December 1: Nicholas Ferrar, Deacon, 1637

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, and then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.


About the Commemoration

Nicholas Ferrar (1592–1637) was the founder of a religious community at Little Gidding, Huntingdonshire, England, which existed from 1626 to 1646. His family had been prominent in the affairs of the Virginia Company, but when that company was dissolved, he took deacon’s orders, and retired to the country. At Little Gidding, his immediate family and a few friends and servants gave themselves wholly to religious observance. 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 recital 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.

One of the most interesting of the activities of the Little Gidding community was the preparation of “harmonies” of the Gospels, one of which was presented to King Charles I by the Ferrar family. The community did not long survive the death of Nicholas Ferrar. However, the 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. Its life inspired T.S. Eliot, and he gave the title, “Little Gidding,” to the last of his Four Quartets, one of the great religious poems of the twentieth century.


i Lord God, make us worthy of 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. Amen.

ii 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.




Exodus 35:1–5a,24–29

Galatians 6:7–10

Luke 10:38–42

Text from Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.


We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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5 thoughts on “December 1: Nicholas Ferrar, Deacon, 1637

  1. Hebrew reading: This seems to be a very ‘diaconal’ reading and appropriate.

    Bio: His friendship with George Herbert, mentioned in Herbert’s bio, might be included? And he died when, and is buried where?

  2. Nicholas Ferrar, Deacon, 1637
    This write-up, plus the collects, seem wonderful to me, taking it all as it presents itself. Again, thank you to those who prepared it, giving an example of life “where brethren dwell in unity,” as well as an example of great and faithful observance of the “Opus Dei” (in the sense of allowing the daily office to hallow each day), and in terms of diaconal and baptismal fullness of service to others within a context of Christian living. (I’m not persuaded, however, that the recitation of the ENTIRE Psalter EACH day isn’t more excessive than inspiring.) Nevertheless, it is remarkable how well he understood the integration of the Prayer Book, historical Christian tradition, and Baptismal life in community.
    His example stands as an ideal of what it is to be a baptized Christian. Not that everyone could do everything his community did, but we could (and should) all embrace the IDEALS he embraced, and live into them as we can (measured against our limited maturity and capacity), as we grow in Christian living as individuals and communities (parishes, etc.). I hate to say it (or repeat what others have noted), but a common misperception is that the Prayer Book’s contents are not so much disciplines as an assortment of miscellaneous options to be picked over and tried out as a grab-bag of gimmicks, to see which ones are most edifying to our individual tastes and proclivities today, and for as long as they make us feel special. We approach our faith largely as isolated individuals (monads without windows – to borrow a famous phrase from elsewhere), and have great difficulty bridging the parade of institutional “events” and “programs” with any sort of integrated wholeness of life in Christ, in any sort of real community context, and with spirituality and outreach (prayer and ministry) both in prominence. That’s why I think this commemoration is important, and not just informative, or Ferrar simply oddly unique.
    As to the readings, the OT selections (Psalm 15 and Exodus 35) both have a theological problem, as well as one of Jewish versus Christian ethos (call it law versus grace, or works versus faith). The Psalm asks “who may abide on God’s holy hill” – and answers in terms of a list of virtuous behaviors: (walk blamelessly, do what is right, speak the truth, do not slander, do no evil to friends, take no reproach against neighbors, despise the wicked, honor those who fear YHWH, stand by oaths, avoid usury, don’t take bribes against the innocent). [Bribes against the guilty aren’t addressed.] Is this list a “pulse reading” on Ferrar’s sense of the gospel, i.e., “obey a bunch of rules or else”? I doubt it.
    I’d rather see Psalm 133 (or a combined Ps 133-134) as the selection. It’s about living together in unity and experiencing God’s blessing, and has a sense of grace and God’s presence in the setting of community about it, rather than the legalistic, “if you go afoul of virtue, then stay off God’s holy hill!” If it has been used elsewhere, so what? It’s the correct choice for this commemoration!
    Similarly, the OT lesson lists a couple of categories of response to God, much of which is presumably “free will offering” in the plain sense of that phrase,– but also a threat of DEATH when one works on the Sabbath! That’s not exactly “Father forgive them for they know not what they do”! (Again, law versus gospel.)

    In addition, the ENTIRETY of the Exodus lesson is focused on the ritual side of holiness, whereas in contrast, Ferrar & Co. seem to have found a balance between “the sanctification of time” (with prayer and fasting, etc.) AND outreach to those in need around them (which is keenly diaconal and apropos for Ferrar, and simultaneously related to the baptismal life in the church community — thus inclusive of the entire community.) In an era when diaconate is being reaffirmed as a ministry with its own important integrity, and the Baptismal Covenant is being reclaimed for all Christians as the basis of both individual Christian life and the basis for Christian ecclesiastical life (the primary sacramental norm for communities, parishes, dioceses, all sorts of ministries, etc.) it is important not to treat this aspect of Farrer’s commemoration as a matter of indifference. We need an OT lesson with a wider vision than ornaments for the clergy and/or sanctuary!
    What OT lesson would I recommend? I’m not sure, but it probably wouldn’t include a death threat. (Broken kneecaps, at the worst.) I’d look for something about reconciling and gathering the dispersed Israel from exile, along with the eschatological vision of gathering and reconciling all nations to God.
    The epistle selection seems excellent. The gospel selection slants the contemplative over the active life (Mary over Martha), which is more of a monastic tilt than a basic baptismal template that would affirm equally monastic AND non-monastic Christian living, but it seems acceptable on the grounds that for most Christians the distractions of secular preoccupation would, in fact, be more likely to crowd out the contemplative side than vice versa.
    So, “good work” on the NT selections. I hope you’ll reconsider both OT pieces, since they give such a wrong impression about the theological background of the Christian gospel, its ministry and ethos.

  3. Nicholas Ferrar was not chosen by virtue of his deacon’s orders: the subtitle should summarize his life in some such phrase as “Religious Community Founder and Deacon”.

    It should be noted that he died on December 4, 1637: under current SCLM rules, his commemoration would not need to have been “bumped”.

    His date and place of birth should be shown: it was 22 February, 1592, in London. (We would say “1593”, using a Jan.1 New Year’s Day.)

    Biographical information is very limited: this is much more of a primer on Little Gidding than a biography of Ferrar.

    There is nothing about his being a fellow of Clare Hall, Cambridge; of his service in the retinue of a princess; of his involvement in the Virginia Company; of his being a Member of Parliament. The bio should be completely rewritten.

    Line 2, 3rd paragraph: add after “harmonies” “(single compilations incorporating texts from all four gospels)” , or similar explanation of a usage unfamiliar to most readers.

  4. The readings from Galatians and the Gospel of Luke make perfect sense, but I don’t see how the Exodus reading connects to this saint or his feast. I would have chosen something from the Song of Songs, about the bride’s and groom’s longing for each other.

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