If a man tells you that he is fond of the Imitation, view him with sudden suspicion; he is either a dabbler or a saint … Heaven help us if we find easy reading in the Imitation of Christ.1
The Imitatio Christi, commonly attributed to Thomas à Kempis, is a classic of Western spirituality with an extraordinary publishing history. The Imitatio encapsulates the fundamental tenets of Christian devotion: its inherent Biblicism; its Christ-centred focus; and its exposition of the main Christian virtues of humility, redemptive self-denial and grace.2 There were over 900 manuscripts of the Imitatio produced between 1420 and 1500; it appeared in Middle Dutch as early as it did in Latin, and it was quickly translated into the major European languages. While the use of Latin allowed the Imitatio to cross geographical and linguistic boundaries, the existence of three different manuscript versions in England illustrates that Latin did not necessarily standardize texts.3The Imitatio’s transition from ubiquitous manuscript to early printed bestseller was seamless: there are over 100 extant incunabula (editions that were printed, rather than handwritten) before 1500. Günther Zainer printed the first edition of the Imitatio c.1471 on a Benedictine press in Augsburg. William Caxton’s successors, Richard Pynson (1448–1528) and Wynkyn de Worde (d. 1534), collaborated with the English Bridgettines and Carthusians and printed the first English editions of the Imitatio.4
Between 1500 and 1650, over 650 editions of the Imitatio were printed in a wide array of languages including Arabic, Armenian, Chinese, Czech, Hungarian, Japanese, Polish and Ukrainian.5 A very broad range of individuals adopted the Imitatio during the Early and Late Modern periods including St Thomas More, Caspar Schwenckfeld, St Ignatius of Loyola, St Teresa of Avila, Johann Arndt, John Wesley, Samuel Johnson,6 Thomas Keble, George Eliot, Pope John XXIII, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Thomas Merton.
Thomas Carlyle acknowledged the extent to which the Imitatio was embraced by a wide range of Christian communities. He sent a copy to his mother on 13 February 1833, in which he inscribed the following words: ‘None, I believe, except the Bible, has been so universally read and loved by Christians of all tongues and sects.’ Peter Burke has affirmed that, other than the Bible, no work was reproduced or translated more frequently, while John Van Engen has described it as undoubtedly the ‘most influential devotional book in Western Christian history’.7 The Indian Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902) and the spiritual teacher Eknath Easwaran (1910–99) bear testimony to the Imitatio’s appeal beyond Christian circles.8
Not initially conceived as a single work, the Imitatio Christi consists of four distinct books which were eventually transcribed together due to their thematic similarities. Earliest copies rarely included all four books and the title De Imitatione Christi is taken from the first words of Book One. The earliest manuscript of Book One dates back to 1424, with all four books represented in a manuscript dated three years later.9 The autograph manuscript of 1441 lists them in the same order as this translation: advice helpful to the spiritual life; advice on living the inner life; devout encouragement to receive Holy Communion; the Book of Inner Consolation. The final two books are set out in the form of a dialogue between Christ and His disciple. Many manuscripts and printed editions place the book on Holy Communion at the end, which explains why it is usually designated as the fourth book. Although all four books were probably composed by the same author, the Imitatio generally lacks a systematic linear structure.10
There are over forty claimants to the authorship, including Geert Grote, founder of the devotio moderna (Modern Devout), the religious movement from which the Imitatio emerged.11 Different manuscripts and early printed editions referred either to Thomas à Kempis, Augustinian canon of the Windesheim Congregation, Jean Gerson (1363–1429), Chancellor of the University of Paris, St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153), Ludolph of Saxony (c.1300–78), or Giovanni Gersen (Benedictine Abbot of Vercelli, 1220–40), or else the work was left anonymous. Although Kempis seems to be the strongest claimant, his authorship is not beyond doubt. Gerson appears to be Kempis’ most credible challenger; numerous manuscripts and incunabula were assigned to him.12 Yet it is surely revealing that Gerson’s brother did not attribute the Imitatio to him when he collated his works. Numerous contemporary witnesses (albeit with strong links to Kempis’ circles) supported Kempis’ claim. The Jesuits, who contributed more to the Imitatio’s early printed circulation than any other organization, spoke fondly of the ‘little Gerson’ but later transferred their allegiance to Kempis. The interest in the authorship debate persisted in later centuries, focusing on Gersen, the Benedictine claimant, and Kempis, the latter supported by Jesuits and Augustinians. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century research on the Imitatio also focused mainly on the identity of its author, without reaching a definitive answer. The current consensus is that the Imitatio definitely originated in the communities of the devotio moderna. This Introduction assumes that Kempis was its author.
The doubts raised about Kempis’ authorship are pertinent to the Imitatio’s spirituality and that of the Modern Devout. Most works originating from the devotio moderna were anonymous: claiming authorship could hinder the pursuit of humility, and originality was rarely a primary consideration. The blurred distinction between author and copyist was reinforced by the nature of the devotio moderna’s spiritual note-taking (rapiaria). Writers tended to record important passages from spiritual texts without attribution. Nikolaus Staubach has contended that the hybrid nature of the Imitatio’s rapiaria may be why Kempis was reluctant to claim authorship. This may also explain the ambiguity that surrounds the colophon of the autograph manuscript copy of 1441, which ends with the following words: ‘Finished and completed in the year of our Lord 1441 by the hand of brother Thomas à Kempis at Mount St Agnes near Zwolle’ (Royal Library, Brussels). It is unclear whether Kempis wrote this as author and/or copyist.13 Given the uncertainty about the Imitatio’s author, it is more valuable to set Kempis within the broader context of the devotio moderna than to trace his life in detail. If Kempis did not write the work, then one of his contemporaries (associated with the different branches of the movement) did.
