Nicholas Ferrar vs. Harriet Tubman

February 27, 2013
Tim Schenck

A day after the biggest whuppin' of Lent Madness 2013, we meet two more fascinating figures on our continuing journey toward the Golden Halo. At first glance, Nicholas Ferrar, an early 17th-century Englishman, and Harriet Tubman, a 19th-century African-American born into slavery, seemingly have nothing in common. But of course, that's the thing about Lent Madness -- even the most disparate saints all have Jesus Christ at the center of their lives.

Yesterday, poor Chad of Lichfield was left hanging as Florence Li-Tim Oi trounced him 84% to 16%. The wide margin was pretty consistent throughout the day as those who obsessively check the results every ten minutes know.

In other news, the Supreme Executive Committee released a statement condemning an attempt to co-opt the bracket format to elect the next pope. They will, however, be forming a bracket to elect the next Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. Because that's different.

imagesNicholas Ferrar

Nicholas Ferrar (1592-1637) was born to a wealthy English family during the reign of Elizabeth I. Educated at Cambridge, he traveled abroad because of ill health after his studies ended. His travels were not serene -- an encounter with a sliding donkey almost sent him over a German precipice, and his ship to Spain was chased by pirates. Returning home, he was called to assist his family in saving The Virginia Company, which had fallen upon hard times. He was elected to Parliament, but his efforts to save the company failed and it lost its charter.

At that point, Nicholas and his family determined to renounce worldliness and commit themselves to a life of prayer and godly living. About thirty of the family joined him at Little Gidding where he founded and led a unique religious community -- an experiment in Christian living that was neither cult nor cloister.

Ferrar was ordained a deacon by Archbishop Laud in 1626 so that he could lead the community in worship (although he never considered the priesthood). His mother restored the church of St. John the Evangelist (abandoned during the 14th-century outbreak of the Black Death) before restoring the manor house for the family’s use.

Once settled, the community was committed to constant prayer (members took turns praying at the altar to obey the command to pray without ceasing) and they recited the entire Psalter every day in addition to praying all the offices from the Book of Common Prayer.

They also fasted and offered alms to relieve the poor, worked in the community to educate and look after the health of the local children, and also wrote books on the Christian faith. Some of the community members learned bookbinding; one of their books, a commission of a Gospel harmony by King Charles I, now resides in the British Library.

Ferrar was a college friend of George Herbert and upon his deathbed, Herbert sent the manuscript of his book of poems The Temple to Nicholas, asking him to determine whether it was worthy to be published, and if not, to burn it. Ferrar published The Temple in 1633.

Ferrar died in 1637 and is buried in front of the church door of St John the Evangelist at Little Gidding. The community was later broken up by Puritans, who called it an “Arminian Nunnery” and threw the brass font into the pond. The font was rescued and returned to the church 200 years later.

Collect for Nicholas Ferrar
Lord God, make us so reflect 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.

-- Penny Nash

Harriet_Tubman_croppedHarriet Tubman

The early details of Harriet Tubman's life are fuzzy. So far as anyone can tell, and as far as she could later remember, she was born somewhere around 1822 on a plantation in Dorchester County, on Maryland's Eastern Shore. She was named Araminta Harriet Ross, and she grew up enslaved, working as a field hand.

During this time, while she was still in her early teens, she got into an altercation with an overseer, who was trying to catch a fleeing slave. She jumped in front of the escaping man, and in the melee, the overseer hurled an iron at her head. Harriet lay unconscious for several days, without treatment, and as a result, she suffered headaches, blackouts, sleeping spells, and hallucinations for the rest of her life.

For anyone else, this would have been a crippling setback, but for Harriet, the hallucinations were visions sent from God. They warned her of approaching danger, and assured her of God's love and care for her and her people. In 1849, she escaped her captivity, and headed north to New York and freedom.

Almost immediately, she turned around, and came back to bring her family out as well. When the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850, making it unsafe for former slaves even in the northern states, Harriet was undeterred, and just ferried everyone on up to Ontario without skipping a beat. She earned the nickname "Moses" among the slaves, and the signal for her approach on the Underground Railroad was the song "Go Down, Moses." (Meanwhile, advertisements were still being posted for her capture, with her former owner describing her as barely 5 feet tall, 'very pretty,' and calling her 'Minty').

When the war came, Harriet signed up. She became a cook and a nurse for the Union army, then when that proved unsatisfying, a spy and a soldier, leading Union troops onto Southern plantations to free the slaves, and lead them in revolt. (She did all this without being paid at all -- being black and a woman was not a recipe for getting paid by the US government at the time). After the war, she went back to her home in New York, where she became active in the struggle for women's suffrage. She helped write a book about her life, which ameliorated her financial situation somewhat. However, being Harriet Tubman, she immediately turned around and donated her financial holdings to the local AME Zion church and demanded that they open a home for the aged and infirm.

