Eric Gordon Kirton was born on September 6, 1932 to a working-class family in Clydebank, Scotland, the sixth of seven children of George and Janet Kirton.
The family lived in a tenement hall (the equivalent of a low-cost flat) in Clydebank until World War II struck. Clydebank, then one of the shipping hubs of Great Britain, was targeted by German aircraft bombers, and in the infamous Clydebank Blitz of 1941, the family home was reduced to rubble and ash.
Many urban families were evacuated to the countryside, where they would be housed in the sprawling estates of the aristocracy. Eric’s family went to live in Rossdhu mansion, on the Colquhoun clan estate in the village of Luss on the banks of Loch Lomond. When the family later moved to Glasgow, Eric and his older brother Ian remained in Luss, living with a farmer and his family. Eric’s childhood experiences on the rolling farmlands of the Scottish countryside would later colour his sermons with many an earthy illustration.
Towards the end of the war, the family was reunited in Glasgow. During this time, his mother sent him and his siblings to a local Baptist Sunday School, where the seeds of God’s Word began to be planted in his life. At a Scripture Union camp in the summer of 1946, convicted by the Holy Spirit, he committed his life to Christ.
A year later, now settled in a Brethren church, Anniesland Hall, Eric sensed a calling to missions work at a film-strip presentation of the life of David Livingstone. He was only 15 at the time.
After secondary school, Eric trained as a woodworker and also enrolled for the British armed forces. The latter was a deliberate strategy towards getting sent overseas on assignment, where he planned to use his free time in missions work. He was already in touch with missionaries in the Middle East and since many of the British forces were being employed in that area at the time, Eric reckoned there was a good chance of being sent there.
At the age of 19, Eric received his conscription letter, and soon found himself on his way by ship, not to the Middle East but the Far East! And so, in 1952, Eric began his service with the Royal Air Force (RAF), based in Changi, Singapore, and making many forays into Malaya during the communist insurgency period known as the Emergency.
True to his heart for missions, his weekends off were spent rowing out to the islands off Singapore, where he would walk around the villages with a hand-cranked gramophone and 78 rpm records with gospel messages in various Chinese dialects, playing them in any homes he was invited into — often trying different records until he got the right dialect!
Tan Cheng Kim was the ninth of 12 children born on November 21, 1934 to a very traditional Chinese family in Kuala Lumpur with Penang and Ipoh roots. Her parents Tan Teik Ooh and Yap Yoke Keng were typical Taoist ancestral worshippers who were not in favour of “the white man’s religion”.
The family lived in Jalan Kamuning in the Imbi area of Kuala Lumpur, and Cheng Kim attended Bukit Bintang Girls’ School, where she was exposed to the gospel, particularly under the influence of Miss Elena Cooke, then one of the young teachers.
On Tuesdays, when the unsuspecting elders of the family gathered for mahjong sessions, Cheng Kim would sneak out to attend “Tuesday School” (Bible teaching for children) conducted in a nearby Christian home.
Cheng Kim committed her life to Christ at a camp in Melaka when she was 16. Her father was not very receptive of the news but nevertheless, over time, he came to accept her decision. Cheng Kim was the first member in her family to come to the Lord. In later years, through her continuing testimony, both her parents and most of her siblings also became believers.
Cheng Kim trained as a teacher and returned to BBGS to teach in the primary school, attending a Brethren church, Venning Road Chapel (later to shift location and become Jalan Imbi Chapel).
Cheng Kim and Eric’s paths crossed at a Bible camp in Melaka, sparking a mainly long-distance friendship that blossomed into romance.
Also, during that time, the Lord was confirming in Eric’s heart that Malaya was to be his mission station — and particularly the east coast. Brethren missionary work in the past had largely focused on the urban areas of the west coast, with the east coast, then still remote and rural, ripe for harvest.
In 1955, Eric returned to Scotland and went back to work in a well-known furniture-building company in Glasgow. He continued to be groomed for missions while serving in various ministries in his home church and beyond, before returning to Malaya in 1958, commended by his home church, Anniesland Hall.
After six months of intensive Fujian (Hokkien) language studies in Kuala Lumpur, he moved to Kuantan. There, from the old wooden house he had rented in Jalan Penjara, he established the Gospel Hall Kuantan, the first Brethren outreach point on the east coast. Kuantan was then a very small town — barely two main streets — and there was still no modern sanitation. Eric had to battle periodic illness, including a severe attack of amoebic dysentery, the after-effects of which continued to plague him for 13 years thereafter.
In June 1959, he married Cheng Kim in Venning Road Chapel in Kuala Lumpur. Cheng Kim then moved to join him in Kuantan, continuing to use her teaching career as an outreach opportunity among children and teens. She was also an accomplished singer and play-by-ear musician, providing all the music for all the meetings — whether pumping away with her feet on the small pedal-organ indoors, or with her arms on an accordion in outdoor gatherings, while singing her heart out. She was equally accomplished as a Bible teacher.
