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Selina Shirley, the daughter of Earl Ferrers, was born in 1707. She joined the Methodists in 1739 and nine years later made George Whitefield, her chaplain. Whitefield's followers now became known as the the Countess of Huntingdon's Connection.
In 1768 she established a college in Trevecca in Brecknockshire where her ministers were educated. She also financed the building of 64 chapels in England and Wales. Selina, Countess of Huntington, died in 1791.
Hail, happy saint! on thine immortal throne,
Possest of glory, life, and bliss unknown;
We hear no more the music of thy tongue;
Thy wonted auditories cease to throng.
Thy sermons in unequalled accents flowed,
And ev'ry bosom with devotion glowed;
Thou didst, in strains of eloquence refined,
Inflame the heart, and captivate the mind.
Unhappy, we the setting sun deplore,
So glorious once, but ah! it shines no more.
Behold the prophet in his towering flight!
He leaves the earth for heaven's unmeasured height,
And worlds unknown receive him from our sight.
There Whitefield wings with rapid course his way,
And sails to Zion through vast seas of day.
Thy prayers, great saint, and thine incessant cries,
Have pierced the bosom of they native skies.
Thou, moon, hast seen, and all the stars of light,
How he has wrestled with his God by night.
He prayed that grace in ev'ry heart might dwell;
He longed to see America excel;
He charged its youth that ev'ry grace divine
Should with full lustre in their conduct shine.
That Saviour, which his soul did first receive,
The greatest gift that ev'n a God can give,
He freely offered to the num'rous throng,
That on his lips with list'ning pleasure hung.
"Take him, ye wretched, for your only good,
"Take him, ye starving sinners, for your food;
"Ye thirsty, come to this life-giving stream,
"Ye preachers, take him for your joyful theme;
"Take him, my dear Americans, he said,
"Be your complaints on his kind bosom laid:
"Take him, ye Africans, he longs for you;
"Impartial Saviour is his title due:
"Washed in the fountain of redeeming blood,
"You shall be sons, and kings, and priests to God."
Great Countess, we Americans revere
Thy name, and mingle in thy grief sincere;
New England deeply feels, the orphans mourn,
Their more than father will no more return.
But though arrested by the hand of death,
Whitefield no more exerts his lab'ring breath,
Yet let us view him in the eternal skies,
Let ev'ry heart to this bright vision rise;
While the tomb, safe, retains its sacred trust,
Till life divine re-animates the dust.
Selina, Countess of Huntingdon: Early Life and the Start of the Connexion
The future Countess of Huntingdon was born into an aristocratic Leicestershire family in 1707 her marriage to the Earl of Huntingdon in 1728 was a love match that produced seven children. She underwent an evangelical conversion in 1739, and thereafter came into contact with the Moravian Brethren, and leaders of the Revival including the Wesleys and George Whitefield. Gradually she assumed a position of influence within the Revival, as well as using her position to further evangelical religion within fashionable society. Her husband’s death in 1746 left her the care of a young family, but also enabled her to extend her religious activity, for example, by promoting harmony within the Revival in the face of internal divisions, and expanding her links with Anglican Evangelicals. From the early 1760s she began to open her own chapels and to build up a band of clerical helpers to serve at them.
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Protestant Profiles #17: Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon
Born: Leicestershire, England
Role: Patroness of evangelical ministry founder of eponymous Connexion Principal of Trevecca College
Emphases: Training of effective gospel ministers Calvinistic Methodism renewal of English Church
Due to a combination of illness and endeavouring to spend more time with family during a holiday break, this installment of the series is regrettably both late and concise.
Selina Shirley (later Hastings) was born in the early 18th century to a noble family and herself married an earl in 1728. Her marriage lasted for the better part of two decades, before her husband’s death in 1746. Following her conversion seven years earlier, the Countess Huntingdon was active in the evangelical scene of the Anglican church – but her significance to Protestant history – and the Methodist movement in particular – largely came about during her four and a half decades of widowhood.
The Countess was part of the very early Methodist movement and a member of the society established by the Wesley brothers and others. But over time, she found that her theological perspective aligned much more comfortably with the emergent Calvinist branch of Methodism, which included figures such as George Whitefield (see next profile).