To the beginning of her life, through the end, Harriet lived by one rule -- so that no one else would have to suffer as she had.

Collect for Harriet Tubman (and some other people)
O God, whose Spirit guides us into all truth, and makes us free; strengthen and sustain us as you did your servant/s [Elizabeth, Amelia, Sojourner, and] Harriet.  Give us vision and courage to stand against oppression and injustice and all that works against the glorious liberty to which you call all your children; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

-- Megan Castellan


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118 comments on “Nicholas Ferrar vs. Harriet Tubman”

    1. "Nicholas Ferrar (1592-1637) was born to a wealthy English family during the reign of Elizabeth I."

      Okay, that's a a factual statement, but leading with that description reads, "Ferrar was a rich, comfortable Anglo who served the church." That introduction was excellent...for the Tubman contingent.

      I've always been intrigued with Little Gidding, and if you undertake additional research to understand that community, you might end up siding with the venerable deacon.

  1. Had to go with Farrar on this one. As much as I respect and honor Harriet Tubman, the setting aside of all worldliness and embracing a life of simplicty just resound with me.

    1. Farrar, however, had the good fortune to have the finances necessary to embrace a life of simplicity. Being born into a life of forced "simplicity," escaping and leading others to safety is a lot harder.

  2. Yesterday and today have been easy choices for me. Two women, in two different centuries, enduring unspeakable suffering with great courage, grace, faith and service, both lighting the way for us all!

  3. Harriet Tubman continues to show us the way to a better life, not a hard choice for me...Go Harriet!!!

  4. Tempted to go with Tubman for her extraordinary courage, faithfulness, and bravery. But have to end up voting for Ferrar. As a devotee and teacher of the Daily Office, those who kept it alive lo these many centuries are a certain kind of hero to me. Perhaps not as sexy a hero as Harriet Tubman, but a quieter type. Plus, anyone who was ordained by Archbishop Laud (another hero of the faith for me) and overturned in the end by Puritans gets my vote. Go Nicholas!

      1. If someone is in the chapel all day praying, you have 24 hours for 150 psalms. That could be pretty slow.

    1. I've kept this Night Watch of reading through the entire Psalter several times. It takes about four hours. Often Ferrar's family took it in turns to read.

    1. From Wikipedia - "Around 1844, she married a free black man named John Tubman. Although little is known about him or their time together, the union was complicated because of her slave status."

      1. Peggy is right on the money. Also, evidently one of her trips on the Railroad was to bring John to Canada, but he elected to stay behind in Maryland with the freed woman he had married after Harriet had departed. She later married another guy in Auburn, NY.
        Someone needs to make this movie.

  5. Not so hard to renounce worldliness when your company has gone out of business, gotta go for Harriet.
    Sorry Nick.....

    1. The company did not go out of business until after Nicholas' death, I believe. Your email sounded a bit snarky. The Ferrer family was often at risk for their lives simply because they regularly used the Book of Common Prayer.

  6. It's always easier to do things when you have money and a higher station in life like Nicholas but to accomplish what Harriet did as a poor, black, slave is unbelievable. Her faith and commitment helped so many survive.

  7. Can't help but wonder what would have become of the Farrar family if the Virginia company had been saved.

  8. Me, too, Rev John. Tubman is the dictionary definition of courage, but Ferrar's renunciation of worldly goods speaks to me in this age of over consumption. Plus, he's Geroge Herbert's publisher.

  9. My paternal grandfather was an AMEZ minister and as an infant, I was christened in the AMEZ church. My mother was confirmed in 1940 and I was in the Episcopal Church then and forever..confirmed in 1950 and ordained to the Vocational Diaconate in 1989. Tubman was truly Moses and insured the freedom of countless numbers of slaves plus being a scout,nurse, and healer and Zion supporter in Albany NY. She suffered and turned it into salvation for the oppressed. Poor Nicholas may not survive this onslaught and I do hope he can at least break 1,000....but who knows? Ah! THE SHADOW KNOWS! Time for caffeine, fer sher!!! Good AM, Jane Papa..etc..etc..etc!

  10. It was Tubman for me but Little Gidding is a beautiful and holy place. I was there while on a pilgrimage.

  11. Celebrated my first Eucharist at Little Gidding on Nicholas Ferrar's own altar, June 26, 1972. I have to vote for Nicholas.

  12. Hmmm, WWJD? Pray? Of Course, for a time. Risk life and limb to set the captives free? Without a doubt. Harriett gets my vote.