THE IMITATIO, THOMAS À KEMPIS AND THE DEVOTIO MODERNA
The Imitatio’s success has been credited to the text’s universality. Johan Huizinga was not alone in attributing the Imitatio’s popularity to its apparent transcendence of cultural boundaries, yet the timeless characteristics of its spirituality only partly explain its widespread circulation.14 The Imitatio must be placed within its proper context, namely the circles of the devotio moderna. This is similarly true for subsequent editions and translations, particularly since the practice of translation was invariably dictated by the broader social, cultural and (from 1520 onwards) theological context.
The Imitatio was the manifesto for the devotio moderna, a movement consisting of Brothers and Sisters of Common Life (religious communities without vows) and cloistered Augustinian canons and canonesses.15 The movement’s founder, Geert Grote, established the Sisters of Common Life in 1374. Five years later, Florens Radewijns founded the Brothers of Common Life and this was followed in 1387 by the foundation of the Augustinian canons at Windesheim. Manuscript-copying was integral to all components of the Modern Devout and was considered a ‘good work’ and spiritually uplifting. It provided income as well as religious books to read, and allowed the movement to defend its medius status (representing their existence between the monastery and the world) and their use of the vernacular. The Modern Devout responded to the marked increase in book production by establishing libraries and compiling detailed reading lists. The Imitatio obviously benefited from the devotio moderna’s remarkable expansion: eighty-two Brothers of Common Life houses by 1470; ninety Sisters of Common Life communities by 1500; and 100 monasteries by 1511.
The devotio moderna’s monastic branch helped to mould the Imitatio’s spirituality, though numerous scholars have mistakenly asserted that it was written exclusively for monks.16 Although Grote had personally rejected monasticism, he undertook a lengthy retreat at a Carthusian monastery (Munnikhuizen) and shared Johannes Busch’s view that monasticism represented a more perfect form of religious life. At the community of Mount St Agnes, Kempis became steeped in monasticism, and as Sub-Prior and Novice Master he contributed personally to the formation of novices.17 Although monastic vows are not mentioned explicitly in the Imitatio, the text’s spirituality is particularly suited to the cloister.18 Evidence clearly shows that it was widely circulated within the male and female communities of the Windesheim Congregation.19 This was particularly the case in the later 1400s as the devotio moderna underwent a process of monasticization, partly stemming from the mounting opposition to the fact that the Brethren of Common Life had no vows.
Nevertheless, the contents of the Imitatio and diverse nature of the devotio moderna reveal that the text was not written solely for monks. From the very beginning, the Imitatio addressed the Modern Devout and laity who were not cloistered. The monastery at Windesheim was founded in 1387, three years after Grote’s death, by which time he had already established the Sisters of Common Life. He defended their right, and later that of the Brothers, to pursue a religious life without the profession of vows. Emphasis was placed on a communal life in the world, modelled on the New Testament and the early Church. The Brethren’s active and contemplative lives closely resembled those of their monastic contemporaries: book-copying and book-binding; liturgical participation; spiritual note-taking and meditative prayer.
Kempis’ formative experiences with the Brethren in Deventer (and later Zwolle) during the 1390s (under his mentor Radewijns) ensured that he was also sensitive to their traditions and spirituality. Patience, humility and silence, the virtues espoused in the Imitatio, were equally pertinent to those living in the outside world. The Imitatio called for withdrawal from worldly values; this did not necessitate embarking on a monastic career. Exemplary monks, notably the Carthusians, were celebrated more for their dedication and perseverance than their cloistered existence. The Imitatio was embraced by the laity, especially the schoolboys housed by the Brothers. Although the Brothers seldom taught boys, they acted as their spiritual directors. While Grote remained in the world and Kempis eventually joined the Windesheim canons, both advocated the lay readership of vernacular devotional literature. With that broad context in mind, the Imitatio deliberately accommodated the movement’s different components from the outset.
THE IMITATIO’S SPIRITUALITY
Noted for its Biblicism, the Imitatio’s ideas often appear only to be adaptations of biblical texts.20 Kempis copied two complete Bibles in his lifetime; he had an intimate knowledge of the Bible and that familiarity with the Scriptures was consistent with the devotio moderna’s practices. The Bible provided the main source for spiritual reading, collations (talks for spiritual edification) and sermons delivered within their communities. From a spiritual perspective, biblical knowledge was considered pointless without practical application. As we are reminded in Book One, ‘If you knew the whole Bible by heart and the teachings of all the philosophers, what good would that be without the grace and love of God?’21 This also provides a particular interpretation of learning and its relative value.
