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


[poll id="51"]


* indicates required

Recent Posts



118 comments on “Nicholas Ferrar vs. Harriet Tubman”

  1. Harriet Tubman gets my vote today; her collect gives the reasons: "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". Harriet heard God's call all of us and worked in the world to bring God's vision to the people around her.

  2. Another very tough one, thank you very much SEC, he replies as he obsessively checks the results. But I have to go today with the Anglican, about whom I knew little until today. Both Nicholas and Harriet lived lives of service, but Nicholas, as a deacon, is exemplary in demonstrating what that order is all about.

  3. The education, about all that participate in Lent Madness, and the excitement on the road to the "Final Four" make this a daily meditation. Harriet's story is too compelling
    to me, to deny her my vote. I vote for Harriet....I still need a point guard and at 5' she'll
    be perfect. YOU GO GIRL.

  4. Harriet's courage inspires. Nicholas's devotion is admirable, but I can't quite envision that life or the conversation that would ensue in my house if we attempted to live in such a way. Seems a bit obsessive to me. I'm going with the saint who stepped out in the messiness of the world, determined to change the arc of history.

  5. No contest for me at all. Harriet risked it all, time and time again. She had a vision that she put into action. Her march to freedom was not only for the enslaved but for the elderly, the infirm, and women.

  6. When I was a little girl, I wanted to be Harriet Tubman. This woman is still encouraging young women (of all colors) today.

  7. For the second day in a row it's the Lightweight vs the Lady. As much as I dislike deserting the underdog I voted for Harriet. Nicholas had it easy. Sure, it must have been tragic moving from the Extremely Wealthy to the Still Got a Lot position but the fact that there was still enough left over for Mommy to restore the church and a manor house does not imply much hardship. Nicholas seems to have lived a passive life. The donkey incident reminds me of spectators who get hit by flying tires or engine blocks at the Indianapolis 500. He wasn't even riding the donkey himself. says "he was almost killed when a donkey ran down a slope carrying a large piece of timber which almost struck Nicholas. All that saved him was that the donkey slipped." The danger he encountered on his way home was that pirates chased the ship he happened to be on. They weren't chasing him. Harriet was an activist and a doer. While both of them helped others it may be a case of Harriet getting the best press. Let's hope for a fair fight tomorrow.

  8. Harriet Tubman is worthy to be remembered but Ferrar is one of those forgotten saints and I believe his story wasn't told nearly as well as it could have been. He was the younger son of a wealthy merchant family and would have happily lived out the life of a scholar in balmy southern Europe but answered the call of his family to return to England and save them. His story involes a persuasive Sir Walter Raleigh who got them to commit all of their wealth to the Virginia Company which was eventually taken over by the crown (making a very nice profit for the king). Despite working very hard in parliment and confronting the outright and open embezzelment of funds from the company, Nicholas fails to win back any of the money his older brother and father had lost by their bad investments. That is when he renounced the world -- and the rest of his family followed his lead. They ended up with only the inheritance of their mother (who wisely had kept her money away from the get rich schemes) and went to live in a falling down manor house in the middle of nowhere. Before anything else they fixed the church up for worship.... then set about providing for not just their extended household but the village that they found themselves close to. This included starting a school and a hospital, earning their own living, and praying round the clock. It is a great story of overcoming adversity and discovering a more meaningful way of life.

    1. Thanks for this additional information about Nicholas and the circumstances of his life. His choices certainly required a different kind of courage in his day. I admire that.

    2. I have to go with Ferrar too since I too live in a community that is neither a convent or a cult. He understood the meaning of spiritual poverty in a profound way and lived his life embracing the basic Christian principles of sharing and teaching.

  9. Each is deserving of a vote -- Ferrar for his devotion to a prayerful life and inspirational example of keeping the daily office, and Tubman for her courage in helping others to freedom in the face of life-threatening, troublesome consequences. For her righteous defiance, Tubman gets my vote.

