Little Brown Church
Mary Lou Warren
Living out of a suitcase is not so difficult once you get used to it. For eight months out of each year, I travel with my musical evangelist husband across America, visiting local churches. When we are at home in our little farmhouse in Missouri, we still go out to minister on weekends. Last year, we ministered to 127 churches, staying in mission apartments, motels, and various church members’ homes. In the world’s eyes, and in some fellow Christians’ as well, we are crazy. But we love what we do, and it would seem strange to us not to travel, sing and play instruments, and encourage people in all the churches we visit.
Church has always played a big part in our lives. We were both raised in faithful church-loving families and accepted Jesus as our personal Savior at an early age. My husband, Ronnie, was raised in Georgia, and I grew up in Texas. He has traveled and sung all his life, and I had always wanted to. So, when our paths crossed and we fell in love and married, our common ground was that we loved the Lord, people, and church.
Most of the songs we sing are old classic hymns arranged in new ways, usually with a country or bluegrass style. Ronnie plays seven instruments and is most known for playing the handsaw—something interesting to watch. One song we do, with me on the ukulele and Ronnie on the fiddle, is the ballad “The Church in the Wildwood.” It was written by a young man named William Pitts in 1857. The story goes that while traveling through Iowa, William’s coach stopped in the little town of Nashua and he had enough time to take a walk through the village and nearby woods. At one particularly beautiful spot where the river flowed into a valley surrounded by trees, William was deeply impressed. He envisioned a church there and found no rest until he wrote the song “The Church in the Wildwood.” Several years later, upon revisiting the small town, William found to his delight that a little brown church had been built in the very place he had envisioned it.
The song and the church went through many ups and downs, sometimes forgotten for long periods then revived again. Its history is an inspiring read. Pitts’ song embodies the feelings and tender thoughts that so many of us have towards the church where we grew up—the church where we learned the old songs and Bible stories and where we felt the love and kindred spirits of fellow Christians. These are the churches where we met Jesus and began our lifelong journey with Him.
One Sunday morning as Ronnie and I were singing “The Church in the Wildwood” at a little church just outside a little town in Missouri, I couldn’t help but notice a lady who was sitting on the back row. As we sang, she reached for a tissue and began crying—even sobbing! I had seen people touched by this song before, but not so keenly as this lady. After church, she approached me and told me her story. Her mother, she said, had grown up in the little town in Iowa and gone to the Little Brown Church. Her parents were married there, and her mom is buried there in the sweet, little, old-fashioned graveyard. No wonder she sobbed—one verse of the song brought back beautiful memories of her mother:
There, close by the church in the valley
Lies one that I loved so well.
She sleeps, sweetly sleeps ’neath the willow.
Disturb not her rest in the vale.
Relating this story to my husband later in the day, we marveled at how the Lord works. Over 150 years ago, a young man was impressed to write a song about a church that was yet to be built. Through much tribulation, God preserved the song, the town, and the church. And today, God had led us to sing this song at a little church where the daughter of a woman who was intrinsically connected with the Little Brown Church was a member!
This story reminds me that the local church is God’s design, and it is the most important peg in the building of our lives as believers. It is still the arm of God in our world. It is where the Word of the Lord, and therefore His power, can be found. And while time exists, it will always be God’s best plan for His people to meet regularly in a local assembly—the church—whether it be big or little, brown or white, in the town or in the country.
Church binds us together, and I am here to tell you that the best thing you can do for yourself and your family is to go to church.
There’s a church in the valley by the wildwood,
No lovelier spot in the dale;
No place is so dear to my childhood,
As the little brown church in the vale.