A native of London, in 1605 Nicholas Ferrar entered Clare Hall, Cambridge, where he was one of the most brilliant of his generation. In 1610 he was elected a Fellow. Leaving the damp air of Cambridge in 1613 because of ill health, he entered the service of the Princess Elizabeth, daughter of King James the First and wife of the Elector Palatine Frederick V. Within a month of arriving on the Continent, he decided to leave the Princess’ service and spent the next five years traveling widely, visiting the Netherlands, Austria, Bohemia, and other German principalities, Italy and Spain, learning to speak Dutch, German, Italian and Spanish. He studied at Leipzig and at Padua, where he undertook studies at the famous medical school. In the course of his travels he met Reformed, Lutherans, Anabaptists and Roman Catholics, including Jesuits and Oratorians, as well as Jews, broadening his religious education. Returning to England in 1618 after a vision that he was needed at home, he was employed by the Virginia Company, becoming Deputy Treasurer in 1622. Shortly before the dissolution of the Company in 1624, he was elected to Parliament, but the contemporary politics and his religious aspirations determined him to give up the career which he had begun.
In 1625 he settled at Little Gidding, an estate in Huntingdonshire, and was joined there by his immediate family and a few friends and servants who together established a common life. In 1626 Ferrar was ordained deacon by Bishop William Laud, and under Ferrar’s direction this household lived a life of prayer and work. They restored the derelict church near the manor house, became responsible for services there, taught many of the local children, and looked after the health and well-being of the people of the neighborhood. A regular round of prayer according to the Book of Common Prayer was observed (there was always a member of the household at prayer), along with the daily recitation of the whole of the Psalter. The members of the household community became widely known for fasting, private prayer and meditation, and for writing stories and books illustrating themes of Christian faith and morality. The community’s piety and ideals, thoroughly biblical and founded on the Prayer Book, were warmly approved by the Bishop of Lincoln. King Charles the First visited Little Gidding and was greatly impressed by their life. (One of the activities of the Little Gidding community was the preparation of harmonies of the Gospels, one of which was presented to the King by the Ferrar family.) Nicholas Ferrar died on December 4, 1637.
The community did not long survive Nicholas Ferrar’s death, having incurred the hostility of the Puritans, who contemptuously called it a “protestant nunnery”. But Nicholas’ brother John and sister Susanna Collett kept up the life of prayer and work established at Little Gidding until their deaths in 1657. The memory of the religious life at Little Gidding was thereafter kept alive, principally through Izaak Walton’s description in his Life of George Herbert: “He (Ferrar) and his family…did most of them keep Lent and all Ember-weeks strictly, both in fasting and using all those mortifications and prayers that the Church hath appointed…and he and they did the like constantly on Fridays, and on the vigils or eves appointed to be fasted before the Saints’ days; and this frugality and abstinence turned to the relief of the poor….”
The community at Little Gidding was not a religious community in a conventional sense. They did not live according to a formal Rule and no vows were taken. They were instead more strictly a Christian household ordering their common life by the Book of Common Prayer according to early 17th century High Church principles.
The life of the Little Gidding community inspired T.S. Eliot, who gave the title, “Little Gidding”, to the last of his Four Quartets.
Lord God, make us worthy of your perfect love; that, with your deacon Nicholas Ferrar and his household, we may rule ourselves according to your Word, and serve you with our whole heart; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The propers for the commemoration of Nicholas Ferrar, Deacon, are published on the Lectionary Page website.