Serving the same country church for nearly 60 years

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Rev. E.J. Hampton has served the Souder Church of Christ since 1960.

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.

Souder Church of Christ

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.”

Hampton in August 2019

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.

Decoration Day at Souder circa 1912. (Courtesy of Donna Walker)

“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.

“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 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.

Waiting for service to start.

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 when they had three services each week instead of simply 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 big 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.

A peek inside

It’s a community in which congregants call Hampton if they’re not going to make the service. And 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.

Sunday service

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.”

Want to attend?

The Souder Church of Christ has services at 11 a.m. on Sunday mornings. From Ava, take Highway 5 to 95 and follow the signs for Souder.

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9 thoughts to “Serving the same country church for nearly 60 years”

  1. Wonderful story, Kaitlynn!!! I was privileged to attend church on Decoration Day this year and was so taken back to my childhood. I stayed for the potluck after the service and then walked around the cemetery where my daughter, grandchildren and I had placed memorial flowers the day before. There is such a deep sense of connection when you know that multiple generations of your family have been there. E.J. has been so committed to keeping this little church alive, and it is a blessing to so many of us! The very air is rarified in that little church! Thank you for writing about it and about E.J. in such a beautiful way.

  2. Truly enjoyed this article. Souder Church and Cemetery hold a special place for me. E.J. has been a lifelong friend who has served at many family funerals. He and Faye are very special to me. Reading this article made me remember going to church there when the kerosene lamps were on the wall. It also made me realize how fast time goes by. Thanks for writing and sharing this article and thanks to E.J. for his dedication.

  3. Great article. I graduated from Gainesville High School with E.J. and Faye (Cook) Hampton in 1955. Several of my relatives on the James side (including Orville and Emily James my paternal grandparents) are buried in the cemetery. On my maternal Thomas side, my second cousin Cody Thomas now rests there. Souder church and cemetery is a peaceful place located in Ozark County where I have many memories and like to visit when we are in the area. NOTE TO: Steve and Sheila Thomas, I know this church and cemetery will always have a special place in your heart.

  4. Loved reading this article! Small country churches have a special place in my heart, especially in the Ozarks!…where my family’s heritage of Christian Faith began. My mom was amongst the many children of Kelly and Genevra Thomas. I loved the pics of my cousin, Steve Thomas, in this article…another steadfast servant of Christ.

  5. Thank you so much for this article on EJ and Faye. I have known them and there kids for 30 years. I am currently out of state and love seeing these stories about people I know. Thank you.

  6. Thank you so much for the pictures and story about the Souder church and cemetery. So many of my family on my mother’s side (Lena Gardner Robinson) are buried here. That includes the Native American’s with the rocks for headstones. When I come home to Ozark County, that is one of the places I always visit. The inside of the church has changed a lot since I was there in my younger days.

  7. Nice article. I have attended the annual singing and ice cream meeting several times. This past July the congregation packed the building. The singers shuck the walls praising and glorifying God as the singing was tremendous. With several tubs of homemade freezer of ice cream it made for a blessed evening. Thank you for your wonderful coverage of Mr E. J. and his long faithful service to God. Him and Ms Faye are two wonderful servants. Wonderful folks at the Souder church of Christ.

  8. Loved the story. Souder is named after my Great Great grandpa. In fact he donated half the land for the church and cemetery. Last time I was there I counted almost 50 headstones with the name Souder on them. My mom was Marie Souder-Thomas.

  9. You have a great ear for quotes, Kaitlyn. “Then in 19 and 60, I put my first sermon together,” he recalls.

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