AN APPRECIATION OF THE LIFE OF KENNETH JOHN CORDLE
Kenneth John Cordle was born at Chestnut House in the parish of Chelmondiston near Ipswich in Suffolk on December 19th 1910. His Father Stanley assisted his grandfather John as a tenant farmer at Valnut Tree Farm, Chelmondiston and had married Lillian Freeman from Otley in 1909. Stanley hired Hill House Farm in the same village in 1912, where he and his wife lived for the remainder of their lives. Kenneth was the eldest of nine children, four boys and five girls, and his early years were characterized by a strong family base where discipline and love were exercised, hard work was the order of the day and his parents sought to live a life which honoured the Lord lesus Christ whom they loved. They tried not only to teach their children the truths of the Scriptures but also to set them an example of practical holiness. However Kenneth had been born with a sense of humour; boyish mischief and pranks abounded, tales of which never failed to fascinate his own children and grandchildren in later years. There was the tale of the day the schoolmaster’s cane was put down the school well. Another incident was described most graphically when two elderly village ladies were carrying a loaded wicker washing basket between them down Hollow Lane in Chelmondiston; the exuberant young Kenneth decided that it would be great fun to jump into the basket and have a ride. Needless to say the extra load was not appreciated by the ladies. When he was a little older an auspicious day arrived when he was to make his first visit to London by train. He stayed with his Uncle Ernest and Aunt Lily and was of course on his best behaviour. They were out one day when his uncle looked down and exclaimed, “Boy, you’ve got your slippers on!” And so he had. In the haste and excitement of getting ready his shoes had been left behind and so the day was spent sight-seeing in carpet slippers. Incidents such as these seemed to abound in his early years and left a vivid impression on his memory, but there was also from an early age a serious side to Kenneth’s thinking and behaviour.
John Cordle had been the pastor of the Strict Baptist Chapel at Chelmondiston since May 31st 1880. His preaching and theology had a profound effect on the teenage Kenneth and were largely instrumental in bringing him to consider his soul’s state before God.
They had a very close relationship and Kenneth maintained a great respect for his grandfather and felt his death very keenly in 1932 at the age of eighty-nine. His bold and unequivocal proclamation of the truths of the gospel as embodied in the whole Scriptures and reaffirmed at the Reformation undoubtedly helped to mould the preaching style of Kenneth, who for fifty-five years exercised an itinerant ministry among the Strict Baptist Churches in East Anglia, the Home Counties and beyond.
Although Kenneth was brought up to respect the Sabbath and to avoid bad company, and the importance of honesty and truthfulness were impressed on him, it was not long before he rebelled against these restrictions. As a six-year-old he remembered one night crying because he was a sinner, but he became hardened as a teenager and was quite content to live apart from God. In June 1928 God spoke to his heart and showed him the reality and awful consequences of sin and he was brought to his knees, not as a flippant ritual, but in an attitude of genuine repentance to beg forgiveness. He continued feeling the burden of sin until Sunday October 7th 1928 when he went upstairs to his bedroom to change after the morning service. He knelt down to pray and the ‘precious sweet Saviour appeared on the cross and said, “Son, thy sins which are many are all forgiven.” O the joy I felt, my sins all melted away and I was free. The dear Redeemer was loved, known and believed in, in a moment, as I saw by living faith that He shed His blood for me. All the praise be given to Him now and for evermore.’
Although this seventeen-year-old lad had come face to face with the Lord and had felt the power and reality of His pardoning blood, he passed through much darkness of soul as a young Christian. He experienced much sorrow on account of sins of thought and had a lack of assurance that he was truly born again and one of God’s eleet. His frequent prayer was that he would not bring the cause of Christ into disrepute. During this time he suffered continual attacks by the evil one and his constant concern was that his many failings would bring a slur on the name of the Lord Jesus. But thanks be to God he knew the remedy for sin and was able to flee to the cross and plead the merits of the precious blood of the crucified Saviour. In less clouded moments he could say with Wesley, “His blood availed for me.”
