The great gift of Alfred J. Church to the world was to make the classics better known. To tens of thousands of youth he brought the grace, wonder, and beauty of the classical age, imparting its atmosphere in simple and faultless English.
—Junior Book of Authors.
Anyone and everyone interested in a classical education for their homeschooled children should know about Alfred J. Church. We discovered him over ten years ago, when we first made an investigation of books that were used to teach ancient history to students in previous generations. In dozens of used book stores, in reviews intended for children’s librarians, and in old school library catalogs, his name came up again and again. The Heritage History library contains over 30 of his books, and he is one of the most prominent authors in both our Ancient Greece, and Ancient Rome collections.
Alfred Church is especially gifted at exciting a real interest in classics for the intermediate student. He does not write introductory histories in the style of Guerber, or Macgregor, but rather, he writes for junior or senior high school students who are already familiar with the basics of Ancient history, but would like a more in depth knowledge of these areas, without having to tackle college-level classics. Church’s works are full of fascinating details that introductory texts leave out, and they inspire an abiding interest in the ancients.
Trained as a classicist, Church taught in English “prep” boarding schools for many years, and began writing books for a general reading audience in the late 1870s. His first books were simplified classics, and although he wrote in many other genres, he is most well-known for rewriting dozens of works by classical authors, mostly from the original Latin or Greek. He does not attempt scholarly translations, however, but writes specifically for a young audience. His books are written in manner that is accessible and entertaining, yet retains a great deal of the flavor and scope of the original.
Two of our favorites are his works adapted directly from The Histories by Herodotus. The Persian War and Stories from Herodotus are a reworking of much of the most famous sections from the great authors work, but are less cumbersome than verbatim translations. Nevertheless, they retain the same anecdotal detail and style of the original. His Greek Tragedians, and Greek Comedians provide significantly abridged versions of many famous Greek plays, but use excerpts from some of the best English translations at key points in order to preserve the humor and cadence of the original. His summaries communicate not only the basic plot line, but also the poetry of the classical playwrights.
More of Church’s adapted classics include Stories From Livy, Stories from Virgil, Last Days of Jerusalem (from Josephus), and Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition, based on an account by Thucydides. His Stories of Charlemagne is based on the Caxton translation and Stories of the Magicians is based on Southey’s Oriental romances.
Most of Church’s revised classics are directed toward middle and high school students, but he also wrote significantly abridged versions of The Aeneid, The Iliad, and The Odyssey for elementary students. These versions are completely rewritten from the original, as they inevitably must be to make them accessible to younger children, but they benefit from Church’s thorough knowledge of the subject, and were three of Church’s most widely read series.
We have already listed almost a dozen Church classics, and have only covered one of the many genres in which he wrote. He also wrote short biographies and historical vignettes, always emphasizing the most interesting aspects of ancient life and politics. Three of his best known works in this genre are In the Days of Cicero, featuring short biographies of the contemporaries of Cicero; Greek Life and Story, featuring biographies of the great Greeks; and Roman Life and Storyy, which focuses mostly on the early years of the Roman Empire. His Stories from English History is a three volume collection of anecdotes from English history.
All of Church’s such works are collections of selected stories that he tells in detail, rather than comprehensive histories. We typically recommend his books as supplements rather than core reading, but they are strongly recommended for intermediate and advanced students. Church’s books provide a critical link between introductory knowledge of the Ancients and college-level study of the classics. Too often, college students are introduced to the great works of the Western Civilization with only a sketchy grasp of Ancient history, and so fail to appreciate them. To read Plato, Aristotle, Aristophanes, Tacitus, or any of the ancients without a sufficient understanding of ancient history will provide students with only a superficial exposure to classics.
Alfred Church was so prolific, there is yet more to say. In addition to adapted classics, historical anecdotes, and other non-fiction, Church wrote almost a dozen works of historical fiction. Instead of discussing his fiction works any further here, however, we’ll save this topic for another post. Such a prolific author as Alfred J. Church is surely worth more than one review.
In Who Killed Homer? Victor David Hanson laments the decline of classical learning in the universities. We disagree with none of his conclusions, but believe that the revival of classical learning must start in home schools and high schools. We must produce a generation of students who are capable of comprehending the classics before a college-level revival of the classics will be possible. In this effort, we have no better resources that the contributions of Rev. Alfred J. Church.