Theological speculation could work to the detriment of devotion. As Kempis warned, ‘What use is it for learned people to discuss the doctrine of the Trinity if they have no humility, and so displease the Trinity? Learned words do not make anyone wise or holy; it is a good life which draws us closer to God. I would rather feel deep sorrow than be able to define it.’22 A believer with no formal academic training (like Gerard Zerbolt, 1367–98) was not at a spiritual disadvantage in the face of a scholar (like Geert Grote). This is a key strand of the Imitatio’s spirituality: ‘A humble peasant, who serves God, is more pleasing to God than a conceited intellectual, who knows the course of the stars but ignores the things of the spirit.’23
The devotio moderna (including Kempis) were not known for their theological prowess. They professed a preference for books of piety rather than academic tomes, though learning was not to be neglected altogether. The Imitatio’s perspective suited the varying capabilities of the Modern Devout and their followers (notably those schools with which the devotio moderna had links). In the final reckoning, readers would be judged according to their piety, not their intellect.24
Inward forms of spirituality are integral to all four books. The Imitatio prescribes that outward actions should be governed by inward thoughts. Similarly, books, images or statues presented a point of departure for higher forms of contemplation. The Imitatio’s spirituality was responding to the prevalence, not the absence, of religious objects. This was certainly true of the devotio moderna, under whose supervision churches were decorated and books were illuminated. The strong sense of interiority does not mean that outward forms of devotion were insignificant: as Kempis remarked in Book One, ‘There should be a careful scrutiny and organization of both our inward and outward life, since both are essential to our growth.’25
Contrition and Suffering
The stress on interiority is reinforced by the constant need to profess sorrow for sin. The infrequency of formal confession partly explains why so much emphasis was placed on contrition. The devotio moderna established a chapter of faults to allow for more rigorous self-examination. Readers were given stark reminders of their own frailties: ‘Today you confess your sins; tomorrow you again commit the very sins you have confessed!26 The understanding of contrition is also given a liturgical setting: ‘Deep sorrow for sin is an acceptable sacrifice to You, Lord, and is more fragrant in Your sight than clouds of incense.’27 The need to be contrite was reinforced by the poignant reminder of Christ’s Passion. Believers were expected to endure the trials of this earthly life. As Kempis wrote in Book One, ‘if you make no provision for your own soul, who will care for you in the future? The present moment is very precious. Now is the hour of favour; now is the day of salvation.’28 Kempis believed in purgatory, Masses for the dead and intercessory prayers, though the Imitatio’s preoccupation lay with what could be done in the present. Believers were to be consoled by the redemptive significance of suffering.29
Christ and Mary
The Imitatio invoked its readers to follow Christ. Instead of presenting actual moments from Christ’s life, the Imitatio dwelt on His virtues and humanity.30 Devotion to Christ was considered to be a stepping-stone to more profound contemplation: ‘If it is hard to contemplate high and heavenly things, take rest in the Passion of Christ, and love to hide in His sacred wounds.’31 Van Engen has argued that the attention to Christ in Kempis’ works was so marked that ‘there was in effect, if not necessarily in conscious intention, something of a shift toward a more exclusively Christocentric form of piety’.32 While Christ predominates in the Imitatio (Books Three and Four include dialogues between Christ and His disciple), the Virgin Mary is only mentioned once.33 The lack of references to Marian devotion in the Imitatio is not representative of the devotio moderna as a whole. The first chapel and altar of Mount St Agnes were consecrated in honour of Mary; the first house of the Sisters of Common Life and the first convent also chose Mary as their patroness.
Christ served as the model for devotion to the saints, which is strongly advocated in the Imitatio: ‘And anyone who speaks lightly of any of the Saints, speaks lightly both of Myself and of all the company of heaven.’34 The Imitatio’s interpretation of Christian exemplars is rooted in the devotio moderna’s affinity for the Desert Fathers.35 Rather than dwelling on the affection for individual saints, the Imitatio drew attention to the virtues which they extolled (their humility and self-denial; some suffered to the point of death).36 As Christ insists in Book Three, ‘Do not argue over the merits of the Saints, which is the holiest, or which the greater in the Kingdom of Heaven … It is better to pray to the Saints with devout prayer and sorrow, and to implore their glorious prayers, than to search into their secrets with pointless curiosity.’37 Readers were discouraged from dwelling on the saints’ miracles, a theme replicated in the devotio moderna’s numerous Vitae (biographies written to edify their own members).38 Interestingly, the Windesheim Congregation reformed their liturgical calendar, reducing the number of saints’ and feast days.39
Book Four (devout encouragement to receive Holy Communion) focuses on Eucharistic devotion and implies that the Imitatio’s overall purpose is to prepare believers to receive the Body of Christ. Interior preparation included sacramental confession: ‘I am so prone to frequent lapses and so quickly grow lukewarm and careless, that it is essential that I renew, cleanse and activate myself by frequent prayer and confession, and by the reception of Your Body.’40 The insistence on reverence was typified by silent contemplation, rather than an emphasis on outward (physical or verbal) gestures. The Imitatio’s interiority was partly a response to the visual components of Eucharistic piety that had led to the establishment of the Feast of Corpus Christi in 1264. The Imitatio’s spirituality sought to shift the excessive importance attached to the external manifestations of devotion to inward contemplation. Careful spiritual preparation was a prerequisite for the sacramental reception of the Body of Christ. Where sacramental participation was not possible, spiritual communion was recommended. The book also emphasized the dignity of the priestly office and how celebrants of the Eucharist were expected to lead exemplary lives.41 Book Four is not solely directed at priests, though there is a strong emphasis on priestly responsibilities.42 Not all manuscript copies and printed editions of the Imitatio included Book Four.