After some years of soul searching the Lord led him to consider the step of baptism, but he was concerned to be sure and asked for a sign. The Lord gave him a threefold confirmation. Firstly, in the words of 1 John 2.6, “He that saith he abideth in him ought himself also so to walk, even as he walked”, which Stanley Burrows was led to preach from in March 1931. This was followed by a sweet application of 1 John 3.14, “We know that we have passed from
death unto life, because we love the brethren.” Then the mode and necessity of baptism were nailed home to him by a sermon from Jabez Clover on Ephesians 4.5, “One Lord, one faith, one baptism.” He subsequently testified to his faith before the church at Chelmondiston on Easter Sunday 5th April 1931 and was baptized on 14th June by his aged grandfather assisted by Stanley Burrows, in the new pool in the chapel, previous baptisms having been in the river Orwell. His soul was in some darkness during the morning baptismal service, but during the afternoon service the Lord rolled back the cloud and shone down shafts of heavenly blessing and assurance into his soul through the words of William Cowper’s hymn, “God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform.” He was received into the church on 5th July 1931 and called to be a deacon at a church meeting on 12th January 1932.
During Kenneth’s early twenties he had a special love for the company of godly ministers and was greatly influenced by such men as Mr. J. K. Popham of Brighton, Mr. Ernest Roe of Brixton, Mr. William Cooper of Lakenheath and Mr. John Wise of Chatteris, both in the pulpit and in private conversation. He frequently went to ‘special meetings’ with his father and these occasions not only enabled him to hear a wide variety of preachers and thus to broaden his acquaintances, but were often times of very special blessing to his soul which yearned for a daily living relationship with his Lord and Master. But he did not neglect his duties in his home church. He took his responsibilities as a Sunday School teacher seriously, having felt a clear call to the work, and earnestly coveted the souls of the pupils in his class for the Lord. He laboured to be a faithful witness to the glorious gospel which he felt it was his purpose to share with the children.
His grandfather was a tower of spiritual strength and support to him and Kenneth was privileged to spend the evening with him in the company of his father Stanley and Mr. John Wise on the last Saturday John Cordle spent on this earth. He recalled how he felt a spiritual pygmy in the presence of two champions of the faith conversing on their spiritual experiences, and yet rejoiced that he was not altogether a stranger to their language. Kenneth wrote shortly afterwards that the following Friday, September 2nd 1932, his grandfather ‘passed sweetly into glory without even a struggle. He just breathed out his redeemed soul into his Jesus’ arms. His last words were spoken to his daughter, which were these, “All is well.” Grand to be able to die like that. God be praised forever.’ Although this was a very heavy blow indeed the Lord sanctified it to him and gave him a promise with power to his soul, namely, “As I was with Moses, so I will be with thee.” This supported him and he was very much aware of the comforting hand of God in the time of
bereavement. However there followed many months of spiritual darkness as he felt more and more the heinous nature of sin. An oft-quoted text was, “And the days of darkness shall be many.” Some time later Kenneth published a largely autobiographical account of The Lord’s dealings with John Cordle, in which many of the remarkable providential and spiritual incidents in his grandfather’s life are recorded.
It was in the summer of 1934 that he felt a stirring in his soul about a call to preaching. His grandfather had encouraged him some years before to consider seriously whether the Lord was calling him into the ministry but he had put it out of his mind, feeling a sense of inadequacy. However, following a visit to Leicester with his brother Russell, where he met a young woman, Amy Siddans, ‘with whom I had some conversation’, and who later became his wife, he came home via Chatteris in Cambridgeshire. Here he visited Mr. John Wise to whom the Lord had spoken from Luke 19.30, “Ye shall find a colt tied . . . loose him, and bring him hither.” Mr. Wise encouraged Kenneth not to neglect the call which both now felt he had received, and it was less than a month after the death of Mr. Wise on 24th October 1934 that Kenneth was asked to preach at Chatteris. There, on 25th November 1934, he preached from John 19.30, “It is finished”, in the morning, and on John 3.16 in the evening. As a result of this he was asked to fill twelve Sundays in 1935 and twelve Sundays in 1936. During 1935 invitations to preach were received from London, Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire, Bedfordshire, Leicestershire, Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk; and he preached at Chelmondiston for the first time on March 24th. He felt the responsibility of preaching very heavily and had frequent fears lest his ministry should be hypocritical by not being supported by a daily godly life and walk with the Lord. Indwelling sin was a continual struggle yet he was able to rest in the promise which the Lord gave him in January 1935 and which he felt to be his particular word of call to the ministry, namely, “Open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it” (Psalm 81.10).
