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Torchbearers of the Truth: Selina, Countess of Huntingdon (1707-1791)

J Brown, Peterhead

"For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called" (1 Cor 1.26). The Countess, quoting the verse, is reputed to have exclaimed, "I’m glad it says not many, rather than not any", and many others, similarly glad, had cause to rejoice that God had called a peeress of the realm to play a notable role in the great Evangelical Awakening of the 18th Century. William Grimshaw, a noted Yorkshire preacher, wrote, "He has raised you up for the accomplishment of a mighty work in the land. I may not live to witness it, but I shall assuredly see some of the triumphs of the cross, the blood bought slaves, the ransomed captives, rescued from the tyranny and slavery of the great enemy of souls in the chapels of your Ladyship, all arrayed in robes of dazzling white, and washed from every defilement in the fountain opened for sin and uncleanness". How indeed did it all come about?

Selina Shirley was born at Astwell Manor House, a family property near to Brackley in Northamptonshire, in 1707. The Shirley family was of ancient lineage stretching back to Saxon times with possessions in England and Ireland. Selina’s paternal grandmother, Elizabeth Washington, was also of an old and respected family, some of whom had emigrated in 1657. George Washington, first President of the United States, descended from the American branch of the family. Disputes disturbed family life. When Selina was only six years old her parents separated and her mother took her youngest daughter and left Britain, spending the rest of her life abroad. Selina became strongly attached to her father but, in contrast, correspondence with her mother was formal. In later life she rarely spoke of her childhood but some anecdotes reveal a sober-minded child with a sense of eternity. In her teens, as thoughts turned toward marriage, she prayed that she might marry into a serious family, and God answered her prayer.

Donington Hall, not far distant from Selina’s home, was the seat of Theophilus Hastings, Ninth Earl of Huntingdon. The two families were acquainted and, following the formalities of the time, Selina and Theophilus married on 3rd June, 1728. It proved to be a happy and loving marriage. The young couple enjoyed the society of other members of the nobility, attending court in London, moving between their country homes and estates, taking the waters at Bath. Blessed with a growing family, their lives must have seemed so leisured and privileged; however the Countess was feeling an increasing sense of the emptiness of life and was finding no lasting satisfaction in its pleasures. Unknown to her, events were then occurring that would lead to her life being transformed. A young man, Benjamin Ingham, converted while in Georgia, had returned to England and was preaching the gospel in his home town of Ossett in Yorkshire. This resulted in a great stirring up of people to seek salvation by faith alone. The Earl of Huntingdon’s sisters lived in the area at Ledston Hall and in due course Ingham received an invitation to preach in the private chapel there. The Hastings sisters were brought under conviction and soon Lady Margaret was saved followed by her sisters Anne and Frances. When in June, 1739 the Earl and Countess visited Ledston Hall Lady Margaret declared, "Since I have known and believed in the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation, I have been as happy as an angel". Selina, becoming aware of her inadequacies to merit salvation, was deeply moved and recognised that her sister-in-law had a joy and peace to which she was a stranger. After struggle and anxiety, remembering Lady Margaret’s words, Selina cast herself wholly upon Christ for life and salvation on 26th July, 1739. She commenced the serious study of Scripture and the effect soon became manifest in her conduct. News spread rapidly, amid ridicule and scorn, that she had been converted by "The Methodists" as the preachers had become known. Selina was to suffer much obloquy and reproach from those who judged that she had betrayed her class and departed from the traditions of the Church. Theophilus seems not to have attained the same degree of understanding of the gospel as his wife, but there is no evidence that he ever discouraged her spiritual aims or her support of Christian work. He died on 13th October, 1746 only 50 years of age. Four months later Selina wrote to Philip Doddridge the well known Dissenting minister and hymn writer: "I dread slack hands in the vineyard; we must all up and be doing". She later wrote, "O! How I do lament the weakness of my knees and coolness of my heart! I want [my heart] on fire always, not for self delight, but to spread the gospel from pole to pole". She sought to accomplish that goal by three principal means.

The Countess made it possible for members of the aristocracy to hear the gospel preached with clarity and power. As a peeress she had a legal right to appoint two private chaplains to minister to the spiritual needs of her household. She invited George Whitefield to become her chaplain and when he accepted she began to invite members of the nobility, politicians and even royalty to her London home to hear him preach. Other well known preachers, including John Wesley and William Romaine, addressed these gatherings which continued for many years. In the scale of the revival of the mid-eighteenth century the number saved was comparatively small, but the impact was significant in combating atheism, rationalism, and indifference among the governing class. A significant case of conversion was Lord Dartmouth, later to become Colonial Secretary and fill other important offices, who in 1755 heard George Whitefield preaching, was converted, and used his substantial means in supporting evangelical testimony.

Another way in which the gospel progressed was by building chapels. The first to be erected solely at the initiative of the Countess was in Brighton. It was intended that it should supplement and not replace the parish church by providing extra preaching meetings at times other than the regular services. Over the years Lady Huntingdon devoted large sums of money to building or purchasing chapels in many places. The lease by the Countess in 1779 of Spa Fields Chapel in the Clerkenwell district in the northern outskirts of London accommodating congregations of 3,000 persons became a catalyst for change. The opposition of a local curate led to a case being brought before an Ecclesiastical Court where a verdict was reached prejudicial to the Countess’s interest in that chapel and setting a precedent that put at risk the work elsewhere. After hesitation and with great regret the Countess decided to protect all her chapels under the 1689 Toleration Act, thereby making them Dissenting Meeting Houses. This decision led to the formation of the Huntingdon Connexion in the middle ground between the Established Church and Dissent. Many Anglican ministers who previously had been happy to preach in the chapels now felt unable to do so and severed their links with Lady Huntingdon. These events were naturally disappointments to her but she remained undaunted by them.

A related concern was the provision of men capable of preaching and ministering in the chapels. Lady Huntingdon had financially supported the studies of many promising young men, but at over sixty she embarked upon one of her most enterprising projects - the founding of a college at Trevecca in Wales in 1768. Difficulties were encountered, but with the determination and the commitment of the Countess and others these were overcome. It has been reckoned that about 230 studied there in the course of Selina’s life. Periods of study were interposed with times when students preached as itinerants or filled vacancies in various chapels.

With unflagging zeal through passing years Lady Huntingdon served the Lord Jesus Christ, and into old age retained a vision for evangelism at home and abroad. As the century entered its last decade many friends and companions had already passed away. John Wesley finished his course in March, 1791 by which time the Countess was close to her own rest. On 17th June, 1791, the last day of her life, she said to her doctor, "My work is done. I have nothing to do but to go to my heavenly Father". As she wished she was buried in simplicity in an unmarked grave beside her husband in the family vault in Ashby-de-la-Zouch.

To be continued.

Selina Countess of Huntingdon by Faith Cook, and published by Banner of Truth, provided much of the information for this article.

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