The Kirtons were soon blessed with three children — Colin, Laurence and Carol — and with the growing demands of parenthood as well as growing needs in ministry, Cheng Kim eventually made the decision to leave her school-teaching job in 1965.
After two years of planting the seeds of the gospel without seeing any fruit, the first new believers were harvested for God’s kingdom in 1960. In 1964, with more and more coming to know Christ, Kuantan Chapel was built. Many Christian leaders across the country today — and indeed around the world — as well as many missionaries from Malaysia were the product of those early ministry years in Kuantan.
Over the years, their ministry expanded to include helping to establish a new work in Temerloh, and to regularly help minister in new Brethren churches established in Bentong, Raub and Kota Bharu, as well as the Presbyterian church in Kuala Terengganu.
Alistair McGregor, a missionary contemporary of Eric’s, remembers Eric as being one who was always never content with the status quo and always looking for new and creative ways to make an impact, often breaking the norms of many of the older generation of missionaries before him.
This streak was evident in many ways. For a start, the unique and interesting architectural design of Kuantan Chapel, with its A-frame structure and coloured bottles embedded in its rear wall, which continues to intrigue visitors to this day, contrasted with the staid church buildings of the day. Eric also insisted on a one-inch Dunlopillo padding on the seats and backs of the pews, something unheard of in 1964, when church pews were either hard wood or wicker. “If I’m going to invite unbelievers in here to hear the gospel, the least I can do is provide them with comfortable seats,” Eric quipped to his critics. He was also an ardent promoter of the use of music — even contemporary music of the day — in the worship and outreach life of the church.
He was also very willing to work hand-in-hand with other Christian denominations who were willing to do likewise. The Christian work in Temerloh Gospel Chapel in Temerloh was in effect a joint venture with a Methodist doctor. Also, many inter-church outreach efforts were carried out in Kuantan in later years as other churches began to spring up in the growing town. In Kuala Terengganu, Air Jernih Presbyterian Church would regularly host him as a Bible teacher throughout the 1970s. Interestingly, while its own leaders would only baptise by sprinkling as per Presbyterian custom, they also provided an option for its members who preferred to be baptised by immersion. “You can wait till Eric Kirton’s next visit and he will baptise you in the sea,” they would say.
In 1984, with the work in Kuantan well established, Eric and Cheng Kim contemplated new ministry elsewhere. Of particular interest was an invitation to consider work with the aboriginal people of Australia. But sudden debilitating illness related to her diabetic problem left Cheng Kim with both legs amputated above the knees, suffering from the effects of a stroke and bedridden, after almost seven months hospitalised in Kuantan and Kuala Lumpur.
In need of constant medical attention for Cheng Kim, the family was forced to move to Kuala Lumpur. It was very hard for Cheng Kim, vivacious and active, to be reduced to an invalid, and equally difficult for Eric to have to cope with caring for her. Yet the family saw God’s miraculous provision and how God used Cheng Kim to touch many lives even from her bed and wheelchair over those five years. Cheng Kim went to be with the Lord on December 12, 1989, aged 55.
Eric continued to teach and preach itinerantly in the Klang Valley and across the country, as well as serve on the management board of the literature ministry of the Evangel bookshops. He had been the key person in the establishment of the Kuantan branch of Evangel in the late 1970s and went on to become the key person in establishing the Penang branch some years later. From 1999-2006, he was also the face of the annual Klang Valley Bible Conference, for which Evangel is a co-organiser.
In July 2006, Eric was diagnosed with malignant melanoma, an aggressive form of skin cancer. After a successful first operation, another tumour was found barely four months later. The second operation revealed that the cancer had already spread to his vital organs, and that he was only expected to live a few months.
As his independence, dignity and faculties were slowly stripped away from him, Eric bravely endured his illness, radiating calm composure, grace and Christian hope in spite of all he suffered — a precious legacy in itself to those of us who had the privilege of caring for him in his final months.
On March 24, 2007, Eric went home to the Lord. Over a thousand people attended his memorial service at The Life Chapel, which one attendee remarked was “the best worship service I’ve ever attended”. Eric would have been happy to hear that. One of his requests before he died was that he wanted the focus of his memorial service to be the God he served.
That desire is echoed in the words of Psalm 115:1 engraved on his tombstone: “Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness.” Indeed, our loving and faithful God chose to take two ordinary lives in Eric and Cheng Kim Kirton and use them mightily for the blessing of many lives and the glory of His name. Their legacy continues to ripple through the years and into the future.
Tatford, Frederick A. That the World May Know — Volume 5: The Mysterious Far East. Bath, England: Echoes of Service, 1982.
Koh, Gim Lam; Fun, Michael Mun Sek & Ng, Tieh Chuan. My Church: A Brief History of the Christian Brethren from Plymouth to Bandar Sunway Gospel Centre. Subang Jaya, Malaysia: Pelanduk Publications & BSGC, 2001.