NICHOLAS FERRAR, an English gentleman of considerable learning and ingenuity, of great personal worth, and at the same time an enthusiast of a singular description, was the third son of Nicholas Ferrar, a merchant in London, and was born Feb. 22, 1592, in the parish of St. Mary Stayning, in Mark-lane, London. His father traded very extensively to the East and West Indies, and to all the celebrated seats of commerce. He lived in high repute in the city, where he joined in commercial matters with sir Thomas and sir Hugh Middleton, and Mr. Bateman. He was a man of liberal hospitality, but governed his house with great order. He kept a good table, at which he frequently received persons of the greatest eminence, sir John Hawkins, sir Francis Drake, sir Walter Raleigh, and others with whom he was an adventurer; and in all their expeditions he was ever in the highest degree attentive to the planting the Christian Religion in the New World. At home also he was a zealous friend to the established church, and always ready to supply his prince with what was required of him. He lent £300 at once upon a privy-seal; a sum at that time not inconsiderable. He had the honour of being written esq. by queen Elizabeth.
His wife was Mary, daughter of Laurence Wodenoth, esq. of an ancient family in Cheshire. By her he had a numerous family, to whom he gave a pious education. Their daily practice was to read, and to speak by memory, some portion of the Scriptures, and parts of the Book of Martyrs; they were also made acquainted with such passages of history as were suited to their tender years. They were all instructed in music; in performing on the organ, viol, and lute, and in the theory and practice of singing; in the learned and modern languages; in curious needle-works, and all the accomplishments of that time. The young men, when arrived at years of discretion, had permission each to choose his profession, and then no expence was spared to bring him to a distinguished excellence in it. For, this was an invariable maxim with the parents, that, having laid a firm foundation in religion and virtue, they would rather give them a good education without wealth, than wealth without a good education.
Of Nicholas, the subject of this article, we are told that he was a beautiful child, of a fair complexion, and light-coloured hair. At four years of age he was sent to school, and at five he could read perfectly, or repeat with propriety and grace, a chapter in the Bible, which the parents made the daily exercise of their children. By the brightness of his parts, and the uncommon strength of his memory, he attained with great ease and quickness whatever he set himself to learn; yet was he also remarkably studious. From the early possession of his mind with ideas of piety and virtue, and a love for historical information, the Bible in his very early years became to him the book above all others most dear and estimable; and next to this in his esteem was Fox's Book of Martyrs, from which he could repeat perfectly the history of his near kinsman, bishop Ferrar. And, when in his riper years he undertook the instruction of the family, he constantly exercised them also in the reading and in the study of these two books. He was particularly fond of all historical relations; and, when engaged in this sort of reading, the day did not satisfy him, but he would borrow from the night; insomuch that his mother would frequently seek him out, and force him to partake of some proper recreation. Hence, even in his childhood, his mind was so furnished with historical anecdotes, that he could at any time draw off his school-fellows from their play, who would eagerly surround him, and with the utmost attention listen to his little tales, always calculated to inspire them with a love of piety and goodness, and excite in them a virtuous imitation.
When he was very young he was taught Latin, at London, at the desire of his master, though others thought it too soon: but he was so eager and diligent in his application, that he soon surpassed all his companions, though his seniors. He was of a grave disposition, and very early shewed a great dislike of every thing that savoured of worldly vanity. In his apparel he wished to be neat, but refused all that was not simple and plain. When bands were making for the children, he earnestly entreated his mother that his might not have any lace upon them, like those of his brothers, but be made little and plain, like those of Mr. Wotton (a clergyman whom he knew), "for I wish to be a preacher as he is."
