E.J. Hampton has served the Souder Church of Christ since 1960
Editor’s note: This story by Kaitlyn McConnell is reprinted with permission from her blog, Ozarks Alive! To read more of her stories about “the gems of the Ozarks” visit ozarksalive.com
Souder – Hidden at the end of a flower-lined, crunchy gravel road is a small country church — and a preacher who has served congregants and the Lord since he was in his early 20s. Which is also since Dwight D. Eisenhower was president of the United States.
E.J. Hampton was a fresh-faced young man when he preached his first sermon at the Souder Church of Christ, a landmark nestled in Ozark County, on Easter Sunday in 1960. Now 84 years old, wisdom-filled wrinkles line that same face as he heads to the pulpit to preach every Sunday morning.
Hampton didn’t spend all of his youth in Souder. He originally lived near Ocie but moved approximately 30 miles northeast to the Souder area when the family’s land was taken for Bull Shoals Lake. Today, he lives just a stone’s throw or so from the church.
“There was a preacher from Gainesville,” says Hampton, seated in a church pew before a recent Sunday service. “He baptized me right down in the creek, and he said, ‘E.J., you can be a preacher if you want to.’”
Hampton took those thoughts to heart.
“Then, in 19 and 60, I put my first sermon together,” he recalls. “It went from there.”
In those days, it was common for churches to have itinerant ministers visit periodically and preach sermons rather than having someone there every week. That was the case at Souder, too, until Hampton came along.
Back then, he began serving in a permanent capacity.
Nearly six decades later, it was likely more permanent than he realized back then.
In addition to Souder, he preached other places, too. He spoke of a time when he preached at a little church across the border in Arkansas that was only the first stop of the day.
“When I got done there, I drove 17 miles and preached another sermon before noon,” he said.
They’re all messages the lifelong farmer found on his own without formal training, save some divine help.
“What I have learned, I’ve dug it out myself,” he says. “It’s been good; it’s been hard. We’ve enjoyed it.”
The “we” he refers to includes his wife, Faye, who grew up in the area. Now 82 years old, she remembers the Souder church even further back in time than her husband does.
She speaks of Decoration Day, a longtime tradition at the church that is still celebrated today.
“My mom would buy crepe paper, and I’d make crepe paper flowers,” she says. She also speaks of “Indian” graves, which local legend says are found under some unusually placed stones in the cemetery behind the church.
“I guess that’s what we’ve been told,” she says with a laugh. “I wasn’t around then.”
She also points out kerosene lamps on the walls, which used to light the church in days before electricity. In the back, well-worn hymnals sit on a shelf, witnessing sermons as they have for decades.
Even though they have been replaced by more current books lining the pews, they remind of the days when congregants turned pages with fingers likely roughened with work on the farm.
Other signs point to the passage of time.
“I have buried a congregation of people out here in the back,” says Hampton of the many friends who today symbolically reside in the cemetery near the church they loved in life.
He speaks of the days when the church was much larger, of the time when they had three services each week instead of simply on Sunday morning.
“We used to have 60, 70 here on a Sunday,” he says. Today, “if we get everyone here, we’d have 25.”
But the dedicated still come, one by one, and settle into pews before the service starts.
The sole remnant of the Souder community, the church hosts an annual ice cream social and singing that draws people from all around. It’s a place where someone brings tomatoes and cucumbers and leaves them for friends to take home if they’d like.
It’s a community in which congregants call Hampton if they’re not going to make it to the service. And it’s a family where he shares such information with other churchgoers so they know how to pray.
As the service starts, the congregation rises to sing and raises their collective voice in song. Per denominational decree, no instruments are heard. The only accompaniment is the steady hum of the ceiling fan as it swings around and around and around.
Hampton takes his place behind the pulpit and delivers the message, just as he’s done so many times before. And when he’s finished, and the offering’s received and communion’s been shared, and congregants say their goodbyes, they shake hands and head home.
They wind down the gravel road and back to the world. Most will assuredly be back, as will Hampton.
“The favorite part is simply being able to be here,” he says of his time at the church. “I don’t care if I die right up there behind the pulpit.”