Christopher Trundle on the community established at Little Gidding

‘You are not here to verify, Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity Or carry report. You are here to kneel Where prayer has been valid.’

(T.S. Eliot, from Little Gidding)

In 1625 Nicholas Ferrar (1592– 1637) moved to the run-down manor house of a small and nearly deserted village near Huntingdon called Little Gidding and established a community based on regular prayer. At the age of 33 he was well-placed for a brilliant career in public life. He had been a gifted student at Cambridge and had been elected to a fellowship but was forced to leave due to poor health. He travelled widely around Europe for some five years, later worked for the Virginia Company, and was also elected a Member of Parliament. Eschewing this life of wealth and influence, he opted instead for prayer and discipline.

Liturgical prayer

At Little Gidding he gathered his own family and that of his brother John (and his wife Bathsheba) and his brother-in-law, restored the local church for worship and renovated the house. The community numbered 30–40 members and engaged in a rigorous pattern of liturgical prayer centred on the Prayer Book.

Groups of the community would take their turn in reciting a short office consisting of a hymn, psalms and scripture each hour from early morning until evening, enabling the entirety of the Psalter to be read daily. Morning and Evening Prayer were also said every day by the whole community, and further prayers took place between 9pm and 1am every night, during which the Psalter would be recited once again. The community also dedicated itself to working among the local poor, educating children and caring for the sick. Ferrar himself was ordained to the diaconate by William Laud the year after he arrived at Little Gidding.

Many people visited the community, notably Richard Crashaw, George Herbert (who had studied at Cambridge with Ferrar), and Charles I, who visited on three occasions. The King paid his last visit to Little Gidding while seeking refuge after his defeat at the Battle of Naseby, Ferrar’s brother guiding him across the fields during the night.

Ferrar’s life-long friendship with George Herbert is also of interest; Herbert on his deathbed sent the manuscript of The Temple to Ferrar, suggesting that he might publish it if he thought it could ‘turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul’. If not, Herbert suggested he burn it. Ferrar (thankfully) saw the value of the work and saw to its publication.

Continuing influence

After Ferrar’s death, the Puritan ascendency, however, spelt the end of this holy community of discipline, worship and charitable work. In the 1640s Little Gidding was widely criticized as a crypto-catholic establishment and even condemned in protestant pamphlets such as The Arminian Nunnery (1641). Puritans ransacked the community in 1646, destroying almost all of Ferrar’s writings and causing its members to flee. Although many of them would later return, the community’s life was never the same and would essentially cease in 1657 with the death of Ferrar’s brother and sister.

The influence of Ferrar and his community’s life, however, lives on. Their example of lay commitment to regular liturgical prayer, for instance, is an encouragement to all Christians to sanctify the day with worship. The use of the Prayer Book and of its Psalter in particular reminds us that the Anglican tradition has particular renown for eloquent and traditional worship in the vernacular.

‘The knowledge of Thee and of Thy Son is everlasting life. Thy service is perfect freedom; how happy are we that Thou dost constantly retain us in the daily exercises thereof!’ (from the Little Gidding Storybooks). ND