Young Ferrar was good-natured and tender-hearted to the highest degree; so fearful of offending any one, that, upon the least apprehension of having given displeasure, he would suddenly weep in the most submissive manner, and appear extremely sorry. His temper was lovely, his countenance pleasing; his constitution was not robust, but he was active, lively, and cheerful. Whatsoever he went about, he did it with great spirit, and with a diligence and discretion above his years. When it was time to send him to some greater school, where he might have a better opportunity to improve himself in the Latin tongue, his parents sent him and his brother William to Euborn, near Newbery, in Berkshire, the house of Mr. Brooks, an old friend, who had many other pupils, who was a religious and good man, but a strict disciplinarian. While preparations were making for this journey, an event took place which made the deepest and most lively impression upon the mind of young Nicholas, and strongly marks his character and the bent of his disposition. He was but six years of age, and being one night unable to sleep, a fit of scepticism seized his mind, and gave him the greatest perplexity and uneasiness. He doubted whether there was a God? and, if there was, what was the most acceptable mode of serving him? In extreme grief he rose at midnight, cold and frosty; and went down to a grass-plat in the garden, where he stood a long time, sad and pensive, musing and thinking seriously upon the great doubt which thus extremely perplexed him. At length, throwing himself on his face upon the ground, and spreading out his hands, he cried aloud, "Yes, there is, there must be a God; and he, no question, if I duly and earnestly seek it of him, will teach me not only how to know, but how to serve him acceptably. He will be with me all my life here, and at the end will hereafter make me happy." His doubts now vanished, his mind became easy, and he returned to his apartment; but the remembrance of what he felt on this occasion made him ever after strongly commiserate all who laboured under any religious doubt or despair of mind. And, in the future course of his life, he had repeated opportunities to exert his benevolence to those who experienced similar unhappiness.
In 1598 he was sent to Enborn school, where in Latin, Greek, and logic, he soon became the first scholar of his years. He strengthened his memory by daily exercise; he was a great proficient in writing and arithmetic, and attained such excellence in short-hand as to be able to take accurately a sermon or speech on any occasion. He was also well skilled both in the theory and practice of vocal and instrumental music. Thus accomplished, in his fourteenth year, his master, Mr. Brooks, prevailed with his parents to send him to Cambridge, whither he himself attended him, and admitted him of Clare-hall, presenting him, with due commendation of his uncommon abilities, to Mr. Augustin Lindsell, the tutor, and Dr. William Smith, then master of the college. His parents thought proper, notwithstanding the remonstrance of some friends against it, to admit him a pensioner for the first year, as they conceived it more for his good to rise by merit gradually to honour. In this situation, by excellent demeanour and diligent application to his studies, he gained the affections and applause of all who knew him, performing all his exercises with distinguished approbation. His attention and diligence were such, that it was observed his chamber might be known by the candle that was last put out at night, and the first lighted in the morning. Nor was he less diligent in his attendance at chapel, so that his piety and learning went on hand in hand together. In his second year he became fellow-commoner. In 1610 he took his degree of B.A. At this time he was appointed to make the speech on the king's coronation day, (July 25) in the college hall; and the same year he was elected fellow of that society. His constitution was of a feminine delicacy, and he was very subject to aguish disorders; yet he bore them out in a great measure by his temperance, and by a peculiar courageousness of spirit which was natural to him. His favourite sister, married to Mr. Collet, lived at Bourn Bridge, near Cambridge, and as the air of Cambridge was found not well to agree with him, he made frequent excursions to her house, where he passed his time in the pursuit of his studies, and in the instruction of his sister's children. But his tutor, Mr. Lindsell, Mr. Ruggle (author of the Latin comedy called Ignoramus), and others of the fellows, having now apprehension of his health, carried him to Dr. Butler, the celebrated physician of Cambridge, who conceived a great affection for him, but finding the disorder baffled all his skill, could only recommend a spare diet and great temperance; and upon his relapsing, in the autumn of 1612, the doctor prescribed as the last remedy, that in the spring he should travel.