Over the next two or three years his path was scattered with trials physical, material and spiritual and his Sundays were usually occupied with preaching in an ever widening circle. He longed to hear of fruit from his ministry and from time to time heard of one being blessed here and there, although in those early days there was much anxiety that his word would not be attended with power if there was sin in his life.
On July 12th 1938 Kenneth and Amy were married at Zion Chapel, Leicester by Mr. Samuel Champion. They lived at Hill Farm for a few months before moving into White House Farm in Chelmondiston on October 1st 1938 where they spent the whole of their married life.
Although he had received only an elementary village school education he had acquired early in life a love for reading and slowly he built up a very extensive library of evangelical books. He had a great love of the Puritans and their writings and drew frequently on these in his sermons, invariably quoting from memory. His memory of historical details and conversational exchanges was exceptional and he also loved to tell stories which were always repeated with precision and never seemed to ‘grow with retelling’. He had a great love of history, particularly the history of the church, and a special interest in the times surrounding the Reformation and the Scottish Covenanters from 1666-1688. Frequently on a Sunday evening round the fire he would read to his children of the exploits and miraculous deliverances of Covenanters such as Alexander Peden, Donald Cargill or James Renwick who were hunted like animals in the moors and glens of southern Scotland. Many of these godly men and women were martyred for their belief that the Lord Jesus Christ is the only head of the Church, and for the freedom to worship Him in a scriptural manner according to the dictates of their conscience.
He used Strong’s Concordance extensively and his favourite Bible commentary was that by John Gill. Frequently he also used Calvin’s commentaries and often dipped into Robert Hawker, who ‘sees Christ wherever He is in the Scriptures and also where He isn’t’. He read all he could lay his hands on of the works of John Owen and other Puritan writers such as Stephen Charnock, Richard Sibbes, Thomas Goodwin and many others. He also profited much from the works of Jonathan Edwards and Spurgeon, and modern day evangelicals such as Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. He did not see eye to eye on everything with such men of God and was not afraid to express a difference of opinion on secondary matters. He had a special affection for William Huntington, to whose works his grandfather had introduced him, and for the preaching of James Wells at the Surrey Tabernacle. But above all he had a deep understanding of and profound reverence for the word of God and a belief in its verbal inspiration. On important doctrinal issues he had read many of the great debates of past centuries and made up his mind on which ground he stood, and was unshakeable. His frequent reading and study gave him a considerable knowledge of the Scriptures so that he could quote at length with references, as his father had been able to do. In later years he was often heard to remark that, “I love that book – it keeps me afloat.”
The width of his reading inevitably gave a deeper and broader dimension to his preaching as the years went by, although his style remained little changed over fifty-five years. He never used notes, was energetic in the use of his arms and voice and assumed a rather severe tone in the pulpit which belied his very tender heart and his
affection for children. He had a number of favourite themes which he felt were core issues of supreme importance, including the preeminence of God’s grace and His sovereignty in election, the deity of the Lord Jesus, the total depravity of man, and the particular redemption by the Lord of His people. These issues were driven home time and time again from different aspects reached through all parts of the Scriptures. He never tired of exalting his Saviour in every possible way, endeavouring always to ‘put the crown on the right head’.