THE IMITATIO IN THE EARLY MODERN WORLD43
The First Jesuits
The numerous editions of the Imitatio owe a considerable debt to the Society of Jesus, one of the Early Modern period’s most influential organizations.44 The Jesuit Order’s impressive growth greatly contributed to the Imitatio’s circulation.45 Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the Jesuits, recommended it frequently and when he was General of the Society he had only two books permanently on his desk: the New Testament and the Imitatio. Jesuit adoption of the Imitatio largely stemmed from Ignatius’ recommendation in the Spiritual Exercises. They deliberately chose a well-established text that was consistent with their spirituality. Jesuits subsequently produced Latin editions, many of which were then translated into European and non-European languages. They also revised the translations of non-Jesuits, often commissioning printers and even establishing their own presses. The Imitatio was recommended reading within the Jesuit houses, notably in the rules for the Master of Novices, first printed in 1580 under the Jesuit General Everard Mercurian. The appearance of Jesuit-sponsored Latin editions in the seventeenth century may have been triggered by the Antwerp Jesuit College’s inheriting in 1595 of an original autograph manuscript of the Imitatio.46 This may also explain why in the 1600s the Jesuits identified Kempis as the author.
The Jesuit association with the Imitatio appears to sit uncomfortably with some recent Jesuits. For many Catholics (not just Jesuits), the Imitatio’s contempt for the world seems outdated and inappropriate. The Imitatio’s ‘pessimistic’ view of human nature has been contrasted with the more positive interpretation presented at the Second Vatican Council, especially in the document entitled Gaudium et Spes.47 Consequently, leading Jesuit scholars have chosen to emphasize and magnify the discrepancies between the Imitatio’s spirituality and that of the early Jesuits. Joseph de Guibert claimed that:
Ignatius’ thought about the apostolic service of God and about labour throughout the world for the salvation of souls is something almost entirely foreign to the Imitatio. Also, the tendency towards withdrawing oneself from the world, both in affection and also in fact, and the praise given to the retired life within a cell – all this transports us in the Imitatio into an order of thought far removed from that of Ignatius.48
These apparent discrepancies should not disguise the fact that the Imitatio was widely read in Early Modern Jesuit circles. The evidence that the Imitatio was a key devotional text among the early Jesuits is unambiguous, a historical reality that twentieth-century debates within the Roman Catholic Church cannot alter.
Protestant adoption of the Imitatio
Although Martin Luther is known to have praised the piety of the Brethren of Common Life, there is no evidence that he was familiar with the Imitatio and he is unlikely to have held it in high regard. After all, it retained references to purgatory and intercessory prayers to the saints, which Lutheran theology denied. The notion of imitatio Christi seemed to support the value of meritorious works, which Luther’s central doctrine, justification by faith alone (sola fide), had rendered obsolete. The interior reform promoted by the Imitatio was closely intertwined with preparation for the Mass. Protestants rejected Catholic Eucharistic theology and the mediatory powers of priests. These factors explain why early Protestant reformers distanced themselves from the Imitatio.49
Despite this, some Protestants were attracted to the Imitatio’s Christocentricity. Christ’s words in Book Three can be interpreted theologically as well as spiritually: ‘Apart from Me, there can be no help, no good advice and no lasting cure.’50 This was reinforced by the text’s interiority and by its well-established accessibility to the laity. The Imitatio’s pessimistic view of human nature, characterized by the juxtaposition of Nature and Grace in Book Three, appeared to satisfy even a Protestant theological framework: ‘So the nature which You created good and upright has now become the total expression of corruption and weakness; for when it is left to itself it turns always towards evil and low things.’51 The lack of any references to the Sacraments (excluding Book Four) was most convenient. Protestants appreciated that the Imitatio favoured the subordination of external forms of religion to inner piety – for example, its sceptical view of pilgrimages and relics.
The Imitatio’s biblical roots were an obvious point of attraction; Protestants regarded the Bible as the sole source of authority (Sola Scriptura). The centrepiece of the Reformation was to make the vernacular Bible widely available. The Imitatio advocated reading of the Bible and its magnetism was largely due to its inherent Biblicism. The existence of a devotional text alongside the Bible went to the heart of Protestant theology; by expounding the Scriptures, Protestants could be inspired to lead a life of greater religious fervour. The Bible crucially provided translators with a theological filter through which any non-biblical accretions on doctrine and practice could be erased. The goal of Protestant translators and editors was not to replicate the true sense of Kempis’ original text; anything which did not conform to the Protestant interpretation of the Bible was removed. In addition to the notable absence of Book Four, Early Modern Protestant translations omitted any references to monasticism, intercessory prayers to the saints and purgatory.
The sections retained by Protestants are also worthy of mention. While references to purgatory were omitted, the quintessential purgatorial experience in the Imitatio was suffering on earth, a viewpoint which Protestants and Catholics shared. The majority of references to merit relate to Christ, rather than any intrinsic righteousness emanating from believers themselves. The disciple testifies to this in Book Three: ‘I, who am Your servant, possess nothing that is not Your gift and I have no merit of my own. All things are Yours, both what You have given and what You have created.’52 It is striking how little editing was required in numerous chapters of the Imitatio. The Protestantization of the text is characterized by the removal of a portion of its Catholic elements; with few significant additions, the process of translation did not render the final version Protestant per se. When studied in isolation, Protestant translations of the Imitatio do not appear to be Protestant in doctrinal terms. That some Protestant editions have provenances from Jesuit colleges might suggest that even the Jesuits did not recognize the Protestant authorship of the translation. There does not appear to be any reason why Jesuits could not derive immense spiritual profit from a Protestant translation, regardless of the Protestant filter adopted in the translation process.
