Today’s Kalendar commemorates Alfred, Saxon king of what is now southern England in the 9th C.. He helped to preserve Christianity throughout Britain by vanquishing the armies of pagan Danish invaders in the northeast part of the island, forcing the conversion and baptism of their king. (Today we might question that as a method of evangelism.) But even more importantly Alfred influenced the future by encouraging learning. Literate in Latin and possessing a scholarly turn of mind, he brought to his court distinguished scholars from monasteries in England and the Continent. As a layman, together with his clerical colleagues, Alfred helped in translating a number of theological works from Latin into the Anglo-Saxon vernacular, which is the foundation of our English language today. Moreover, the court school that Alfred established for educating clergy along with lay members of the nobility led to a gradual increase in literacy in Church and society across ensuing years. His court school was a precursor of later cathedral schools and even after that, of the beginnings of what became our modern universities.
Alfred’s example reminds us that the Church, with support from lay benefactors, far from opposing scholarly inquiry has been across the centuries a primary sponsor of learning and careful thinking. I recall a clever advertising poster in a series of such that were circulated nationally in the 1970’s by St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Minneapolis. Beneath a picture of Jesus are printed the following words: “He died to take away your sins, not your mind.”
We give thanks on this day for King Alfred, especially for his commitment and support for learning.
The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is a retired priest of the Diocese of Washington