Deacon + Man of Prayer + Restorer of Churches
1 December 1637
From the Satucket Lectionary
Nicholas Ferrar, born in 1592, was the founder of a religious community that lasted from 1626 to 1646.
After Nicholas had been ordained as a deacon, he and his family and a few friends retired to Little Gidding, Huntingdonshire, England, to devote themselves to a life of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving (Matthew 6:2,5,16). They restored the abandoned church building, and became responsible for regular services there. They taught the neighborhood children, and looked after the health and well-being of the people of the district. They read the regular daily offices of the Book of Common Prayer, including the recital every day of the complete Psalter. (Day and night, there was always at least one member of the community kneeling in prayer before the altar, that they might keep the word, “Pray without ceasing.”) They wrote books and stories dealing with various aspects of Christian faith and practice. They fasted with great rigor, and in other ways embraced voluntary poverty, so that they might have as much money as possible for the relief of the poor.
The community was founded in 1626 (when Nicholas was 34). He died in 1637 (aged 45), and in 1646 the community was forcibly broken up by the Puritans of Cromwell’s army. The memory of the community survived to inspire and influence later undertakings in Christian communal living, and one of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets is called “Little Gidding.”
by James Kiefer
[Clicking on the link above will take you to Amazon.com, where you may buy the book if you wish.]
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From Simon Kershaw:
James supplies various details about Nicholas Ferrar’s life. This is a supplement (mostly from memory, so there may be one or two lapses).
Ferrar was born in February 1593. The date is commonly given (as James did) as 1592, but this is the usual calendar confusion: England was not then using the new calendar adopted in October 1582. It was 1593 according to our modern calendar, but at the time the new year in England began on the following 25 March.
His exact date of birth is unknown, but the Community at Little Gidding observed the quatercentenary of his baptism on 27th February this year (unfortunately we couldn’t get there). I quote from Seeds (the magazine of the Friends of Little Gidding and of the Society of Christ the Sower):
On 27th February, the anniversary of Nicholas’s baptism, we met in our candlelit church for a communion service using the original 1549 rite—a form of worship familiar to the Ferrars. Margaret selected a variety of readings about the life of Nicholas and the first Community; and for hymns we used some of George Herbert‘s poetry set to 17th century music.
[Actually the statement about the 1549 rite being familiar to the Ferrars is either a misprint or a mistake: the 1559 Prayer Book of Elizabeth I would have been the BCP they knew, and the eucharist in particular is a little different between the two books.]
His family was quite wealthy, and were heavily involved in the Virginia Company, which had a Royal Charter for the plantation of the colony of Virginia. People like Sir Walter Raleigh were often visitors to the family home in London. Ferrar’s niece was named Virginia, the first known use of this name. Ferrar studied at Cambridge and would perhaps have gone on to further study and the life of a don, but the damp air of the fens was bad for his health and he travelled to Europe, spending time in the warmer climate of Italy, where he would have seen the work of Philip Neri and other Oratorians.
On his return to England he found his family had fared badly. His brother John had become over-extended financially, and the Virginia Company was in danger of losing its charter. Nicholas threw himself into preserving his family from ruin. In this he was successful, and he served for a short time as a Member of Parliament, where he tried to promote the cause of the Virginia Company (which in fact did lose its charter).
At the age of 34 he gave all this up to move to found a community of prayer. In this he was supported by his mother, Mary Ferrar, and his brother John. They discovered and bought the manor of Little Gidding, a village which had been deserted since the Black Death (a major outburst of bubonic plague in the 14th century), a few miles off the Great North Road, and probably recommended by John Williams, Bishop of Lincoln whose palace was at the nearby village of Buckden. The first thing they did was to clear the tiny church which was being used as a barn and restore it for worship. Mary Ferrar and her extended family and household (about 30 people all told) moved into the manor house. Nicholas Ferrar was ordained Deacon and was the leader and spiritual director of the community.
The community attracted much attention and was visited by the king, Charles I. He was attracted by a gospel harmony they had produced, and asked to borrow it, only returning it several months later in exchange for a promise of a new harmony to give to his son, Charles, Prince of Wales. This the Ferrars did, and the superbly produced and bound manuscript book passed through the royal collection, and is now held by the British Library. Another friend of the community was George Herbert (also born in 1593 I believe) who was a deacon and held the prebend of Leighton Bromswold, 4 or 5 miles south of Little Gidding. After being ordained priest he moved elsewhere, but died shortly afterwards, leaving Nicholas Ferrar as his “literary executor”.
Ferrar, who never married, died on 4th December 1637**, and was buried outside the church in Little Gidding. The leadership of the community passed to his brother John. They were visited by the king twice more. Once he came with the Prince of Wales and donated to the community some money he had won at cards off the prince the previous night. But his third visit was in secret and at night. He was fleeing from defeat (at the battle of Naseby?) and heading north to try to enlist support from the Scots. This was Cromwell country (Cromwell himself was born in Huntingdon, had lived there and in Saint Ives, and was MP for Cambridge(?), but John brought him secretly to Little Gidding, and got him away the next day.
