One of the more interesting phenomenon of the Religious Renaissance in the Church of England was the “community” at Little Gidding. The Puritan faction was appalled and called it a “Protestant nunnery” but in fact it was nothing more than a devout extended family living a prayerful life while supporting themselves by their own labors, most through bookbinding. Nevertheless, the Community at Little Gidding demonstrates the desire of devout families in the Church of England to live the sort of intense commitment represented by a monastic life style. It also shows the resurgence of a Catholic understanding of the freedom of the will under grace that had been supplanted in Anglicanism by the Puritan/Calvinist emphasis on predestination. Liturgical Prayer and spiritual discipline were seen as characteristics that testify to active collaboration with grace in a way that the Puritan faction rejected. The experience of the Ferrar household at Little Gidding is a bright spot in the history of Anglicanism and its instinct will rise again a century later with the Wesleys and Methodism.
The organizer of the Community at Little Gidding was one Nicholas Ferrar (1592-1637). Ferrar, a fellow of Clare College Cambridge, was a friend of George Herbert, the Welsh-born English Metaphysical poet and Anglican priest. Herbert is one of the leading “Caroline Divines.” After travelling extensively on the continent where he encountered Roman Catholics (including Jesuits and the Oratorians of Saint Philip Neri), German Lutherans, Jews, and Anabaptists—all of whom broadened his religious views—he returned to England with a vision of establishing a pious household for himself and his extended family.
After a brief and contentious term in Parliament, Ferrar persuaded his mother, his brother and his brother’s wife and family and his sister and her husband and children to go in with him and purchase the abandoned manor at Little Gidding in Huntingdonshire. They restored the ancient church on the manor—it had been a Templar Church—and one member or another of the family was always to be found there in prayer. They had a strict regimen of keeping the prescribed fasts of the Church of England and of following the Prayer Book daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer. They devoted themselves to the education of the local children. And they supported themselves by bookbinding, an art which they learned from a Cambridge binder. They attracted much notice and even three visits by King Charles I. The Ferrars were enthusiasts for the High Church vision of both a disciplined Christian life and dignified liturgical service. They fitted the Church at Little Gidding with a pipe organ as well as a brass lectern in the traditional shape of an Eagle. Nicholas Ferrar died in 1637 but the communal life continued for another twenty years at Little Gidding.