Taking advantage of a legal provision which allowed the English nobility to establish their own private chapels and appoint chaplains (in reality ‘preachers’) as they saw fit, the Countess financed and facilitated a network of godly, revivalistic preachers across the country. While there were apparently some grumblings within church and society that she was overstretching this provision, the Countess was not prevented from establishing more than 60 chapels that allowed for ministers of her choosing to conduct evangelistic preaching ministries.
The Countess established an evangelical Bible College in Wales in 1768 – effectively the world’s first Methodist seminary – but it did not manage to attract the number of ministry candidates she had hoped for. Eventually her excessive liberality with respect to acquiring personal chapels and chaplains reached a breaking point with the Anglican establishment and in 1783, she found herself and part of her network operating outside of the state church – effectively becoming a dissenting denomination which would come to be known as the “Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion.” While the Connexion had an entirely male ministry, it was at the time perhaps the only English denomination that was in effect headed by a woman.
One of her biographers, H.M. Jones says of the Countess:
“Lady Huntingdon’s significance was remarkable. The roles she exercised (hostess, patroness and private spiritual exhorter) were acceptable for a woman of high rank, but she exercised them on an unparalleled scale, thanks to her combination of rank and wealth with an iron will and charismatic character. She thus acquired a degree of religious authority that was, for a woman, almost unprecedented. By hosting worship and preaching in her own home (a great mansion) she created an alternative space for worship from that of the established church. By giving her patronage to not one or two, but to hordes of preachers and clergy, she became, in one sense of the word, their bishop.”
A Review of Selina: Countess of Huntington: Her Pivotal Role in the 18th Century Evangelical Awakening
The Lord very often chooses to use monetary means as an instrument to fund the advance of the Gospel. The 18th century evangelical awakening was no exception. This is a well-written account of the focal point of the funding, Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntington.
She was born into a wealthy but divided family in 1707. Her parents later divorced which led to further turmoils and trials. Her marriage to the Earl of Huntington allowed her to spend much time in the royal court of George III. Although she was wealthy in the world's goods, she was impoverished spiritually, trusting only in her good works that were worthless for salvation.
Not surprisingly, she was opposed to Gospel preaching that was used in the salvation of an increasing number of her friends and relatives. Through the use of a seemingly minor incident, God brought conviction and saving grace into her life.
Almost immediately she began to be involved in benevolent works. She established schools for the poor. She visited the sick and the needy. She corresponded with Wesley and Whitefield for her spiritual counsel and mutual encouragement. Seven years later, at thirty-nine, she became a widow.
She then began to devote more time to funding the spread of the Gospel. Simultaneously she increasingly embraced Calvinistic doctrine.
Her heart continually beat with a desire for the rich and the royalty to hear the Gospel and be saved. Much of her time was spent scheduling services, constructing chapels and renting residences in order to broaden opportunities for the Word to be evangelistically proclaimed by the noted and less noted pastors that God raised up in her day.
Her influence with the Church of England allowed a number of evangelical pastors to be ordained. Yet her fervency for the spread of the Gospel began to outpace the supply of available pastors to preach at the plethora of preaching points that she had established.
Undaunted, she turned her attention to the establishment and funding of Trevecca College in Wales. Here, future pastors were to be trained. However, in her eyes the needs in the field were so great that young men were sent out to fill pulpits often to the neglect of their studies. This was but one problem that the Countess faced at this educational institution. Other concerns included the turnover in leadership capacity due to ongoing doctrinal controversies and the payment of mounting bills that she was unable to immediately fund due to her widespread financial obligations.
I mention these problems to illustrate the fact that Faith Cook has written an honest biography of her highly esteemed subject. She does not hide the Countess' indwelling sin that she continually fought. These sins led to great consequences in family life as well as in her relationship with various evangelical leaders of that day.
The Countess was well aware of many of these sins. This awareness turned her eyes all the more upon Christ and deepened her desire to more faithfully serve Him. Her desire was realized. Prior to her death in 1791 she was overseeing over one hundred chapels, the College as well as a variety of missions endeavors.
A number of appendices, a bibliography and an index enhance this well-written, very readable biography. The author focuses on Selina in such a way that the greater focus is on Jesus Christ and His work in and through this godly lady.
