The story behind ‘Little Brown Church in the Vale’

The Rev. Dr. Gail Harrelson is a newcomer to Crosby. She relocated to Crosby in early June to become minister of the Crosby Methodist Church were the Springer’s call home during our Crosby visits. She was reassigned from the St. Matthew’s Methodist Church in Houston. Linda and I are anxious to meet Dr. Harrelson during our next trip to Texas.
As is the custom in that church, the Pastor always provides a short three or four column message at the beginning of each Crosby Methodist semi-monthly newsletter. Being over 1,200 miles away our copy comes late and we received our July 18 Newsletter about a week ago.
I found myself much interested in Dr. Gail’s message of that issue and thought you might find it interesting as well. I quote from her message:
“I often hear people talk about the hymns we sing in church as being irrelevant, old, and boring. It may surprise many Christians to learn…(these hymns) have interesting stories behind them.

“…One of my favorite hymns is the ‘Little Brown Church in the Vale.’ The hymn was written by Warren Pitts, who was traveling by stagecoach to…Fredericksburg, Iowa. When the stagecoach made a stop in Bradford, Pitts walked about the area to stretch his legs. He walked by a grove of trees that Pitts thought would make a perfect setting for a church.
“He couldn’t forget the peaceful scene, so he wrote the words and music to “Little Brown Church in the Vale” after he returned to his home in Wisconsin. He filed it in some of his papers.
“Five years later, Pitts…relocated to Iowa to be close to his wife’s elderly parents. He was completely surprised to find a church building sitting in the very spot he had imagined five years earlier. Christians in the community didn’t like meeting in abandoned stores and built themselves a small church. The Civil War was raging and times were hard, but by 1862, the building was up. It was painted with the cheapest paint available, which happened to be the color brown.
“When Pitts saw the little brown church, he rushed home to find the hymn he had written so he could sing it at the church’s dedication in 1864. William Pitts sold his music score for $25 to a publisher in Chicago. He used the money to attend medical school. He spent the rest of his life as the town doctor in Fredericksburg, about 14 miles from Bradford.
“The Little Brown Church in the Vale still stands today and has a membership of about 100. It’s best known for the hundreds of weddings and thousands of tourists who travel there each year to see ‘the church in the valley by the wildwood’….
“….I ask you to remember that stories of Christian faith and Christian theology are the foundation for each hymn in our hymnals. As we learn the background for the hymns, we gain a different appreciation for the gift of this music to the church of the ages….”
Thanks Dr. Gail Harrelson for this story that I add to my library. Many Christian hymnals have stories of inspiration that moved the writers of the poems and/or the music to compose such. Certainly this was the case for the most popular of all Christmas Carols, “Silent Night, Holy Night!” But that is a story for another time.
Such are the people, places and things that have touched my life in my West Virginia home!
Don Springer can be reached at