John Shiles – Beloved Deacon
John Shiles, the beloved deacon at Old Baptist Chapel, Chippenham, Wiltshire for fifty-nine years passed peacefully to his eternal rest on September 12th, 2006, aged 94.
John Shiles was born at Allington, near Chippenham, on June 9th, 1912. His grandfather, his great-grandparents and three sisters of his father had moved from Devon to Wiltshire on March 25th, 1898. They had moved primarily to be under the sound of the truth, and to attend Old Baptist Chapel, where they felt a union of spirit with the Lord’s people. Undoubtedly the Lord had a providential purpose in this move, which fell out for the benefit of the cause of God at Chippenham.
On April 7th, 1910, John’s father, Henry, had married Rhoda Ann Aylwin (who was the third child out of fourteen) at the Calvinistic Independent Chapel in Chichester, West Sussex. Charles Young of Yeovil, Somerset, conducted the service. The Old Baptist church book shows that they joined the church at Chippenham during Mr. Carr’s pastorate, in February 1938. Apparently both of them intended speaking to Mr. Carr about baptism, without the other knowing.
It appears that the work of grace was begun in John at a very early age. He vividly recalled in later years that, as a very small boy, he was told of death. As his father was fifty years his senior, this had a profound effect on his thinking, one effect being that he resolved, “I will never die!” He resolved that at all costs he would keep breathing, taking deep breaths to show his determination. Looking back, he could see how rebellious his nature was to the thought of dying. Yet when a diphtheria epidemic hit Allington, John called his brothers and sister to an impromptu prayer meeting in the cheese room at the farm. When John was nine years of age, he needed an operation, which he prayed earnestly that he might not have to pass through. However, it had to be experienced, and John was thankful to the Lord for bringing him through. On the Lord’s day, in a small hospital ward, he read the Bible aloud to the two other patients.
The first minister who was made of use to John’s soul was Samuel Champion, who was pastor for a brief while at Old Baptist Chapel. Mr. Champion spoke much of the need to be born again. He emphasised that one of the evidences of the new birth was the love for God’s people. John would look round the congregation at those whom he thought to be the Lord’s people, and he would say to himself, “I love this one and that one”. This led to a deeper exercise of soul as the all-important question was pressed upon his spirit, “Am I born again?”
At school, John was more athletic than academic, so that his greatest pleasure lay on the football field rather than in the classroom. Many of his friends at that time were, to use his own expression, “of a corrupt mind”. However, on leaving school, John was sent to the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester, which severed him from these companions, but plunged him into another group of worldly-minded young men. Being away from the shelter of a godly home, John found it needed more than natural strength to keep him from the snares of the world. He often went on his knees to seek grace not to be ashamed of Jesus, but often felt to have failed.
On one occasion, he went to the cinema with his friends, and hell being portrayed to him by God, he was deeply fearful of God’s displeasure. On another occasion, John was returning from the cinema with his friends when the godly deacon of the Strict Baptist chapel in Cirencester saw him, and crossed the road to shake hands with him. John said that this was one of the biggest rebukes he ever received.
On leaving Cirencester, John returned to farm life, where he was happy to be back in the godly atmosphere of his home. Being young and ambitious, he entered heart and soul into the business. After a while, the duties of shepherd fell to him. For a time, this prospered, but then disease struck the flock and many ewes and lambs died. The more John laboured, the more he lost. As his father watched him tend a very sick lamb, he said to him: “John, you are wasting your energy and strength”. All this brought him very low before the Lord, until he said to himself, “If that lamb lives, then I will know there is a God.” When he returned later, he found the lamb sucking, and it lived to be a healthy animal. Another time, when rain threatened to spoil the hay crop during a very wet season, John prayed that the Lord would restrain the elements. Three thunderstorms threatened that day but no rain fell on the hay. As the sun broke through the clouds, his faith in God was strengthened.
All this time the work of grace was silently but surely progressing in John’s heart. Mr. Hawkins, in preaching from, “As water spilt on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again,” was made a great help at a time of felt insufficiency in business life. Again Mr. John Kemp (junior) preached from the Song of Solomon regarding the north and south winds blowing upon the garden. He said that God’s people knew which way the wind blew. John felt he could say he, also, knew that truth.
By this time, Mr. Champion’s pastorate had ended, and Mr. Carr’s long ministry at Chippenham had begun. John found Mr. Carr’s preaching both searching and sweet. He was made acutely aware of the sinful nature of his heart, in particular with regard to sinful thoughts. He was also for some while greatly tried about the unpardonable sin, but was helped in reading how a relative of his had been delivered from this snare. John felt that if the Lord should say to him, “Thy sins are all forgiven,” then he could not have committed that dreadful sin. One night, it seemed to him that the Lord drew near to him, and said, “Thy sins which are many, I have seen them, but they are all forgiven thee.” One Monday evening, he was much refreshed in spirit under Mr. Carr’s ministry at Hanover Chapel, Tunbridge Wells, when he took the subject of forgiveness of sins. It confirmed his own experience in this vital matter.
