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Thomas À Kempis


THOMAS À KEMPIS (1379/801471), also known as Thomas Hemerken, late medieval Christian mystic. Born in the German town of Kempen, near Cologne, Thomas at age fourteen entered one of the schools of the Brethren of the Common Life in the Dutch city of Deventer and spent the rest of his long life in the Netherlands. Ordained to the priesthood in 1413, he entered an Augustinian monastery near Zwolle, where he remained until his death. A reputed portrait of Thomas carries this inscription: "In all things I sought quietness and found it only in retirement and books." Whether or not the portrait is indeed one of Thomas, the legend is one that accurately describes him.

His lasting fame proceeds from the book Imitation of Christ. While its authorship cannot be firmly established and has been disputed by many scholars, the preponderance of opinion is that Thomas was the author. A devotional manual for personal spiritual growth and development, Imitation of Christ has been an influential guide to personal piety for persons as different as Samuel Johnson and John Wesley. The number of known editions far exceeds two thousand.

The fifteenth century saw a reaction against what was felt to be the excessively intellectual quality of medieval scholasticism. Imitation of Christ reflects these feelings in its marked Christocentricity and its insistence upon experience rather than reason, and it presents a kind of piety that has appealed far beyond the Middle Ages. It shares many basic assumptions with eighteenth-century Protestant pietism and was an influential work for this movement, particularly in England and Germany.

The reputation of the book has diminished in the twentieth century because of its innate quietism. The social implications of the gospel and the activism that it might require find no support in Thomas's book. But wherever Christianity is seen as consisting primarily in personal devotion and private piety, the work's traditional reputation still holds.

Apart from Imitation of Christ, Thomas's writings have attracted little lasting attention. His Small Alphabet for a Monk in the School of God is in much the same vein as Imitation. A number of biographies of leaders in the Brethren of the Common Life breathe the same spirit but have never attained the same popularity.

Scholars have disagreed rather sharply about the relationship of Thomas to later movements, such as the Protestant Reformation. Albert Hyma argued that there was direct continuity between him and his school and Martin Luther. R. R. Post, on the other hand, maintained that the discontinuity was far greater than the continuity, especially in the way Thomas insisted on the virtues of monastic life. No definite answer is possible. Whatever his influence on Luther and Erasmus, it is known that Imitation was the favorite book of Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus.

For the most part Thomas simply ignored the peculiarities of later medieval theology, concentrating instead on his own inner experience. It is for this reason that the popularity of Imitation of Christ has far transcended the author's time and place. A devotionalist rather than a theologian, Thomas has had a continuing appeal to persons of similar disposition.


Hyma, Albert. The Brethren of the Common Life. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1950.

Hyma, Albert. The Christian Renaissance: A History of "Devotio Moderna." 2d ed. Hamden, Conn., 1965.

Post, R. R. The Modern Devotion: Confrontation with Reformation and Humanism. Leiden, 1968.

Schaff, David S. The Middle Ages from Boniface VIII, 1294, to the Protestant Reformation, 1517, vol. 5, pt. 2, of History of the Christian Church. New York, 1910.

Howard G. Hageman (1987)

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