He was a convinced Strict Baptist and preached the necessity of obedience to the Lord in baptism as an outward sign of regeneration, but he was never a rigid denominationalist and could readily accept that the true people of God are spread throughout the world in a variety of denominations. However he was fiercely Protestant and saw Roman Catholicism an an antichrist, and the ecumenical movement as a serious retrograde tendency and an attempt to negate the great advances of the Reformation. While forthright in the pulpit in showing the terrible consequences for the sinner who rejected God, he was most encouraging to fearful believers and, perhaps because of his own fears, constantly strove to encourage those who lacked assurance and whose faith appeared to them as less than ‘a grain of mustard seed’. There were occasions, particularly in the early years of his preaching when he had to wrestle with the Lord for a subject or a text. On some occasions he had no indication about his subject until during the reading or even the hymn before the sermon but God never failed him and although he may have felt uncomfortable, the God who had commissioned him to preach the everlasting gospel ‘filled his mouth’ as He had promised. Latterly his vision of the subject of his sermons was vast and his frequent ‘complaint’ was that he had insufficient time, that he had only ‘scratched the surface’, and he felt like ‘a little boy standing at the edge of the ocean trying to empty it with a salt spoon with a hole in the bottom’.
Hymns played a most valuable and prominent part in his life. He had memorized many verses as a young man and he quoted copiously in his sermons and at other times. He loved the hymns of Joseph Hart and especially those of John Kent, the wonderful account of whose death ‘did my soul good’. The writer vividly remembers a visit to the Nonconformist burial ground at Bunhill Fields in the City of London, affectionately known as ‘God’s Acre’. Standing by the red granite obelisk erected in memory of Hart, who died in 1768 Kenneth quoted many of Hart’s hymns. Tears streamed down his face as he came to the end of verse six of ‘Come ye sinners, poor and wretched’ and affirmed the couplet which is engraved on the stone that:
None but Jesus
Can do helpless sinners good
to the astonishment of passers-by.
He was very much against social chatter immediately after a service lest ‘any blessing should be lost on the chapel doorstep’, and for this reason rarely if ever shook hands at the door. Some may have interpreted this as aloofness but in reality it probably stemmed from a mixture of the above concern, the physical and spiritual exhaustion which he felt after preaching, and a natural reserve and shyness which made superficial chatting difficult. He was a man of immoveable principles and was sometimes harshly blunt in defending what he knew to be right and standing against what was wrong. This made some people dislike him but he had many lifelong friends who could accept this bluntness with equanimity and could appreciate the intensity of feeling behind his words. He remained throughout his life a very kind and compassionate man who gave liberally in many directions where he felt there to be a need or where the gospel work would be furthered.
The spring of 1950 saw Kenneth’s love of preaching severely tested. Following several months with a sore throat when he experienced considerable difficulty in speaking his doctor diagnosed a growth on his vocal chords. Medical opinion advised an operation which was carried out on July 19th at Ipswich. Mercifully the condition was not malignant, but there followed a very difficult six weeks of complete silence which one day almost reached breaking point. On looking out of the bathroom window he saw his five-year-old son attempting to throttle his younger brother in the yard below. He succeeded in averting serious injury only by some uncharacteristic clapping.
During and after the second world war business life was difficult as a tenant farmer, and Kenneth worked hard with his brother Russell to keep things on an even keel during his father’s illness and following his early retirement. Yet the Lord gave him remarkable strength for six days’ work on the farm followed by a day’s work in the pulpit for many years. A critical time came in 1958 when the Woolverstone estate, of which Hill Farm and White House Farm were both a part, came on to the market for sale. The brothers were able to borrow sufficient to buy the farms and the families entered another period of frugal living in the wake of this venture. But throughout his life the Lord prospered his business ventures and his hard work, and at no time did his family lack anything essential. He strove to be fair and honest in all his business dealings and although he could drive a firm bargain his word was always his bond. He frequently repeated the words of his friend John Futter, “It’s not
always wise to buy as cheap as you can, nor to sell as dear as you can.”
In 1961 both his parents were called to be with the Lord. Lillian had been confined to bed for many years and when she died on January 3rd his grief was great. However, when Stanley who was apparently in good health, died unexpectedly following an operation on May 18th, Kenneth was desolated. He had a very close and supportive relationship with his father; his sense of loss was enormous and the wound took many years to heal.