  10. I am SO glad that you have spelled out Supreme Executive Committee (SEC). You had not done that for a while and I was beginning to think you were referring to the South Eastern Conference (also SEC) . I kept wondering why this athletic conference was involved. THanks again.

    1. Yes, thanks to you John. I thought the SEC was the conference....Being a big sports fan, and somehow the SEC being tied up with Lent Madness? So, thanks for the explination.

  11. I voted for Nicholas, much as I admire Harriet. Every once in a while we need to recognize those who plug along, doing what they can where they can. Turning one's family into an early commune/co-op, "starting a school and a hospital, earning their own living" (thanks, Amy) can't have been easy for someone from the wealthy class.
    Both Nicholas and Harriet are heroes, just in different ways.

  12. Ms Tubman will surely prevail in today's match up due to her extraordinary courage and commitment. But I'm in a pray-without-ceasing sort of mood this morning, so Nicholas gets my vote. There is so much to pray for in this world and sometimes that's all we can do.

  13. Voted for Nicholas. I've got to find out more about this: "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."

  14. Voted for Harriet. Given a choice of giving up worldliness and going for the simple life or plunging into the ugliness of life with energy, insisting upon justice and risking your life for the freedom of others? Clear choice for me.

  15. Sometimes it is a challenge to teach children about the Holy Spirit. I shall use the Collect for Harriet Tubman (et. al.) and her life story to teach about the Holy Spirit guiding us into all truth as the Holy Spirit goes out into the world. I will do this because I believe it will make sense to children.

    Not like the first terrible time I tried explaining the Holy Spirit to children!...whom I may have scarred for life. Mea Culpa!

    On the Day of Pentecost years ago I taught my children's Sun Sch class about how the Holy Spirit goes out into the world doing good. As a Montessori teacher at the time, I wanted a visual, experiential, hands on lesson that the children could teach to others. From a garden establishment that sells them, I bought thousands of living lady bugs. Lady bugs are called "aphid wolves" because the l.b.'s chase down and gobble up lots of that garden predator, the destructive aphid. At Sun Sch we all very gently filled little plastic bags with hundreds of lady bugs. We released most of the lady bugs across the dewy church lawn, out into the world to do good. The children then gave small bags of lady bugs to the parishioners who wanted them. One of my little students ran up to her mother, waving the little bag of lady bugs in her hands and yelling, "Take these quick, Moma! Miss Gwin said the Holy Spirit is a wolf and these lady bugs will protect us." Oh, dear. Follow up lessons the children's Sun Sch and their parents, the adult forums, and the vestry. I haven't used the lady bug lesson again.

    Thank you, SEC. Harriet Tubman's extraordinary life will be a wonderful lesson about many things, including how the Holy Spirit guides us into all truth and makes us free.

  16. It strikes me that both action and contemplation require huge commitment, and that one cannot happen effectively without the other. Different centuries, different social beginnings, different genders even, make a difference in how one is called to pray and to act. The active courage and spiritual leadership of Harriet Tubman was evident on the knife-edge of historical turmoil; the contemplative courage and social leadership of Nicholas Ferrar was lived out in a time when all the old (medieval) ways, including contemplative/monastic life, were being rejected in favor of exploring a New World, and devil take the hindmost. I want to vote for both of them, because they both have so much more courage than I do! Still on the fence.....

  17. Another Toughie, but as I had to go with Nicholas Ferrar. He and his family devoted their life to prayer and service. As a Daughter of the King, that resonates with me.

  18. Wonderful to see the lively discussion and passionate feelings today. Yesterday there did not seem to be many of us whose lives had been touched by the humble Chad (I am one), but today it is clear that there are a lot of us who have had both Nicholas and Mother Moses as ikons in our lives, a worthy match up. On balance I had to go with Mother Moses, perhaps because I so vividly recall creating plays with my students to act out her heroic life.

  19. I'm taking advantage of this moment to point out a pet peeve of mine: in the collect for the day, Harriet Tubman and the other women commemorated with her are referred to only by their first names. This is the ONLY time in all of the collects for lesser feasts and fasts in which the saints we commemorate are treated so informally.