I finished the book with a better understanding of the times, triumphs and trials that made up the evangelical awakening in the 1700s. I was also struck again with how God uses sinners for His glory and the importance of Christians faithfully serving God in the social status God has placed them without succumbing to peer pressure.
Men and women can read this volume with much spiritual profit in our day. The author has done contemporary readers a great favor by providing this well-researched work. Lady Selina's life and legacy provide much humility and encouragement for those who become acquainted with her faithfulness.
Selina – Countess of Huntingdon
Called the ‘Queen of the Methodists’ by so cynical a writer as Horace Walpole, the Countess played a strategic part in the great eighteenth-century revival of religion which so profoundly affected Great Britain, America and countries such as Holland, Germany and Bohemia.
Her life spanned the greater part of the century, and her influence touched virtually all the great men of the revival: George Whitefield, the Wesley brothers, Philip Doddridge, William Grimshaw, William Romaine, John Fletcher, Henry Venn, Howell Harris, Daniel Rowland, William Williams and many others.
Sword of State
Born in Northamptonshire in 1707, into a family that could trace its ancestry back to royalty, Selina was the second of Washington Shirley’s three daughters. But her childhood was far from happy and her home a place of bitterness and acrimony.
When Selina was only six her parents split up. Her mother moved to France taking her youngest daughter with her. Family wrangling over property further marred her childhood, and not until she married Theophilus Hastings, Earl of Huntingdon, when she was twenty-one years of age did she know any settled home life.
Although the Shirley family was both prosperous and influential, the Hastings family was more so. Selina and Theophilus regularly mingled with royalty and Theophilus carried the Sword of State at the coronation of George II.
With a natural flair for organisation, Selina managed her husband’s estates, which included property in Yorkshire, Leicestershire and Northamptonshire. Four sons and two daughters were born in quick succession.
Childbirth carried high risks, and Selina suffered from constant ill-health. But the remedies of purges and vomitings that her thirty-two-stone doctor proposed did little to improve either her condition or her spirits.
Quick-tempered and forceful by disposition, Selina was also sensitive and conscientious, and did all in her power to improve the lot of those who farmed the Hastings lands or worked at her Leicestershire home, Donington Hall.
The young Countess possessed all that money could buy, but she was a dissatisfied woman. Religious and generous though she was, her mind was restless and troubled.
Her hasty temper often got the better of her: ‘I would undergo everything to come to a true knowledge of my Saviour’, she confessed to her sister-in-law, Lady Betty Hastings. So despairing did she become that friends of Theophilus advised him to have her put into a mental asylum — a thing he would never do.
But when her other sisters-in-law, Margaret, Anne and Frances Hastings were deeply influenced by the preaching of the Yorkshire evangelist, Benjamin Ingham a friend of John Wesley, Selina too was profoundly affected.
‘Since I have known the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation, I have been as happy as an angel’, announced Margaret Hastings artlessly. This was a dimension of religion entirely new to the Countess of Huntingdon.
All her life Selina had feared death but in July 1739 its reality came very close as she faced a period of serious illness. She would have thought of her husband and her young family, but mostly she thought of her spiritual condition.
Then Margaret’s words flashed vividly before her mind again: ‘Since I have known the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation I have been as happy as an angel’. From her bed Selina lifted up her heart to the Saviour with the earnest prayer that she too might know the inner happiness through Christ that her sister-in-law had found.
God heard her cry and immediately all her distress and fears were removed. At peace spiritually, Selina’s physical condition began to improve. As soon as she was able she wrote to share with her sisters-in-law the joy she now experienced in the knowledge that her guilt was removed and sins forgiven.
The change was immediate and obvious. Even her maid noted that her mistress had not fallen into a rage for many months.
Never half-hearted in anything she did, Selina began to align herself with such despised Methodists as Benjamin Ingham, knowing that this would set every tongue in court a-wagging. To her friends this was social suicide and some of them begged Theophilus to see if he could moderate his wife’s religious enthusiasm.
Sending for his old Oxford tutor and friend, Martin Benson, now Bishop of Gloucester, Theophilus arranged for a discussion to take place between Benson and Selina. Much of the conversation centred round the rights and wrongs of the new field preachers, men such as the Wesley brothers, Ingham and especially George Whitefield whom Benson himself had just ordained in 1739.
