BY ERROL CASTENS
BOONEVILLE – Jean Thornton, it would seem, lives to preach.
Born weighing just 2 pounds in a time when premature babies rarely lived, he was given up by the doctor who delivered him at home.
“My mother said she vowed if the Lord would let me live, she'd do all in her power to make a preacher out of me,” said the now 84-year-old minister who has preached an estimated 22,000 times, including 41 years of daily radio programs.
“I may make it yet,” he joked.
Members of the Booneville Church of Christ honored their associate minister Sunday for his 66-year career – so far.
“He is an exceptional person,” said longtime friend Jay Tidwell. “He's been instrumental in forming many Church of Christ congregations in North Mississippi.”
“He's one of the best men I know,” said Brice McElroy, a student at Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science.
The more things changeÉ
In the two-thirds of a century since he began preaching, Thornton said, one of the biggest changes has been the makeup of the congregations.
“When I started, most of the people were farmers,” he said. Services often were more evangelistic as well, often aiming at the non-members who made up much larger parts of the crowds in an age when few other activities competed with church on Sundays.
“Our approach now is more about trying to get people involved in working for the Lord,” he said. “The most important way is personal activity with your friends and relatives, trying to teach them the Bible. That's what we encourage them to do. If the preacher is the only one doing it, you're very limited.”
After his wife's death from cancer several years ago, Thornton found help in grieving from two unexpected sources.
One came when Laura McElroy asked Thornton to spend some time with her early-adolescent son, Brice.
“Once a week I'd visit Brother Thornton, and then we'd go visit older folks,” said Brice, now 17. “He's the closest thing I've had to a grandfather.”
Thornton found sharing his work with the youngster rejuvenating.
“She acted like it was all for his sake,” he said, “but then I realized it did me more good than it did him.”
He also began more frequent phone conversations with Jewell, a widow who had been his wife's close friend.
When the Thorntons had returned to Booneville to live, his ailing wife had, at great personal effort, helped to convert her old friend to the Church of Christ.
“I thought anybody who came to my house on a walker and came up the steps backward, I'd be glad to let them do whatever they wanted to,” Jewell said. She returned the favor by sharing her perspective on widowhood with the newly bereaved preacher.
Marriage and ministry
As time and their mutual sense of humor began moving their conversations in more pleasant directions, Jean and Jewell's friendship eventually blossomed. One of Thornton's daughters, recovering from surgery, asked if they could put off their proposed wedding date a few weeks.
“Jewell said we could postpone it two weeks but not any longer than that,” he said.
“I told him I didn't want to marry an 80-year-old man,” she joked. They exchanged vows a full five days before his 80th birthday.
Being both an octogenarian and a newlywed has done little to slow Jean Thornton's ministry, much of which focuses on seniors. On weekends when he's not preaching at Booneville Church of Christ, he usually speaks at sister congregations – at such a rate that many younger preachers would have a hard time keeping up.
“This year,” he said Monday, “I've preached 134 times.”
Contact Errol Castens at 678-1586 or firstname.lastname@example.org