KELSO, JAMES ANDERSON: Presbyterian; b. at Rawal Pindi (90 m. s.e. of Peshawur), India, June 6, 1873. He was graduated at Washington and Jefferson College in 1892, Western Theological Seminary in 1896, and studied in Berlin and Leipsic (Ph.D., 1902). He was tutor of Greek and Latin at Washington and Jefferson College 1892-1893, instructor in Hebrew in Western Theological Seminary 1897-1901, professor of Hebrew and Old-Testament literature in the same institution 1901-1909, and president since 1909. He is "an adherent of the confessional Theology of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A." He has written Die Klagelieder, der masoretische Text und die Versionen (Leipsic, 1901).


  1. Life, Minor Writings.
  2. The Imitation of Christ.
  3. Disputed Authorship of the "Imitation of Christ."
    1. General Survey (§ 1).
      Gersen's Claims (§ 2).
      Gerson's Claims (§ 3).
      Thomas A Kempis (§ 4).

I. Life, Minor Writings

Thomas à Kempis, German mystic and author of the "Imitation of Christ," was born at Kempen (40 m. n.w. of Cologne) in 1380 and died near Zwolle (52 m. e.n.e. of Amsterdam) in 1471. His paternal name was Hemerken or Hammerlein, "little hammer." In 1395 he was sent to the school at Deventer conducted by the Brethren of the Common Life (q.v.). He became skilful as a copyist and was thus enabled to support himself. Later he was admitted to the Augustinian convent of Mount Saint Agnes near Zwolle where his brother John had been before him and had risen to the dignity of prior. Thomas received priest's orders in 1413 and was made subprior 1429. The house was disturbed for a time in consequence of the pope's rejection of the bishop-elect of Utrecht, Rudolph of Diepholt; otherwise, Thomas' life was a quiet one, his time being spent between devotional exercises, composition, and copying. He copied the Bible no less than four times, one of the copies being preserved at Darmstadt in five volumes. In its teachings he was widely read, and his works abound in Biblical quotations, especially from the New Testament. His life is no doubt fitly characterized by the words under an old picture first referred to by Francescus Tolensis: "In all things I sought quiet and found it not save in retirement and in books." A monument was dedicated to his memory in the presence of the archbishop of Utrecht in St. Michael's Church, Zwolle, Nov. 11, 1897.

Thomas à Kempis belonged to the school of mystics who were scattered along the Rhine from Switzerland to Strasburg and Cologne and in the Netherlands. He was a follower of Geert Groote and Florentius Radewijns, the founders of the Brethren of the Common Life. His writings are all of a devotional character and include tracts and meditations, letters, sermons, a life of St. Lydewigis, a Christian woman who remained steadfast under a great stress of afflictions, and biographies of Groote, Radewijns, and nine of their companions. Works similar in contents to the "Imitation of Christ" and pervaded by the same spirit are his prolonged meditation on the life and blessings of the Savior and another on the Incarnation. Both of these works overflow with adoration for Christ.

II. The Imitation of Christ

The work which has given Thomas à Kempis universal fame in the Western churches is the De imitatione Christi. It is the pearl of all the writings of the mystical German-Dutch school of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and with the "Confessions" of Augustine and Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress it occupies a front rank, if not the foremost place, among useful manuals of devotion, after the Bible. Protestants and Roman Catholics alike join in giving it praise. The Jesuits give it an official place among their "exercises." John Wesley and John Newton put it among the works that influenced them at their conversion. General Gordon carried it with him to the battlefield. Few books have had so extensive a circulation. The number of counted editions exceeds 2,000; and 1,000 different editions are preserved in the British Museum. The Bullingen collection, donated to the city of Cologne in 1838, contained at the time 400 different editions. De Backer (Essai, ut inf.) enumerates 545 Latin and about 900 French editions. Originally written in Latin, a French translation was made as early as 1447, which still remains in manuscript. The first printed French copies appeared at Toulouse 1488. The earliest German translation was made in 1434 by J. de Bellorivo and is preserved in Cologne. The editions in German began at Augsburg in 1486. The first English translation (1502) was by William Atkinson and Margaret, mother of Henry VII., who did the fourth book. Translations appeared in Italian (Venice, 1488, Milan 1489), Spanish (Seville, 1536), Arabic (Rome, 1663), Armenian (Rome, 1674), Hebrew (Frankfort, 1837), and other languages. Corneille produced a poetical paraphrase in French in 1651.