A little while later at Chippenham, Mr. Carr, in announcing his text, “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low,” said that he had never had a text come with such weight and power before. A little while later, during the night hours, John was very sweetly led into these words. He saw all his sins his greatest mountain, and death his greatest valley, all dealt with by the dear Redeemer who, in passing through the baptism of His sufferings, levelled the mountain of sin and exalted the valley of death. Christ
Bore all incarnate God could bear,
With strength enough, and none to spare.
At this time, John saw a beauty in the ordinance of believers’ baptism as it so clearly sets forth the victorious death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ and the identification of the believer with his Lord in passing through the waters. He also saw the believer going down into the valley of death on the arm of his Beloved, and being raised again from it. This precious visit from the Lord pervaded his soul for several days.
In 1939, John’s father purchased Rook’s Nest Farm, and in October of that same year, after much exercise of soul, John proposed to, and eventually married his first wife, Maud (née Alsop), who proved a true helpmeet for him and later a real “Phebe” in the loving hospitality shown to the Lord’s servants and many others whom they entertained at Rook’s Nest Farm. At the time of his marriage, John was aged twenty-seven and Maud was aged forty-one.
During the Second World War, moved by the words, “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares,” John and Maud gave hospitality to many service personnel. Some knocked at the back door and received a loving welcome in accordance with the above scripture. Thus, although they were not favoured to have their own children, there were many to whom they were substitute parents by way of support and counsel.
During the deep exercise concerning his marriage, John was favoured with one of the most remarkable spiritual experiences of his pathway. One Wednesday evening, he had the words, “Lord, I believe; help Thou mine unbelief,” very much on his mind. To his surprise and pleasure, Mr. Carr took these same words for his text that evening. At the same time, the promise, “I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest,” was applied with overwhelming power and a sacred realisation of the Lord’s presence. Feeling to see the angels ascending and descending on the “mediatorial ladder,” and given a spirit of constant prayer and meditation in Hebrews 11, John felt he was on holy ground and, in a spiritual sense, took off the shoes from off his feet. For several days, the vision was so precious that John’s appetite failed. His father was so concerned that he asked him what was on his mind. On being able to relate a little of his blessing, John found a deeper spiritual union with his father than he had known before.
Not only had his father been watching carefully the work of grace in John, but so also had his beloved pastor, Mr. Carr. Feeling that he was a right character, and having few men to call on in the prayer meeting, Mr. Carr once asked John to pray but at that time he refused. A little while after, however, whilst walking to chapel, John felt that if he was asked again, he could not refuse and the hymn he would choose would be William Cowper’s well-loved hymn, “God moves in a mysterious way.” So when Mr. Carr that evening asked John to pray, he tremblingly rose and announced that well-known hymn and, for the first time, prayed in public. This hymn was particularly appropriate to both Maud and himself, as she was about to enter hospital for an operation.
It was a few months later under the ministry of Mr. Champion that both John and Maud were finally constrained to pass through the waters of baptism (Mr. Carr officiating), and join the church at Old Baptist Chapel. Another friend, Evelyn Reeve, was also baptized with them. They were received into the church on October 6th, 1946. It was not long after this that Mr. Carr approached John with regard to being appointed a deacon, but at that time John felt it was too soon. However, the request set up an exercise of the Lord in his heart, and he now watched to see what the Lord would say about this important matter. There was a willingness in John’s heart; he loved the people, but he felt he must have it made clear from the Lord. It was much impressed on his spirit that he should ask for the words, “My presence shall go with thee, and I will give thee rest,” to be applied. Going to hear Mr. Detheridge at Corsham chapel, who was a complete stranger to him, he was graciously continued in this exercise of heart, when the subject was Israel coming out of Egypt and, just as the minister closed his sermon, the very words John was waiting for were quoted and came with power into his heart.
At the next church meeting, John was unanimously elected deacon and thus began many years of serving the Lord and His people at Old Baptist Chapel. At first he was not required to give out the hymns, as an older deacon did this. Later, in the sovereign providence of God, it fell to John’s lot to guide the church during the difficult years of the senile decay of the pastor, Mr. Carr. This required much discretion and, no doubt, many errands to the throne of grace. How often must the words given to Moses have been pleaded: “My presence shall go with thee”! On one occasion, feeling the burden of the church too great, and at a time of difficulty, Mr. Clifford Mortimer of Broughton preached from, “And they two went on,” speaking of Elijah and Elisha. With the Lord’s help, this refreshing time enabled John to continue.