Quite clearly Benson found himself out-manoeuvred by the young woman. ‘She plainly and faithfully urged upon him the awful responsibility of his station under that great head of the Church, Jesus Christ’, we read.
This was more than the bishop could stand. Jumping up, he hurried to make his departure. But before he left he said with a measure of chagrin that he regretted the day he had ever ordained George Whitefield, for he recognised that the change in the Countess was directly due to the new preaching associated with the young preacher’s name.
But Selina had the last word. ‘My Lord’, she said, ‘mark my words, when you come upon your dying bed, that will be one of the few ordinations you will reflect upon with complacence’ — a prediction that came true.
Selina’s family life was tinged with sadness. Two of her sons, Ferdinando and George, aged eleven and thirteen, died of smallpox within an eight-month period. But the grief that nearly broke Selina’s spirit was the loss of her husband Theophilus in 1746.
Their love had been strong and deep. He died of a stroke, unexpectedly and alone, in his home in Downing Street, leaving Selina a widow at only thirty-nine. As she grieved near his grave in Ashby-de-la-Zouch, she might be excused for thinking that all purpose in her life had gone for ever. In fact it had only begun.
During the early years of her Christian experience, the Countess relied heavily on the help she received from Charles and John Wesley. In return she encouraged them in every way, doing all in her power to promote their labours.
But after the death of Theophilus, her friendship with Howell Harris and Philip Doddridge, coupled with her need for a strong assurance of faith, gradually led her ever closer to the doctrines held by the Calvinistic Methodists.
When George Whitefield, who had spent the last four years in America, arrived home in July 1748, Selina asked him to call on her as soon as he could.
Now spending part of her time in her fashionable home in the one-time village of Chelsea, on the banks of the Thames, Selina planned to invite members of the aristocracy, members of parliament and even royalty itself to her drawing room, to hear the preaching of Whitefield or occasionally of Wesley and others.
To accomplish this purpose she appointed Whitefield as her personal chaplain — a privilege she enjoyed as a peeress of the realm. Many of the nobility accepted her invitations — few could resist her charm and strength of personality — and came under the searching and powerful preaching of Whitefield.
Her aunt, the lovely Lady Fanny Shirley, mistress of Lord Chesterfield Chesterfield himself and his long-suffering wife the atheistic Lord Bolingbroke and his half brother Lord St John and numerous others reckoned among the celebrities of the day all these could be found at Selina’s drawing-room meetings.
As the Countess requested in her will that no biography should be written of her, none was attempted until almost ninety years after these events had taken place. As a result, many of those converted or influenced by these gatherings of the nobility were forgotten with the passage of time.
Among the most significant, however, were Lady Fanny Shirley, Lord St John and Lord Dartmouth, later to become Colonial Secretary, President of the Board of Trade and President of the Royal Society.
Even the Prince of Wales who died in 1752 was much affected. By her patronage the Countess nursed and protected the fledgling Methodist movement, and gained for the Christian gospel a degree of acceptance in high places, where only apathy and antagonism had existed before.
Luke Tyerman, one of Whitefield’s earliest biographers, sums up this period in the Countess’s life and evaluates its effect in these words: ‘The gatherings in Chelsea were profoundly interesting spectacles and never till the Day of Judgement will it be ascertained to what extent the preaching of the youthful Whitefield affected the policy of some of England’s greatest statesmen and moulded the character of some of England’s highest aristocratic families’.
With an unquenchable zeal for the conversion of the men and women of her generation, Selina, now in her early forties, stood poised for a life of extraordinary usefulness in the kingdom of God.
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Selina – Countess of Huntingdon
As the horse-drawn carriage bumped along the uneven roads between London and the south coast, the Countess of Huntingdon must have wondered many times over whether her journey would prove worthwhile.
Henry, Selina’s youngest son, not yet seventeen, was suffering from an uncommon condition that was not only robbing him of his eyesight but had become life-threatening. Desperate for a remedy, she was bringing him to the fishing village of Brighthelmstone — now called Brighton — to see if sea bathing would help.