The "Imitation of Christ" derives its title from the heading of the first book, De imitatione Christi et contemptu omnium vanitatum mundi. It consists of four books and seems to have been written in meter and rime, a fact first announced by K. Hirsche in 1874. The four books are not found in all the manuscripts, nor are they arranged invariably in the same order. 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 statements, not arguments, and are pitched in the highest key of Christian experience. It was


meant for monastics and recluses. 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. His teachings far excel all the teachings of the saints. The book gives counsels to read the Scriptures, statements about the uses of adversity, advice for submission to authority, warnings against temptation and how to resist it, reflections about death and the judgment, meditations upon the oblation of Christ, and admonitions to flee the vanities of the world. Christ himself is more than all the wisdom of the schools and lifts the mind to perceive more of eternal truth in a moment of time than a student might learn in the schools in ten years. Excellent as these counsels are, they are set in the minor key and are especially adapted for souls burdened with care and sorrow and sitting in darkness. They present only one side of the Christian life, and in order to compass the whole of it they must be supplemented by counsels for integrity, bravery and constancy in the struggle of daily existence to which the vast mass of mankind, who can not be recluses, are called. The charge has even been made that the piety commended by the "Imitation" is of a selfish monkish type. It was written by a monk and intended for the convent; it lays stress on the passive qualities and does not touch with firmness the string of active service in the world. 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. The references to medieval mistakes or superstitions are confined to several passages, viz., the merit of good works and transubstantiation (iv. 2), purgatory (iv. 9), and the worship of saints (i. 13, ii. 9, iii. 6, 59). In other works, however, Thomas à Kempis exalts Mary as the queen of heaven, the efficient mediatress of sinners, and to her all should flee as to a mother. She should be invoked. He also gives prayers to Mary (cf. the De tabernaculis, and Hortus rosarum, Pohl's ed., ut inf., i. also iii. 357, vi. 219, 235 sqq.).

III. Disputed Authorship of the "Imitation of Christ":
1. General Survey.

To some extent national sentiments have entered into the controversy which for 300 years has been waged over the authorship of the "Imitation," France and Italy contending for the honor of furnishing the author as against the Netherlands. The weight of opinion is in favor of Thomas à Kempis. Among the recent treatments of the subject are: K. Hirsche, Prolegomena zu einer neuen Ausgabe der Imitatio Christi (Berlin, 1873, 1884, 1894), containing a copy of the Latin text of the manuscript dated 1441; C. Wolfsgruber, Giovanni Gersen, sein Leben und sein Werk De Imitatione Christi (Augsburg, 1880); L. Santini, I diritti di Tommaso da Kempis (2 vols., Rome, 1879-81); S. Kettlewell, Authorship of the "De Imitatione Christi" (London, 1877; 2d ed., 1884); V. Becker, L'Auteur de l'Imitation et les documents Neérlandais (The Hague, 1882); also Les derniers traveaux sur l'auteur de l'Imitation (Brussels, 1889); H. S. Denifle, Kritische Bemerkungen zur Gersen-Kempis Frage, in ZKT (1882-1883); O. A. Spitzen, Thomas a Kempis als schrijver der navolging (Utrecht, 1880), also Nouvelle defense en reponse du Denifle (1884); F. X. Funk, Gerson und Gersen, also Der Verfasser der Nachfolge Christi, both in his Abhandlungen (ii. 373-444, Paderborn, 1899); P. E. Puyol, Descriptions bibliographiques des manuscrits et des principales éditions du livre De Imitatione Christi (Paris, 1898); Paléographie, classement, génealogie du livre de Imitatione Christi (1898), and L'Auteur du livre De Imitatione Christi (2 vols., 1899-1900); G. Kentenich, Die Handschriften der Imitatio und die Autorschaft des Thomas, in ZKG, xxiii. 18 sqq., xxiv. 504 sqq.; J. E. G. De Montmorency, Thomas à Kempis, his Age and his Book, New York, 1906; and L. Schulze, in Hauck-Herzog, RE, xix. 719-733. For other works, see the bibliography below. Pohl gives a list of thirty-five persons to whom the authorship has at one time or another been ascribed, among them Thomas à Kempis, Jean Charlier de Gerson, chancellor of the University of Paris, Giovanni Gersen, the reputed abbot of Vercelli, Italy, St. Bernard, Bonaventura, David of Augsburg, Johann Tauler, Heinrich Suso, and even Innocent III., the last chiefly on account of the second part of the title of the "Imitation," recalling Innocent's work on the contempt of the world. The only claimants worthy of attention are Thomas à Kempis, the Chancellor Gerson (d. 1429), and the Abbot Giovanni Gersen, who is said to have lived about 1230. The uncertainty arises from several facts: (1) a number of manuscripts and printed editions of the fifteenth century have no note of authorship; (2) the rest are divided between these three men and St. Bernard; and (3) the manuscript copies show important divergences. The matter has been made more perplexing by the forgery of names and dates in manuscripts of the "Imitation" since the controversy began, these forgeries, however, being largely in the interest of Gerson and Gersen. A reason for the absence of an author's name in so many of the manuscripts is to be found, if Thomas a Kempis was indeed the author, in his wishing to remain unknown according to his maxim Ama nesciri, Love to be unknown. Of the Latin editions belonging to the fifteenth century, Pohl gives twenty-eight as accredited to Gerson, twelve to Thomas, two to St. Bernard, and six anonymous. Or, to follow Funk (p. 426), forty editions of that century ascribed the work to Gerson, eleven to Thomas, two to St. Bernard, one to Gersen, and two are anonymous. Spitzen gives fifteen as ascribed to Thomas à Kempis. Most of the editions containing Gerson's name were printed in France; a few were issued in Italy and Spain. The editions of the sixteenth century show a change. There, thirty-seven Latin editions ascribe the authorship to Thomas à Kempis, twenty-five to Gerson. As for the manuscripts, all of them dated before 1450, the dates of which are probably genuine, were written in Germany or the Netherlands. The oldest is included in a codex preserved since 1826 in the royal library of Brussels. The codex contains nine other writings of Thomas besides the "Imitation." It is dated 1441, containing the note, in Latin, finitus et completus MCCCCXLI per manus fratris Th. Kempensis in Monte S. Agnetis prope Zwollis, "Finished