He was now almost of seven years' standing in the university, and was to take his master's degree at the ensuing Midsummer, 1613, and he had already performed with credit all his previous exercises. It being made known to the heads of the university that he was to travel, and to have the opportunity of going with that noble company which then went with the lady, Elizabeth to conduct her to the Palatinate with the Palsgrave her husband, his degree was immediately granted; and having set out in the retinue of the lady Elizabeth, he accompanied her to Holland. But inclining to pursue a different route, he took leave of her royal highness there, and visited most of the German universities, at some of which he studied a considerable time, and at them and other parts of Europe, he spent five years, returning home in 1618, being then twenty-six years of age, and highly improved and accomplished by his travels. During this long residence abroad he had purchased many rare articles of curiosity, scarce and valuable books, and learned treatises in the language of those different countries; in collecting which he certainly had a principal eye to those which treated the subjects of a spiritual life, devotion, and religious retirement. He bought also a great number of prints, engraved by the best masters of that time, relative to historical passages of the Old and New Testament; all which, upon his return home, he had the satisfaction to find were safely arrived there before him, but very little of this treasure is now remaining. The Ferrar family being firm in their loyalty to the king, their house at Gidding was plundered in the civil wars; and, in a wanton devastation, all these things perished, except some of the prints, not of great value, which were in the possession of the editor of Mr. Ferrar's life, the late Dr. Peckard.
Soon after Mr. Ferrar's return, sir Edwyn Sandys, who had heard a high character of him from many who had known him in Italy, sought his acquaintance; and, being exceedingly taken with his great abilities, took the first opportunity to make him known to the earl of Southampton, and the other principal members of the Virginia company. In a very little time he was made one of a particular committee in some business of great importance; whereby the company having sufficient proof of his extraordinary abilities, at the next general court it was proposed and agreed that he should be king's counsel for the Virginia plantation in the room of his brother John, who was then made the deputy governor. And when his name, according to custom, was entered in the lord chamberlain's book, sir Edwyn Sandys took care to acquaint that lord with his uncommon worth; which, indeed, daily more and more appeared in every thing he undertook: and as he wanted no ability, so he spared no diligence in ordering all their affairs of consequence, and thus became deeply engaged in cares of a public nature. Yet his own inclinations at his return led him rather to think of settling himself again at Cambridge, to which he was the more induced as he still held the physic fellowship in Clare-hall. But this he now saw could not be done; and besides, his parents, now grown old, requested their beloved son to remain with them. Therefore all he could obtain in this respect from them, and from his business, was the liberty now and then to pass a few days with his old acquaintance and friends still remaining in Cambridge.
His transactions while connected with the Virginia company, occupy a very large portion of his life published by Dr. Peckard, but will not now be thought the most interesting part of it. The reputation, however, which he had acquired, as a man of business, was such, that after the Virginia company had been dissolved, he was in 1624, chosen member of parliament. He must, however, have sat a very short time, as he began soon to put in execution his scheme of retiring from the world, and leading a monastic life in the heart of a protestant country. For this purpose in the last mentioned year, he purchased the lordship of Little-Gidding, in the County of Huntingdon, where his mother, his sister Mrs. Collet, with all her family, and other relations to the amount of forty persons, came to reside as soon as it could be prepared for their reception.
The better to carry on this plan, by his personal assistance, Mr. Ferrar applied to Dr. Laud, then bishop of St. David's, and was ordained deacon. On this, some of his noble friends, not knowing his intention, offered him preferments in the church but these he declined, as being unworthy to receive them, and informed his friends that he had taken deacon's orders only that he might be legally authorised to give spiritual assistance to those with whom he might be concerned.
In the establishment he now formed, one useful branch was a school for the education of the children of the neighbourhood, free of expence. In this part of his plan there was nothing remarkably different from the exercises that were customary in those days in other schools, except, perhaps, a higher degree of strictness and ceremony. In other respects the reader will perhaps think there was ceremony enough, from perusing the following specimens of Mr. Ferrar's domestic plan.
