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Thomas à Kempis

Thomas à Kempis Thomas à Kempis[1†]

Thomas à Kempis, CRV (c. 1380 – 25 July 1471; German: Thomas von Kempen; Dutch: Thomas van Kempen) was a German-Dutch canon regular of the late medieval period[1†][2†]. He is best known as the author of The Imitation of Christ, published anonymously in Latin in the Netherlands c. 1418 –1427[1†][2†]. This work is one of the most popular and best known Christian devotional books[1†][2†].

His name means “Thomas of Kempen”, Kempen being his home town[1†]. He was a member of the Modern Devotion, a spiritual movement during the late medieval period, and a follower of Geert Groote and Florens Radewyns, the founders of the Brethren of the Common Life[1†].

Thomas à Kempis was born in Kempen in the Rhineland[1†]. His surname at birth was Hemerken (or Hammerlein), meaning “little hammer,” Latinized into "Malleolus"[1†]. His father, Johann, was a blacksmith and his mother, Gertrud, was a schoolmistress[1†].

Early Years and Education

Thomas à Kempis was born around 1380 in Kempen, a town near Düsseldorf, in the Rhineland region of Germany[2†][1†][3†]. His original surname was Hemerken (or Hammerlein), which translates to “little hammer,” reflecting his family’s profession[2†][1†][3†]. His father, Johann, was a blacksmith, and his mother, Gertrud, was a schoolmistress[2†][1†][3†].

Thomas began his formal education around the age of 12, in 1392, at the renowned cathedral school at Deventer in the Netherlands[2†][4†]. This school was associated with the Brethren of the Common Life, followers of Gerard Groote’s Modern Devotion[2†][1†]. He attended this school from 1392 to 1399[2†][1†].

In 1392, Thomas followed his brother, Johann, to Deventer in the Netherlands to attend the noted Latin school there[2†][1†]. While attending this school, Thomas encountered the Brethren of the Common Life, followers of Gerard Groote’s Modern Devotion[2†][1†]. He attended school in Deventer from 1392 to 1399[2†][1†].

These early years were formative for Thomas, providing him with a strong foundation in religious devotion and education that would guide his later works and contributions[2†][1†].

Career Development and Achievements

Thomas à Kempis began his religious career around 1406 when he entered the Monastery of Mount St. Agnes, a community of the Canons Regular of the Congregation of Windesheim, founded by disciples of Gerard Groote[1†]. This congregation was devoted to providing a way of life more in keeping with the norms of monastic life of the period[1†].

Thomas took his vows in 1408 and was ordained a priest in 1413[1†][2†]. He devoted his life to copying manuscripts and directing novices[1†][2†]. Besides the copying of numerous manuscripts, including one of the Bible, Thomas wrote many works of devotion, collections of sermons, and contemporary chronicles[1†][5†].

His most significant contribution to Christian literature is the “Imitation of Christ”, published anonymously in Latin in the Netherlands around 1418 –1427[1†][2†][1†]. This devotional book, with the exception of the Bible, has been considered one of the most influential works in Christian literature[1†][2†][1†]. The book emphasizes the spiritual rather than the materialistic life, affirms the rewards of being Christ-centered, and supports Communion as a means to strengthen faith[1†][2†].

Thomas à Kempis is considered the most complete and outstanding representative of the devotio moderna, a religious movement created by Geert Groote, founder of the Brethren of the Common Life[1†][5†]. In his writings, Thomas stressed asceticism rather than mysticism, as well as moderate—not extreme—austerity[1†][2†].

First Publication of His Main Works

Thomas à Kempis is best known for his work “The Imitation of Christ”, which was published anonymously in Latin in the Netherlands around 1418–1427[1†][2†]. This devotional book has been considered one of the most influential works in Christian literature, second only to the Bible[1†][2†].

In addition to “The Imitation of Christ”, Thomas à Kempis wrote a series of sermons for the novices of St. Augustine Monastery[1†][6†]. These include:

He also wrote “A Meditation on the Incarnation of Christ”, “Sermons on the Life and Passion of Our Lord”, and "Prayers and Meditations on the Life of Christ"[1†][4†].

His writings are all of a devotional character and include tracts and meditations, letters, sermons, a life of Saint Lydewigis—a Christian woman who remained steadfast under a great stress of afflictions—and biographies of Groote, Radewijns, and nine of their companions[1†][7†].

