What is a Christian Devotional Book?

Christian devotional, history, meditations, Bible, spiritual growth, Thomas a Kempis, Brother Lawrence, Theresa of Avila, Dark Night of the Soul,

My three choices for many years

What is a Christian devotional book and why do people read them?

Obviously, the original Christian devotional book is the Bible–particularly the Psalms which are full of praise to God.

But early on in Christianity, believers sought to know and understand God through meditation and by learning from others.

To that end, teachers, monks, nuns, and even laymen, began to put down their thoughts or reactions to Biblical text.

Some used “devotionals” in a variety of formats to share their personal observations about God as gleaned through their readings, prayers and meditations.

Devotionals are not theology (the study of God) or doctrine. Designed for individual believers to use in their personal worship of God, they help readers grow in their spiritual life.

Devotional books became more popular when books could be more easily produced and people could read.

The Imitation of Christ

For that reason, one of the first and most lasting devotionals, is Thomas à Kempis‘ The Imitation of Christ.

First written in Latin, circa 1420, by a Catholic  friar in the Netherlands, it was reprinted 744 times before 1650! It’s the most widely translated book in history–other than the Bible.

Wikipedia describes it this way:

“The text is divided into four books, which provide detailed spiritual instructions: “Helpful Counsels of the Spiritual Life,””Directives for the Interior Life“, “On Interior Consolation” and “On the Blessed Sacrament”. The approach taken in the Imitation is characterized by its emphasis on the interior life and withdrawal from the world, as opposed to an active imitation of Christ by other friars.The book places a high level of emphasis on the devotion to the Eucharist as key element of spiritual life.

Other well-known devotionals

Teresa of Avila, mystic and nun, wrote a number of volumes including The Interior Castle, published in 1588.

Designed as a guide for spiritual development through service and prayer, it used a metaphor to encourage spiritual development. According to Wikipedia, a vision inspired Teresa:

“her vision of the soul as a crystal globe in the shape of a castle containing seven mansions, which she interpreted as the journey of faith through seven stages, ending with union with God.”

The Carmelite monk Saint John of the Cross wrote Dark Night of the Soul about the same time.

Another famous devotional that has stood the test of time is Brother Lawrence‘s Practicing the Presence of God.

Christian devotional, history, meditations, Bible, spiritual growth, Thomas a Kempis, Brother Lawrence, Theresa of Avila, Dark Night of the Soul,

15th century manuscript of The Imitation of Christ, Royal library, Brussels. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

John Bunyan’s The Pilgrimage’s Progress is an example of devotional writing that isn’t a devotional. It’s an allegory of the Christian life, but doesn’t focus the reader on how to best worship God.

Or at least that’s how I’ve reacted to the book, written by Bunyan from jail in 1678.

More recent devotionals

More modern Protestant devotionals took a slightly different format in the 19th and 20th century, usually aimed at a specific Bible verse.

Examples of these types of devotionals would include Morning and Evening by Charles Spurgeon; Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest; Streams in the Desert by Lettie Cowman and Living Faith for Catholics.  The Upper Room has provided devotionals in a host of international languages for many years.

Devotionals should not usurp the position of the Bible in believers’ lives, but to add to their worship experience. For years, I sat quietly before God with three books: The Bible, My Utmost for His Highest and Stormie Omartian‘s The Power of a Praying Wife.

I read the Bible, God’s own word, to apply to my life. My Utmost for His Highest provides a short reading of 350 words based on one verse.

I used The Power of a Praying Wife to pray for my husband–30 different passages provided 30 different areas to pray about, or, one per day.

Devotionals in and of themselves form only a corner of the Christian life. They can’t take the place of worshiping God, praying, reading and studying the Bible.

They’re just another aspect of the Christian life–a tool–and reading the wisdom of others is helpful.

If you read Christian devotionals, how do you read them and why?

Any favorites?


A short history of Christian devotionals Click to Tweet

What is a Christian devotional book? Click to Tweet

Practicing the Presence of God through books Click to Tweet

Leave a comment


  1. Don’t forget “The Cloud of Unknowing!” And Julian of Norwich!

    I handle things a bit differently…I was trained in Soto Zen, and use koans to relate back to Jesus’ teachings. Unconventional, yes, but it does cast a different light on things, and one that, as an Asian, I understand a bit better.

    To some degree, it is a race thing; I think God hard-wired our racial genetics to come to Him with different qualities, from different directions. The individualism of the West is counterbalanced by the Eastern view that the outstanding nail will be hammered down.

    Not PC, I suppose. But I do believe there is an element of truth there.

    • Michelle Ule

       /  January 13, 2015

      It seems to me that different people relate to God in different ways; not sure it’s racial, but perhaps even more base genetic than that. To some extent, I’ve come to see denominations as a form of worship styles. Some people need the grandeur of the high church, while others prefer the simplicity of a less ornate worship. As long as the one true God is the one being worshiped I’m not sure it matters what form that worship takes.

      Don’t know the Cloud of Unknowing, but am wandering over to Wikipedia for information! 🙂


  2. The last few years, I’ve rotated devotionals. I love Streams in the Desert and My Utmost for His Highest. But I’ve also tried out Kay Arthur’s daily devotional and Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling. There’s another wonderful devotional that encourages me to pray for my grandchildren (A Grandparent’s Prayer Journal by Melanie K. Wayne).

    • Michelle Ule

       /  January 13, 2015

      I’m one of the few people who hasn’t tried Jesus Calling, but it’s nice to know so many have been so touched by it. I may need to look into the Grandparent’s Prayer Journal . . .

  1. How I Read My Utmost for His Highest | Michelle Ule, Author
  2. The Unexpected Expert | Michelle Ule, Author
  3. What is My Utmost for His Highest? | Michelle Ule, Author

Thoughts? Reactions? Lurker?

%d bloggers like this: