“The church in the what? What are you talking about?” Zach asked. He’s a college student and is our sag driver/navigator for the one thousand mile bike ride in which I am currently participating to raise money and awareness for Imagine No Malaria. On Day Four of our ride, which started in Brandon, South Dakota and ends in Port Clinton, Ohio, our four riders stopped at the Little Brown Church in the Vale in Iowa.
“Your generation would have no clue, Zach. In fact, most people in my generation have never heard of it, either. The Little Brown Church in the Vale was in Bradford, Iowa, and was made famous by an old gospel hymn called ‘The Church in the Wildwood.’” Actually, the only reason I know the hymn is because I was a church musician for a while, and I soon learned how beloved the “little brown church” is for many of our elderly people.
We arrived around 9:30 a.m. last Friday and walked in the church only to hear the choir of five rehearsing an old gospel hymn that was not familiar to me. The story began in 1857 when William Pitt traveled by stagecoach from Wisconsin to visit his bride-to-be in Iowa. When he passed through the wild frontier town of Bradford, Pitt was so taken by the beauty of the village that he had a vision of a little church in the middle of the town. After returning to Wisconsin, he wrote the hymn, “The Church in the Wildwood,” and then set it aside.
Meanwhile, a little church had already been founded in Bradford in 1855 but had no building. Bradford had five hundred residents at the time and was the first town in this part of Iowa. The members of First Congregational Ecclesiastical Society wanted to build a sanctuary, but their first priority was opening a secondary school, which was known as the Bradford Academy.
Under the leadership of its third minister, Rev. John Nutting, the church began building a sanctuary in 1860, but the Civil War took almost all of the men and income from the church. Work slowly continued for four years, and Rev. Nutting wrote, “If I recall we used brown paint (on the outside of the church) because mineral brown paint was so cheap we could afford it while white lead was quite beyond our reach.” They painted the church brown before ever knowing about Pitt’s song.
In 1862 William Pitt moved to Iowa to be near his wife’s people and was hired by the Bradford Academy to teach a singing class. Ironically, “The Church in the Wildwood,” composed before there even was a church building, was sung by the choir at the dedication of the new church in 1864.
There’s a church in the valley by the wildwood,
No lovelier spot in the dale;
No place 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 vale.
No spot is so dear to my childhood
As the little brown church in the vale.
“The Church in the Wildwood” would likely have been relegated to obscurity had it not been popularized by the Weatherwax Brothers quartet. Between 1910 and 1917 the quartet used it as their theme song as they sang across the country to over three thousands audiences. The Little Brown Church in the Vale struck an emotional chord as the Weatherwax Brothers told the heart-warming story of how the song was written and where the church was. One hundred and fifty years after its dedication, the little brown church in the vale is visited by tens of thousands of people every year.
After our visit, I asked the two other clergy in our bike group, “Why is The Little Brown Church in the Vale still so popular today? Is it just nostalgia for the good old days? Is this really a church or just a museum from a bygone era? How is this congregation reaching out to its community?”
I was playing a bit of the devil’s advocate when asking the questions. After hearing the choir rehearse, I wondered how this small church could possibly connect with young people today. Are they ministering to the needs, hopes and dreams of our contemporary culture? How is the Little Brown Church relevant to the pressing needs of today’s world?
As we chatted about the importance of contextual ministry, Chad Jennings, a pastor in Iowa, reminded us that vital churches take what they have and use it to their advantage. We reflected on the four other United Methodist churches that had hosted us the previous nights. When eating dinner with our host families, I always ask the question, “What is your church known for in the community? Would anyone miss you if the doors closed tomorrow?” I am always encouraged when church members can describe how their congregation extends outreach and mission beyond the walls of the church into their community and world.
Seen in this context, the Little Brown Church has developed a sustainable ministry through its location and history. After World War 1, when transportation became easier because of cars, the Little Brown Church decided to begin a wedding ministry to people outside the church. In 1925 the church budget was helped by 288 weddings at a fee of $5 a wedding. In the years 1938-1940, 3,800 weddings were held, an average of 3.5 weddings a day! On Valentine’s Day 1976 the pastor performed twenty-eight weddings in one day.
An average of four hundred weddings are performed at the Church in the Wildwood every year. In fact, there are four generations of some families who have been married there. Make no mistake, however. The Little Brown Church is not a wedding chapel. It is an active church, the fees are minimal, and the pastor of the church is required to perform the service “within the context of the Christian faith.” Many marriage renewal services also take place in The Little Brown Church, and the first Sunday in August is always Marriage Renewal Sunday. Couples from all over the country come to renew their vows.
The Little Brown Church, still affiliated with the Congregational Church, is alive and well. It will never be huge. However, the church has an active Sunday School, youth activities, choir, women’s fellowship, Bible study, a prayer chain group, missions and weekly worship. Through grants and support from 40,000 visitors a year, the building is air-conditioned and completely accessible. The grounds are immaculate, the church is open from dawn to dusk, there is no admission charge, and all who visit are invited to ring the historic 1860 church bell. Words from Sam Walter Foss’ poem The House by the Side of the Road are inscribed on the front steps of the church, “Let me live by the side of the road and be a friend to man.”
The Church in the Wildwood is a spiritual presence in its community and across the country, inviting all to rest a while, worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness (Psalm 96:9) and reconnect with the God. If we had been cycling through Nashua yesterday (Bradford no longer exists), we would have attended worship at The Little Brown Church in the Wildwood. There is a hymn sing every Sunday at 10:15 a.m., worship begins at 10:30 and there is fellowship afterward.
What I love about “The Church in the Wildwood” is the chorus, where the tenors and basses insistently repeat the words “Come, come, come” nineteen times in ostinato style, while the sopranos and altos sing, “Come to the church in the wildwood; Oh come to the church in the vale.” When was the last time you invited someone to come to Christ and the church?
The church in the what? “The Church in the Wildwood” continues to be sung in a little brown church that sits in the valley of a forest that was once wild and uncultivated. The legacy of a congregation that would build a school for children in the village before taking care of its own need for a building leads the congregation forward into God’s future.
Would anyone notice if The Little Brown Church were gone? Would anyone notice if your church were gone? Will you be the church in the city, the country, the prisons, the hospitals, the schools, the soup kitchens, the homeless shelters and the nursing homes? Will you and your church live by the side of the road and be a friend to all? “Come, come, come.”