Over the years from 1939 to 1955 Amy gave birth to seven children of whom one died in infancy. The others were in due time all baptized on profession of their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ in the chapel at Chelmondiston, Kenneth baptizing his eldest three. He was always a very busy man and his children were rarely taken out for treats. However, he always enjoyed their company while he was working and he was good fun to be with, as anecdotes and memories always flowed freely when he was doing any job on the farm. He hated to see things broken and much of his later working life was taken up with repair work. He loved to take something useless and ‘mess it about a bit’ until it became transformed to its pristine condition or, more usually, greatly improved in design. His main hobby was woodwork which he had started as a boy with a fretwork set, and his skill developed apace until he would tackle the most difficult of projects. If he had a fault in this area it was perfectionism because he was rarely satisfied with his work, not even with the most carefully designed and beautifully finished work which was invariably French polished.
For most of his life Kenneth was a creature of habit. Having decided the right thing to do and the best way of doing it, that was the way it was to be done. For example, his grandfather told him that it was beneficial to have a short rest after lunch and whenever possible this was his practice. He would always be ready to listen to new ideas but would only accept them if they were obvious improvements. Often he needed a great deal of convincing. He had a host of endearing sayings and responses for which he will be remembered. Invariably when an inquiry about his health was made he was ‘struggling’, and if you did not agree with a particular course of action you were invited to ‘put your head in a bag, and if it’s sooty you’ll get black’. Throughout his life he took a keen interest in political events and world affairs, although never to the extent of party activism. But he admired greatly the oratory and leadership of men such as Winston Churchill, and very much enjoyed a visit to the rational Trust property at Chartwell, Churchill’s home.
On October 27th 1972 a most traumatic incident occurred. He was sawing firewood at his circular saw bench with two of his sons.
He was meticulously careful with machinery and most uncharacteristically he reached forward to clear a piece of wood and his left hand touched the saw. In a moment he had lost his second finger and severely lacerated his first. He suffered great shock from this accident and as the physical wounds healed he was greatly troubled in spirit. He felt he would never be able to preach again as he would be too self-conscious to hold up a disfigured hand. But He who had suffered immeasurably more and had been disfigured in both hands and feet was gracious to him. In time the devil’s taunts were silenced and Kenneth was able to see the blessings of even this difficult time. It was through this experience that his youngest son was brought to a conviction of sin and to cry to the Lord for mercy. A further physical blow followed soon after. He went to Wiltshire to convalesce and while there sustained a fall and suffered a broken ankle. This caused considerable distress and inconvenience but he took it as a sign that the Lord required him to have a further period of rest and recuperation. In time he made a full recovery and was able to preach with no anxiety about his missing finger.
The years of hard work during the week and a mentally busy day on Sunday inevitably took their toll and he suffered a heart attack in January 1977. He accepted the subsequent period of enforced quiescence patiently and gradually regained full health and strength. Afterwards he made a conscious effort to refrain from the more vigorous activities such as working with a sledgehammer and tried to give himself a more generous rest in the afternoons. He was much exercised over the ministry at this time and felt sure that since the Lord had called him to this work He would give him the necessary physical strength. Thus he gradually took up the work again so that he was preaching most Sundays although sometimes for only one service. He had lost some of his physical vigour in the pulpit, but his delight was still to magnify the Lord Jesus Christ, the Friend of sinners.
On July 12th 1988 he and Amy were privileged to celebrate their golden wedding anniversary. The occasion was marked by a dinner of thanksgiving at Hintlesham Hall when their six children, fourteen grandchildren, relatives and many friends met for a most memorable day. Few present will ever forget the speech which Kenneth made in which he paid tribute to the God who had been so faithful ‘hitherto’ and would help them ‘all their journey through’. In particular he referred to and identified himself with his grandfather, John, who when replying to the presentation given to him in 1931 after 50 years’ ministry at Chelmondiston had said, ‘Here I stand on the banks of Jordan with a good hope when I am called to die.” And he clearly recognized God’s providence in every circumstance of life, adding, “Providence brought us together,
providence has maintained us and Providence alone will decide, and has decided, when we shall be separated.” In his benediction, wrung from a full heart and a lifetime of trusting and proving the faithfulness of God, he concluded, “Now from my heart God almighty bless you all, strengthen you, help you, guide you, keep
you and preserve you and give you each to know the power of the cleansing blood of Christ, and at the last present you faultless before the throne of His glory with exceeding joy, that we may all join in the
blessed throng. Unto Him that has loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, to Him be honour and glory and power and might and dominion both now and for evermore. Amen.”