How surprised must the Countess have been when a stranger stopped her in the street, saying, ‘Oh Madam, you are come!’
‘What do you know of me?’ asked Selina in surprise.
‘Madam, I saw you in a dream three years ago, dressed as you are now,’ answered the woman. She then proceeded to tell of a dream she could never forget in which she had seen a tall woman dressed just as Selina was now dressed. She had understood that when this woman came to Brighthelmstone she would be the means of doing much good.
With such an introduction, it was not long before Selina was able to draw together a small group of women and teach them regularly from the Scriptures.
Present day Brighton coastline.
see image info
Unknown to the Countess, Henry’s illness, and subsequent death at the age of eighteen, was to prove a gateway into her lifework. Conversions among this group of women would lead to many more conversions in the town.
This was in 1757, and by 1759 there were so many seeking regular gospel preaching that the need to build a chapel in Brighton became imperative. Much of Selina’s money was tied up in property but by borrowing from a friend and selling some of her jewels the Countess raised £1200 and erected ‘a small but neat chapel’, opened in 1761. Later that same year she opened another chapel ten miles inland, using the great hall of an old mansion.
Soon she cast her eyes further afield and conceived the bold plan of building in Bath, playground of the rich and indolent, where the aristocracy repaired to ‘take the waters’. Here she would provide an attractive meeting place where Evangelical preachers could address the people.
As a loyal member of the Church of England, Selina ensured that no service conducted in her chapels clashed with regular parish services. They were intended to supplement rather than replace them.
When Lord Chesterfield, arrogant, sociable and amoral, saw the elegant windows and turrets of the Countess’ new chapel in Bath taking shape, an idea struck him. As his country mansion, Bretby Hall, in Derbyshire, was little used, he decided to offer her the loan of it.
The Countess accepted the proposal and soon a flourishing gospel cause was established in Derbyshire. Back in Sussex another chapel was opened in Lewes in 1765.
All this chapel building threw up another problem. How could she fill the pulpits? Many of her friends rallied to her cause and were willing to travel the country at her behest: William Romaine, John Berridge, Howell Harris, Henry Venn, John Fletcher and others filled her pulpits in rotation.
The Countess acted as a modern-day church secretary, but not just for one church. She had half a dozen or more pulpits to fill, and still the requests came in for more chapels and more preachers.
Selina’s influence had steadily increased through the years, her main aim having been to promote a reformation of the ministry of the Church of England. To do this she had tried to lobby the bishops until they agreed to ordain men with evangelical convictions.
If the bishops refused to ordain such men, there was only one answer: the Methodists must train their own preachers!
Consulting with Howell Harris, who lived at Trevecca in Breconshire, Selina discovered he had long had the same vision. Together they planned the details and Trevecca College was born. An old farmhouse, situated not 500 yards from Harris’s farming community, could be transformed into suitable accommodation for students.
Now turned sixty years of age and suffering indifferent health, the Countess was embarking on the most demanding project of her life. The prospective college would have to be furnished, books provided, tutors engaged and, most important of all, suitable students recruited.
In August 1768, on her sixty-first birthday, Trevecca College was opened. Each year as the anniversary of the opening came around there would be memorable gatherings at Trevecca as thousands came together for days of special preaching.
The years immediately following the opening of Trevecca, 1770-1771, were to prove Selina’s hardest. Tensions between John Wesley and the Countess, whom John Berridge laughingly called ‘Pope John and Pope Joan’, had been building up, especially since the opening of the college.
During his annual conference in August 1770, Wesley had spoken out strongly against empty religious professions. But in his published Minutes of the conference he expressed himself in a most unfortunate manner, and to any candid reader seemed to be suggesting that good works were essential for salvation.
This cut at the heart of the great Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone. The Countess wept openly when she read the Minutes and was convinced that her old friend had reneged on the faith. She immediately banned Wesley from her pulpits.
Although the following year a degree of understanding was re-established, the damage was done. A literary war broke out, with good men hurling insults at each other through the medium of the printed page. A sorry spectacle, it brought about a permanent division in the evangelical revival.
From this time onwards the Countess gave herself unremittingly to the care of her students and the establishment of chapels. During the 1770s they sprung up like mushrooms in all parts of the country, their pulpits supplied by Trevecca students.
