December 4 – Nicholas Ferrar
These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.
Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.
Nicholas Ferrar, deacon and person of prayer
Who was Nicholas Ferrar?
Nicholas Ferrar led a spiritual household at Little Gidding, Huntingdonshire, England for two decades. They were turbulent times: the godly stability of the community in the midst of religious strife commended it to many. It centred around Nicholas’ extended family of some forty, from babes to his elderly mother Mary. His siblings, John and Susanna, continued the community with their families for two more decades after Nicholas’ death, surviving the Civil War.
Nicholas was an academic prodigy: by 18 he was a Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge. In 1613 he left England as part of the retinue of Princess Elizabeth, James I’s daughter, who married the Elector Frederick V. Over the next five years he visited the Dutch Republic, Austria, Bohemia, Italy and Spain, learning Dutch, German, Italian and Spanish, undertaking medical studies at Padua. Meeting Anabaptists, Roman Catholics and Jews broadened his perspective on Christian life.
The formation of the community came about in large part due to disillusionment with business and political life. His father supported the Virginia Company, which founded the American colony in 1607; Nicholas became involved in its administration on his return to London. In 1624 he was a Member of Parliament for Lymington, but a court case saw the Company lose its charter, and Nicholas’ brother John faced the threat of bankruptcy. The family decided to leave London and devote themselves to godly living.
In 1626 Nicholas and Mary purchased the manor in the deserted village of Little Gidding, as part of a deal to rescue John from debt, and were joined by others of the extended family. The abandoned church was cleaned and restored before the house! The renovated manor included an almshouse and dispensary. The Bishop of St David’s, William Laud (later Archbishop of Canterbury) ordained Nicholas deacon later that year.
There was no formal ‘rule’ (despite Puritan suspicions), but the household followed closely the provisions of the (1604) Book of Common Prayer. It processed daily to the church for Morning and Evening Prayer, led by Nicholas; hourly devotions were led by members in the house, based on the psalms and gospels. On Sundays local children were included, and taught psalms; preaching was by the local rector, and Holy Communion was celebrated monthly. In the afternoon, the family walked to Steeple Gidding for Evening Prayer.
The Little Gidding household lived a ‘full homely divinity’. It was active in educating and caring for local children, learning and practicing bookbinding. Harmonies of the Gospels were made by cutting up and pasting lines together, one being made for King Charles I. George Herbert, in his last days, sent Nicholas his poems collection, The Temple, telling him to publish it if he thought it might encourage “any dejected poor soul”: they are still in print, a spiritual literary treasure.
Nicholas died in 1637 on the day after Advent Sunday at 1am, the hour when he began his prayers. He was buried outside the church, leaving space for John to be buried inside, near the church door. (He is commemorated on 4 December, though he died on 2 December.)
S. Eliot honoured Nicholas Ferrar in the Four Quartets, naming one ‘Little Gidding’: its recurring motif, “if you came this way, it would always be the same”, evokes the sense of the eternal which its ‘homely divinity’ embodied amid the strains and stressed of the hectic world around.
The ‘Friends of Little Gidding’ was founded in 1946 with T. S. Eliot as patron, “to maintain and adorn the church at Little Gidding, and to honour the life of Nicholas Ferrar and his family and their life in the village.” The Friends organise an annual pilgrimage to his tomb each July, and celebrate Nicholas Ferrar Day on 4 December.
John’s descendants continued at Little Gidding manor for a century. When the line died out the manor was sold, and was demolished in the early 1800s. St John’s church continues to be in use for occasional services, and is open on weekends.
Resources for liturgical use
Nicholas Ferrar led a spiritual household at Little Gidding, Huntingdonshire, England for two decades during the turbulent reign of Charles I. Well-educated and well-travelled, he became disillusioned with business and political life, and in 1626 moved with his extended family to a deserted village, restoring the manor and church. The household of around 40 led a “full homely divinity”, following the Book of Common Prayer closely. Hourly devotions went alongside educating local children, book-binding and writing, and ministering to those in need. Nicholas, ordained deacon by Bishop William Laud, led the household until his death in 1637.
How good and how lovely it is, when brothers live together in unity. It is fragrant as oil upon the head that runs down over the beard; fragrant as oil upon the beard of Aaron, that ran down over the collar of his robe.
Prayer of the Day
after whom every household in heaven and earth is named,
we thank you for your servant Nicholas Ferrar,
and the members of the Little Gidding community.
We bless your holy Name for their discipline of prayer,
their delight in the psalter,
their concern for the well-being of others,
and the spiritual treasures of their writing.
Give us grace to follow their simple lifestyle,
that the communities in which we dwell
may know your generosity and practical compassion,
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who though he was rich, yet became poor for our sake.
Readings: Proverbs 2.1-15
Acts 2.44-47 or Titus 2
by Charles Sherlock