The remaining year of his life passed uneventfully. He went for a short holiday to stay with relatives in the Midlands. He preached at Rehoboth chapel, Coventry, on Sunday 15th October 1989, being helped especially in the evening service when one member of the congregation remarked afterwards to his wife that ‘he had preached with his head in heaven’. His text for both services was Romans 5.6, Christ died for the ungodly’. He spoke of the wonderful Person who died, the reason for His death, the nature of His death and the beneficiaries, and finally showed how none need despair as no-one is too bad to be beyond the reach of God’s great salvation. The following Sunday, 22nd October, he preached at Zion chapel, Leicester, where he had been married, and this was his last Sunday on earth. His text for the day was Colossians 1.27, ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory’, and he extolled publicly once again the Lord Jesus Christ who was his only hope for time and eternity. They travelled back to Suffolk on Monday and the following day he took a slight chill and was advised by the doctor to keep in bed. He improved during the week and then entirely unexpectedly on Friday 27th October 1989 at the age of seventy-eight while sitting in bed with his wife at his side and her arm around him he lifted his eyes to heaven and closed them without a sigh or a word or any sound. Amy sensed the presence of the Lord in the bedroom as He called for the soul of His faithful servant. A moment of indescribable peace, calm and serenity bathed her as she sensed the presence of her Master and the soul of her lifelong partner was released in such a merciful and gentle manner. This was the way in which he longed to go, yet often feared would not be his mode of dismissal. Often had he asked with some trepidation of his own soul, “How wilt thou do in the swelling of Jordan?” In the event the Lord spared him any rough passage and he died in a moment of tranquillity, in possession of all his faculties and at peace in his soul. As Amy went down the stairs the Lord spoke to her from the words of Joseph Swain:
When most we need His helping hand
This Friend is always near.
With heaven and earth at His command
He waits to answer prayer.
She had experienced His nearness in a special way and felt confident that He would stand by her and be a tower of strength to her. She had a clear realization of His readiness and willingness to answer prayer both by her and on her behalf, and this has been her subsequent experience.
The funeral service was held on Friday 3rd November at Chelmondiston Baptist Chapel conducted by Mr. Norman Perry and attended by many relatives, friends and business associates. After the singing of Joseph Irons’ hymn, ‘Hark! how the choir around the throne’ and Anne Cousin’s ‘The sands of time are sinking’, Mr. Perry spoke faithfully about the inevitability of death as a consequence of sin and the way in which we must all prepare for that appointment referred to in Hebrews 9.27, “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment”. Only if our sins are covered by the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ can we face with a good hope that judgment to which all mankind must come. Christ is the only solid Rock on which we can take a stand in that dread hour. After the singing of one of Kenneth’s favourite hymns, Toplady’s ‘Rock of ages, shelter me’ to the tune ‘Wells’ his body was committed to the earth in the chapel graveyard. There were few dry eyes beside the open grave when, after the committal was completed, his wife testified publicly and boldly of the way in which God had supported and upheld her during the past week. Her testimony was and still is, that “The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble.”
Throughout his life Kenneth Cordle wanted no fancy words to praise or flatter him, in fact he resisted persuasion to write his autobiography, always saying, ‘Nobody would ever read it’. His testimony of himself was simply that he was a ‘sinner saved by grace’, and that in his life ‘unmerited mercy had been shown to the chief of sinners’. For him now,
The strife is o’er, the battle done;
The victory of life is won;
The song of triumph has begun:
Often after a time of special blessing in the worship of God or with the family at home it was his joy to request the singing of Bishop Ken’s doxology. This summarized his profound gratitude to God the Trinity for every blessing both temporal and spiritual and, as he would say, ‘Never grows stale’. He has now joined that heavenly host to praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost for ever. May we who have reason to thank God for his life in so many ways and who love
and trust the same faithful and unchangeable Jehovah, join in that chorus now and in eternity.
Praise God from whom all blessings flow,
Praise Him all creatures here below.
Praise Him above ye heavenly host,
Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
James E. Cordle