Anglican Notables – Nicholas Ferrar & the Community at Little Gidding – 4 December

Anglican Notables – Nicholas Ferrar (Religious) – 4 December

[This is a series of biographical sketches of Anglican men and women whose lives have been exemplary in virtue and/or have made significant contributions to Anglicanism’s expression of the Gospel.  Written from the perspective of full communion with the See of St. Peter, including such papal statements as St. John Paul II’s encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint, this series will occasionally acknowledge differences between Anglicans and Catholics where they exist and will do so in a spirit of charity and respect.  However, the intent is to focus less on differences than on opportunities for mutual enrichment between the Anglican and Catholic traditions and on shared spiritual treasures that already unite us.]

[Image 1: The small church at Little Gidding Ferrar re-built around 1626.]

Nicholas Ferrar

Born 22 February 1592 (London) – Died 4 December 1637 (Little Gidding, England)


The young Nicholas Ferrar was educated at Cambridge University (he entered Clare Hall, now Clare College), took his B.A. in 1610, and was elected fellow that year.  It was also at Cambridge that he befriended the priest-poet George Herbert. 

[Image 2: Portrait of Nicholas Ferrar (1617) by the Circle of Cornelius Janssen.  Those interested in further research on Ferrar and his family can find a significant collection of papers at Cambridge’s Magdalene College Libraries.]

An academic career might have been in the making.  But Ferrar’s physical constitution was deemed unsuitable for the damp air of Cambridge.  Though traveling in those days was only for those of sturdy health, I would think, Ferrar was robust enough to set out on what was soon to be called the Grand Tour.  He visited “Holland, some of the German principalities, Austria, Bohemia, Italy and Spain, and learned to speak Dutch, German, Italian and Spanish. … He studied in Leipzig and in Padua, where he continued his medical studies, and he broadened his religious education through meetings with Anabaptists, Jesuits, Oratorians of St Philip Neri and a number of Continental Jews. During this time, he recorded many adventures in his letters home to his family and friends. Finally in 1618 he is said to have had a vision that he was needed at home, and returned to England.”  (“Nicholas Ferrar … Patron for the Oratory”). 

Ferrar served briefly, in 1624, as a member of Parliament for Lymington, Hampshire.  This involved complicated political and business turmoil because of Ferrar’s family’s involvement with the Virginia Company, which failed financially.  It bears noting that an aspect of the financial failure of the Virginia Company might have been linked to Ferrar’s principles over the evangelization of Native Americans and the tobacco trade.  (Christopher Hodgkins, Reforming Empire: Protestant Colonialism and Conscience in British Literature (University of Missouri Press, 2002), 156.  Cited here .)  For further discussion of Ferrar’s involvement with the Virginia Company and the issue of slavery, follow this link for a brief, readable account.  _The History of Parliament_’s biography of Ferrar notes that “On his father’s death in 1620 [Ferrar] was responsible, as his father’s executor, for a legacy of £300 to found a college in Virginia for the conversion of the Indians, that they ‘may be persuaded that it is not the intent of our nation to make their children slaves, but to bring them to a better manner of living in this world and to the way of eternal happiness in the life to come.’”

After failed investments in the Virginia Company depleted much of his fortune, Nicholas Ferrar was ordained a deacon in the Church of England in 1626 and retreated with his family to Little Gidding in Huntingdonshire.

Depending on how one wants to regard daily life of the Nicholas Ferrar family and household at Little Gidding, it was either the first stirrings of what was to become the revival of religious life in Anglicanism—so Ferrar can tenuously be considered a “religious” of sorts—or it was simply a pious family living in the seventeenth-century English countryside.  There were many families who prayed in common and engaged in good works in their neighborhoods, as did the Ferrar household.  And the Ferrars did not take vows, live in an enclosure, or follow a religious rule as such.  Puritan denunciations of Little Gidding as a “Protestant nunnery” were therefore misplaced.  Nonetheless, daily life at Little Gidding can be regarded as a High Church experiment in a very Low Church age.  Ordering one’s life around the Prayer Book, which is what the Ferrars did, was already suspect to the Puritans.  But the Ferrars knew that their common life encouraged pious deeds (significant fasting, praying the entire psalter daily, constant presence of at least one member of the household in the chapel, almsgiving, and so on) to a degree that was not going to warm the hearts of Lutherans/Calvinists/Puritans.  “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” we read in the Epistle of St. James (2:17).  But Luther called the Epistle of St. James an “epistle of straw.”

This discord is an eternal shame.  What gentle, kind Puritan would have objected, after all, to such works carried out by the Ferrars as tending to the health and education of local children.  True, education by the members of the Little Gidding household would have included appeals towards High Church doctrine rather than not.  But as the failed Low Church experiment of Cromwell’s Commonwealth was to prove, imposed monochrome uniformity in religion was not to England’s liking.  T. S. Eliot’s poem, “Little Gidding,” also suggests that the Little Gidding community and the Puritans who opposed them might have had much more in common—might even have been “folded in a single party”—had there been a “purification of the motive / In the ground of [their] beseeching.”

Of course, no one was truly convinced that Little Gidding was like any other pious English household.  T. S. Eliot’s Anglo-Catholic convictions and knowledge of Anglican literature have helped us in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries to gain a deeper appreciation of the spirit and witness of Nicholas Ferrar and the Little Gidding community.  But Charles I, though he sought political refuge at Little Gidding in 1645 after the Battle of Naseby (and after Ferrar’s death in 1637), had sought spiritual refuge there on several visits.  And the priest-poet George Herbert, whom we can consider one of the High Church Caroline Divines, was a friend of Nicholas Ferrar from their years at Cambridge.  In 1633, Herbert committed his manuscript of The Temple to Ferrar and left it to Ferrar to publish the poems or burn them, as Ferrar deemed best.  Thanks to Ferrar’s wise judgment, The Temple was published that same year.

Before ending this sketch with a prayer, here is a passage not by T. S. Eliot or George Herbert but by Nicholas Ferrar himself:

“I thought the exercise of Patience a burden that would tyre out my strength, a block that encombered the way and made me stumble, and made me fall, and therefore thought even Impatience itself in removing that which was offensive to have been a piece of wisedome, a practize of goodness. That nobody should crosse mee, that nothing should be contrary to my mind, was that which I supposed most just to desire, most profitable to endeavour. I see my errour, I feel my losse.”

Lord God, make us so reflect thy perfect love; that, with thy Deacon Nicholas Ferrar and his household, we may rule ourselves according to thy Word, and serve thee with our whole heart; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

(“Nicholas Ferrar, Deacon, Man of Prayer”)

Brother John-Bede Pauley, O.S.B.

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