On the first Sunday of every month they always had a communion, which was administered by the clergyman of the adjoining parish; Mr. Nicholas Ferrar assisting as deacon. All the servants who then received the communion, when dinner was brought up, remained in the room, and on that day dined at the same table with Mrs. Ferrar and the rest of the family. When their early devotions in the oratory were finished, they proceeded to church in the following order: First, the three school-masters, in black gowns and Monmouth caps. Then, Mrs. Ferrar's grandsons, clad in the same manner, two and two. Then, her son Mr. John Ferrar, and her son-in-law Mr. Collet, in the same dress. Then, Mr. Nicholas Ferrar, in surplice, hood, and square cap, sometimes leading his mother. Then Mrs. Collet, and all her daughters, two and two. Then all the servants, two and two. The dress of all was uniform. Then, on Sundays, all the Psalm children, two and two, or children who were taught to repeat the Psalms from memory.
As they came into the church, every person made a low obeisance, and all took their appointed places. The masters and gentlemen in the chancel; the youths knelt on the upper step of the half-pace; Mrs. Ferrar, her daughters, and all her grand-daughters, in a fair island seat. Mr. Nicholas Ferrar at coming in made a low obeisance; a few paces farther, a lower; and at the half-pace a lower still; then went into the reading-desk, and read the morning service according to the book of Common Prayer. This service over, they returned in the same order, and with the same solemnity. This ceremonial was regularly observed every Sunday, and that on every common day was nearly the same. They rose at four; at five went to the oratory to prayers; at six, said the Psalms of the hour; for every hour had its appointed Psalms, with some portion of the Gospel, till Mr. Ferrar had finished his Concordance, when a chapter of that work was substituted in place of the portion of the Gospel. Then they sang a short hymn, repeated some passages of scripture, and at half past six went to church to mattins. At seven said the Psalms of the hour, sang the short hymn, and went to breakfast. Then the young people repaired to their respective places of instruction. At ten, to church to the Litany. At eleven to dinner. At which season were regular readings in rotation from scripture, from the Book of Martyrs, and from short histories drawn up by Mr. Ferrar, and adapted to the purpose of moral instruction. Recreation was permitted till one; instruction was continued till three; church at four, for evensong; supper at five, or sometimes six; diversions till eight. Then prayers in the oratory: and afterwards all retired to their respective apartments. To preserve regularity in point of time, Mr. Ferrar invented dials in painted glass in every room: he had also sun-dials, elegantly painted with proper mottos, on every side of the church; and he provided an excellent clock to a sonorous bell.
Four of Mr. Collet's eldest daughters being grown up to woman's estate, to perfect them in the practice of good housewifery, Mr. Ferrar appointed them, in rotation, to take the whole charge of the domestic oeconomy. Each had this care for a month, when her accounts were regularly passed, allowed, and delivered over to the next in succession. There was also the same care and regularity required with respect to the surgeon's chest, and the due provision of medicines, and all things necessary for those who were sick, or hurt by any misfortune. A convenient apartment was provided for those of the family who chanced to be indisposed, called the infirmary, where they might be attended, and properly taken care of, without disturbance from any part of the numerous family. A large room was also set apart for the reception of the medicines, and of those who were brought in sick or hurt, and wanted immediate assistance. The young ladies were required to dress the wounds of those who were hurt, in order to give them readiness and skill in this employment, and to habituate them to the virtues of humility and tenderness of heart. The office relative to pharmacy, the weekly inspection, the prescription, and administration of medicines, Mr. Ferrar reserved to himself; being an excellent physician; as he had for many years attentively studied the theory and practice of medicine, both when physic fellow at Clare Hall, and under the celebrated professors at Padua. In this way was a considerable part of their income disposed of.