** I don’t know why he is commemorated on the wrong day in both the ECUSA and the CofE [JEK: I assume that it is because John of Damascus is commemorated on 4 December.]
The community was now in much danger. The presbyterian Puritans were now in the ascendancy, and the community was condemned in a series of scurillous pamphlets as `an Arminian Nunnery’. (Arminius was a Dutch reformer/theologian who opposed the Calvinist doctrine of predestination and election.)
In 1646, the community was forcibly broken up by Parliamentary soldiers. The brass font was thrown into the pond (from where, much damaged, it was recovered 200 years later). The village remained the property of the Ferrar family, however, and in the early 18th century another Nicholas Ferrar restored the church, shortening the nave by about 8 feet, and building the “dull facade” as Eliot calls it.
Passing out of the family, the church was further restored in the mid 19th century by William Hodgkinson, who had the armorial stained glass (4 windows with the arms of Ferrar (incorrect), Charles I, Bishop Williams & himself) inserted, and put in a rose window at the east end (this rose window was removed a couple of years ago and replaced by a Palladian-style window with plain glass). It was Hodgkinson who discovered the font and had it restored to the church. He also put in a magnificent 18th century chandelier.
In the 20th century there was a revival of interest in Ferrar & Little Gidding, typified by the romantic historical novel John Inglesant. Bp Mandell Creighton (Bishop of London at the turn of the century) wrote an article on Ferrar for the Dictionary of National Biography. The story of how T.S. Eliot came to write the poem is told in Dame Helen Gardner’s book The Composition of Four Quartets [now out or print]. He probably visited Little Gidding only once, in May 1936. A friend was writing a play about the visit of Charles I to Gidding, and asked Eliot for his comments. After writing The Dry Salvages, Eliot wanted to complete what he now saw as a set of 4 poems, and he quickly settled on Little Gidding. It was written and published during the war when it was by no means certain that English culture and religion would survive. The opening stanzas, according to Dame Helen, are the only piece of narrative verse in the Four Quartets, unique amongst Eliot’s poetry. The “place you would be likely to come from” is London and the blitz, or German air raids; the “route you would be likely to take” is straight up the A1 from London and then across country just as I described yesterday, and is the same whether you are Charles I (“a broken king”) or not knowing what you would find (as my own first visit). The pig-sty is now part of the community guest house.
Inspired by all these things, the Friends of Little Gidding was founded after the war, with the Bishop of Ely as president and Eliot as a vice-president. In the 1970s Robert Van de Weyer, one of whose ancestors had been Herbert’s patron at Leighton Bromswold, founded a trust to buy the farm house as the start of a new community and as a place of retreat. Van de Weyer was an economics lecturer at Cambridge University, and was for a time also the (non-stipendiary) priest-in-charge of Little Gidding and several parishes around. His wife, Sarah, is a leading member of the diocesan Mothers’ Union and its links with the church in Sudan. The community appears to be thriving, with (at a guess) some 30 members, families, couples and singles, of several denominations (RC, Anglican, and others) with some members working outside, others within the Community. They also own the vicarage at Leighton Bromswold where some of the younger members of the community live. There is also a guest house at Little Gidding. There’s also about 300 Friends, including Karen and me. By coincidence we used to live about a dozen miles from East Coker, a pretty Somerset village, featured in another of the Quartets, where Eliot’s ancestors lived before emigrating to Massachusetts, and where Eliot is buried. One day perhaps we’ll get to those Dry Salvages out at Cape Ann, Mass … perhaps one of you has been there?
We find the atractions of community life never so great as when we visit Little Gidding, a truly holy place.
POSTSCRIPT (April 1994):
The community is now called the Society of Christ the Sower.
The Friends of Little Gidding has several hundred members, including Karen and me. Friends receive a regular newsletter from the Society, a prayer cycle of members and friends, and regular books put together by the society. Recently the book has become a book of devotional readings which may be used at the Daily Office. The first such (still current) is a series of readings culled from the writings of St Francis, and from various near-contemporary hagiographies.
Further details available on request. Hope this helps.
Several people have privately asked for more information about the Community of Christ the Sower and the Friends of Little Gidding. The following paragraphs are from the back of the Society’s latest publication, a series of daily readings on the life of St Francis of Assisi.
THE SOCIETY OF CHRIST THE SOWER
The Society of Christ the Sower is an ecumenical religious order for married and single people. Its members follow a simple Rule of life, committing them to daily prayer, shared ministry, careful stewardship of resources, and evangelism.
The Society was founded at Little Gidding, which remains its centre. This is the site of a Christian community formed in 1626 by Nicholas Ferrar, and his beautiful chapel continues to be used for prayer each day by Society members. Before his death he said to his community: `It is the right, good old way you are in; keep in it.’ These words express the aspirations of the present Society.
Church groups are invited to Little Gidding to reflect on their own common life, with the help of Society members. And each day between 11am and 5pm the `Parlour’ is open to visitors. There is a small exhibition, refreshments are served and gifts made by members can be bought. Guest accommodation is available for individuals, families and small groups.
Approximately fifteen members plus their children live at Little Gidding itself. Other members live elsewhere, including Leighton Bromswold, four miles south of Little Gidding, where George Herbert, poet and friend of Nicholas Ferrar, was incumbent.