    As I say in one of several blog posts I wrote on this, I know this isn't world peace. But it's a small sign, and I believe that it's in changing the small things that the larger things are changed.

    Here's what I wrote:

    And of course I voted for Harriet Tubman.

    1. I always thought it better to refer to Christian Saints by their Christian names in prayer, though admittedly it's helpful to distinguish among e.g. Thomas the Apostle, Thomas Cranmer, and Thomas Aquinas. Perhaps full name or other designator in the title of the feast, and Christian name in the Collect with a reference to their life or work (we actually do that pretty well in our Collects) in the prayer itself.
      As to voting -- well I admire Harriet and her accomplishments but I really wish I could better emulate Nicholas' combination of prayer and service to his community so he gets my support.

  20. Ferrar sounds like an admirable person.
    However, I voted for Harriet because I think today's Christians need to honor - and follow the example of - those who take action against injustice more than they need encouragement to pray and do works of charity. Charity is good, but it is not solidarity. Christians need to proclaim the Gospel of the Good News: prisoners set free, healing, and the love of God poured out upon all people. Then we can all say with St. James: "Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do."

  21. Seriously, this is a contest? A woman born into slavery who risked life & limb to live her faith and rescue the viciously oppressed? That's downright biblical. Another no-brainer!

  22. I'm having a difficult time deciding here. Both are a great models and shining examples, one of a prayerful life and one of taking action ..the greatest challenge however is harmonizing those two in our own lives ...while I decide both Harriet and Nicholas give me me to reflect upon.

  23. This is a tough one. I admire Harriet Tubman and her brave service to others so much. But the story of Nicholoas Ferrar speaks to my soul. Perhaps it is because I am so fed up with the arrogance, selfishness and self-importance of so many, and yearn for a world where more people serve others with simple humbleness of spirit. Perhaps it is because I struggle myself to be more humble. Oh well, I will think and pray some more on this decision. In the meantime, this short article about Ferrar and Little Gidding on the Thinking Anglicans site is really nice: "A life of caring for ordinary people, of ministering to their needs, physical, intellectual and spiritual, a life of quiet, undemonstrative prayer and study, is one that we would all do well to emulate."

  24. It looks to me like our participants are more interested in current or recent "saints" than those of antiquity.

  25. Not a fair match up for me. I grew up knowing houses that were Underground railroad stations. We were proud of our ancestors who fought for freedom for all--we're told one branch was kicked out of the Quakers because they took up arms. We read about her in school. I run past a memorial to the URR where slaves left Detroit to gain freedom in Canada. It's quite moving to contemplate how they felt looking at the short distance across the river to a new life. Ferrar's story may have been muted by time, so I feel he was set up on this match. (though now more of us know of his works, so his quiet ways continue.) Harriet Tubman has always been held up to me as a person who showed the work of God in action.

  26. This deep into Lent Madness I'm beginning to discern a pattern in my own voting. I had all sorts of good reasons to vote for Nicholas Ferrar (I was an English teacher with a love of George Herbert and also a confirmed Anglo-Catholic in an age of liturgical reform), but as so often this season I voted for the more "modern" saint because I can't deny that Tubman did much more to bring people into the Kingdom that is in our midst here and now. The example of the Ferrars is still one we can emulate in daily life; when we receive a calling to a more dangerous field of action, let Harriet Tubman be our guide.

  27. Acts speak louder than words - the reciting of the Psalter vs living at risk of re-enslavement or death for most of her life while having to deal with/trust the many hundreds of people that she needed to both get slaves to freedom and the people she was helping to get away from their bondage. It's so hard to weigh the merits of people's acts from different worlds, but this round goes to Harriett Ross-Tubman

  28. So tough. I voted for Ferrar, because I believe that what he did offers inspiration and lesson for an emergent church today, and because I am a corporate refugee as well!!