With Lutherans preoccupied with theological controversies, there were no Protestant editions of the Imitatio in the first decade of the Reformation. However, as time progressed, a number of Protestants translated the Imitatio: the Silesian reformer and spiritualist Caspar Schwenckfeld (1489–1561); the Swiss reformer Leo Jud (1482–1542); Sebastian Castellio (1515–63), educational reformer, biblical scholar and leading advocate of religious toleration; two figures from the mainstream of the Elizabeth Settlement, Edward Hake (fl.1564–1604) and Thomas Rogers (c.1553–1616); and one of the leading proponents of early German Pietism, Johann Arndt (1555–1621).53 The likes of Schwenckfeld, Castellio (and the Anabaptists and Familists who read the text) distrusted the notion of a visible Church.54The Imitatio’s interiority and the absence of a sacramental framework (without Book Four) attracted spiritualists like Schwenckfeld, who held the externals of faith in contempt. In contrast, Hake and Rogers adopted the Imitatio as part of an attempt to strengthen their notion of a visible Church, one that was threatened from numerous sides (Puritans, Crypto-Catholics, Recusants, Jesuits, Anabaptists and Familists), all of whom, as it happens, found the Imitatio appealing.
In the seventeenth century, representatives of the opposing factions of Puritanism and Arminianism were also attracted to the text and appropriated or promoted it, as did some Church of Scotland clerics.55 Seventeenth-century translators included John Preston, who was associated with the ‘hotter sort of Protestants’; and, in contrast, the Arminian William Page, who wrote in his 1639 translation of the Imitatio that the different churches (Catholic and Protestant) should call for unity and undertake a crusade against the Turks. Even William Shakespeare seems to have drawn on the Imitatio in the speeches of Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet and of the exiled Duke in As You Like It.56
LATE MODERN ADVOCATES OF THE IMITATIO
The popularity of the Imitatio is undiminished in the modern age. Within Catholic circles, in addition to continued interest and appreciation among the Jesuits, the Imitatio was adopted by a succession of influential figures from the 1700s onwards.57 These included Richard Challoner, one of the eighteenth century’s leading English Roman Catholics, who produced an edition of the Imitatio.58 The Imitatio was also advocated by St Thérèse of Lisieux (1873–97), Pope John XXIII (1881–1963), Thomas Merton (1915–68), the Anglo-American writer and mystic, and Edith Cavell (1865–1915), who read it on a daily basis. The historian Lord Acton described the Imitatio as ‘the most perfectly normal expression of Catholic thought, as it bears the least qualifying impress of time and place’.59 Acton’s fondness for the Imitatio was attributed to the ‘touch of late-medieval resignation reflected in neo-Gothic nostalgia of nineteenth-century Catholicism’.60 Ronald Knox (1888–1957), English priest and theologian, later undertook his own (albeit incomplete) translation of the Imitatio; his words are quoted at the beginning of this Introduction.
The Imitatio also thrived in a variety of Late Modern English Protestant circles, and numerous editions were published under Anglican auspices. Unsurprisingly, but significantly, the Imitatio found favour with adherents of the Oxford Movement, and was translated by Thomas Keble (1793–1875).61 Driven by the ideal of restoring the High Church of the seventeenth century, the principles of the nineteenth-century Oxford Movement retained some Catholic sympathies, rendering the adoption of the Imitatio less challenging.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Imitatio was well received by the Quakers, a striking fact given their rejection of the Sacraments. Quakers considered the ‘inner light’ to be superior to the Bible and the Church. This has strong parallels with Schwenckfeld and the spiritualist tradition, which formed an important background for the Imitatio’s early Protestant appropriation.62 Founded in 1668 and granted greater freedom via the Toleration Act (1689), the Quakers may even have benefited from their association with such an established and highly regarded text.
The Imitatio was a key spiritual work for the leading advocate and founder of Methodism, John Wesley (1703–91). One of the earliest entries in Wesley’s private diary, in 1726, alludes to his providential discovery of the Imitatio, which he later identified and published as The Christian’s Pattern. His appreciation for the text was reiterated in his Plain Account of Christian Perfection, the most elaborate summary of his spirituality. As he himself stated, ‘The nature and extent of Inward Religion, the religion of the heart, now appeared to me in a stronger light than ever it had done before.’63
However, Wesley also expressed his anger at Kempis for being ‘too strict’, even though initially he read him only in George Stanhope’s late-seventeenth-century translation. These criticisms largely explain the amendments and omissions in Wesley’s revised and abridged version of his own translation.64 Making only a few minor changes to Book Two, Wesley removed five chapters from Book One, the majority being references to religious communities.65 Wesley’s High Church beliefs regarding frequent Communion and the Real Presence account for the few changes to Book Four on Holy Communion, with only three chapters left out. Most conspicuous of all is Wesley’s removal of over fifteen chapters from Book Three. The recurrent themes within those sections include the weakness of human nature, the worthlessness of human help, the lack of security from temptation, the bitterness of life and the need to be dead and crucified to the world.66 These themes define Kempis’ strictness, which so angered Wesley. After all, Wesley rejected predestination and his ‘mature doctrine of salvation shifted away from the Reformation’s stress on justification and towards the development of a holy life’.67 Wesley’s positive appreciation reflects a significant shift away from earlier Protestant distaste for the Imitatio.