and completed in 1441 by the hands of brother Thomas à Kempis, at Mount Saint Agnes near Zwolle" (cf. Pohl, ii. 461). If this be a genuine writing the manuscript is an autographic copy. The text of the Imitation is written on older paper than the other documents comprised in the codex. It also contains corrections which are found in the first Dutch translation of 1420. For these reasons Spitzen, Funk and others place this text of the Imitation between 1416 and 1420.

2. Gersen's Claims.

The literary controversy over the composition began in 1604 when Dom Pedro Manriquez, in a work on the Lord's Supper issued at Milan, declared the "Imitation" to be older than Bonaventura, basing his statement upon an alleged quotation from it by that schoolman. In 1606 Bellarmine in his De scriptoribus ecclesiasticis stated it was already in existence in 1260. About the same time the Jesuit Rossignoli found in a convent at Arona near Milan a manuscript without date bearing the name of the Abbot Giovanni Gersen as its author. The house had at one time belonged to the Benedictines, and the Benedictine Cajetan, secretary of Paul V., defended the abbot's claim in his Gersen restitutus (Rome, 1614) and later in his Apparatus ad Gersenem restitutum. Cajetan also announced the discovery of a manuscript in Venice containing the statement, "Not Johannes Gerson but Johannes abbot of Vercelli wrote this book." Gersen's claims were attacked by the Augustinian Heribert Rosweyde in his Vindiciae Kempenses (Antwerp, 1617), and so cogently that Bellarmine withdrew his statement. The Congregation of Propaganda, urged by the Benedictines, gave permission for the book to be printed in Rome and elsewhere under the name of Gerson. A revival of the assertion of the Italian's authorship was started by the Piedmontese nobleman, Gregory, in his Istoria della Vercellese letteratura (Turin, 1819). He was confirmed in his view by a manuscript of the "Imitation" purchased in Paris in 1830, containing the statement that in 1550 it was the property of an Italian Girolamo d'Avogadri. The family Avogadri had its ancestral seat near Vercelli, and an old diarium, which Gregory found, contained under the date of Feb. 5, 1347, the record of the transmission of a book called the "Imitation of Christ." Gregory issued his manuscript (Paris, 1833), and in his Histoire du livre de l'Imitatione (Paris, 1842) he defended the alleged authorship of the abbot of Vercelli. He was thoroughly answered by J. B. Malou, bishop of Bruges, in his Recherches historiques et critiques sur le véritable auteur du livre de l'Imitation Christi (Tournay, 1848; 3d ed., Paris, 1858). The Italian origin again found a vigorous advocate in Coelestin Wolfsgruber (ut sup.). The abbot's claim has at present little or no standing; and it has been shown that the details of his life are simple conjectures. Funk pronounces him a fiction. A monument was dedicated to the Italian's memory at Vercelli in 1884.

