My father used to read to me from The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. He read it in answer to some question I had about my homework, some question that probably did not involve the Romans, and he read it at length.
I know now that that was an awesome thing to do—take my homework question and place it in context by linking it to the historical moment that preceded it—but as a teenager eager to finish that assignment so I could get back to living life, i.e. watching MTV while I waited for my hair color to set, I didn’t appreciate what my father was trying to do.
I appreciate it now: just as we can’t pull Leviticus out of context and expect to understand its laws and commands, we can’t pull our point in history out of context and expect to understand how we got here, what we must do to change, where we are headed—any of it.
History is our broader context: from the decisions our parents made that shape our lives now, to the decisions some emperor made hundreds of years ago that shape the structure of our cities, we need to have at least a passing familiarity with them in order to understand our own roles and responsibilities now. When we isolate our particular moment in time, it seems absurd—at times even insane (and yes, I’m thinking of the election as I write)—because we do not see the series of events large and small that brought us to this point.
Despite my father’s best efforts, I didn’t even begin to appreciate this fact until a few years ago, when I dipped my toes into the vast and lovely sea of historical narratives. I began to discover many interesting things about our world and about the God who made it, and my way in to each new subject came, in most cases, in the form of a children’s book.
I have compiled a list of some of my favorite books about church history here, and while they’re technically recommendations for your children, I hope you will enjoy them too. And if you find that after reading them, you’re hungry for further study, I have included, wherever possible, recommendations for you.
What better way to learn the alphabet than by using key figures of church history to illustrate each letter? No, I’m kidding. This isn’t an alphabet primer, but a biography sampler: A is for Augustine, Z for Ulrich Zwingli. This is, and probably always will be, my favorite picture book about church history. (Read the full review.)
This series offers a great introduction to church history for kids or adults (confession: my husband and I both read these. For ourselves, not for the kids). Spread over five volumes, History Lives tells the story of the church from the first century to today, by introducing a new key figure each chapter and telling a slightly fictionalized story about some moment in their life. I use these in conjunction with our history curriculum and my daughter loves them. They’re a bit like Story of the World, but about church history rather than world history. (Read the full review.)
Church History in Plain Language, by Bruce Shelley
This simple, lovely biography of missionary Lilias Trotter is a keeper: a great fly-over view of a woman who loved and served God, no matter what the cost. And while many missionaries are wonderful to read about but hard to relate to, Lilias’s story resonates with me. Not many of us here are called to be martyrs, but we’re all called to lay down our lives and desires to serve the Lord whole-heartedly. Lilias Trotter, who set aside an opportunity to become “the greatest artist of her generation” in order to place her gifts in the service of the Lord, is a beautiful example for child and parent alike. (Read the full review.)
A Passion for the Impossible, by Miriam Huffman Rockness
This collection introduces readers to a handful of saints from the early days of the church. Joyce Denhem’s beautiful language pairs nicely with the illustrations, which suggest stained glass windows, but the most beautiful part of the stories is the way they glorify not the saints themselves but the God they served. (Read the full review.)
Lawton’s exploration of the life of Mary Bunyan, John’s daughter, is lovely. This is historical fiction at its best, and it’s one of a series of books about young Christian girls throughout history. (Read the full review.)
Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan
MOSES, by Carole Boston Weatherford
Through an imagined conversation between Harriet Tubman and the Lord, Carole Boston Weatherford paints a portrait of a woman who relied upon the Lord for every step of that first journey from slavery to freedom. The illustrations are moving, depicting Tubman’s travel in a way that captures both the beauty and the hardship of that first flight. Knowing how difficult that first trip was makes the knowledge that she went back (many times) to rescue others from bondage even more amazing.
This series is like a sampler platter of Christian biographies. There’s a set of biographies about men, and a set about women, with five volumes apiece. I’d be willing to bet that your favorite historical figure is in here somewhere. (Read the full review.)
Faithful Women and Their Extraordinary God, by Noel Piper
This is a powerful, detailed biography of Martin Luther. It is a picture book (and a beautifully illustrated one), but the text is weighty and rich: more suited for independent reading than for reading aloud. Maier writes about not just who Luther was, but about why his work still matters today.
Luther on the Christian Life, by Carl R. Trueman
Through a sweet rhyme and simple illustrations, the authors explain not just what the church is, but who. This book is great for young readers, but it’s also a nice, succinct look at the church itself for older kids and even adults. (Read the full review.)
This beautifully illustrated, moving story about Saint Valentine is my favorite Valentine’s Day read. Yes, we eat chocolate hearts while we read it, but Valentine’s story reminds us why we give each other notes and gifts on the holiday while painting a picture of sacrificial love given at a great cost. (Read the full review.)
Which books about church history would you add to the list?