"Church in the Wildwood" was written by Dr. William S. Pitts in 1857. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this nostalgic favorite is the fact that it was written about a church that existed only in the composer's mind. The story goes that Pitts, a music teacher, was traveling to visit his future wife, and the stage stopped in Bradford, Iowa. He walked around town a bit to stretch his legs, and saw a beautiful spot that he thought would be an ideal setting for a church. When he returned home to Wisconsin, he wrote the poem, and later set it to music, but filed it away and forgot about it.
Five years later, William and his bride moved to Fredricksburg, Iowa, to be near her elderly parents, and Pitts was hired to teach music at Bradford Academy. When he passed by the spot he had written about, he must have been astonished to see that it was now occupied by a little brown church! The local members of the Puritan-Congregational Church had finally outgrown meeting in members' homes and built a church. As careful stewards of the funds they had, they chose to paint it with the cheapest paint available, which just happened to be brown!
Pitts dug out the song had been filed away for years, and taught it to his class who gave the first public performance of it at the dedication of the church on Dec. 29, 1864. Later, Pitts sold the rights to the song for $25, which he used to pay tuition to Chicago's Rush Medical College. If Dr. Pitts wrote other songs, they have not endured, but this one has taken its place in the folk heritage of the United States.
The church still stands today, and you can read all about it on their website,
Little Brown Church.com.
Though often thought of as a hymn, the original, presented here, is more in the sentimental parlor song tradition. Today the song is often performed omitting the two "graveyard" verses and adding this one, not in the original:
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.