"THE CHURCH IN THE WILDWOOD"
"Enter into His sanctuary, which He hath sanctified for ever" (2 Chron. 30:8)
INTRO.: A song which might be thought of as comparing a building in which a local church meets to God’s sanctuary is "The Church in the Wildwood." The text was written and the tune (Little Brown Church in the Vale) was composed both by William Savage Pitts, who was born on Aug. 18, 1830, at Lums Corners in the Town of Yates, Orleans County, NY. As a young man, he moved to Wisconsin and taught school in rural Rock County. One bright afternoon in June, 1857, the 26-year-old Pitts was on a stage travelling from McGregor, IA, to see his fiancee in Fredericksburg, IA. The stage stopped in old Bradford, IA, in Chickasaw County, near Nashua, fourteen miles west of Frederickburg, and Pitts went for a walk during the layover while the stage was changing horses. Just outside of town, he came across a setting of rare beauty near the Cedar River with lush green woods in a valley and thought that it would be a perfect location for a church building. Not being able to get this thought out of his mind, several days later, after returning home to Wisconsin, he set down a song about "The Little Brown Church in the Vale," but put the manuscript away in a drawer.
In 1862, after his marriage, Pitts returned to Iowa and settled at Fredericksburg to be near his wife’s aging parents. In the meantime, the citizens of Bradford did indeed erect a church building at that exact location and finished it in 1864, painting it Ohio Mineral brown for want of money to buy better paint. That year, Pitts was holding a singing school nearby at the Bradford Academy and was taken to see the new structure. He just happened to have the manuscript of the almost forgotten song which he had brought back to Iowa from Wisconsin and asked his class to sing it there. Soon afterwards, he took the manuscript to Chicago, IL, where he sold it to publisher H. M. Higgins for $25, winning a speedy recognition locally and gradually gaining popularity over the years, though Pitts forgot about it again. Pitts used the money to enroll in Rush Medical College and, after graduating in 1868, returned to
Fredericksburg. By 1888 the village of Bradford almost ceased to exist, having been bypassed by the railroad that went through Nashua, two miles to the west. The dilapidated church building was closed and in danger of being torn down.
However, a few years later, admirers who knew of the structure because of Pitts’s song banded together to preserve it and the congregation experienced revival. After that the song started becoming even more famous, especially when it was popularized by the worldwide evangelism campaigns of Arthur Chapman and Charles Alexander in 1893, and by the Weatherwax Quartet beginning around 1910. Travelling musicians continued to spread its fame. After Pitts became a doctor, he practiced at Fredericksburg for over forty years prior to his retirement in 1906. His death occurred at Brooklyn, NY, on Sept. 25, 1918. Among hymnbooks published by members of the Lord’s church during the twentieth century for use in churches of Christ, the song appeared in the 1937 Great Songs of the Church No. 2 edited by E. L. Jorgenson. Today it may be found in the 1978/1983 Church Gospel Songs and Hymns edited by V. E. Howard; the 1990 Songs of the Church 21st C. Ed. and the 1994 Songs of Faith and Praise both edited by Alton H. Howard; and the 1992 Praise for the Lord edited by John P. Wiegand.
The song uses the activities that might take place in a church building to make some spiritual applications.
I. Stanza 1 emphasizes the church
"There’s a church in the valley by the wildwood,
No lovelier (‘Tis the loveliest) spot in the dale;
No(t a) place (spot) is so dear to my childhood,
As (Than) the little brown church in the vale."
A. The church of our Lord is not a building but the spiritual body of Christ: Eph. 1:22-23
B. However, members of the Lord’s church are to identify themselves with local congregations which have to assemble in some kind of building: 1 Cor. 1:1-2
C. If we have been taught from childhood the holy scriptures, perhaps including times in Bible classes, we are fortunate: 2 Tim. 3:14-15
II. Stanza 2 emphasizes the call to worship
"(Oh) How sweet on a clear (bright) Sunday morning
(Just) To list(en) to the clear ringing bell(s);
Its tones (For its voice is) so sweetly are (tenderly) calling,
Oh, come to the church in the vale (dell)."
(some books have, "How tenderly sweet is the warning,
As it calls to the church in the dell.")
