Mary Previte, a survivor of the camp who was around 11 when the camp was liberated said, “He was Jesus in running shoes. That’s what Eric Liddell was to us.”

        Eric’s real story continues to inspire today, and it deserves to be told the right way.

  7. Voting for Josephine, the saint unknown to me until this Lent Madness write up. Her gentle voice and her smile, despite circumstances, remind me of my dear Mom. The Chariots of Fire theme will be playing in my head all day too.

  8. Although Josephine's Christian humility deserves a halo, I could not relate,having been blessed with life as a WASP. I can relate to Eric sometimes having to make choices between expected service and religious conviction. He was free to flee and bask in glory of former athletics and church ordination. But he chose to stay and accept captivity, including working on Sunday. I can relate to having to make choices between two goods. This vote was one of them.

  9. Two very interesting stories, but neither one particularly worthy of being called a saint.

    1. I wonder what your definition of "saint" is. At bottom, all of us are saints -- that is the way Paul constantly addressed and referred to the believers in his letters. To me a saint is one who holds firm to their commitment to Jesus, even in the midst of life's difficulties and even persecution and death. In my view, both of the ones presented to us today meet that definition.

    2. "You see, your (single) vote does actually count!" Out of a total of 8,590 votes cast yesterday, Blandina won by 86. Yes, I do agree that every [legitimate] vote counts.

      1. This was supposed to be a general comment; I'm not sure how it ended up being another reply to the saints question.

      2. At 8:15 p.m. EST on Monday night, I checked and Blandina was behind by 29 votes. I was surprised that she came ahead and won by such a large margin. When does voting actually end?

        1. I believe it ends at 6:00 am EST, at which point voting for the new day begins. The two times I checked Monday night, Blandina was ahead by 26 points, and then by 71 points.

          1. Good to know since I invariably remember that I have forgotten to vote sometimes in the early morning hours before retiring for the night! Night owls play, too!

        2. There is (or has been) a large contingent in Hawaii, which is why the voting is open so long, and why sometimes there is a startling change from when folks on the East Coast (or I in Iceland) went to bed.

    3. Pope John Paul II visited Sudan and honored her publicly. He canonized her on October 1, 2000.
      Saint Josephine Bakhita is the patron saint of Sudan and her feast day is celebrated on February 8.

  10. This was a very difficult choice for me, as I have been a fan of Eric Liddell for many years, but in the end I went with Josephine because she spoke to me this morning. Both are wonderful examples of perseverance and principles.

  11. My vote went to Eric Liddell today, simply because he is behind in the tally as of 9:15AM Eastern. This one should result in a tie, imho! To God be the glory, forever and ever!

  12. I am sure these are good, godly people and are are saints, in that sense, as are all gods people. But they don't seem to fit with canonized saints in this contest.
    No vote today.

      1. That will forever be one of my favorite hymns and has helped me many times to think of saints in the everyday world, not just the canonized.

    1. Pope John Paul II visited Sudan and honored her publicly. He canonized her on October 1, 2000.
      Saint Josephine Bakhita is the patron saint of Sudan and her feast day is celebrated on February 8.

  13. These are two vastly different story trajectories, both showing God acting through individuals who followed His call to serve in lands far from where they grew up. Learning these stories is the point of Lent Madness for me.
    I'm sure Bakhita will win so I'm voting for the Scottish missionary whom I first met in Chariots of Fire.

  14. I don’t quite understand the trend of the voting as Eric Liddell preached his whole life, honored the sabbath at the 1924 games& died in a concentration camp ministering to fellow captives.

  15. I used to coach cross country and track, and my son runs for his school team so I voted for Eric today.

    I will have no issue voting for Josephine in the next round.

  16. Two incredible candidates for the Golden Halo! Working for a mission organization, I was tempted to vote for Eric for his life as a missionary and also his incredible self-sacrifice in attempting to help his fellow prisoners, but in the end, I was swayed by Josephine's incredible faith who still felt God's presence in what have been horrible times for her. I would have loved to arrived at her convent and been welcomed by her smile.

  17. Another tough one. I voted for Eric Liddell because of his service to his fellow prisoners in the camp.

  18. I have a question, I just became an Episcopalian, so please forgive me if I am confused about the following: aren't saints supposed to have performed a miracle in order to have the title? That's what I was thought as a Catholic.

