Document Type


Publication Date


Publication Title

Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture






585 - 606

Publisher Name

Cambridge University Press


This article tracks the surprising history of a love ballad about a lost sweetheart that went on to become a celebrated gospel hymn about the rural roots of America's greatness. Titled “The Little Brown Church,” but sometimes called “The Church in the Wildwood,” the song's evolution speaks to the ways in which nostalgia became central to the social and religious imagination of those American Protestants call themselves “evangelicals.” Though it first appeared in college songbooks after its publication in 1865, “The Little Brown Church” eventually became a favorite of evangelists, revivalists, and other gospel singers at the dawn of the twentieth century. For these new singers, “The Little Brown Church” spoke to more than just the simple faith they wished to restore. It also illustrated the centrality of white Protestants to the American experience at a moment when the hold these believers had on the nation was beginning to slip. And they would alter both the lyrics and the church's history to bring the two in line. The process not only reveals how nostalgia for a bygone era became vital to those who think of themselves as evangelicals in the twentieth century, but also how evangelicalism itself is something of a historical construction.


Author Posting © The Author(s), 2023. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of American Society of Church History. This article is posted here by permission of Cambridge University Press for personal use and redistribution . This article was published open access in Church History, VOL. 92 , ISS. 3 , pp. 585 - 606, September 2023 ,

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.