3. Gerson's Claims.

After the decision of the Congregation of Propaganda the matter of the authorship was taken up with spirit in France. A careful examination of the manuscript copies of the Imitation was made, but with uncertain result. Richelieu in his splendid edition of 1640 issued the work without name of author, but in 1652 the French Parliament ordered the work issued under the name of Thomas à Kempis. Mabillon made a fresh examination of manuscripts at three gatherings (1671, 1674, 1687), the case being decided against Thomas & Kempis. Dupin, in his edition of Gerson's works (cf. 2d ed., 1728, vol. i., pp. lix.-lxxxiv.), made a comparison of Gerson's writings with the "Imitation" and showed that it was possible that Gerson was the author of the latter, but closed his discussion with the statement that it is not possible to come to a final decision between the claims of Gersen, Gerson, and Thomas à Kempis. The controversy again broke out with the edition of 1724 made by the Benedictines Erhard and Mezler, who ascribed the authorship to Gerson as also did Vollardt in his edition (Paris, 1758). A strong reply was made by the Augustinian E. Amort of Polling, Bavaria, who defended with much learning the claims of Thomas à Kempis in his Informatio de statu controversiae (Augsburg, 1728), and especially in his Scutum Kempense seu vindiciae IV librorum de Imitatione Christi (Cologne, 1728). The editions of De Sacy (Paris, 1853) and Caro (ib., 1875) leave the authorship undecided. After the claims of Thomas à Kempis seemed to be very generally acknowledged, still another stage in the controversy was opened by P. E. Puyol (1898, ut sup.), who gave a description of 348 manuscripts and annotated the variations between fifty-seven of them. His conclusion was that the text of the Italian manuscript is the more simple and consequently the older. He has been followed by Kentenich; Puyol's work may lead to a more careful comparison of the texts of the Imitation. The claim that Gerson is the author of the "Imitation of Christ " is based upon editions and manuscripts made before 1500 bearing his name and upon probabilities drawn from Gerson's style and mystical temper of thought. The manuscript upon which chief stress used to be laid is at Valenciennes and is dated 1462. It contains Gerson's sermons on the Passion of Christ and a book called Internelle Consolation. Onésime Leroy in his Études sur les mystères et sur le divers manuscrits de Gerson (Paris, 1837), and in his Corneille et Gerson dans l'Imitation de Jesu Christi (Paris, 1841), drew the conclusion that all these works must be by the same author. It was later shown from a manuscript in Amiens dated 1447 that the work Internelle Consolation was a translation of the Imitation made by Hesden from the Latin. The similarity between Gerson's writings and the "Imitation" was amply refuted by J. B. Schwab in his life of Gerson (Würzburg, 1858, pp. 782-786). Gerson in his judgment would have required the endowment of a wholly new tongue to write the work. The first edition of Gerson's works (1483) does not contain it. Again, the lists of the chancellor's writings given his brother John (1423) and by Canesius (1429) do not mention it. The author was by his own statement a monk (iv. 5, 11, iii. 56), and Gerson was not a monk. The attachment of Gerson's name to the book can be explained only by the consideration


that the "Imitation" first went forth anonymously, and Gerson's mystical treatises gave to French editors and copyists the supposed cue to its authorship.

4. Thomas à Kempis.

The claim of à Kempis has many arguments in its favor. Jan Busch in his Chronicon Windeshemense, written in 1464, seven years before the death of Thomas à Kempis, expressly states that Thomas wrote the "Imitation." This statement might be considered sufficient of itself were it not for the fact that the so-called Gaesdoncker Codex of the Chronicondoes not contain this statement. Caspar of Pforzheim, who made his German translation in 1448, says the work was written by "a devoted father, Master Thomas, a canon regular." Hermann Rheyd, who met Thomas at the chapter of Windesheim in 1454, speaks of him as the author. John Wessel, who spent some time with Thomas, was according to his early biographer attracted by the book at Windesheim. Funk gives thirteen dated manuscripts written before 1500 ascribing the "Imitation" to Thomas à Kempis. The original Brussels Codex of 1441 has already been referred to above. Its date is accepted by Hirsche, Pohl, Funk, Schulze, and others; and the conclusion drawn is that the manuscript of the "Imitation" it contains was written before 1420. The date 1441 has recently been disputed as ungenuine by Puyol and Kentenich on the basis of its divergences from other texts by the way of additions and also the conclusion. A second manuscript in Louvain is also subscribed as autographic and seems to be nearly as old (cf. Pohl, vi. 456). Another manuscript preserved in Brussels has the date 1425 and states that Thomas was the author. The Codex Magdalenus in Oxford, dated 1438, strangely gives the work under the title De musica ecclesiaslica, the title of a work by Walter Hylton, an English mystic. Of printed editions of the fifteenth century, at least twelve present Thomas as the author, beginning with the Augsburg edition of 1472. Finally, in style and contents the "Imitation" agrees closely with other writings of Thomas à Kempis; and the flow of thought is altogether similar to that of the Meditatio de incarnatione. Spitzen has made it seem probable that the author was acquainted with the writings of Jan van Ruysbroeck and other mystics of the Netherlands. Funk has brought out the references to ecclesiastical customs which fit the book into the early part of the fifteenth century better than into an earlier time. Scholars like Schwab, Hirsche, Pohl, Schulze, and Funk (and also the Italian Santini) agree that the claims of Thomas à Kempis are almost beyond dispute. On the other hand, Denifle cleared the deck of all suggested names and ascribed the work to some unknown canon regular of the Netherlands. Karl Müller in a brief note (Kirchengeschichte, ii. 122). pronounces the theory of the Thomas authorship to be "more than uncertain"; and Loofs (Dogmengeschichte, 4th ed., p. 633) expresses substantially the same judgment. In addition to the historic considerations for the Thomas authorship the philosophical consideration certainly has weight, that no sufficient reason can be given why the name of Thomas à Kempis should have been attached to the book if he did not write it.