The Imitatio was promoted by a number of writers and academics, as well as by clerical members of respective Christian denominations. The lexicographer Dr Samuel Johnson (1709–84), the ecclesiastical historian Charles Bigg (1840–1908), the writer and printer Samuel Richardson (1689–1761) and the Irish writers James Joyce (1882–1941) and William Naughton (1910–92) all professed an interest in the Imitatio. Such was his enthusiasm for the text that Naughton’s house in Ballasalla was called Kempis. Auguste Comte (1798–1857), the founder of positive philosophy, described the Imitatio as the ‘inextinguishable treasure of true wisdom’. George Eliot recommended it in a letter dated 9 February 1849. In The Mill on the Floss, the Imitatio (Book Four, Chapter Three) comforts Maggie Tulliver; its message of selfless renunciation excites her and encourages her to adopt this way of life. It is thought that this echoed a period of religious devotion in Eliot’s own youth. On a literary theme, Dame Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple read a chapter of the Imitatio every night.
The Imitatio was certainly embraced in other circles. It was read enthusiastically by Dag Hammarskjöld, Secretary-General of the United Nations 1953–61, as well as by a former Prime Minister of Italy, Marco Minghetti (1818–86). It was in General Charles Gordon’s possession during his various military campaigns. Charles-Geneviève d’Éon de Beaumont (1728–1810), diplomat, soldier and secret agent, requested to be buried with a crucifix and a copy of the Imitatio. One of Sir Edwin Landseer’s paintings, Man Proposes, God Disposes, gained its title from a phrase in the Imitatio; the painting symbolized the loss of Sir John Franklin’s entire polar expeditionary force in 1845. The Imitatio’s magnetism persists to the present day, with the writer Peter Ackroyd recently selecting it as his chosen book on a desert island.68
A TIMELESS CLASSIC
From the Late Middle Ages to the present day, the Imitatio has managed to capture the essence of the Christian spirit. Its appeal owes a great deal to its Biblicism. As Wesley remarked in the preface to his 1735 edition:
And herein it greatly resembles the Holy Scriptures, that, under the plainest words, there is a divine, hidden virtue, continually flowing into the soul of a pious and attentive reader, and by the blessing of God, transforming it into his image.69
The Imitatio’s emphasis on submission to others and service to God sets a prominent theme: believers are expected to dwell on their own failings and weaknesses. They are called upon to examine their own spiritual state rather than seek fault in others: ‘You readily excuse and explain your own activities, but you will not accept the explanations of others. It would be better to accuse yourself and to excuse your neighbours. If you want others to bear your burdens, you must put up with theirs.’70 Readers are repeatedly drawn to the key theme of humility, for which Christ’s humanity provides the model. As Christ remarks:
Is it such a great thing for you, who are only dust and nothing, to submit yourself to another for God’s sake, when I, the Almighty and the Most High, who created everything out of nothing, humbly submitted Myself to humanity for your sake? I became the humblest and least of all, so that through My humility you might overcome your pride. You, who are but dust, must learn to obey.71
The frailty of humanity is better understood in the light of Christ’s redemptive work: ‘So ascribe nothing good to yourself or anyone else, but attribute everything to God, without whom you have nothing.’72 As Ronald Knox remarked, this does not make easy reading.73 Believers are criticized for their hypocrisy, professing Christianity in name but not in practice. This is powerfully illustrated in a chapter entitled ‘On the lack of lovers of the Cross’:
Jesus has many who love His Kingdom of Heaven, but few who will carry His Cross. He has many who desire comfort, but few who desire suffering … Many want to rejoice with Him, but few will stay by Him. Many follow Jesus to the breaking of bread, but few will drink the cup of His suffering. Many admire His miracles, but few follow Him to the ignominy of the Cross. Many love Jesus as long as no hardship touches them.74
Devotional works like the Imitatio were adept at transcending theological divisions. All Christian denominations believe that religious reform has little substance without spiritual renewal; this sentiment is shared by the major world religions. Given its contents and remarkable circulation and reception, the Imitatio Christi remains one of the Christian world’s most powerful expressions of spirituality.
1. Thomas à Kempis, tr. Knox, R., and Oakley, M., The Imitation of Christ (London: Sheed & Ward, 1959), pp. 7–8.
2. For the broader Late Medieval context, see R. N. Swanson, Religion and Devotion in Europe, c.1215–c.1515 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
3. The earliest extant manuscript produced in England was copied in 1438 by John Dygon, a member of the Sheen Charterhouse. For the broader context, see R. N. Swanson, Catholic England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993); Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).
4. The first edition included Lady Margaret Beaufort’s translation of Book Four. In the Late Middle Ages, the Imitatio was adopted by an impressive list of political and ecclesiastical patrons: Philip the Good (1396–1467); Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros (1436–1517); Margaret of York (1446–1503); Louise of Savoy (1476–1531); Isabella of Portugal (1503–39); Katherine Parr (1512–48).
5. See Short Title Catalogue in Maximilian von Habsburg, Catholic and Protestant Translations of the Imitatio Christi, 1425–1650 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011), pp. 249ff.
6. Johnson wrote that it ‘must be a good book, as the world has opened its arms to receive it’.
7. Peter Burke, ‘Cultures of Translation in Early Modern Europe’, in Cultural Translation in Early Modern Europe, ed. P. Burke and R. Po-chia Hsia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 20. John Van Engen (tr.), Devotio Moderna: Basic Writings (New York: Paulist Press, 1988), p. 7.
8. See Eknath Easwaran, Seeing with the Eyes of Love: On the Imitation of Christ (Tomales: Nilgiri Press, 1996).
9. The 1427 manuscript is in the Royal Library in Brussels.
10. The three books (excluding Book Four) do not represent the three stages of the mystical process (purgative, illuminative and unitive), even though some later editors interpreted them in that manner.
