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Thomas à Kempis

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Thomas à Kempis

Thomas à Kempis, C.R.S.A.
Born 1380
Kempen, Prince-Archbishopric of Cologne, Holy Roman Empire
Died 25 July 1471
Zwolle, Bishopric of Utrecht, Holy Roman Empire
Other names Thomas von Kempen
Thomas Haemerkken
Thomas Hammerlein
Thomas Hemerken
Thomas Hämerken
Ethnicity Dutch
Occupation Canon Regular, author, scribe
Known for The Imitation of Christ
Monument on Mount Saint Agnes in Zwolle "Here lived Thomas van Kempen in the service of the Lord and wrote On the Imitation of Christ, 1406–1471"
The reliquary with the relics of Thomas à Kempis
Thomas à Kempis on Mount Saint Agnes - (1569)

Thomas à Kempis, C.R.S.A. (Thomas van Kempen or Thomas Hemerken or Haemerken, litt. "small hammer"; c. 1380 – 25 July 1471)[1] was a German canon regular of the late medieval period and the most probable author of The Imitation of Christ, which is one of the best known Christian books on devotion. His name means "Thomas of Kempen", his hometown, and in German he is known as Thomas von Kempen. He also is known by various spellings of his family name: Thomas Haemerkken; Thomas Hammerlein; Thomas Hemerken and Thomas Hämerken.


Thomas was born at the Lower Rhine town of Kempen, Germany, in the sovereign Prince-Archbishopric of Cologne about A.D. 1380.[2] His surname was Hemerken, Kleverlandish for little hammer. His father John was a blacksmith and his mother Gertrude was a schoolmistress.[2]

In 1392, Thomas followed his brother, Jan, to Deventer in the Bishopric of Utrecht, in order to attend the noted Latin school there. While attending this school, Thomas encountered the Brethren of the Common Life, followers of Gerard Groote's Modern Devotion. He attended school in Deventer from 1392 to 1399.[2]

After leaving school, Thomas went to the nearby city of Zwolle to visit his brother again, after Jan had become the prior of the Monastery of Mount St. Agnes there. 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. Thomas himself entered Mount St. Agnes in 1406. He was not ordained a priest, however, until almost a decade later. He became a prolific copyist and writer. Thomas received Holy Orders in 1413[3] and was made sub-prior of the monastery in 1429.

His first tenure of office as subprior was interrupted by the exile of the community from Agnetenberg (1429). A dispute had arisen in connection with an appointment to the vacant See of Utrecht. Pope Martin V rejected the nomination of Bishop-elect Rudolf van Diepholt, and imposed an interdict. The Canons remained in exile in observance of the interdict until the question was settled (1432). During this time, Thomas was sent to Arnheim to care for his ailing brother. He remained there until his brother died November, 1432.[3]

Otherwise, Thomas spent his time between devotional exercises, composition, and copying. He copied the Bible no fewer than four times,[3] one of the copies being preserved at Darmstadt, Germany in five volumes. In its teachings he was widely read and his works abound in Biblical quotations, especially from the New Testament.

As subprior he was charged with instructing novices, and in that capacity wrote four booklets between 1420 and 1427, later collected and named after the title of the first booklet: The Imitation of Christ. Thomas More said it was one of the three books everybody ought to own.[4]

Thomas died in 1471, near Zwolle in the Prince-Bishopric of Utrecht, seventy-five miles north of his birthplace.


Thomas à Kempis wrote the biographies of New Devotion members—Gerard Groote, Florens Randewijns, John van de Gronde, and John Brinckerinck.[5] His important works include a series of sermons to the novices of St. Augustine Monastery, including Prayers and Meditations on the Life of Christ, Meditations on the Incarnation of Christ, Of True Compunction of Heart, Soliloquy of the Soul, Garden of Roses, Valley of Lilies, and a Life[6] of St. Lidwina of Schiedam. Kempis's 1441 autograph manuscript of The Imitation of Christ is available in the Bibliothèque Royale in Brussels (catalog : MS 5455-61).[5]


The following quotes are attributed to him:

"Without the Way, there is no going,
Without the Truth, there is no knowing,
Without the Life, there is no living."
"If thou wilt receive profit, read with humility, simplicity, and faith, and seek not at any time the fame of being learned."
"At the Day of Judgement we shall not be asked what we have read, but what we have done." — The Imitation of Christ, Book I, ch. 3
"For man proposes, but God disposes" — The Imitation of Christ, Book I, ch. 19
"If, however, you seek Jesus in all things, you will surely find Him. " — The Imitation of Christ, Book II, ch. 7
"In angello cum libello" (with slight variations), "In a little corner with a little book"
— Shortened form of a motto often ascribed to, or associated with, Thomas a Kempis. The complete saying as reported by an early biographer is a mixture of Latin and Dutch and runs as follows: "In omnibus requiem quaesivi, sed non inveni, nisi in hoexkens ende boexkens", "I have sought everywhere for peace, but I have found it not save in nooks and in books."[7]


A monument was dedicated to his memory in the presence of the archbishop of Utrecht in St. Michael's Church, Zwolle, on November 11, 1897. In 1964, this church closed causing his shrine to be moved to a new St. Michael's Church outside the centre of Zwolle. In 2005, this church had also closed and his shrine was moved to the Onze-Lieve-Vrouw-ten-Hemelopneming kerk (Assumption of Mary church) in the centre of Zwolle.[8]


  1. ^ Bijdragen en Mededelingen betreffende de Geschiedenis der Nederlanden, 87, p. 137.
  2. ^ a b c Kempis (2004). On the Passion of Christ according to the four evangelists. Ignatius Press,. pp. 9–12. 
  3. ^ a b c Scully, Vincent. "Thomas à Kempis." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 14. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. 9 Sept. 2014
  4. ^ , August 8, 2008Christian History"Thomas á Kempis",
  5. ^ a b William C. Creasy (2007). "Introduction". The Imitation of Christ. Mercer University Press. pp. xix–xx. 
  6. ^ "Vita Lidewigis". 2001-03-10. Retrieved 2012-03-14. 
  7. ^ See F.A. Wright & T.A. Sinclair, A history of later Latin literature (1931), p. 361 ([1]). Franciscus Tolensis, Vita Thomae a Kempis, 12: "Ostenditur adhuc ejus effigies, sed admodum deformata poenèque obliterata, cum hoc insigni symbolo, In omnibus requiem quaesivi, sed non inveni, nisi in hoexkens ende boexkens: Hoc est, in abditis recessibus & libellulis." (Thomae a Kempis opera omnia, ed. Henricus Sommalius, 1759 edition, I, p. 29 ([2]))
  8. ^


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