A. The original read, "Sabbath morning," probably following the typical but mistaken denominational idea that Sunday is "the Christian’s Sabbath;" however, the New Testament authorizes Christians to come together to break bread on the first day of the week, which we call Sunday, so our books change it to "Sunday morning": Acts 20:7
B. At one time it was a custom to ring a bell to indicate that the time of worship was near; whatever method is used of identifying the time of worship, we should be glad to go into the house of the Lord: Ps. 122:1
C. Whether a bell or something else, we need to be warned of the importance of assembling together and not forsaking it because of the Day approaching: Heb. 10:25
III. Stanza 3 emphasizes the teaching of others
"It was here in the church in the wildwood,
We knelt with our mother in prayer,
In the long gone days of our childhood;
Come and meet her in memory there."
A. The church is to teach us to observe all things that Christ has commanded: Matt. 28:19-20
B. It is certainly good if we have had faithful, godly parents who have also sought to instill within us faith: 2 Tim. 1:3-5
C. Thus, we can figuratively meet those from our past in memory as we strive to remember our Creator from the days of our youth: Eccl. 12:1
IV. Stanza 4 emphasizes those who have gone on before us
"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."
A. It has been a custom to have graveyards close to church buildings, possibly because at one time funerals were commonly held in church buildings and it was convenient to have the cemetary close by; of course, funerals and graves are necessary because of death: Gen. 3:19
B. While death is pictured in scripture as an enemy, the death of the saints is precious to God: Ps. 116:15
C. However, for Christians, while we weep for those who sleep in Christ, we sorrow not as those without hope but look forward to being reunited with them when He returns: 1 Thess. 4:13-18
V. Stanza 5 emphasizes the coming time of our own death
"There, close by the side of that loved one,
To (‘Neath the) trees where the wild flowers bloom,
When the farewell hymn(s) shall be chanted
I shall rest by her side in the tomb."
(evidently someone, perhaps those travelling musicians, has done some tinkering with the song; this stanza is sometimes given in a more generic form as follows–unless this is a separate stanza that comes before stanza 2:
"Oh, come to the church in the wildwood
To the trees where the wild flowers bloom,
Where the parting hymn will be chanted,
We will weep by the side of the tomb.")
A. Death is an appointment that all, even we ourselves, must keep: Heb. 9:27
B. Therefore, someday we too shall be buried, perhaps beside those whom we have loved and lost to death, when we come to rest from our labors: Rev. 14:13
C. Then those whom we have left behind will weep by our tomb as the body returns to the dust and the spirit to God who have it: Eccl. 12:7
VI. Stanza 6 emphasizes the hope of eternal life
"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."
A. Wherever our grave may be, whether in a church yard or other place, someday our bodies will be called forth by Christ: 1 Cor. 15:52-54
B. This is poetically pictured as day fading away into night, even as Jesus pictured our lives on earth: Jn. 9:4
C. But when the Lord returns, we can wing our way to the mansions of light: Jn. 14:1-3
CONCL.: The chorus encourages us to "come to the church" which could well be taken as either a call to become a part of the Lord’s church or to assemble for worshipping God.
"(Oh, come, come, come, come)
Come to the church in (by) 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."
The stanzas that I have used in this study have been drawn from several different sources, and I have no way of knowing if they are all original stanzas from Pitts or if some have been added by others along the way. Evidently Charles Reign Scoville of the Standard Publishing Co., in 1911 asked James Rowe to provide three extra stanzas to the song to make it sound more "religious."
3. "Brothers, now for the Savior let us rally,
Let us serve Him who never will fail;
‘Gainst the foes of the truth let us sally
From the little brown church in the dale."
4. "Far too long we have wandered after pleasures
And ignored the sweet plea of the Lord;
Let us strive for the heavenly treasures–
Let us work for the blessed reward."
5. "Lete us offer ourselves anew to Jesus,
And the message of life gladly tell;
Let us cling to the Savior who frees us,
Let us love this bright spot in the dell."
Sometimes this song is used on special occasions where churches have "reunions." Many have questioned whether this is truly a "spiritual" song or not. It uses the word "church" to refer to a building, which is obviously not a scriptural usage of the word. I myself wonder about the appropriateness of the song for worship. However, it has appeared in several of our songbooks, so I thought that I might as well do a hymn study for those who think that the song could be useful. While truly spiritual songs must have more than "religious nostalgia," the older I get the more I come to think that there is a definite spiritual benefit to remembering certain things from our past. For some, it might be the lessons that they learned as a child when they worshipped in a building like "The Church in the Wildwood."