Farmville Enterprise April 10, 2019
Since Hurricane Florence, our church has followed a more casual worship format, without a bulletin, on fifth Sundays. Early in the service people are asked to call out their favorite hymns or worship songs for the congregation to sing a few verses. In March, someone requested “The Church in the Wildwood” from our hymnal supplement. Many of us never had heard of it but another member said they sang it a lot when he was a child at Wildwood Presbyterian Church in Newport, NC.
In 1857 William S. Pitts, a young music teacher, was traveling from Wisconsin to see his fiancée in Fredericksburg, Iowa. His stagecoach stopped in Bradford, Iowa so he took a walk through nearby woods and found a particularly lovely spot close to the Cedar River. He imagined this charming setting as the perfect place for a church. Pitts wrote a poem about this, which he later set to music. “There’s a church in the valley by the wildwood, No lovelier spot in the dale; No place is so dear to my childhood, As the little brown church in the vale. Come to the church in the wildwood, Oh, come to the church in the dale, No spot is so dear to my childhood, As the little brown church in the vale. How sweet on a clear, Sabbath morning, To list to the clear ringing bell; Its tones so sweetly are calling, Oh, come to the church in the vale.” He put the song in a drawer and practically forgot about it.
In 1855, before Pitts’ initial visit to Bradford, the earliest members of the Puritan-Congregational Church had begun holding meetings. A family in the congregation donated land to build a sanctuary. Limestone was quarried and the foundation was laid in 1860. One family gave trees and another donated the sawing of the lumber. The building was enclosed by 1862 and not a penny had been spent. The church was painted brown because, at the time, Ohio Mineral Paint’s brown paint was the cheapest available. With the help of friends in the east, the structure was finished in 1864, complete with a bell.
Mr. Pitts and his wife had been living in Wisconsin but eventually moved to Fredericksburg, Iowa to be near her elderly parents. During the winter of 1863-1864 Mr. Pitts was hired to teach a singing class at Bradford Academy. One can imagine his surprise when he saw the little brown church standing in the exact spot where he envisioned one. Pitts went home, found the song, and taught it to his students to sing at the church’s dedication in 1864. In 1865 Pitts moved to Chicago and enrolled in medical school. To pay for this, he sold the rights to the song for $25. Once again, the song was forgotten for a time. The church closed in 1888 due to economic woes in the town, but the congregation met at a local school on Sunday mornings. In the early 1900s The Society for the Preservation of The Little Brown Church was founded. In the 1890s the song was popularized by evangelists Arthur Chapman and Charles Alexander. Services began once again in the church by 1914. The small congregation experienced a revival that attracted new attention to it and to the song. The Weatherwax Brothers Quartet sang this as their trademark tune between 1910 and 1921. As the song became more popular, the church became a favorite tourist spot and wedding venue. The Carter Family recorded the song in 1932 and so have several country singers since. As the Little Brown Church website explains, “Theologically Congregationalism stands in the English Reformed tradition: centered on Christ, holding to the Bible, and to the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, we are classical Christians.” “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.” (Colossians 2:6-7)