Thomas a Kempis and Medieval Mysticism (1)

Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.


The error of mysticism has never been absent from the church of Christ in the new dispensation. It appeared early in the Montanist movement in the third century and has, in a remarkable way, maintained itself to the present. The church has always had to fight off mysticism.

Not a single period in the Middle Ages was without its mystics. Sometimes they were present in multitudes; sometimes only individual mystics kept the flame of mysticism burning. But never did the church free itself from them. In fact, the church had no interest in condemning the mystics. They were never considered heretics. One gets the impression, on the contrary, that the church encouraged them. I suspect there were good reasons for such encouragement. The mystics were, almost without exception, faithful and loyal members of the church and supporters of the hierarchy. But, perhaps more importantly, the church seemed, almost unconsciously, to recognize that, in the cold formalism of Roman Catholic liturgy, the warm and experiential piety espoused by the mystics was a necessary and healthy counterbalance.

Mysticism is a term with a very vague and fuzzy meaning. It covers a wide range of views and practices and describes a broad spectrum of people. In some instances mysticism cannot be distinguished in any significant way from genuine orthodoxy. In other instances mysticism is radical, extreme, and as far removed from orthodoxy as pantheism is from the truth of creation. Indeed, some mystics were pantheists, a heresy which identifies God with the creation itself. Between these two extremes was such a wide diversity of opinion that no single book could contain all the differences and nuances between various branches of mystical thought.

That makes our present task a daunting one, and forces us to limit our discussion, for the most part, to the main ideas which mysticism of every sort had in common.

It is also for this reason that I have chosen Thomas à Kempis as an example of medieval mysticism. He was by no means the worst of the mystics. In fact, he was a late mystic from the Netherlands who was one of a group of mystics who had an influence on the reformers and the Reformation. His book, The Imitation of Christ, is considered a classic and is still read by Protestants as well as Roman Catholics.

He is, therefore, ideally suited for our purposes. From him we can learn what mysticism is all about and what are the dangers in mysticism against which we have to fight.

The Life of Thomas à Kempis

The surname, à Kempis, means “from Kempen.” That was the name of the village in which Thomas was born in 1380, a little less than 200 years before the beginning of the Reformation. The village of Kempen is near Cologne, Germany. His birthplace helps us explain, I think, the mysticism to which Thomas was committed, for Cologne and Kempen are both in the Rhine Valley, and the fog-shrouded Rhine River Valley was the center of the mystical life.

Thomas was born of poor parents who were unable to provide any kind of education for him. Their surname was Hemerken, a name almost totally unsuited to Thomas, for it means, “Little Hammer.” Thomas was about as gentle a man as it is possible to find.

A biography of Thomas à Kempis would hardly fill ten pages, for he was determined that nothing would happen to him in his life; and so, under God’s providence, it turned out to be.

He was a studious young lad and very serious-minded. He resolved, therefore, at about 13 years old, to seek an education some-place where he could receive it at an affordable cost. Such a place was to be found in the circles of “The Brethren of the Common Life.” One community of these “Brethren” was to be found near Deventer in the Netherlands, a city straight east of Amsterdam, and on an arm of the Rhine.

A word about the “Brethren of the Common Life” might be in order. In a sense one could call “The Brethren of the Common Life” a community of mystics; but that designation would not be entirely accurate. They were made up of a fairly large number of communities stretching from Strassburg all the way to Rotterdam. They were loosely tied together with little or no organizational unity, but brought together by a common desire to cultivate the Christian life and emphasize genuine piety. These communities put a great deal of emphasis on establishing schools for children and educating them in the knowledge of godliness. They built hospitals and were assiduous in caring for the poor. They were very influential, produced some outstanding theologians in the tradition of mysticism, and influenced the Reformation in Germany and the Netherlands.

During the years of his study, Thomas developed his skills as a copyist and used these skills to support himself. All his life he continued in this work, copying books for the libraries of theologians of the “Brethren of the Common Life,” copying various manuscripts of importance to the community, and copying Scripture. There was as yet no such thing as a printing press, although the invention of a movable-type printing press was just around the corner. Thomas made in his lifetime four copies of the Scriptures, one of which is extant.

While in Deventer, Gerhard Groot observed the studious and pious ways of the young boy and took him into his own house. This put Thomas in the center of the life of the “Brethren,” for the house of Gerhard Groot was the headquarters of the community located in the city. The influence of the mysticism of the “Brethren” molded his entire life.

After completing his studies, and being attracted to the ascetic life, Thomas entered an Augustinian convent in Zwolle, twenty or thirty miles north of Deventer. Thomas’ brother was prior of this convent, and in it Thomas found a congenial home. He was ordained a priest in the Roman Catholic Church in 1413, and in 1429 he became sub-prior. After his brother died, Thomas was prior for a short time, but he found the administrative work too burdensome and asked to be relieved of that position.

From that point on, his life can be summed up in a few sentences. He spent his time in three activities: copying, devotional exercises, and writing. It was a quiet life, removed from the bustling world about him, placid and serene, noiseless and routine, without any variation in the activities of the day. He himself wrote: “In all things I sought quiet and found it not save in retirement (from all aspects of life in the world, HH) and books.”

Thomas died in Zwolle in 1471 and was buried in the convent cemetery.

The Imitation of Christ

Thomas possessed a prolific pen. Yet, of all he wrote, he is remembered for only one book, The Imitation of Christ. No less a theologian than Charles Hodge has called this book the “pearl of German-Dutch mysticism.” It has been given the highly-honored place of being one of three great devotional books, of which the other two are Augustine’s Confessions and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.

Today there are more than 2000 editions of the book, over 1000 of them found in the British Museum in London. It was written originally in Latin, in which over 545 editions exist. It was translated into many languages, including English. Over 900 editions exist in French alone. Its English editions are available today and are read by many. Dr. Samuel Johnson, the great English lexicographer and friend of James Boswell, learned Dutch by reading The Imitation of Christ.

One writer says the following about the book.

It consists of four books and seems to have been written in meter and rime…. The work is a manual of devotion intended to help the soul in its communion with God and the pursuit of holiness. Its sentences are … pitched in the highest key of Christian experience…. Behind and within all its reflections runs the council of self-renunciation. The life of Christ is presented as the highest study possible to a mortal…. That which makes it acceptable to all Christians is the supreme stress it lays upon Christ and the possibility of immediate communion with him and God.

At the same time, it was written by a Roman Catholic mystic and has references in it to the merit of good works, transubstantiation, purgatory, and the worship of saints—although these references are few in number and easily ignored.

A few quotes from the book will give the reader a taste of its contents.

Love to be unknown and to be reputed as nothing.

Where the crowd is, there is usually confusion and distraction of heart.

Love solitude and silence, and thou wilt find great quiet and good conscience.

Choose poverty and simplicity.

Humble thyself in all things and under all things, and thou wilt merit kindness from all.

Let Christ be thy life, thy reading, thy meditation, thy conversation, thy desire, thy gain, thy hope and thy reward.

Zaccheus, brother, descend from the height of thy secular wisdom. Come and learn in God’s school the way of humility, long-suffering and patience, and Christ teaching thee, thou shalt come at last safely to the glory of eternal beatitude.

In our next article, we will examine the mysticism of Thomas à Kempis and the mysticism of the Middle Ages.