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Column: The church in the wildwood

The original Little Brown Church, the inspiration of the song, sits near Nashua, Iowa.

Rev. Dr. Daren Flinck
Flinck
Photo courtesy of Rev. Dr. Daren Flinck

“Come to the church in the wildwood, oh, come to the church in the vale” — from the popular hymn “The Church in the Wildwood”, written by William S. Pitts

As I prepare for another birthday and that relentless movement toward retirement, I must admit that the aging process is catching up with me. At least, it seems that way. I hear my own voice saying things like “Back when I was a kid …” or “You know, in my day …” I sometimes can even see my dad in the mirror where my own reflection is supposed to be.

I suppose it’s a good thing — to compare this day and age with those “simpler, golden days of long ago.” Yet, I know when that is offered, some will have a much different perception about that time frame. For me, the simpler, golden days were the '60s and the '70s. For others, these golden days stretch back a bit further into the '50s and before. Goodness, we have already entered into a new era when people are beginning to refer to the 1980s and '90s as the “golden days!"

When I reflect on the sixties and growing up in northern Minnesota, it does seem as though it was a simpler time. I find comfort in remembering that, especially coming through today’s chaotic milieu. Life just seemed to move a bit more slowly than in today’s world. Life just seemed to be at a pace that's certainly different than that of today’s world. But, the reality of those days, as recorded in history, proves me wrong. The '60s were filled with civil unrest as racial equality, sexual freedom and drug experimentation were the prevailing issues of the day. Our nation was in the midst of turmoil and change as leaders were assassinated, riots were rampant and law enforcement desperately tried to keep the peace. Today’s world hasn’t changed all that much.

History tells us these things happened during the time in which I grew up. Within that time frame, I have memories of images, sights and sounds. One of the most precious is a song about a small country church that I have only seen in my dreams — the church in the wildwood. From our Sunday worship service, this hymn would resound as men, women and children sang about someone else’s precious memory of a place that almost seemed to be too good to be true. Even though I may not have fully understood the images brought into my living room from the CBS Evening News with Douglas Edwards or Walter Cronkite, I could understand this idyllic image of a peaceful little chapel in a valley of wildflowers, with a clear bell ringing throughout the valley a message of peace and joy.

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There is actually a church in the wildwood. The original Little Brown Church, the inspiration of the song, sits near Nashua, Iowa. A Wisconsin man traveling through Iowa by stage saw the site on which he envisioned a church. Mr. William Pitts was in love, and on his way to visit his beloved, he stopped to rest on this spot. When he returned to his home, he wrote a poem about the site. William was a music teacher and he set the poem to music, placed it in a drawer and forgot about it. He later moved to the area to teach music. Imagine his surprise when he saw a church in the spot where he had been inspired to write the song years earlier. The church was even brown, because the congregation could not afford the white oil-based paint.

The church had been built on faith; there was no money. Little by little, by donations and free labor, the tiny church was finished, complete with a bell, the only one in the county. Pitts dusted off his creation and had his singing class sing the piece at the church's dedication. Shortly afterward, he sold the song to a Chicago music publisher for $25. "The rest of the story" is that he used the money to help him get a medical degree, then returned to Iowa and set up a practice.

Around the turn of the century, the church was inactive. The song didn't catch on, and then a men's gospel quartet, the 'Weatherwax Brothers', began singing the song in their appearances all over the country. The rest is history. People still coming today to see the little brown church — social distancing and all. Every year couples choose to be married in the church. Each bride and groom together ring that same bell that has been there since the church began. The first Sunday in August is the annual reunion for all the couples who have been married there. And yes, church services are still conducted every Sunday at 10:30 a.m. The congregation is affiliated with the Congregational and United Church of Christ denomination. The last song sung at each service? What else? "The Little Brown Church."

Every age will have its golden era. And every era needs a place like the little brown church in the vale.

Daren Flinck is pastor at Worthington's First United Methodist Church and Adrian United Methodist Church.

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