Not all of the hymns of my youth are ones we often sang in church on Sunday mornings… there were a number of hymns and songs that filled my youth from the radio and from records or, yes, 8-track tapes. Think of the Gaithers or anything bluegrass or country-inspired and you’re in the ballpark. This week in my series Then Sings My Soul: The Hymns of My Youth, I’ve selected one such hymn.
In June of 1857, William S. Pitts was traveling by stagecoach to Fredricksburg, Iowa on his way to visit his fiance. The stagecoach stopped in the town of Bradford for horses to be changed, and while waiting Pitts had time to wander around the area. He found a lush wooded valley surrounded by rolling hills. He envisioned a church building there, and couldn’t get the vision from his mind. Upon his return home, he wrote “The Church in the Wildwood” for his own sake, saying of its completion, “only then was I at peace with myself.” He later set it to music, but then put it away in a drawer and forgot about it.
Meanwhile, church members [of the Puritan-Congregational Church in Bradford] grew tired of meeting in places such as the lawyer’s office, abandoned stores and parishioners’ homes. They began making plans to build a church. A family in the parish gave them the property. When Rev. Nutting arrived, talk of building became serious. Limestone was quarried and by 1860 the foundation was laid. The Civil War slowed the work, but when one family gave trees and another donated the sawing of the lumber, the work never really ceased. By 1862 the building was enclosed and not a penny had been spent. When it came time to paint the building, the cheapest paint to be found was Ohio Mineral Paint, which would protect the wood but which was unhappily brown. With help from friends in the east, the building was finished, complete with bell, in 1864.
Mr. Pitts had married and lived in Wisconsin until 1862 when the couple moved to Fredericksburg to be near her elderly parents. Mr. Pitts was hired to teach singing class at the Bradford Academy. On his return to Bradford, he was shocked to see a little brown church standing in the spot he had imagined it. He found the song and taught it to his class, who sang it at the church’s dedication.
The church was closed in 1888, but in the early 1900’s a Society For The Preservation of The Little Brown Church was started. By 1914, services were being held again and continue today — the photo above is of the church fully restored in recent times, from the official website. It remains popular for weddings and as a tourist destination.
The Church in the Wildwood
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.
There, close by the church in the valley,
Lies one that I loved so well;
She sleeps, sweetly sleeps, ’neath the willow,
Disturb not her rest in the vale.
There, close by the side of that loved one,
To trees where the wild flowers bloom,
When the farewell hymn shall be chanted
I shall rest by her side in the tomb.
From the church in the valley by the wildwood,
When day fades away into night,
I would fain from this spot of my childhood
Wing my way to the mansions of light.
The church I grew up in was a country church built in the 1870’s. It still has a wonderful old bell that is pealed at the beginning of the church service. So there really is a church in the wildwood that is dear to my childhood.
My father taught this song to my siblings and me. I remember being thrilled about it because it was a new song to us – not one we had previously heard in church.
Just have to add that we went to hear The Chuck Wagon Gang last year, and they sang this – it’s one of their signature songs. That’s definitely the sound I grew up with. Dad said when he sang with his brother’s family on the little local AM radio station, they sounded just like the Chuck Wagon Gang.
An old song sung by a group that’s been in business 73 years reminding me of the 136 year old country church I grew up in – I’m just astounded by the longevity of it all.