The Countess herself planned the students’ itineraries, arranged their accommodation, clothed them, provided them with horses and even pocket money for the journey, all at her own expense.
Insisting on the highest standards, she could often be dictatorial, particularly with those who were not prepared to go where she sent them. But they knew she loved them and confided freely in her.
Selina in turn followed them with numerous letters and prayed earnestly for them. During her lifetime at least 250 young men received a basic training at Trevecca — a training they would never have received under normal circumstances. Some of them were numbered among the most outstanding preachers of the late eighteenth century.
Wherever men and women were to be found, there the Countess longed to plant a chapel. Nor did her vision end in her own land. When George Whitefield bequeathed Bethesda Orphanage to her at his death in 1770, she gathered together a group of students willing to go to Georgia to take up the work.
A serious fire in 1773 destroyed much of the premises and the American War of Independence put a final end to the project, but she still longed to reach the Indians of America with the gospel of Christ.
At the age of seventy she wished to undertake the hazardous journey herself, if only to make garments for their children! To Belgium, Spain, France and even the South Sea Islands she planned to send missionaries.
Of course she made mistakes and there were failures, but no one grieved over these more than the Countess herself. Above all it is her tireless zeal for the unconverted for which we remember her.
My work is done
One who knew her well wrote: ‘Wherever a fellow creature existed, so far her prayers extended’. ‘The strength of her soul is amazing,’ said Philip Doddridge. ‘She is the most precious saint of God I know,’ echoed Augustus Toplady.
These men were not mere sycophants their comments came from a sincere esteem as they observed the dedication of this extraordinary woman.
When Selina was forced out of the Church of England in 1782, her chapels collectively became known as ‘the Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion’ and in 1789 they numbered a hundred and sixteen.
As she reached her eighties this courageous old woman could still be found at her desk for eight hours a day. With failing eyesight and spasms in her throat that reduced her to a liquid diet, she toiled on, her concern for the lost unabated.
At eighty-four Selina came to the end of her pilgrimage. ‘My work is done,’ she said simply to her doctor. ‘I have nothing left to do but to go to my heavenly Father’.
On the day before she died she whispered repeatedly, ‘I shall go to my Father this night’. And on 19 June 1791 this world lost one of its brightest examples of Christian womanhood.
The author’s book Selina, Countess of Huntingdon is published by Banner of Truth.
In 1748, the Countess gave Whitefield a scarf as her chaplain, and in that capacity he preached in one of her London houses, in Park Street, Westminster, to audiences that included Chesterfield, Walpole and Bolingbroke. She held large dinner parties at which Whitefield preached to the gathered dignitaries after they had eaten.
Moved to further the religious revival in a Calvinistic manner compatible with Whitfield's work, she was responsible for founding 64 chapels and contributed to the funding of others, insisting they should all subscribe to the doctrines of the Church of England and use only the Book of Common Prayer. Amongst these were chapels at Brighton (1761), Bath (1765), Worcester (c. 1766), Tunbridge Wells (1769), several in Wales, and a small number in London including founding one adjacent to her London home at Spa Fields, Clerkenwell/Finsbury (which resulted in a case being brought before the ecclesiatical courts by the vicar of the parish church of St James). She partly funded the independent Surrey Chapel of Rowland Hill. She appointed ministers to officiate in them, under the impression that as a peeress she had a right to employ as many chaplains as she pleased. In her chapel at Bath (now owned by the Bath Preservation Trust and housing the Building of Bath Collection which is open to the public) there was a curtained recess dubbed "Nicodemus' Corner" where bishops sat incognito to hear services. Following the expulsion of six Methodist students from St Edmund Hall, Oxford in 1768 she founded a ministers' training college at Trefeca near Talgarth, in Mid Wales, not far from Brecon. George Whitefield preached at the opening ceremony. The college moved to Hertfordshire in 1792, and was renamed Cheshunt College. It moved to Cambridge in 1906. [ 1 ] The college merged with Westminster College, part of Cambridge University and the training college of the Presbyterian Church of England (and subsequently after 1972 of the United Reformed Church), in 1967. [ 2 ] The Presbyterian Church of Wales college at Trevecca [ 3 ] is approximately 400m south of the Countess's college (which is now a farmhouse) and derives from the work of Howell Harris. It is said that Lady Huntingdon expended £100,000 in the cause of religion.