    1. Good question, and I'm a lay person not an authority; as I understand it, the Lent Madness criterion is that the person be honored as a holy person on at least one liturgical calendar.

      The requirement that miracles be attributed to the saint is a current one but I don't believe it has always been so. Many saints dating from Biblical times may not have performed miracles before they were canonized. Modern ones do need to meet this requirement. And there have been some, um, interesting characters in previous years. (Look up "Christina the Astonishing", for instance.)

      So the lineup for this year includes some renowned holy people who have not been canonized, like J.S. Bach who loved his God and loved his music and used the one to glorify the other, as well as those with St. in front of their names, like Augustine, Monica, and Juan Diego.

      And welcome to both the Episcopal Church and Lent Madness!

    2. Pope John Paul II visited Sudan and honored her publicly. He canonized her on October 1, 2000.
      Saint Josephine Bakhita is the patron saint of Sudan and her feast day is celebrated on February 8.

    3. Eric Liddell arguably did perform a miracle. While in war torn Siaochang, he rescued a Chinese man who had been left for dead by Japanese soldiers. It was a botched beheading. Eric and a Chinese friend carried the man in a mule cart for over 20 miles in harsh conditions on foot and bicycle. Had they encountered the Japanese on the way, the Japanese would have killed them. Japanese planes were circling overhead and this was a time when the war was so bad that Eric was shot at just walking outside. But Eric prayed for God’s guidance and God protected them. Eric got the wounded man to the mission hospital and the missionary surgeon operated. Together, Eric, his Chinese friend, and the surgeon had saved the man’s life. The man was so moved by Eric’s selfless courage and bravery (as well as the other two) that he became a Christian. He was a painter and began painting pictures honoring God. He painted a beautiful picture of a peony flower for Eric with a spiritual reference. The painting meant a lot to Eric, and survivors of the concentration camp remember that Eric hung the painting over his makeshift bed.

  19. When the think of Eric Liddell, I remember his line in the film “Chariots of Fire,” (hear this in that wonderful Scottish cadence), “When I run, I feel His pleasure!” I love that!

    1. That quote floated through my mind too.
      Eric attended a local school, no longer boarding so he got my vote but then he has always been someone I admired.

  20. If you are unsure about who is a "saint", look at "I sing a song of the saints of God" in the HYMNAL 1982*. The Hymn #293 aptly describes saints. They come from all walks of life. Look it up and sing to the Lord! *Church Publishing Inc.New York

  21. Now I have the music from "Chariots of Fire" running through my head. While I was glad that Josephine Bakhita was liberated, and I have no doubt that illegal abductions continue even into this millennium, I think of Eric Liddell's selfless witness and I cast my vote for him. Also that "great cloud of witnesses" is a phrase that never ceases to move me. And . . . "persevere in running the race that is before us." Even though Paul didn't write Hebrews, I feel as though Paul himself would vote for Eric Liddell! On behalf of immigrant families still interned at the US southern border, I vote for Eric Liddell.

    1. I concur, it's a lovely phrase! However, since I wolfed down Dorothy L. Sayers' Peter Wimsey novels and stories as soon as I discovered them (yes, I voted for her earlier :), a decade before I became an Episcopalian, I'm afraid I can never hear "cloud of witnesses" without thinking of "Clouds of Witness." Hearing that passage from Hebrews during a church service was a light-bulb moment--"THAT'S where she got it!!!"

  22. My daughter's school has four communities (kind of like the houses in Harry Potter): St. John Paul II, St. Maximillian Kolbe, Padre Pio, and St. Josephine Bakhita. In honor of the fourth and most recently added house to my daughter's school, I had to vote for Josephine Bakhita.

  23. I so wanted to vote for Josephine, but Eric served God and God’s children under such horrendous conditions that I had to cast my vote for him. However I won’t be a bit disappointed if Josephine moves forward to the next round.

  24. I remember something Eric Liddle said in the movie about his life (Chariots of Fire): "When I run I feel God's pleasure." I use that as a way to tell if I am doing God's will....Do I feel His pleasure?

  25. I was captivated by Josephine's story. I had never heard of her, so it was wonderful to read about her journey to faith. It amazes me that someone so abused that she could not remember her real name could overcome all of that and become a faithful servant of God. She deserves to be recognized for her sanctity.