Notes for Newcomers: Come to the Church in the Wildwood

By Phil La Borie

Notes for Newcomers: Come to the Church in the Wildwood

The melody and lyrics to “Church in the Wildwood” have stuck in my head ever since I first heard them as a child.

The lyrics go:

Come to the church in the wildwood,
Come to the church in the vale.
No spot is as dear
to my childhood
as the little brown church
in the vale.

For me, this simple tune creates a unique feeling that only certain pieces of music can invoke: it makes you listen with your heart.

The tune was written by Dr. William S. Pitts in 1857 and could easily refer to the St. James-Santee Parish Plantation Church (it’s officially known as the Wambow Church and is also called The Brick Church).

While St. James isn’t brown, (it’s actually red brick), it certainly is in the middle of the wildwood. The 257-year old church sits at the end of a four-mile dirt road surrounded by some very extensive and somewhat lonely piney woods. But back when it was built in 1768, it was the center of a thriving community of wealthy plantation owners and their families from up and down the Santee River.

St. James was certainly a remarkable building then, and today “The little church in the wildwood” is still well worth the trip to see it and experience its unique spiritual qualities.

A little history: The church was originally founded at the request of Huguenot families in the area and understandably, the services were conducted in French. Then English settlers arrived and attended the church. Now St. James was bi-lingual, sort of. For a while, services were conducted in both French and English, which caused some problems, but eventually the French settlers (who were older) passed away and the problem resolved itself.

By the way, the Huguenots used the church’s back door, the English entered through the front. The story is that the French didn’t want to get their clothing muddy, so they entered through the rear; apparently the English were less concerned and came in the front.

In addition to the beautiful old doors, St. James still shows many examples of artful craftsmanship both inside and out. For instance, in most places the pointing that secures the bricks on the church’s exterior is the original mortar and is still in good shape after all these years.

Even more amazing, the round pillars that support the church’s front portico are very unusual examples of brick work. I learned from Mr. Bud Hill, the Director of the Village Museum in McClellanville that a bricklayer by the name of Billy Judd created those impressive pillars when the church was under construction.

Mr. Hill went on to remark, “The rounded bricks were made in individual molds and fitted together like slices in a pie. It took a master craftsman to do that.”

Inside, the soaring ceiling, the very deep and enclosed dark wood pews and remarkable stone floor, which have survived both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, stand as testaments to the quality of the workmanship that built this remarkable sanctuary.

I then asked Mr. Hill what it is besides the architecture that makes St. James-Santee so special. He told me:

Visitors to the church have often remarked that they are struck by the complete sense of peace and serenity that the church interior evokes. Remember that you can sit in a pew where the signers of the Declaration of Independence might have been seated. There’s a sense of history and tranquility here that is often hard to come by in our overly busy, digitally-addicted world.

Mr. Hill lives next door to St. James in the caretaker’s house. He added, “Sometimes people come here to just sit quietly and meditate or pray. I’ve even had folks drop in to play a little music. Whatever path you choose to take, St. James is the perfect place to find yourself.”

I certainly found it that way. The cool atmosphere on a blazing hot summer day was a welcome relief from the heat outside. Inside, you just want to close your eyes and drink in the atmosphere.

When I asked about the height and size of the enclosed pews, Hill responded, “The pews gave the parishioners a sense of privacy, which was important in Colonial times. And, it can get pretty chilly in here in the winter. Folks attending the services would bring blankets and even little charcoal braziers to keep warm. The benches facing the congregation were where the children sat, right up front so their parents could keep an eye on them.”

While The Brick Church is still the official Parish church, St. James gave up holding weekly services more than a century ago. Today, those services are held in the marvelous Chapel of Ease – a lovely house of worship in the heart of McClellanville.

To visit St. James, head south on Highway 17 from the Grand Strand. When you pass the turn-off to Hampton Plantation on your right, keep an eye out for Rutledge Road. The turn can be a little hard to see, but it’s just past a large sign advertising BJ’s Sports Bar. Once on Rutledge Road, you’ll see a sign for a left turn on the Old Georgetown Road.

If you’d like to get an even better feeling for what The Church in the Wildwood feels like, listen to the Carter Family’s early, pre-Blue Grass version of the song (

Every note they play and every note they sing reflects their complete honesty, sincere faith and a deep-seated belief in a better world to come. I think you’ll find the same wonderful qualities inside St. James-Santee.

My thanks to Joyce and Frank Luft for their inspiration and transportation and to Mr. Bud Hill for his extensive historical knowledge and gentle guidance.

About this writer

  • Phil La Borie Phil La Borie is an award-winning writer/artist based in Garden City, South Carolina. His work has been published in AdWeek, The Kaiser-Permanente Journal, Westworld Magazine and online at Phil is the 2015 winner of the Alice Conger Patterson Award offered through the Emrys Foundation. He can be reached at

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2 Responses to “Notes for Newcomers: Come to the Church in the Wildwood”

  1. Phil, this is certainly one of the places I intend to visit when I come to your part of the world. Very informative and interesting article.

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