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An essay donated by Alton C. Thompson

"Wildwood" Churches: Comforting the
afflicted or afflicting the comfortable?

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The song, “The Church in the Wildwood, 1” was written in 1857 by Dr. William S. Pitts [1830 – 1918] 2. Pitts was living in Rock County, Wisconsin, at the time, but:

"During a stagecoach ride to visit his fiancée in Fredericksburg, Iowa, the stage stopped at Bradford and allowed Pitts time to wander the area and enjoy the woodlands. Pitts found particular beauty in a wooded valley formed by the Cedar River. While viewing the spot, Pitts envisioned a church building there and could not seem to ease the vision from his mind. Returning to his home in Wisconsin, he wrote "The Church in the Wildwood" for his own sake, eventually saying of its completion, “only then was I at peace with myself." 1

The church that Pitts “envisioned” -- i.e., imagined -- later became a reality (and acquired the name “Little Brown Church”). 3

When Pitts returned to the area with his wife in 1862 he discovered a church being erected where he imagined it. The congregation had been meeting in various temporary space until Rev. J. K. Nutting led the drive to create a permanent home for the congregation. During this period, Pitts had been teaching singing at nearby Bradford Academy and taught his class to sing his song for the first time at the dedication of the church in 1864. 3

The second stanza of the song goes like this:

"How sweet on a clear Sabbath morning
To listen to the clear ringing bells
Its tones so sweetly are calling
Oh come to the church in the vale." 4

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This is a song that I remember from my childhood, and I must admit that I love the song. There is a beautiful rendition of it by Dolly Parton. 5 However, when this song came to my mind recently, this statement by Finlay Peter Dunn [1867 – 1936] 6 came to my mind shortly thereafter:

“Th newspaper does ivrything f’r us. It runs th’ polis foorce an’ th’ banks, commands th’ milishy, controls th’ ligislachure, baptizes th’ young, marries th’ foolish, comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable, buries th’ dead, an’ roasts thim aftherward”.

The explanation for this illiterate mishmash:

The fictional Mr. Dooley [the pseudonym used by Dunn] expounded upon political and social issues of the day from his South Side Chicago Irish pub and he spoke with the thick verbiage and accent of an Irish immigrant from County Roscommon. 6

My reason for quoting “Mr. Dooley” here is my conviction that an attribute that “Dooley” gave to the newspapers of his day (rightly or wrongly) should have at least partial relevance for churches that claim to be “Christian.”

The question that should be asked of “Christian” churches, I believe, is:

  • Should their purpose be to comfort the afflicted, or, rather,

  • Should it be to afflict the comfortable?

For William S. Pitts -- writer of “The Church in the Wildwood” -- the purpose of Christian churches, evidently, is to “give one peace,” accomplished in part by listening to “clear ringing bells.” But that suggestion raises the question asked by Charles M. Sheldon [1857 – 1946] 7 in his What Would Jesus Do? 8

When I think of what Jesus did, what especially comes to mind is this powerful biblical passage. Jesus is described as judging persons of all religions, equally, solely on the basis of their good works and not upon their beliefs. A part of the passage reads:

Matthew 25:31-36:

"When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy[a] angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory.

All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats.

And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left.

Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:

for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in;

I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me'."

Granted that all of us need to be “comforted” from time to time. But if a Christian church’s only function is to provide comfort to its parishioners -- and, perhaps, to help them feel justified about their “success,” because, after all, they deserve their high incomes -- they are dishonoring the memory of Jesus. Not just dishonoring it, of course, but putting his teachings on their head -- so that they are most accurately labeled as anti-Christian!

If, while driving through a wealthy suburb, one observes churches, logically one would assume that because they claim to be Christian churches, they must be mission stations -- their purpose being to inform their parishioners that they should be ashamed of themselves for spending the bulk of their money on material things, such as an expensive house, expensive furnishings, an expensive automobile, etc. The pastor should be telling his or her congregants, time after time:

“Why are you not ‘convicted’ by this passage?”

Matthew 19:17-21:

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. "Good teacher,' he asked, 'what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

"Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good -- except God alone.

You know the commandments: 'You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.'

'Teacher," he declared, "all these I have kept since I was a boy."

Jesus looked at him and loved him. "One thing you lack," he said. "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."

Of course, if the pastor were to do this, s/he would lose most, if not all, of his or her parishioners in “the twinkling of an eye”! 9 Why? Because the minds of so many in our society are dominated by the values of individualism, competitiveness, materialism, selfishness, a “blame the victim,” mentality, etc. They have somehow -- too much watching of TV? -- become convinced that living by such values will give them happiness, not realizing that it is not only unChristian to live by such values, but utterly stupid!

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One would think that most of those living in this society would be “in tune” enough with their nature as humans to realize that happiness, fulfillment comes, rather, from helping others. 10 It’s true that Jesus advocated helping others for another reason. But we moderns have an additional reason helping others: One helps oneself in helping others.