In order to give some variety to this system of education, he formed the family into a sort of collegiate institution, of which one was considered as the founder, another guardian, a third as moderator, and himself as visitor of this little academy. The seven virgin daughters, his nieces, formed the junior part of this society, were called the sisters, and assumed the names of, 1st, the chief, 2d. the patient; 3d, the cheerful; 4th, the affectionate; 5th, the submiss; 6th, the obedient; 7th, the moderate. These all had their respective characters to sustain, and exercises to perform suited to those characters. For the Christmas season of 1631 he composed twelve excellent discourses, five suited to the festivals within the twelve days, and seven to the assumed name and character of the sisters. These were enlivened by hymns and odes composed by Mr. Ferrar, and set to music by the music-master of the family, who accompanied the voices with the viol or the lute.
We shall notice only one other pert of this strange system, which was their nightly watchings. It was agreed that there should be a constant trouble night-watch, of men at one end of the house, and of women at the other. That each watch should consist of two or more persons. That the watchings should begin at nine o'clock at night, and end at one in the morning. That each watch should, in those four hours, carefully and distinctly say over the whole book of Psalms, in the way of Antiphony, one repeating one verse, and the rest the other. That they should then pray for the life of the king and his sons. The time of their watch being ended, they went to Mr. Ferrar's door, bade him good-morrow, and left a lighted candle for him. At one he constantly rose, and betook himself to religious meditation, founding this practice on the passage, "At midnight will I rise and give thanks;" and some other passages of similar import. Several religious persons, both in the neighbourhood, and from distant places, attended these watchings; and amongst these the celebrated Mr. Richard Crashaw, fellow of Peterhouse, who was very intimate in the family, and frequently came from Cambridge for this purpose, and at his return often watched in Little St. Mary's church, near Peterhouse. It is somewhat more singular that a late worthy prelate, Dr. Home, has given his sanction, if not to the severity, at least to a moderate observation, of this mode of psalmody, in the following words, on a part of his commentary on the 134th Psalm:
"Bless ye the Lord, all ye servants of the Lord, who by night stand in the house of the Lord. Bless him in the chearful and busy hours of the day: bless him in the solemn and peaceful watches of the night."
"The pious Mr. Nicholas Ferrar exhibited in the last century an instance of a Protestant family, in which a constant course of Psalmody was appointed, and so strictly kept up, that, through the whole four and twenty hours of day and night, there was no portion of time when some of the members were not employed in the performing that most pleasant part of duty and devotion."
This extraordinary course of life pursued at Gidding, the strictness of their rules, their prayers, literally without ceasing, their abstinence, mortifications, nightly watchings, and various other peculiarities, gave birth to censure in some, and inflamed the malevolence of others, but excited the wonder and curiosity of all. So that they were frequently visited with different views by persons of all denominations, and of opposite opinions. They received all who came with courteous civility; and from those who were inquisitive they concealed nothing, as indeed there was not any thing either in their opinions, or their practice, in the least degree necessary to be concealed. Notwithstanding this, they were by some abused as Papists, by others as Puritans. Mr. Ferrar himself, though possessed of uncommon patience and resignation, yet in anguish of spirit complained to his friends, that the perpetual obloquy he endured was a sort of unceasing martyrdom. Added to all this, violent invectives and inflammatory pamphlets were published against them. Amongst others, not long after Mr. Ferrar's death, a treatise was addressed to the parliament, entitled, "the Arminian Nunnery, or a brief description and relation of the late erected monastical place, carted the Arminian Nunnery at Little Gidding in Huntingdonshire: humbly addressed to the wise consideration of the present parliament. The foundation is by a company of Ferrars at Gidding," printed by Thomas Underhill, 1641.
Among other articles of instruction and amusement in this monastery, Mr. Ferrar engaged a bookbinder who taught his art to the whole family, females as well as males, and what they called pasting-printing, by the use of the rolling-press. By this assistance be composed a full harmony or concordance of the evangelists, adorned with many beautiful pictures, which required more than a year for the composition, and was divided into 150 heads or chapters. This book was so neatly, done by pieces pasted together from different copies of the same type, as to have the appearance of having been printed in the ordinary way. The employment of the monks, in transcribing books, before the aera of printing, must have surely given rise to such a waste of time, as any printing-press could have executed in a month, what cost a year's labour in this patch-work way. The book, however, was so much admired that the king desired to see it, and had another made like it, which, we are told, was bound by Mary Collet, one of Ferrar's nieces, "all wrought in gold, in new and most elegant fashion."