THE FRIENDS OF LITTLE GIDDING
Founded in 1947 by Alan Maycock, the Friends of Little Gidding organised for over thirty years an annual pilgrimage and raised funds for the maintenance of the church at Little Gidding. One of the original members was T.S. Eliot, whose poem entitled Little Gidding helped to renew interest in the place and its history.
Alan Maycock looked forward to community life being restored to Little Gidding. And when this occurred in the late 1970s the Friends decided to attach themselves to the Society of Christ the Sower.
Today the Friends of Little Gidding is primarily a network of prayer, and to this end a prayer calendar is sent every three months to all Friends. They also receive every six months a book in the series Daily Listening published by the Society. Many Friends also take an active interest in the life of the Society, visiting Little Gidding and corresponding with members.
The Friends of Little Gidding, Little Gidding, Huntingdon, PE17 5RJ
telephone +832 293383
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Subject: A December pilgrimage
You drive out of Cambridge, north-west up the busy A604 dual carriageway, passing by Saint Ives. Over the A1 (the “Great North Road”) onto the brand-new A14. After a few miles turn off north and drive a few hundred yards to Leighton Bromswold, where George Herbert was the incumbent. Then on, further north, down narrow country lanes, hardly wide enough for 2 cars to pass. Now you’re out of the flat East Anglian fens and into the Huntingdonshire Wolds, where the land rises gently and is lightly wooded. A few more turnings, through Steeple Gidding, and on towards Great Gidding. Finally, a little signpost points down a single-lane track: “Little Gidding”. Down this muddy road for a few hundred yards and you reach a small group of simple brick houses clustered around a large old farm house. A sign proclaims “The Community of Christ the Sower” in a circle around four ears of wheat arranged as a cross, and points to a small car park off to the left—it’s just another muddy field. Out of the car the cold, damp misty December air hits you: you sniff, button up your coat and wish you’d worn wellingtons.
A footpath leads from the car park alongside the garden of the big house, and brings you to a small churchyard, tidily kept, with several tombs. A small church, with a weird 18th century facade, stands in the middle of the churchyard, a small door in the middle of the west front. Before the door stands an altar-tomb, a couple of feet high: this is the grave of Nicholas Ferrar. Inside the church it’s dark, and still bitterly cold and damp. It’s just a single aisle, say 30 feet long by 15 feet wide, with a small sanctuary beyond. There’re no pews or seats, just 17th-century collegiate-style stalls around the west, north and south walls. Brightly-coloured 19th-century stained glass windows depict the coats of arms of Nicholas Ferrar (incorrectly), King Charles I, and the 19th-century restorer. A brass font with a battered crown stands like a standard candlestick at the north side of the sanctuary step. On the south side, a low doorway leads to the tiny vestry, about 8 feet square, with a disused fireplace, and an old cupboard, piled with dusty hymn and prayer books. Back out into the church again. At the west end is a small display of guide books, postcards, and copies of “Four Quartets” and other Eliot works. You turn round to the east and say a prayer. Then back out into the fast-fading December afternoon light and look around. You’re standing on a hill looking south across the rolling countryside and bare ploughed fields. There is no sound except for a few birds calling overhead, and the occasional distant gunshot. It’s hard to believe you’re only 4 or 5 miles from the A1, one of the country’s busiest roads. It’s easy to believe that this was the peace and quiet which drew Nicholas Ferrar and his family from the busy world of London commerce to establish the only community in the Church of England in the 300 years between the dissolution of the monasteries, and the Oxford movement. It’s easy to see what draws Christians of all denominations to this simple shrine, to remember the example of Nicholas Ferrar, and to live in a community at this place. You walk round to the farm house, in through the front door. In the hall is a small display of Ferrar and Gidding memorabilia, and you turn left into a decent-sized room labelled the Parlour. In the corner a lady looks up from her reading, smiles and welcomes you, “Would you like some tea? Cake?” “Yes, please.” She disappears. Around the walls are more Ferrar pictures, and photographs of Little Gidding and members of the Community. It’s lovely and warm and you undo your coat and look with dismay at your mud-spattered trousers. A notice tells you that the tables and chairs in the room were made by a member of the community and that you can buy similar furniture. Your host returns and you gratefully sit down to eat and drink, noting the books on the bookstall. Further conversation, then it’s time to drive home in the dark, pledging to return someday, and pondering the advantages of community life.
The Feast of Nicholas Ferrar is celebrated on 1st December in the ECUSA calendar, and on 2nd December the EnglishAlternative Service Book calendar. Nicholas Ferrar died on Monday 4th December 1637.
We moved to this area in November 1986 and first made this pilgrimage in December, not knowing quite what we would find when we got there. We’ve been back several times, usually at this time of the year, and hopefully we’ll get there again before the year is out.
POSTSCRIPT (Decemeber 1994): The font has now been removed from the Church, where it was becoming damaged. It is to be displayed in the Parlour, and a new font made by local craftsmen. The small vestry has been restored as a small, heated, side chapel or oratory.
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from Little Gidding by T.S. Eliot
If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire
beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.