Biography of Thomas à Kempis

Author of "The Imitation of Christ"

Thomas à Kempis
Thomas à Kempis (c. 1380-1471).

Rischgitz / Stringer / Getty Images 

Thomas à Kempis (circa 1380–July 26, 1471) was an Augustinian monk, a copyist, and a writer of Christian books and devotionals. He is best known for his treasured devotional classic, The Imitation of Christ. 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.

Fast Facts: Thomas à Kempis

  • Also Known As: Thomas Hemerken
  • Known For: German monk, manuscript copyist, and author of the classic Christian devotional, The Imitation of Christ. He was also a devoted member of the Brethren of the Common Life.  
  • Born: Exact date unknown; most likely in 1379 or 1380, in Kempen, Germany
  • Died: July 26, 1471, near Zwolle, Netherlands
  • Selected WorksThe Imitation of Christ, A Meditation on the Incarnation of Christ, Sermons on the Life and Passion of Our Lord, Prayers and Meditations on the Life of Christ
  • Notable Quote: "Gladly we desire to make other men perfect, but we will not amend our own fault." (The Imitation of Christ)

Called Early to a Life of Devotion

Thomas à Kempis was born Thomas Hemerken in Kempen, a town in the Rhine valley northwest of Cologne, Germany. It was from his hometown that Thomas later took his name, Kempis. His parents were poor peasants, and he had one brother.

Thomas began his formal education around age 12, in 1392, at the famous cathedral school at Deventer in the Netherlands. While studying, he met Florentius Radewijns, a renowned preacher and esteemed member of the Brethren of the Common Life. Recognizing in Thomas spiritual virtue and an inclination toward piety, Radewijns drew the young Thomas under his wing.

Since Thomas lacked the funds to pay his room and board, Radewijns invited the boy to stay at his house and provided him with books and tuition money for school. It was common practice then for the Brethren of the Common Life to help support and educate poor children. At some point in his youth, Thomas lived among the Brethren at their communal house at Deventer and wrote fondly of the experience:

“All I earned, I gave to the community. Here I learned to read and write the Holy Scriptures and books on moral subjects, but it was chiefly through the sweet conversation of the Brethren that I was inspired yet more strongly to despise the world. I took pleasure in their godly conduct.”

Emulating Christ

Around age 20, Thomas à Kempis entered Mount St. Agnes, a newly founded Dutch Augustinian monastery associated with the Brethren of the Common Life. At the time, Thomas’ older brother John, one of the founders of the Brethren of the Common Life, was the superior of the monastery. Except for a brief time when the order was moved to Lunekerke, in Friesland, Thomas lived at Mount St. Agnes, near Zwolle in the Netherlands, for the remainder of his life.

As was typical for the Brethren, one of Thomas’ primary undertakings was copying manuscripts, including the Bible, which he copied in its entirety no less than four times. He also taught novice monks in the disciplines of spiritual life. In this role, he wrote devotionals, sermons, and practical teachings. Some of the topics he covered included humility, grace, poverty, chastity, and the lives of the saints. By his mid-thirties, in 1413, Thomas was ordained to the priesthood.

Between 1420 and 1427, Thomas à Kempis wrote four booklets that became known collectively as The Imitation of Christ. In them he set forth this primary requirement for living the deeper Christian life:

“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. Let it be the most important thing we do, then, to reflect on the life of Jesus Christ.”

By the end of the 15th century, The Imitation of Christ had been published in Latin, French, German, Italian, English, and Spanish. One historian wrote this description of Thomas à Kempis and his classic devotional:

“He was humble, meek, ready to give consolation; fervent in his exhortations and prayers, spiritual, contemplative, and his efforts in this direction finally resulted in the composition of an original treatise, which to this hour remains one of the most perfect compositions in religious literature, by many considered the most beautiful uninspired production—the Imitation of Christ.”

The Imitation of Christ greatly influenced future Christian writers like Martin Luther, Samuel Johnson, and George Eliot. The founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius of Loyola, was so fond of the book that he read a chapter from it each day and often gave copies of the devotional as gifts. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, believed it contained the best summary of the Christian life he had ever read. To this day, The Imitation of Christ remains one of the most influential devotional works in Christian history. 

Forerunner of the Reformation

The monks who lived with Thomas à Kempis were profoundly inspired by his intense religious fervor. By the time he died in 1471, his presence at Mount St. Agnes had made the monastery famous.

Thomas à Kempis was a highly sought after spiritual advisor, and along with his fellow Brethren, he ministered not just to religious devotees, but to ordinary people. While he and the Brethren never joined the Protestant Reformation, their work among the common people certainly contributed a great deal to the movement. Some historians have called Thomas à Kempis a forerunner of the Reformation.

While Thomas à Kempis’ contribution to Christian history is linked almost exclusively with his one humble devotional, the impact of that single achievement has been profound, far-reaching, and long enduring. 

Sources

  • “Thomas à Kempis.” Encyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature (Vol. 5, p. 33).
  • “Thomas à Kempis.” 131 Christians Everyone Should Know (p. 262).
  • “Thomas à Kempis.” The Westminster Dictionary of Theologians (First edition, p. 203).
  • “Thomas à Kempis.” Who’s Who in Christian History (p. 672).