How long this strange institution might have lasted, if left to itself, cannot be ascertained. In 1635 old Mrs. Ferrar, who was a sort of lady abbess, died, and her son, the founder, on Dec. 2, 1637. The third day before his death, he ordered a place to be marked out for his grave, and being told that the place was accordingly marked, he requested his brother, before all the family, to take out of his study three large hampers full of books, which had been there locked up many years; and said, "They are comedies, tragedies, heroic poems, and romances; let them be immediately burnt upon the place marked out for my grave, and when you shall have so done, come back and inform me." When information was brought him that they were all consumed, he desired that this act might be considered as the testimony of his disapprobation of all such productions, as tending to corrupt the mind of man, and improper for the perusal of every good and sincere Christian.
Soon after his death, certain soldiers of the parliament resolved to plunder the house at Gidding. The family being informed of their hasty approach, thought it prudent to fly; while these military zealots, in the rage of what they called reformation, ransacked both the church and the house; in doing which, they expressed a particular spite against the organ. This they broke in pieces, of which they made a large fire, and at it roasted several of Mr. Ferrar's sheep, which they had killed in his grounds. This done, they seized all the plate, furniture, and provision, which they could conveniently carry away. And in this general devastation perished the works which Mr. Ferrar had compiled for the use of his household, in the way we have already described, consisting chiefly of harmonies of the Old and New Testament.
The life of this extraordinary, and in most respects, amiable man, will be considered in different lights according to the views and objects of the reader. His early abilities, his travels, and the attention deservedly paid to his very singular talents and acquisitions at a period when the powers of the mind are scarcely matured, will excite our respect and admiration. His very active and able conduct in support of the Virginia company realizes the expectations which his earlier abilities had raised, and displays a scene in which we must equally admire his spirit, temper, and judgment. To see openings so brilliant, talents so varied and useful, knowledge of such importance, buried in a cloister, disappoints the eager hopes, and leads us to indulge a spirit of invective against institutions, once perhaps defensible, but in a better aera of refinement at least "useless," and often unjust to society. His biographer, Dr. Peckard, seemed indignant at the appellation of "useless enthusiast," which Mr. Gough applied in his British Topography; and that eminent antiquary afterwards allowed that it was certainly unjust so tar as regarded the institution at Little Gidding; for to assist their neighbours in medicine, in advice, and in every thing in their power, was one of their objects. But he asks if the charge of enthusiasm was not well founded, and if in a comparative view "useless," was a term wholly improper? To give medicine occasionally, to advise, or bestow alms, within a limited circle, were not the sufficient employments of a mind equally able and comprehensive, stored with the wisdom of antiquity, experienced in business, and matured by travel and exercise. In the way in which his devotional exercises were conducted, we must perhaps find something to blame. His too literal interpretation of some passages in scripture, which led him to rise at one in the morning, must not only have been ultimately injurious to his own constitution, but, by depriving the constitution of repose at the time best and most naturally adapted to it, must have rendered the body and mind less fit for those social duties which are the great objects of our existence. The frequent watchings of the rest of the family were equally exceptionable, and the ceremonies which he used only as marks of reverence might be interpreted by his weaker dependents as signs of adoration. It is the broken and the contrite heart, not the frequently-bent knee, that God seems to require: it is the bowing down of the spirit, rather than the body, that he will not despise. If we look at the result of this retirement, the works composed by Mr. Ferrar, we shall find nothing very advantageous to the credit of this institution.
The only publication by Mr. Ferrar, but without his name, was a translation from Valdesso, entitled "The hundred and ten Considerations, &c. written in Spanish, brought out of Italy by Vergerius."