BIBLIOGRAPHY: The first ed. of the Opera by N. Ketelaer and G. de Leempt appeared at Utrecht, 1473 (contained fifteen writings, not including the "Imitation"). Others are by P. Danhassor, Nuremberg, 1494 (includes twenty compositions); J. Badius, Antwerp, 1520, 1521, 1523; G. Dupuyherbault, with Vita by J. B. Ascensius, Paris, 1549; G. Putherbeus, Antwerp, 1574; H. Sommalius, 3 vols., ib. 1599, 5th ed., Douai, 1635 (regarded as the best until the next to be mentioned): M. J. Pohl, to be in 8 vols., vols. i.-v., Freiburg, 1903 sqq. On the Imitation there is a discussion of the literature by R. P. A, de Backer, Essai bibliographique sur le livre De imitatione Christi, Liége, 1864. The editions of the work are past counting. Among them may be singled out: the first Latin ed., Augsburg, 1472 (bound up with a copy of Jerome's De vir. ill., and writings of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas), cf. Facsimile Reproduction of the First Edition of 1471 with Historical Introduction by C. Knox-Little, London, 1894. Of the many English translations may be noted: the first, by W. Atkinson and the Princess Margaret, mother of King Henry VII., London, 1502 ; reprinted ib. 1828, new ed. by J. K. Ingram, ib. 1893; The Imitation of Christ, Being the Autograph MS. of Thomas a Kempis, De imitation Christi, Reproduced in Facsimile from the Original Preserved in the Royal Library at Brussels, with Introduction by C. Ruelens, London, 1879; The Imitation of Christ, now for the First Time Set forth in Rythm and Sentences, with Preface by Canon Liddon, ib. 1889; Meditations on the Life of Christ . . . Translated and Edited . . . by Archdeacon Wright . . . and . . . S. Kettlewell, with a Preface by the Latter, Oxford, 1892; The Imitation of Christ; Translation by Canon W. Benham, with 12 Photogravures after Celebrated Paintings, ib. 1905; J. H. Srawley, The Imitation of Christ or the Ecclesiastical Music, Cambridge, 1908.

On the life of Thomas the fundamental source is J. Busch, Chronicon Windeshemense, ed. H. Rosweyde, Antwerp, 1621, and K. Grube, Halle, 1886; with which should be used H. Rosweyde, Chronicon Mt. S. Agnetis, Antwerp, 1615, ed. cum Rosweydii vindiciis Kempensibus, ib. 1622. Consult further: Vol. i. of the Opera by Pohl (ut sup.) contains a discussion of the life and writings; B. Bähring, Thomas à Kempis der Prediger der Nachfolge Christi, Leipsic, 1872; S. Kettlewell, Thomas à Kempis and the Brethren of the Common Life, 2 vols., London, 1882, abridged ed., 1885; F. R. Cruise, Thomas à Kempis, with Notes of a Visit to the Scenes in which his Life was Spent, with Some Account of the Examination of his Relics, ib. 1887; L. A. Wheatley, Story of the Imitation of Christ, ib. 1891; Röring, Thomas à Kempis, Zijne voorgangers en zijne tijdgenooten, Utrecht, 1902; C. Bigg, Wayside Sketches in Ecclesiastical History, ib. 1906; KL, viii. 1555-59.


CCEL home page
This document is from the Christian Classics Ethereal Library at
Calvin College. Last modified on 10/03/03. Contact the CCEL.
Calvin seal: My heart I offer you O Lord, promptly and sincerely