One shouldn’t need to read a book such as Good Natured, 11 or familiarize themselves with research by those associated with Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, 12 to know this. It appears, however, that most people living in our society have been “bamboozled” into believing otherwise. Is it any wonder, then, that our (allegedly “Christian”) society has so many problems?!

Pastors wouldn’t need to devote all of their time to “inflicting” their congregants -- reminding them of their duties as Christians. At times (upon the death of a loved one, for example) people need to be comforted. Pastors have not only been trained to offer comfort, but should feel an obligation to do so when needed.

If a pastor has a church in an affluent suburb, and realizes his duty to “afflict” his parishioners, he must be “political” enough to do so in a manner that will not alienate his parishioners but, rather, do so in a manner that will convince them that it is in their own interests to do so—for they will begin living more satisfying lives if they do. Once a pastor is able to convince a few parishioners, those individuals are likely to “missionize” other parishioners -- with the possibility that all of them will become “converted,” and in the way that Jesus would want them to become converted.

Supposedly there has been both a “death” tradition and a “life” tradition within Christianity, but only the latter has authenticity. 13 After all, Jesus

"... did not intend to create Christians, a term that wasn’t coined until after Jesus’ death (Acts 11:26). Instead, the earliest followers of Jesus were called followers of “The Way” (Acts 9:2). The invitation of “Jesus as spiritual guide” is not about worshiping Jesus. Instead, it is about living in the world in a similar way to how he lived: a way of generous, transformative, risky love. As in the opening “Parable about Jesus,” religious traditions over time can become ossified, self-interested institutions. But keep those words path and way in mind. They can help lead us back to the dynamic, beating heart of religious experience that helped found our various world religious traditions in the first place—inviting us to test and experience in the crucible of our own firsthand experience what Jesus, Buddha taught was possible to experience about ourselves, this world, and one another. 13

(The “Parable about Jesus” here must refer to an earlier article by the author, Carl Gregg.)

The possibility of converting our churches into “missionizing” ones may seem “far-fetched,” but from a biblical standpoint is by no means strange. It is, in fact, “on target.” Given that fact, why are not most “Christian” churches today of that sort? They claim to be Bible-based (with, though, those churches claiming it most vociferously tending to be least in the “life” tradition!); but how many of them are truly in the “life” tradition”? (That is a rhetorical question, by the way.)

Had “life” tradition churches been common in our society from the beginning, we would not have committed genocide against the native Americans, would not have allowed the enslavement of blacks, 14 . . . had not attacked Iraq (which supposedly had “weapons of mass destruction”), 15 etc., etc. -- and our country would have become a near utopia, 16 the envy of the rest of the world.

Our “Christian” ancestors failed us, and we have been “paying the price” 17,18 ever since!

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "The Church in the Wildwood," Wikipedia, as on 2014-AUG-19, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
  2. "William S. Pitts," Wikipedia, as on 2015-JAN-06, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
  3. "The Little Brown Church," Wikipedia, as on 2013-OCT-28, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
  4. "Church in the Wildwood," The ToneWay Project, 2012, at: http://toneway.com/
  5. "Dolly Parton - Church in the Wildwood," You Tube, 2011-JUL-30, at: https://www.youtube.com/
  6. "Finley Peter Dunne," Wikipedia, as on 2015-FEB-08, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/ "Roscommon comes from the Irish Ros meaning a wooded, gentle height and Comán, the name of the founder, first abbot, and bishop of Roscommon."
  7. "Charles Sheldon," Wikipedia, as on 2015-JAN-23, at:http://en.wikipedia.org/
  8. C.M. Sheldon, "In His Steps,' at: http://www.ccel.org/
  9. From the Bible at 1 Corinthians 15:52: "In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed."
  10. Doug Hart, "Real Happiness is Found in Helping Others," Self Growth, 2015, at: http://www.selfgrowth.com/
  11. book cover Frans B. M. de Waal, "Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals," Harvard University Press (1997). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  12. "Greater Good: The science of a Meaningful Life." University of California at Berkeley, (2015) at: http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/
  13. Carl Gregg, "The Life Tradition versus the Death Tradition in Christianity," Patheos, 2014-MAR-18, at: http://www.patheos.com/
  14. Gilbert Mercier, "Celebrating the Genocide of Native Americans," Counter Punch. 2014-NOV-26, at: http://www.counterpunch.org/
  15. "Weapon of mass destruction," Wikipedia, on 2015-MAR-09, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
  16. "Utopia," Wikipedia, on 2015-MAR-12, at: https://en.wikipedia.org/
  17. "Paying the Price: Killing the Children of Iraq," Wikipedia, on at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
  18. "Paying the Price: Killing the Children of Iraq," Bullfrog Films, at:  http://www.bullfrogfilms.com/catalog/payhv.html

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Originally posted: 2015-MAR-16
Last updated 2015-MAR-16
Author: Alton Thompson
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