11. J. van Ginneken argued that Grote provided the basic framework for the Imitatio, which was embellished by later copyists and, finally, polished by Kempis. See Pierre Debongnie and Jacques Huijben, L’Auteur ou les auteurs de l’Imitation (Louvain: Publications universitaires de Louvain, 1957), who argue persuasively in defence of Kempis’ authorship.
12. Gerson and Kempis dominated the colophons and title pages between c.1471 and 1650. See von Habsburg, Catholic and Protestant Translations, pp. 249ff.
13. Nikolaus Staubach, ‘Von der persönlichen Erfahrung zur Gemeinschaftsliteratur. Entstehungs- und Rezeptionsbedingungen geistlicher Reformtexte im Spätmittelalter’, Ons Geestelijk Erf 68 (1994), p. 211. See also Stephanus Axters, De Imitatione Christi (Kempen-Niederrhein: Landkreis Kempen-Krefeld, 1971).
14. ‘The Imitatio is not limited to one cultural epoch; like ecstatic contemplations of the All-One, it departs from all culture and belongs to no culture in particular. This explains its two thousand editions as well as the different suppositions concerning its author and its time of composition that fall into a range of three hundred years.’ J. Huizinga, tr. Payton, R. J., and Mammitzsch, U., The Autumn of the Middle Ages (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), pp. 266–7.
15. The term devotio moderna was first coined in the 1420s by Henry Pomerius. See Regnerius Post, The Modern Devotion (Leiden: Brill, 1968), p. xi; Van Engen, Devotio Moderna, p. 7; John Van Engen, Sisters and Brothers of the Common Life (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).
16. It is not helped by the fact that Post’s magisterial study of the Modern Devotion includes the following statement: ‘all four books were written for monastics and specifically monastics of the contemplative life’. Post, Modern Devotion, p. 533. The English novelist William Thackeray disliked the Imitatio on account of its monastic traits – ‘written by a man in a cloister for other cloistered men’.
17. See in particular Kempis’ Sermons to the Novices Regular (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Truebner & Co., 1907).
18. For monastic references, see 1/xvii–xviii (Book One, Chapters Seventeen and Eighteen). For each reference to the Imitatio, I provide the book and chapter number.
19. See Axters, De Imitatione Christi.
20. It is littered with over 1,000 scriptural references, with the majority taken from the Psalms (c.140), the Book of Wisdom (c.60), the Prophets (c.40) and the Book of Job (24). Regarding the New Testament, there are more citations from St Paul than from the Four Evangelists (with 120 and 100 respectively). Other literary influences on the Imitatioinclude: Aristotle, Ovid, Seneca, St Gregory (329–89), St Augustine of Hippo (354–430), St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153), Hugh of St Victor (1096–1141), St Bonaventure (1221–74), John van Ruysbroeck (1293–1381), Heinrich Eger von Kalkar (1308–1408) and Geert Grote.
21. See 1/i. For more references to the Bible, see also 1/v, 1/xx. All translations in this Introduction are quoted verbatim from this edition.
22. See 1/i.
23. See 1/ii.
24. For more references to learning, see 1/iii, 3/i–iv, 3/xxxi.
25. See 1/xix. For more examples of the Imitatio’s emphasis on interiority, see 1/i, 1/x–xi, 1/xvii–xviii, 2/i, 2/v–vi, 4/xi, 3/i, 3/xxxi, 3/xxxviii, 3/xlv.
26. See 1/xxii.
27. See 3/lii. There are explicit references to the Sacrament of Confession in 4/iii, vii, ix.
28. See 1/xxiii.
29. For more references to suffering and adversities, see 1/xii–xiii, 1/xviii, 1/xxi–xxii, 1/xxv, 2/i–ii, 2/vi, 2/ix–xii, 4/viii, 3/iii, 3/xviii–xx, 3/xxxv, 3/xlvii, 3/lvi.
30. Ludolph of Saxony’s Vita Christi presented the concrete events of Christ’s life, though it also included doctrinal and moral instructions.
31. See 2/i.
32. Van Engen, Devotio Moderna, p. 25.
33. See 4/xvii. For more references to Christ, see 1/i, 1/xxv, 2/ i,2/vii–viii, 2/xi–xii, 4/i, 4/viii, 3/iii, 3/v, 3/x, 3/xviii, 3/xxx, 3/xlii–xliii, 3/lvi, 3/lviii. For references to the Devil, see 1/xiii, 4/x, 3/vi, 3/xxxix.
34. See 3/lviii.
35. Johannes Busch described the Modern Devout as the new Desert Fathers. Mathilde Van Dijk, ‘Disciples of the Deep Desert: Windesheim Biographers and the Imitation of the Desert Fathers’, Church History and Religious Culture 86/4 (2006), p. 258. See also Kempis’ biographies of the devotio moderna’s leading advocates, including Grote, Radewijns and Zutphen, and his Chronicle of the Canons Regular.
36. Jacopo da Voragine’s (1230–98) Golden Legend, well known in Modern Devout circles, was the main reference work for saints’ lives.
37. See 3/lviii.
38. For the Imitatio’s allusion to pilgrimages, see 4/i.
39. For more references to the saints, see 1/xi, 1/xviii–xix, 2/x, 3/xxxv, 3/xlvii, 3/lviii.
40. See 4/iii.
41. See 4/xi. See also 4/v.
42. See 4/ii. The phrase ‘when you celebrate or hear the Mass’ implies that priests celebrating the Mass and administering the Sacrament are not the only addressees.
