Each era is based on the experiences made by other eras. This is also true of the Reformation, which did not arise like a phoenix from the ashes. Already before the Reformation there were people and movements some of whose statements anticipated the ideas of the Reformation. For this reason some of these so-called pre-Reformation movements and people will now be introduced.

1. The New Devotion (Devotio moderna)

In Oktober 1340 in Deventer/Netherlands Geert Grote, the son of a rich merchant, was born. At the age of at least 30 - he had studied a great deal for a long period and had only recently become a canon (a member of the cathedral chapter) in Aix-la-Chapelle - he experienced a conversion. Resulting from this change in his life he wrote several "Decisions and Intentions" for his further life without calling them vows: forgoing income from the Church, reducing his possessions; the main focus being the salvation of his soul. He gives away the largest part of his possessions, becomes a guest in a monastery without himself becoming a monk and he reads many clerical works on the history of the Church. After three years he begins to preach, first of all in the Deventer area then also in other areas of the Netherlands. He preaches penance, calls for prayer and fasting. However, as he stresses, this must not be an outward exercise only but also be sincerely carried out: otherwise it is to no avail. Geert Grote is understood by many. Some begin to lead a communal life outside monastery walls. This model spreads: houses of the "Brethren and the Sisters of the Common Life" emerge in the Netherlands. Even though Geert Grote himself always remained true to the Church he was nevertheless forbidden to preach as a result of his great success; Grote retired and died in 1384.

For Grote the pivotal point is the search for inner peace, which results from the denial of one's own self and is to be achieved by "ardour" and "silence". This is the heart of the "New Devotion", the "Devotio moderna". And these ideas took effect. For one among the laity, the "Sisters" or the "Brethren of the Common Life": many houses are founded in the Netherlands and in Germany. But also a monastic reform movement takes place at the same time: followers of Geert Grote found a monastery in Windesheim near Zwolle in the Netherlands; many other new monasteries (e.g. in Frenswegen near Nordhorn in Germany) emerge; 100 years after the founding of the first monastery there are already 97 monasteries which belong to the "Windesheim Congregation".

Not so much profound theological dispute but the renewal of the practice of living a spiritual life is of central importance in these monasteries. And so doing, the central concern is to immerse oneself in the life of Jesus and to imitate the life of Christ. The most important and extremely influential work documenting this is the "Imitatio Christi", "The Imitation of Christ", which is attributed to Thomas à Kempis who died in 1471. Thomas à Kempis mostly lived in seclusion in St. Agnetenberg Monastery near Zwolle, where he mainly copied books but also wrote some. The "Imitatio Christi" is one of the most widely read books in the world; up to now there are more than 3000 different editions.

The book itself is to be interpreted as a "Diary of a soul on its way to perfection" (E.Iserloh): in many sentences of wisdom the imitation of Christ is to be achieved by renouncing the world and turning to Christ: "Disdain that which is superficial, dedicate yourself to your inner being and you shall see that the Kingdom of God grows inside you." (II,1,1f.) The "Devotio moderna" did not directly prepare the way for the Reformation. Perhaps Luther knew some of its representatives, but this is not certain. However, the Reformation did assimilate and remould this widespread reform movement, just as it also did, for example, with Humanism. During the Reformation the protest against all exterior piety becomes even more fundamental and the point is also that it is theologically specified. But the ground for a theological reform is certainly also prepared by the Devotio moderna. The fact that later on so many clergymen allowed themselves to be convinced by the message of the Reformation in Germany and the Netherlands makes the "Devotio moderna" a pre-Reformation movement.

Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (written probably between 1414 and 1425)
From the second book, chapter 11: Few Love the Cross of Jesus

JESUS has always many who love His heavenly kingdom, but few who bear His cross. He has many who desire consolation, but few who care for trial. He finds many to share His table, but few to take part in His fasting. All desire to be happy with Him; few wish to suffer anything for Him. Many follow Him to the breaking of bread, but few to the drinking of the chalice of His passion. Many revere His miracles; few approach the shame of the Cross. Many love Him as long as they encounter no hardship; many praise and bless Him as long as they receive some comfort from Him. But if Jesus hides Himself and leaves them for a while, they fall either into complaints or into deep dejection. Those, on the contrary, who love Him for His own sake and not for any comfort of their own, bless Him in all trial and anguish of heart as well as in the bliss of consolation

From the second book, chapter 12: The Royal Road of the Holy Cross

If you carry the cross willingly, it will carry and lead you to the desired goal where indeed there shall be no more suffering, but here there shall be. If you carry it unwillingly, you create a burden for yourself and increase the load, though still you have to bear it. If you cast away one cross, you will find another and perhaps a heavier one. Do you expect to escape what no mortal man can ever avoid? Which of the saints was without a cross or trial on this earth? Not even Jesus Christ, our Lord, Whose every hour on earth knew the pain of His passion. "It behooveth Christ to suffer, and to rise again from the dead, . . . and so enter into his glory." How is it that you look for another way than this, the royal way of the holy cross? The whole life of Christ was a cross and a martyrdom, and do you seek rest and enjoyment for yourself? You deceive yourself, you are mistaken if you seek anything but to suffer, for this mortal life is full of miseries and marked with crosses on all sides. Indeed, the more spiritual progress a person makes, so much heavier will he frequently find the cross, because as his love increases, the pain of his exile also increases.

(taken from: Thomas à Kempis, Imitation of Christ,
modern English translation, Milwaukee)


Questions on further work

1. The work by Thomas à Kempis is called "De imitatio Christi", The Imitation of Christ. What kind of understanding of Christ can be perceived, which is to be imitated?

2. Who can be considered to be a true follower of Christ?

3. What does Thomas understand by Loving God?

4. The centre of interest for Thomas à Kempis is the willingness to suffer. Is taking on suffering in following Christ a prerequisite for reaching glory?