If your church closed, would anyone notice?

“The Church in the Wildwood” – an old favourite Gospel Hymn – did or does that church really exist? The Little Brown Church in the Vale was built in Bradford, Iowa, which is now Nashua, Iowa. The church was made famous by that old gospel hymn. The story began in 1857 when William Pitt travelled 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 home, 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. But first, the community built the Bradford Academy for the education of their children. Under the leadership of Rev. John Nutting, the church began building a sanctuary in 1860, (same year that Zion was built). However 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 (a musician) moved to Iowa to be near his wife’s family and was hired by the Bradford Academy to teach a singing class. “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 3,000 audiences. It 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 fifty years after its dedication, the little brown church in the vale is visited by tens of thousands of people every year.

The clergy were asked, “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?” How can this small church 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?

Pastor Chad Jennings, explained that vital churches take what they have and use it to their advantage. The vital question becomes, “What is your church known for in the community? Would anyone miss you if the doors closed tomorrow?” It is always encouraging 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 developed a sustainable ministry through its location and history. After World War I, when cars made transportation easier, 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. There are four generations of some families who have been married there. 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 there, 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, is alive and well. It will never be huge. However, it 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 in the beauty of holiness (Psalm 96:9) and reconnect with the God. Every Sunday at The Little Brown Church, there is a hymn sing followed by worship and fellowship.

A beautiful arrangement of “The Church in the Wildwood” has a 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 church?

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.”


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