Imitation of Christ is considered 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 John 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 in 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 Beaufort, 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. Pierre 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 counsel 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 primary Protestant complaints about the book are with regard to what they might call "medieval mistakes" or superstitions: the merit of good works and transubstantiation (IV:2 - i.e., volume IV, chapter 2), purgatory (IV:9), and the "worship" of saints (I:13, II:9, III:6, III:59 - although the latter are but mentions of the Catholic tradition of praise rather than worship of saints).