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. In 1613 he left Cambridge because of his health, and during the next five years he traveled widely on the Continent, chiefly in Germany, Italy and Spain. Returning to England in 1618, 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 established a community 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 under a strict rule. 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, along with the daily recitation of the whole of the Psalter. The members of the 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 prayerbook, 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.)
The community did not long survive Nicholas Ferrar’s death, having incurred the hostility of the Puritans. Memory of the religious life at Little Gidding was 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 became an important symbol for many Anglicans when religious orders began to revive in the mid-19th century. Their life 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.