Twelve Things You May Not Know About Thomas a Kempis and The Imitation of Christ

One of my favorite books is The Imitation of Christ by Thomas Kempis. I first read this during my days at Trinity and I immediately fell in love with it. A couple of times a year I pull it off the shelf and read portions of it and with every reading I come away enriched. Yesterday we received in the store a new book from Paraclete Press called The Complete Imitation of Christ. This is not only a fresh translation of this classic but it also contains a wonderful introduction to the book and to the man. Many who have read this time-honored classic have never read anything about its author. Fr. John-Julian does a masterful job of introducing the book and Thomas. The format of this edition features the text of The Imitation of Christ on the right side of the page with commentary on the left side of the page. As I perused some of the commentary I realized there is so much more to this book then I ever knew and now many of those gaps will be filled in for me. This will be a book I will take my time in reading and, no doubt, savor every page. As I read through the introduction I listed twelve things I thought some of my readers may not be aware of about Thomas and his classic. Here they are in no particular order.

  1. Thomas Kempis was Catholic – For many this is common knowledge but for many Protestants this is not known.
  2. Thomas was “part of a group formally charged with heresy on two occasions.”
  3. The Imitation of Christ was not written solely by Thomas. Fr. Julian believes that Thomas did edit, compile, and partially author the work as we know it today but that it was probably written by three different authors: Thomas, Gerhard Groote and Florens Radewyns. There have been as many as thirty-five different authors suggested for the work.
  4. There are over 6,000 editions of the Imitation of Christ. That’s more than one edition per month for over five hundred years.
  5. The Imitation of Christ “has been published more often and read more widely than any other book in history except the Bible itself.”
  6. Thomas’s family name was Hamerken.
  7. The “a” in a Kempis is Latin for “from” and, if used, should never be accented. Thomas signed his own copy of the Imitation of Christ simply Thomas Kempis.
  8. Thomas copied the entire Vulgate Bible. It took him sixteen years to complete.
  9. “During his monastic life, Thomas wrote thirty-one books, treatises, and articles including a chronicle of his monastery and several biographies. . . . He also left behind him three manuscripts of sermons, a number of letters, some hymns and, of course, the famous The Imitation of Christ.
  10. In 1471, just before his death, he had the joy of seeing his The Imitation of Christ published by Günther Zainer at Augsburg. This was one of the earliest books ever printed.
  11. At least two attempts have been made to canonize Thomas (once in 1655 and once in 1911) but both have failed.
  12. Thomas may have been buried alive. “The most bizarre (but entirely consistent) legend had it that when Thomas’s remains were discovered in 1672, it was found that the inside of the coffin lid was covered with scratches and there were splinters of wood under the fingernails of the corpse . . .” (439n73)

The Complete Imitation of Christ by Fr. John-Julian is from Paraclete Press. It is a paperback with 400 pages and sells for $29.99.


About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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4 Responses to Twelve Things You May Not Know About Thomas a Kempis and The Imitation of Christ

  1. ioj says:

    reading humbles the soul


  2. Thank you for informing me re. the new edition of Imitation with its left-page commentary. I hadn’t thought of Saint Thomas in many years until the other week when I quoted, or misquoted, one of his sayings from memory. ‘Remember always the end and that time lost will not be returned to you.’ I didn’t want to misinform my young friend because she is serious about her Judaism and has a lively interest in Christian theology. In future I shall always go to a library or my own bookshelves or the internet before quoting an important source. Indeed that’s how I discovered your informative post. I am wondering if Thomas was read much by Luther, Calvin, Farel and Knox? Did the Reformers turn to the Imitation as they did to Augustine’s Confessions and The City of God? I often peruse Calvin’s Commentaries but I can’t recall any allusion to Kempis. Nor can I recall any of the Puritans such as Owen, Baxter and Sibbes going to the Imitation, although my memory isn’t really to be trusted. I am a former Roman Catholic but now worship at Reformed churches. I should like to start a reading group which uses Catholic and Protestant texts, be they devotional or theological. A Christian reading group could be a good way of reaching the unchurched. It would be good to see a cluster of such groups in cities and towns in Europe, Canada and the USA not to mention the whole world. Groups could communicate with each other through the world web. During the Dark Ages the faith was kept alive by a constellation of monasteries in places as remote as Skellig Michael in Ireland – Os Guinness reminded us of this in his prophetic book 1973 book The Dust of Death. Maybe The Imitation of Christ will become a much-quoted text for our own Dark Age. It could reach a lost generation who were tragically led astray by Richard Dawkins and the decadent media.


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