  13. As a deacon committed to making the the Daily Offices accessible, I've got to go with Nicholas Ferrar and the Little Gidding community all the way.

    The connection with George Herbert -- "Seven whole days, not one in seven / I will praise thee" -- seals the deal.

  14. I should be professionally committed to the 17th century, but I've always found Ferrar and the Little Gidding crowd a bit precious. There is much to admire, but they didn't renounce their wealth, they lived off it. Still a toss up here.

    1. But they did lose all their wealth -- the family did. Fortunately their mother held on to her own inheritance and had just enough to buy a crumbling old manor that had been abandoned for 100 years. They worked hard to provide a living not only for themselves but to educate and take care of the community. They had an entire wing of the house set aside to assist widows of the community who had nothing else to live on.

  15. Having lived on MDs Eastern Shore for nearly 2/3 of my life, I have a natural bias towards Harriet. When the world was unkind to Ferrar, he retreated from it. When the world was unkind to Harriet, she fought back with tooth and claw in the service of others. While thinking and praying are to be admired, I am voting for the doer!

    1. Caring for widows, children, and the poor is not retreating from the world.
      I, too, am voting for the doer: Nicholas Ferrar.

  16. My initial instinct was to vote for the exceedingly brave Harriet Tubman, especially for the sake of my bracket as I think she'll win handily. In the end, I opted for Nicholas. His life of prayer and godly living was done within vibrant community while reaching out to others in need. Even if it came after some economic failure, it can be a tough choice and at least he did it. Others facing failures did not. Such a life isn't always as easy as it sounds, and it could prove an exceedingly valuable witness within our day. So, win or lose, my vote was for Nicholas today.

  17. While giving up worldly goods is commendable, risking your life countless times to save others wins hands down. Harriet Tubman's courage and strength were marks of greatness.

  18. Harriet's extraordinary strength, courage, & action in the face of being property, rather than human...Wow...demonstrates what I believe God calls us to...& I admit I don't yet have that kind of courage! Ferrar was devout & dedicated, but Tubman's willingness to defy her oppressors to save others' lives trumps.

  19. I'm going against the tide in this totally unfair match-up. I'm voting for Nicholas Ferrar, whose life is one of those that underpins my own journey.

  20. A once-enslaved Moses, our Harriet,
    though hunted and bruised, wouldn't tarry yet.
    From the South to Ontario
    her people she'd ferry-o.
    And as for today: may she carry it!

  21. A sliding donkey makes me think of my own terror in the Grand Canyon on a mule. "Trust your mule," the cowboy kept saying. So my vote's for Nick despite what sounds like OCD devotion to the psalter.

  22. I've always been a great admirer of Harriet Tubman, and lived near an Underground Railroad house growing up. But Ferrar's dedication in creating a community as he did gets my vote. And, win or lose (and probably lose), in the words of fellow "bracketee" T.S. Eliot in his "Little Gidding" --
    "Whatever we inherit from the fortunate
    We have taken from the defeated
    What they had to leave us—a symbol:
    A symbol perfected in death.
    And all shall be well and
    All manner of thing shall be well
    By the purification of the motive
    In the ground of our beseeching."
    (Nice nod here to Dame Julian as well...)

  23. I'm daily feeling more and more conflicted about trying to judge between two people way more qualified to judge than I. I tell myself it's a game, and all in purpose of learning about great saints - and so it is. Still, many comments trouble me - as if one of these were somehow more qualified to 'advance' than the other. My way around these scruples is to try to use the measure the two saints would use. I feel certain the humble deacon Ferrar would've insisted I vote for Harriet; and I believe Harriet would've considered a vote for her to be, in actuality, a vote for the God who empowered her to set captives free and lift up the oppressed.

    1. Peach, thank you for your comment! Conflict describes this 'game format' to a "T". I mean, I, too, feel conflicted in choosing the saint-of-the-day.
      You wrote "...try to use the measure the two saints would use."
      "Ah-hah! That is the key!", I thought. What did each saint do in his or her historical time and place ? Unencumbered by our current social notions of feminism, liberation theology, Victorianism and etc.-isms, each saint somehow made lemonade from the ersatz lemons of a specific time. (I know, many places lack lemons.)
      Thanks for the inspiration!
      (And, no, I haven't decided yet. More torture. More anguish.)

  24. Interesting choice between a life of prayer and worship as service to God and direct action to save God's people as service to God. I side with action. Go Tubman!!!

  25. Actively DOing vs contemplation, prayer, and yes, some doing, but not dangerously. It seems the Lent MDness voting population is much in favor of a Gospel of Doing. No fault there, but for once I shall not follow the crowd; I always choose Ruth over Martha.