43. The approximate timeframe for the Early Modern period is late 1400s/early 1500s to mid-1700s.
44. The Imitatio was also promoted by leading reformers such as St Teresa of Avila (1515–82), St Carlo Borromeo (1538–84) and St François de Sales (1567–1622). Georg Witzel (1501–73) is a particularly interesting figure, who translated the Imitatio into German. A lapsed Protestant, Witzel was a leading Catholic moderate in the 1530s and 1540s, seeking reconciliation between Protestants and Catholics.
45. By 1565, the Jesuits had twelve administrative provinces, ranging from Europe to Brazil, India and Ethiopia. By 1630, there were already 15,500 Jesuits.
46. The two most influential Latin editions by the Jesuits Henricus Sommalius (1534–1619) and Heribert Rosweyde (1569–1629) were first printed in Antwerp.
47. Creasy recalls how the Imitatio was dismissed as being ‘hopelessly pre-Vatican II’ by his clerical friends. William Creasy, The Imitation of Christ (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1989), pp. xiii, xvi. The full title for Gaudium et Spes is The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. It addresses humanity’s relationship to modern society and culture.
48. Joseph de Guibert, The Jesuits (St Louis: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1986), pp. 156–7; John O’Malley, The First Jesuits (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1993), p. 265.
49. Some scholars have anachronistically portrayed Kempis and/or the Imitatio as forerunners of the Protestant Reformation. Albert Hyma asserted that Kempis presented ‘the fully fledged Calvinistic doctrine of predestination’ in the Imitatio. Albert Hyma, The Christian Renaissance (Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1965), pp. 565, 603. More recently, an editor wrote: ‘Although Thomas à Kempis died several years before Martin Luther was born, his belief that we are saved by God’s grace through faith in Christ alone – and not through our works – set a stage for spiritual reformation and devised a standard of piety that would inspire Christians throughout all time.’ Thomas à Kempis, Imitation of Christ (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Inc., 1999), pp. ix–x.
50. See 3/xxx.
51. See 3/liv and 3/lv.
52. See 3/l.
53. For more details on their appropriation of the Imitatio (with the exception of Arndt), see von Habsburg, Catholic and Protestant Translations. For Arndt, see Johann Arndt, True Christianity, and Pietists: Selected Writings, in the Classics of Western Spirituality series.
54. The Anabaptists were a radical group which emerged in the Swiss Confederation and Holy Roman Empire during the European Reformation. They challenged and rejected the Scriptural basis for infant baptism. The Family of Love (Familists) consisted of mystic, religious communities, which existed in the Low Countries and England.
55. David Crane, ‘English translations of the Imitatio Christi in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries’, Recusant History 13/2 (October 1975), pp. 79–84. Arminianism was the term given by their Puritan opponents to the High Churchmen of early-seventeenth-century England, of whom Lancelot Andrewes and William Laud were leading examples.
56. For the former see 1/xii, for the latter 2/iv. The religious sonnet 146 seems to come straight out of the Imitatio. I thank Peter Milward for all of these references. See also his Catholicism of Shakespeare’s Plays (Southampton: Saint Austin Press, 1997), pp. 27, 106–7.
57. See Bibliothèque de la Compagnie de Jésus, ed. Carlos Sommervogel, 8 vols (Paris and Bruxelles: Oscar Schepens and Alphonse Picard, 1890–98) and Augustin de Backer, Essai Bibliographique sur le livre De Imitatione Christi (Liège: Heverlee, Editions de la Bibliothèque, 1864) for an overview of post-1650 Jesuit editions.
58. He was also the driving force behind the revision of the Douai-Rheims Bible.
59. Cited in Roland Hill, Lord Acton (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 405.
61. Thomas Keble’s brother, John (1792–1866) was one of the leading figures in the Oxford Movement. The English poet Matthew Arnold, John Keble’s godson, described the Imitatio as ‘the most exquisite document, after those of the New Testament, of all that the Christian spirit has ever inspired’.
62. See Chapters 6, 7 and 8 in von Habsburg, Catholic and Protestant Translations.
63. Frank Whaling (ed.), John and Charles Wesley (London: Paulist Press, 1981), p. 299.
64. Wesley’s first edition in 1735 (and some later editions) was not abridged. The first abridged edition seems to be that of 1741, printed in London.
65. The omitted chapters are 1/vi, ix, xvii, xix, xxii. While Chapter Twenty-two alludes to the confession of sins, Chapter Six refers to the controlling of sensual and bodily desires. For my analysis of Wesley’s version, I used John Wesley (ed.), The Christian’s Pattern (London, 1741).
66. The omitted chapters include: 3/xii–xiii, xviii, xx, xxxii–xxxiii, xxxv–xxxvi, xxxix, xli, xliv–xlv, xlvii, li and liii.
67. Henry Rack, ‘John Wesley’, ODNB.
68. Desert Island Discs, BBC Radio 4, Sunday, 20 May 2012.
69. John Wesley (ed.), The Christian’s Pattern (London, 1735).
70. See 2/iii.
71. See 3/xiii.
72. See 3/ix.
73. On that theme, Eknath Easwaran wrote: ‘We need not let Thomas’ medieval language alarm us here. He is saying only what Gandhi said: “I am the most ambitious man in the world: I want to make myself zero”.’ Easwaran, Seeing with The Eyes of Love, p. 243.
74. See 2/xi.