Analysis and Evaluation

Thomas à Kempis’ work, particularly “The Imitation of Christ”, has had a profound influence on Christian literature[2†][1†]. His writings, remarkable for their simple language and style, emphasize the spiritual rather than the materialistic life, affirm the rewards of being Christ-centered, and support Communion as a means to strengthen faith[2†]. His writings offer possibly the best representation of the devotio moderna (a religious movement created by Geert Groote, founder of the Brethren of the Common Life) that made religion intelligible and practicable for the “modern” attitude arising in the Netherlands at the end of the 14th century[2†].

In “The Imitation of Christ”, Thomas combines a painfully accurate analysis of the soul with a clear vision of the fullness of the divine life[2†][8†]. He does not describe the spiritual life in a linear way, as if one step precedes another, but instead repeats and embellishes themes, like a symphonic composer[2†][8†]. He stressed asceticism rather than mysticism as well as moderate—not extreme—austerity[2†].

His primary requirement for living the deeper Christian life is: “We must imitate Christ’s life and his ways if we are to be truly enlightened and set free from the darkness of our own hearts"[2†][4†]. This requirement is set forth in his four booklets that became known collectively as “The Imitation of Christ”, written sometime between 1420 and 1427[2†][4†][9†].

Personal Life

Thomas à Kempis was born in the German town of Kempen, near Cologne[10†]. His father, Johann, was a blacksmith, and his mother, Gertrud, was a schoolmistress[10†][1†]. His original surname was Hemerken (or Hammerlein), which means “little hammer,” reflecting his family’s profession[10†][1†].

In 1392, Thomas followed his brother, Johann, to Deventer in the Netherlands to attend the noted Latin school there[10†][1†]. While attending this school, Thomas encountered the Brethren of the Common Life, followers of Gerard Groote’s Modern Devotion[10†][1†]. After leaving school, Thomas went to the nearby city of Zwolle to visit his brother again, after Johann had become the prior of the Monastery of Mount St. Agnes there[10†][1†]. This community was one of the Canons Regular of the Congregation of Windesheim, founded by disciples of Groote in order to provide a way of life more in keeping with the norms of monastic life of the period[10†][1†].

Thomas himself entered Mount St. Agnes in 1406[10†][1†]. He took his vows in 1408, was ordained in 1413, and devoted his life to copying manuscripts and to directing novices[10†][2†]. He remained almost continually at the monastery for over 70 years[10†][2†].

Conclusion and Legacy

Thomas à Kempis’ life and labors leave one of the clearest examples of the spiritual revival generated by the Brethren of the Common Life, a communal brotherhood founded in the Netherlands in the 14th century to promote Christian growth, religious education, and devotion to Christ[4†].

He is generally considered the most outstanding representative of the late medieval religious movement known as the “Devotio Moderna”[4†][11†]. His writings offer possibly the best representation of this religious movement that made religion intelligible and practicable for the “modern” attitude arising in the Netherlands at the end of the 14th century[4†][2†]. Thomas stressed asceticism rather than mysticism as well as moderate—not extreme—austerity[4†][2†].

His most notable work, “The Imitation of Christ”, is a devotional book that, with the exception of the Bible, has been considered one of the most influential works in Christian literature[4†][2†][1†]. Remarkable for its simple language and style, it emphasizes the spiritual rather than the materialistic life, affirms the rewards of being Christ-centered, and supports Communion as a means to strengthen faith[4†][2†].

Thomas à Kempis’ influence extended to many, including Alexander Hegius von Heek, Thérèse of Lisieux, Thomas More, John Fisher, Ignatius of Loyola, Erasmus, Edmund Burke, Joseph De Maistre, Thomas Merton, John Wesley, José Rizal, Swami Vivekananda, Shailer Mathews, and Søren Kierkegaard[4†][1†].

Key Information

References and Citations:

  1. Wikipedia (English) - Thomas à Kempis [website] - link
  2. Britannica - Thomas a Kempis: clergyman [website] - link
  3. Christian Classics Ethereal Library - Author info: Thomas à Kempis - Christian Classics Ethereal Library [website] - link
  4. Learn Religions - Thomas à Kempis: Author of The Imitation of Christ [website] - link
  5. Encyclopedia.com - Thomas à Kempis [website] - link
  6. The History of Creativity - Thomas à Kempis [website] - link
  7. The Anglican Library - Thomas a Kempis [website] - link
  8. C.S. Lewis Institute - Profiles in Faith: Thomas à Kempis [website] - link
  9. ResearchGate - None [website] - link
  10. Encyclopedia.com - Thomas À Kempis [website] - link
  11. 8SA.NET - Thomas à Kempis: Biography, Works, and Legacy of the Devotio Moderna Theologian [website] - link
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