Thomas Hemerken, better known as Thomas of Kempen (Kempen being a German village 40 miles from Cologne), or Thomas à Kempis, wrote the most famous devotional book in Christian history.

He was born about 1380, and his parents, though poor, managed to send him to Holland to be educated by the Brethren of the Common Life. The Brethren emphasized spiritual conversion, practical holiness, and meditation on Christ. These teachings hit a chord with the young student, and he became a deeply pondering disciple of the Lord Jesus. In 1399 Thomas, about 20, entered the Augustinian convent of Mount Saint Agnes, near Zwolle, Holland, and this became his home the rest of his life. There he preached, copied manuscripts, dispensed spiritual counsel, and wrote books until his death at age 90. A monument was dedicated to his memory at St. Michael’s Church in Zwolle on November 11, 1897.

Though Thomas’s life was a quiet one, its echoes reverberate through history. His best-known work is The Imitation of Christ, originally a series of four books published anonymously (causing years of speculation about its author). The Imitation was widely popular, embraced by both Protestants and Catholics, and it reached its ninety-ninth printing by the end of the fifteenth century. Today, it is known as one of the greatest devotional classics of all time. In terms of circulation, it has reportedly been more widely distributed than any book in church history besides the Bible. Readers are challenged to deny themselves, embrace humility, and love God. Here is a sample:

Strive to turn your heart from loving things that are seen, and to set it upon things that are not seen. … How much better is a lowly peasant who serves God than a proud philosopher who watches the stars and neglects knowing himself. … We must not trust every word of others or feeling within ourselves, but cautiously and patiently try the matter, whether it be of God. The more humble a man is in himself, and the more obedient toward God, the wiser will he be in all things, and the more shall his soul be at peace.

You have been raised to life with Christ. Now set your heart on what is in heaven, where Christ rules at God’s right side. Think about what is up there, not about what is here on earth. You died, which means that your life is hidden with Christ, who sits beside God. (Colossians 3:1-3)

Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). Nov. 11.

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