The year was 1857 and Bill Pitts was on his way from Wisconsin to Fredericksburg, Iowa, to visit his future wife. While the coachman stopped near Bradford, Iowa, to water and rest the horses, Bill stepped out of the stagecoach to stretch his legs.
He walked to the top of a knoll near the town and looked out on a small forested valley formed by the Cedar River. He pictured in his mind a church building in that lovely setting. After a while he got back into the stagecoach and continued on the journey to Fredericksburg.
Over the next few days he remembered that view from the top of the knoll and could not get the vision out of his mind. It even disturbed his sleep at night. Though no church existed in that spot, he vividly pictured a “little brown church” nestled in the wildwood, amongst the trees.
Bill, who was a music teacher, returned to his home in Wisconsin and to his teaching occupation. But, he just could not stop thinking about the vision he pictured in his mind. To ease his mind and give himself peace, he wrote the song The Church In The Wildwood. He put it away in a drawer and forgot about it.
By 1862 Bill was married. He and his wife moved from their home in Wisconsin to Fredericksburg to be closer to his wife’s aging parents. During the winter of 1863-1864, Bill was hired to teach a singing class at Bradford Academy. He visited the same spot near the town, looking from the same knoll. To his utter surprise he discovered that a Congregational church had been erected in the very spot he had envisioned years earlier!
Most churches are painted white, but this church was even painted brown—just like he had pictured in his mind and had written the song about! Brown paint was chosen because it was the least expensive paint color and offered the best protection for the wood.
He found the song he had written and taught it to the singing class who sang it at the dedication service for the church in 1864. This was the first time the song was sung by anyone apart from Pitts himself. Note: the congregation had painted that little church brown before ever hearing about the song!
As Paul Harvey used to say, “Now the rest of the story.”
In 1865 Bill moved to Chicago to enroll in Rush Medical College. To pay his enrollment, he sold the hymn to a music publisher for just $25!
As the century came to a close, the area around the town of Bradford, which had once been booming, began to wane. Factories moved away. The railroad bypassed it. Population declined and the little brown church, once thriving, was closed in 1888.
A few years later, as the new century dawned, a group named the Society For The Preservation of The Little Brown Church was founded. By 1914, services were once again held in the building. The congregation experienced a revival, and new interest also grew about its song. About the same time the song was made popular by a musical group called the Weatherwax Quartet.
As they traveled in the 1920s and 1930s throughout Canada and the United States, they made “The Church in the Wildwood” their trademark song. They told the story about the church to their audiences. The song grew in popularity.
With the development of the U.S. Highway System in the mid- 1920s, making travel easier, the church became a popular tourist spot. Thousands of visitors still come each year to visit or to be married in the church. More than 73,000 weddings have been performed at this historic church site since record keeping began in 1912. In fact, our daughter was married there a few years ago.
The song is always sung as the response to the Benediction—in that little church that is painted brown and sits in the wildwood.
In one of God’s Other Ways He sustains and reminds us of His blessings through the songs and hymns we sing.