Frank William Boreham 1871-1959

Frank William Boreham 1871-1959
A photo F W Boreham took of himself in 1911

Monday, June 11, 2007

Boreham on ‘The Imitation of Christ’ by Thomas à Kempis

This is the first of several articles that F W Boreham wrote on the saints of the church. It is fascinating for several reasons. FWB writes about the way that The Imitation of Christ did not grip him at first but then later it impressed itself on him. FWB also writes with some detail about his pastoral ministry and this essay is one that lifts the veil on this aspect of Boreham’s ministry. What FWB says about the preoccupation with one's soul, to the neglect of wider mission is very interesting.

Lovers of The Mill on the Floss are not likely to forget George Eliot's description of the sensational experience that came to Maggie Tulliver at a most critical moment in her career. The chapter is appropriately entitled A Voice from the Past.

Maggic is in desperate straits. Her mind is in torture; her faith flags and almost fails. Woman-like, she attempts to steady her nerves by an orgy of tidying-up. In a high cupboard, long neglected, she chances upon a pile of musty-fusty old books, thickly coated with dust and yellow with age. Picking up one of them at random, Maggie finds that it is a well-worn copy of that choicest classic of the medieval monasteries—The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis. It has the corners turned down at many places, and every here and there passages are marked, underlined and annotated. The ink has turned brown with the passing of the years, but their significance is still clear.

George Eliot says that a strange thrill of awe passed through Maggie when she read these marked sentences, as if she had been wakened in the night by a strain of solemn music, telling of beings whose souls had been astir whilst hers was lost in stupor. Oblivious of time, oblivious of everything, Maggie passed from one brown mark to another, as the quiet hand pointed, hardly conscious that she was reading; she seemed rather to be listening to some still, small voice whispering to her out of the eternities.

The words exactly met her case and wonderfully soothed and fortified her broken spirit. She felt that, in company with some sturdy ancestor of her own, who had possibly slumbered in his village grave for a hundred years or more, she had been sitting at the feet of this devout old monk who, in the peaceful seclusion of his cloister, had conceived these gracious thoughts and committed them to paper half a thousand years ago. A reviving and revitalizing tremor ran through Maggie's frame. She felt that she had been rescued from unbelief and darkness and despair by having forged this golden link, and established this precious bond of living fellowship, with two brave and saintly spirits who had walked the earth long, long ago.


It is pleasant to pass from the idyllic romance of an English village to the rugged romance of a Scottish glen. The most astonishing literary revelation of the nineteenth century was the exposure of the essential sentimentality of Scotsmen. Until then, the Scot had indignantly repudiated any tendency to softness. The world had innocently accepted him at his own valuation. He was, he said, dour and canny. Other men—Irishmen particularly—might be emotional, impressionable, sentimental; but not he! No, most emphatically, not he! His heart, he pretended, was made of granite; he was rugged, crabbed, austere, passionless and stern: there was never a catch in his breath, a lump in his throat or a tear in his eye. But, a couple of generations back, this myth was exploded. As the nineteenth century began to grow old, writers like J. M. Barrie, Ian Maclaren and S. R. Crockett took the world by storm. And in that welter of vigorous emotionalism there are few things finer than the farewell scene between Geordie Howe, the most brilliant young scholar that Drumtochty had produced, and his early dominie. Ian Maclaren lays the scene in Marget Howe's old-fashioned garden, among the pinks and daisies and forget-me-nots, with sweet-smelling wallflowers and thyme and moss roses. Geordie was really too ill to be carried there; but there was no spot that he loved so well.

`Maister Jamieson,' he said feebly to the old schoolmaster, drawing a book from under his pillow, 'Maister Jamieson, ye hae been a gude freend tae me, the best I ever had aifrer my mither and faither. Will ye tak this bulk for a keepsake o' yir grateful scholar? It's a Latin copy of The Imitation, by Thomas à Kempis, Dominie, and it's bonnie printin'. Wull ye read it, Dominie, for my sake, and maybe ye'll come to se--------- [This is 'Beside the Bonnie Brier Brush' (Hodder & Stoughton)] but Geordie could not find words for more. And the dominie, who understood, promised that Thomas à Kempis should be his companion to the day of his own departure.


Thus fiction, and fiction in two very different moods, pays eloquent tribute to one who was as remote from the world of fiction as a man could very well be. Unhappily, we know very little about him. His real name, it is generally assumed, was Thomas Hammerken, and he was probably born in 1379. Entering the old Augustinian monastery at Agnetenberg, in the Netherlands, at the age of twenty-seven, he lived there a secluded and uneventful life until his death on 25th July 1471. He describes himself as a lover of books and quiet corners. Although Europe was a cloud of dust, convulsed in storm and tumult, with wars raging and thrones tottering, he lived his patient life of introspection and contemplation, casting into pearl-like sentences the thoughts that will be treasured as long as the race endures.