Once, Mr. Carr came into the vestry and assured John that he had no text to preach from, and would John give him one. Poor John had never been faced with such a request before, but a silent prayer to his faithful God brought an answer: speak from Psalm 23. So he said to his pastor that if he really had no other word to go with, then he might try, with the Lord’s help, to comment on Psalm 23. It was a time of real refreshing in both pulpit and pew. John never felt, however, that he could do the same thing again, unless he received the same special leading to do so. On another occasion John was melted to tears under the ministry of Mr. H. Salkeld, while he was still pastor at Bradford-on-Avon, the text being, “Walk about Zion, and go round about her: tell the towers thereof’ (Psalm 48:12). Eventually, after many trials, Mr. Carr voluntarily went into the Bethesda Home at Tunbridge Wells, where he was lovingly looked after, and ended his days in the fulness of the blessing of the gospel of Christ.
Meanwhile, John was called upon to lead the now pastorless church for about twenty years between the pastorates of Mr. Carr and the present pastor. The exercise of rightly filling the pulpit and guiding the church was no light matter to him, and no doubt caused much exercise to his faith. The matter of another pastor lay with weight upon the mind of many of the church members, but for many years every attempt to seek a new pastor ended in confusion, until John felt that it was such a cause of disunity that the matter was best left alone. He thus resolved to mention it no more, until one day the following words were powerfully applied to him concerning this matter: “And the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His temple.” A little while later, a minister in preaching made the remark, “1 believe that just as the Lord Jesus unexpectedly came to His temple in His incarnation, so the Lord will suddenly send you a pastor in His name.” John now watched to see whether this was a true prophecy or not.
A few months later, on May 8th, 1977, the present pastor came for the first time, as a supply minister, to Old Baptist Chapel, being newly sent out from Rehoboth Chapel, Coventry. From that first visit, a powerful persuasion rested on several members of both church and congregation that this was the Lord’s anointed. Several of them approached John to bring the matter forward which, after much prayerful exercise, was done. He was graciously encouraged by a renewing of the words so precious to him, “My presence shall go with thee,” on the day of the church meeting at which the matter was to be raised formally.
Subsequent to this, an invitation to serve for three months with a view to the pastorate was extended to the present pastor, which he fulfilled in 1979. During the three-month trial period, Mr. Seth Mercer preached on one occasion at Chippenham. As he travelled to Wiltshire, he was greatly burdened that his ministry might be of some use in the weighty exercise before the church at that time. His text was, “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low.” This was a time of very special hearing to John, no doubt reviving the earlier blessing he had received under the same words, under Mr. Carr’s ministry many years previously, but also giving him a gracious confidence about the matter of the pastorate at Old Baptist Chapel. From the beginning of this new chapter in the church’s history, John gave unswerving support to the new pastor.
In August 1987, after several years of patient suffering, Maud passed to her eternal rest. During her last few days she was given sweet meditation on the transfiguration of the Lord Jesus Christ, an evident preparation for her end. John lived for a time with his sister Mary at Rook’s Nest. John and Maud had given a permanent home to Mary throughout almost the whole of their married life. Mary’s severe mental condition called for much patience and forbearance over many years. Eventually, Mary entered the Studley Bethesda Home, where she ended her days, and later John also became a resident there in 1989. This, however, proved to be only a temporary stay as John became engaged to his present wife, Freda (née Wilderspin), the Matron of the Home. In 1993 they were married, thus opening a new chapter of the Lord’s goodness and mercy for them both.
It was a great blessing to the church that the loving prayerful influence of our dear friend was preserved to us as a church even to his very advanced years. He loved Old Baptist Chapel almost as much as his own soul. He was of the same mind as David: “One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life” (Psalm 27:4). Sadly, John’s last days were marred by senile dementia which made it difficult to hold deep conversation with him. Nevertheless his cheerful and loving spirit was still evident, and from time to time it was possible to remind him of former blessings, which he would respond to in his clearer moments. Freda, ably supported by the Matron and staff of the Studley Bethesda Home, was able lovingly to tend him until he trod the verge of Jordan.
One very special feature of John’s latter days before his mind failed was his meditation on the sufferings of Christ and his own interest in them. His prayers and his conversation often turned to this theme. “That I may know Him,” was a deep mark in his profession. John was no stranger to each part of Paul’s desire in that prayer.
Of John it could be said, as it was of Hananiah in Nehemiah 7: 2, “For he was a faithful man, and feared God above many.” He was not ashamed of his religion and often spoke of Christ, not only to others of like mind, but also to his neighbours. His prayers were sincere, simple, and in his latter days often entered into the sufferings of Christ, a subject very dear to his heart. His wisdom and counsel were always mingled with love and he had a unique gift in being able to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” He was highly esteemed by young and old who knew him, and his passing has left a gap which will be felt for many years. The church of Christ is the poorer by the removal of such from this earthly scene.
A large congregation of sorrowing friends gathered at his funeral on September 19th, after which it was the sacred privilege of the pastor to commit the mortal remains of our dear friend to the earth to await the last day in sure and certain hope of a joyful resurrection to everlasting life. May the Lord be pleased to grant to those of us who remain a double portion of the same spirit with which our dear friend was so abundantly blessed. “The memory of the just is blessed” (Prov. 10:7).
Gerald D.Buss, Chippenham. Taken with permission from the Gospel Standard, January, 2007
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