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12 Historical figures who read ‘The Imitation of Christ’


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John Burger - published on 11/30/20

A somewhat surprising list of prominent people who have turned to the spiritual classic by Thomas Kempis.

As Advent begins, Christians around the world are beginning preparations for the great feast of Christmas, the Nativity of Jesus Christ.

Certainly, many people are already anticipating the festive spirit of the holidays, and as the world approaches the first anniversary of the viral infection outbreak in Wuhan, China, that has turned into a devastating pandemic, that festive spirit is likely more welcome than ever.

Advent is also a time of spiritual preparation that many Christians practice in a more ascetical way, much like the season of Lent. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the basic elements of such a discipline, but spiritual reading often accompanies those.

One spiritual classic that has guided Christians for centuries is The Imitation of Christ, by the 15th-century monk Thomas Kempis. A new translation of the work, by Father John-Julian, founder of an Episcopal contemplative order, was published in 2012 by Paraclete Press. The edition is a thick tome, due to the copious notes explaining many aspects of the text.

After reading the book, readers may be delightfully surprised by a two-page summary of the many people throughout history who have read or somehow been influenced by The Imitation. Herewith is a summary of that list:

St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, who read the book during a stay in Paris.

St. Thomas More, who read The Imitation in the Tower of London, awaiting his execution.

St. Teresa of Avila, who urged prioresses to make the work available to members of each convent.

John Newton, a slave-ship captain who read the work before a fateful 1681 storm at sea, leading to his conversion. He eventually wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace.”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Someone shopping near the Louvre in 1827 found a copy of The Imitation with “J.J. Rouseau” written on the fly leaf. The handwriting was validated, and the purchaser later discovered a letter in which the philosopher asked a friend to send him a copy of Kempis’ book

John Wesley. The founder of Methodism said The Imitation of Christ was the best summary of the Christian life he ever read.

Vincent Van Gogh. Amid painting such classics as “The Starry Night” and “Sunflowers,” the Dutch artist was deeply influenced by The Imitation. He wrote about it in eight letters to his brother Theo.

Oscar Wilde. “I am now off to bed after reading a chapter of St. Thomas a Kempis,” Wilde wrote. “I think half-an-hour’s warping of the inner man daily is greatly conducive to holiness.”

James Joyce. In 1897, the Irish novelist, purchased a copy of The Imitation, “the last sign of his early religious fervor.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The Lutheran pastor and anti-Nazi dissident taught a course on The Imitation at the University of Berlin during the 1935-1936 academic year. In 1945, he had the book in his cell the night before the Nazis executed him.

Dag Hammarskjold. On the day he was elected Secretary General of the United Nations, the Swedish diplomat quoted the book in his journal: “Not I, but God in me. … I am the vessel. The drink is God’s. And God is the thirsty One.” The Imitation was the only book found in his case when his plane crashed in Zambia in 1961.

Bill Clinton. During the former president’s impeachment, Clinton “turned for solace to the Bible, The Imitation of Christ, and Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations.

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