He was, Professor T. M. Lindsay says, a little fresh-coloured man, with soft brown eyes, who had a way of stealing off to his lonely cell whenever the conversation became too lively. Normally his frame was bowed and bent; but he had a habit of standing bolt upright when the psalms were being chanted; and, under stress of spiritual clarion, he would even rise on tiptoe till he appeared almost tall. Of pleasant disposition, he was genial, but shy, and yielded to but one vice—the perpetration of puns.

He had an odd way, in conversation, of holding his companion's hand or of laying his own hand on his friend's shoulder. He seemed to feel that there is some spiritual virtue in physical contact, and I really believe that there is. In the course of a long life, a considerable proportion of which has been spent in advising the perplexed and visiting the sick, I have discovered that there is a peculiar magic in the human touch. The secret is of special value when the minister enters the chamber of death. A man in the act of leaving this life is like a ship that has broken from its moorings and is drifting farther and farther out to sea. The voices on the shore, in the case of the ship, and the voices round the bed, in the case of the patient, seem strangely faint and distant; it is difficult to catch and comprehend them. To the dying man, the minister, even if recognized, seems hundreds of miles away.

You may repeat to him the beautiful cadences of the Twenty-third Psalm, or recite the Master's immortal saying about the many mansions, but he is too far gone to take it in. But if you take the precaution to establish actual physical contact with him by holding his hand or stroking his forehead whilst you speak, your very touch will generate an atmosphere of nearness; and the light in his face will show that he is able to interpret, under the impact of that warm, human gesture, the divine message that, apart from that factor, would be lost upon him.

Thomas à Kempis—to return from this unpardonable digression—was once elected prefect of the monastery, but was found to be too absent-minded for the responsibilities of the position and was deposed. `This', says Professor Lindsay, `is the placid, kindly, fresh-coloured old man who wrote a book that has been translated into more languages than any other book save the Bible, and which has moved the hearts of men of all nations, characters and conditions of life.'


My personal experience of The Imitation may be worth recording. I confess, not without shame, that, in the early days of my pilgrimage and ministry, I made many attempts to read Thomas à Kempis, but, explain it how you will, he simply failed to grip me. Then, after an interval of many years, I tried again. This time every sentence flamed with sacred fire. I have seldom been so deeply moved. A sense of sadness filled my heart when I reached the last chapter; so I turned back, and read it all over again, enjoying the second reading even more than the first.

The only criticism of the book that one can offer arises out of the conditions under which it was written. Thomas à Kempis lived long before Christopher Columbus and Captain Cook. Europe had not awakened to a sense of world-consciousness. America and Australia had not been discovered; Asia and Africa were hardly known. It is scarcely surprising, therefore, that The Imitation lacks the missionary note. It was Captain Cook's Journal that fired the fancy of William Carey. Thomas à Kempis had no such inspiration. To read The Imitation is to discover how self-centred the very best Christian thinking really was until the new day broke. A man's supreme and almost exclusive concern was the salvation and culture of his own soul.

The extraordinary thing about The Imitation is its ability to appeal to men and women of such vastly different types. Here, for example, is John Newton, a profligate and blasphemous sailor, giving an account of his conversion. `Among the few books that we had on board', he says, 'was the Imitation of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis. I carelessly took it up, as I had often done before, to pass away the time. But whilst I was reading it this time I suddenly asked myself, "What if these things be true?" I could not bear the force of the inference as it related to myself.' And so the good work began, and Newton was led to the Saviour.

General Gordon, too, made Thomas à Kempis his constant companion. Although in China and Africa it was often necessary to travel light, he would never consent to leave The Imitation behind. And we all like to remember that, during those bleak October days of 1915, when Nurse Edith Cavell languished in her wretched prison at Brussels, awaiting execution, she cherished as her greatest solace her precious little copy of à Kempis. In her last moments she begged that, after her death, it might be sent to her cousin. Mr. E. D. Cavell, who received it three years later.

How are we to account for this universal appeal? To answer that question we have to return to George Eliot, in whose company we set out. 'I suppose', she says, in reflecting on Maggie Tulliver’s memorable experience, 'I suppose this is the reason why the, small old-fashioned book, for which you need only pay sixpence at a bookstall, works miracles to this day, turning bitter water into sweetness, whilst expensive volumes, newly issued, leave all things as they were before. It was written by a hand that waited for the heart's prompting; it is the chronicle of a solitary, hidden anguish with its struggle, its trust and its triumph. It was not written on velvet cushions to teach endurance to those who are treading with bleeding feet life's jagged stones.' And just because it sprang from the throbbing depths of a great heart, it will touch the hearts of all who read it as long as literature endures.

And thus the songs of the birds in the trees around that fifteenth-century convent are being broadcast across all the continents and islands of the world to this very hour, whilst the perfume of the flowers in that monastery garden will, by means of these pages, be wafted about the world till earth's last sun shall set.

F W Boreham, ‘From a Monastery Garden,’ Cliffs of Opal (London: Epworth Press, 1948), 6-12.

Image: A page from the original Imitatio Christi.

To read The Imitation of Christ online or get it by a PDF file or other versions.

To listen to the audio of The Imitation of Christ.