Thomas a Kempis
an outline biography
Thomas a Kempis was born in Kempen (hence à Kempis) near
Krefeld in the then Duchy of Cleves. His father may well have
been an artisan worker in metals, their family name Haemerken is
suggestive of a "little hammer" and Kempen was known for its
It appears there was only Thomas and a brother some fourteen
years his senior in the family. When Thomas was about thirteen
years old he followed his brother's example of journeying to
enrol at the famous schools established by the Brothers of the
Common Life at Deventer in the Netherlands. When he arrived at
Deventer Thomas found that his brother, John, had moved on to a
newly established faith community of Canons Regular at Windesheim
near Zwolle. He was nonetheless able to contact his brother and
to get his recommendation to Florentius Radewijn then a leading
figure at Deventer.
In the seven years Thomas was attending school at Deventer he
was much influenced by the "new devotion" (devotio
moderna) encouraged by the Brothers of the Common Life. This
"new devotion" looked to the enthusiam and sincerity that was
held to be associated with Christianity in the first century
The "Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life", as much
influenced by Gerard Groote and as administered by Florentius
Radewijn, lived more or less as monastics, but without the taking
of vows. All were expected to work in support of the community
but monies were held in common.
In 1399, Thomas sought admission to the faith community of
Mount St. Agnes near Zwolle which at that time had Thomas'
brother John for its prior, and was in the early stages of
establishment as a fully functioning monastic religious house.
Given this earliness, and associated limitations on its
operations, Thomas was not ordained as a priest until 1413 A.D.
Thomas' brother John passed away in 1432. Thomas before this
time had been called upon to fill diverse offices within the
Canons Regular but it had become apparent that his character was
more that of a contemplative scholar than an administrator and
a Kempis died in July 1471 and his mortal remains were interred
within the grounds of the Priory of Mount St. Agnes. The facts of
the Priory being damaged during the disruptions associated with
the emergence of the Reformation Movement, and of his rising fame
as the author of the Of the Imitation of Christ, both contributed
to his remains being re-interred, with much ceremony, at Zwolle
more than two hundred years after his death.