Thomas À Kempis, original name Thomas Hemerken (born 1379/80, Kempen, near Düsseldorf, Rhineland [Germany]—died Aug. 8, 1471, Agnietenberg, near Zwolle, Bishopric of Utrecht [now in the Netherlands]) Christian theologian, the probable author of Imitatio Christi (Imitation of Christ), a devotional book that, with the exception of the Bible, has been considered the most influential work in Christian literature.
About 1392 Thomas went to Deventer, Neth., headquarters of the learned Brethren of the Common Life, a community devoted to education and the care of the poor, where he studied under the theologian Florentius Radewyns, who in 1387 had founded the Congregation of Windesheim, a congregation of Augustinian canons regular (i.e., ecclesiastics living in community and bound by vows). Thomas joined the Windesheim congregation at Agnietenberg monastery, where he remained almost continually for over 70 years. He took his vows in 1408, was ordained in 1413, and devoted his life to copying manuscripts and to directing novices.
Although the authorship is in dispute, he probably wrote the Imitation. Remarkable for its simple language and style, it emphasizes the spiritual rather than the materialistic life, affirms the rewards of being Christ-centred, and supports Communion as a means to strengthen faith. His writings offer possibly the best representation of the devotio moderna (a religious movement created by Gerhard Groote, founder of the Brethren of the Common Life) that made religion intelligible and practicable for the “modern” attitude arising in the Netherlands at the end of the 14th century. Thomas stresses asceticism rather than mysticism, and moderate—not extreme—austerity. A critical edition of his Opera Omnia (17 vol., 1902–22; “Complete Works”) was published by M.J. Pohl.