Posted by: rcottrill | April 8, 2011

The Church in the Wildwood

Words: William Savage Pitts (b. Aug. 18, 1830; d. Sept. 25, 1918)
Music: William Savage Pitts

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: This song is also known as The Little Brown Church in the Vale. There is an unusual (and somewhat amazing) story about the actual building, as the Wordwise Hymns link explains. Minor point: I’ve often wished Dr. Pitts, in his second stanza, had given us “a bright Sabbath morning,” to avoid a repetition on the word “clear” in the first two lines.

What exactly is the church? Here are four ways we use the word.

1) For some, it’s that red brick building on the corner of the street, or some structure of wood or concrete. That’s how we sometimes speak, but it’s not how the Bible uses the word. The closest we can come is the New Testament’s reference to house churches. In apostolic times, when the church was new, Christians often met in homes (Rom. 16:5; I Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Phm. 1:2). As far as we know, there were no buildings specifically dedicated to the assembly of believers until after AD 200.

2) Others speak of the Presbyterian Church, or the Lutheran Church, by which they mean a denomination that has organized a group of congregations under a commonality of doctrine and practice. But that too is a usage of the word church that comes long after New Testament times. Not that that makes it wrong to organize. I believe the Bible gives flexibility in this. Historically, many denominations were created to defend truths Christians felt were being neglected or rejected outright.

3) The Greek word for “church” used in Scripture is ekklesia (pronounced ek-lay-SEE-uh). It refers to a group of people called together. Any assembly of people. It’s even used of an unruly mob of idol worshipers (Acts 19:32). But by far the most common use of the word in the Bible is to refer to one of two things. Sometimes it refers to all Christians everywhere, the spiritual body of Christ, of which He is the Head (Eph. 1:22-23). That includes all the saints, both living and dead. He is the “Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named” (Eph. 3:14-15). This is sometimes called the universal church.

4) The Apostle Paul refers to his “deep concern for all the churches [plural]” (II Cor. 11:28). That’s something different. It refers to local expressions of the universal church, existing in time and space. (Though that has to be qualified. Any group can call itself a church–even witches and Satanists. But I’m speaking of Bible-believing congregations, made up of born again believers.) And while the universal church is invisible, since we aren’t able to see all Christians gathered together in one place–not yet, anyway–each local church is an example of the visible church. Many such local assemblies are spoken of in the New Testament (Acts 8:1; 13:1; Rom. 16:1; I Cor. 1:2; 16:19; Gal. 1:2; Rev. 1:20).

A quick scanning of the lyrics of William Pitts’ song will show that it is the first of these that he has written about–the physical structure in which a congregation can gather. He does not develop any important doctrines in the ballad, But that doesn’t mean it’s entirely without merit. While that usage of the word church is not found in Scripture, it is a significant one.

I even know a man named Jack who was first attracted to Christ because the evangelical church in his community had a building that was attractive. It was certainly not luxurious, but it was neat and clean, and kept in good repair. Jack told me that said to him, “This is important to these people. What they are doing here is important to them. I’d better check it out.”

A building not only gives people a place to meet, it helps to establish their identity in the community. Such facilities can house a variety of programs that would be difficult to offer without them. A local church facility also provides a rallying point for Christians in the community, and a place where warm memories are built–of weddings, memorial services, Christmas pageants, church suppers, and more.

That is a particular focus of the song. In the refrain, Pitts tells us “No spot is so dear to my childhood,” And he would even be happy to die there (CH-5):

I would fain from this spot of my childhood
Wing my way to the mansions of light.

1) What memories do you have that are associated with a particular church building?

2) What can be done to make our church buildings functional and attractive, without spending an inappropriate amount of money?

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal


  1. You know, my mother grew up very close to the church which inspired this song. I’ve been by it many times.

    • It’s neat when we can make these personal connections. I grew up in Ontario, near Port Hope, where Joseph Scriven lived (author of What a Friend We Have in Jesus), and near Fergus, the town where George Clephane lived. It was about her brother George, in Canada, that Elizabeth Clephane, over in Scotland, wrote The Ninety and Nine. (He was the “lost sheep” of the family.) Over the years, I’ve also been privileged to meet a number of the old hymn writers (when I was a youth, and they were elderly). Thanks for sharing. 🙂


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