A slave owner, having inherited overseas estates, the Countess promoted the writings and independence of formerly enslaved Africans who espoused religious views compatible with her own including authors Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, Phillis Wheatley and Olaudah Equiano. During the mid-1760s, she met and befriended Mohegan preacher Samson Occom, then on a tour of England to raise funds for Indian missions.
Until 1779 Lady Huntingdon and her chaplains were members of the Church of England, but that year the consistorial court prohibited her chaplains from preaching in the Pantheon , in Spa Fields, Clerkenwell which had been rented by the Countess. To evade the injunction she was compelled to take shelter under the Toleration Act placing her among the dissenters, and severed from the Connexion several eminent and useful members, among them William Romaine and Henry Venn.
The Countess of Huntingdon and Gospel Ministry
I love reading about the faith champions of the past, and I am gradually building a small collection of biographies of female faith champions on this website. Some women I have written about so far include Nino of Georgia, Catherine of Siena, and Phoebe Palmer. I have also reposted articles from other writers. The following article about Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon, was written by Wade Burleson, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Enid, Oklahoma. It was recently posted on his website Istoria, and is used here (with some edits) with his permission.
The Countess of Huntingdon’s chapel in Bath.
Currently, the Museum of Bath Architecture, owned & run by the Bath Preservation Trust.
(Image used with permission)
We are living in an era of increasing recognition that the New Testament Scriptures teach the equality of men and women in the New Covenant, with qualified servant leadership based on gifting and not gender. Nevertheless, it is argued by some that the equality of Christian women violates the tradition of the church. They say, “If the New Testament actually taught equality we would see women as church and religious leaders in centuries past.” Yes, we would . . . and we do. Christian history is filled with gifted women advancing the kingdom through preaching, evangelizing, teaching, and leading others spiritually. I’d like to acquaint you with one such woman from the 1700s.
Her name is Selina Shirley, but she is most often referred to as the Countess of Huntington. Her husband Theophilus Hastings held the same title the legendary Robin Hood possessed centuries earlier: the Earl of Huntingdon. Selina’s husband was influential and rich, but it was she who would make an immeasurable impact on the advancement of evangelical Christianity in both England and America.
Selina Shirley was born on August 24, 1707, in Chartley, England. Baptized as an infant into the Anglican Church, Selina lived a privileged life while growing up in English high society. At age twenty-one, she married the Earl of Huntington. Selina named among her friends King George II, Sarah Churchill the Duchess of Marlborough, and Lady Mary Wortley Montague. If there were a movie made of her life today it would be a cross between Pride and Prejudice and Downton Abbey.
Just in her late twenties, Selina came to know Christ personally through the testimony and encouragement of two girlfriends who had become Christians under the ministry of the Wesley brothers and George Whitfield. Her conversion was so radical, her husband sought the Bishop’s help in bringing her back to sanity and proper Anglicanism. Shortly after Selina’s conversion, one of her high society friends, the Duchess of Buckingham, wrote to Selina and also sought to convince her of her error of listening to the preaching of non-conformists like John and Charles Wesley and George Whitefield. The Duchess of Buckingham wrote:
The doctrines of these preachers are most repulsive and strongly tinctured with impertinence and disrespect towards their superiors, in perpetually endeavouring to level all ranks and do away with all distinctions. It is monstrous to be told that you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl upon the earth. This is highly offensive and insulting, and I cannot but wonder that your ladyship should relish any sentiments so much at variance with high rank and good breeding.
The pressure to renounce her evangelical faith only deepened her commitment to the cause of Christ. The Countess of Huntington became close friends with the Wesleys and Whitefield, and they used her influence to throw dinner parties and provide opportunities for her friends to hear the leaders of the Great Awakening share the good news. She herself began participating in the teaching of the gospel. She wrote to Charles Wesley:
For the past two weeks, I have given instruction and some short exhortations to the weak, and have found them to be of great use, especially among my work people, with whom I spend a part of every day.
One of those who eventually fell under the influence of Selina’s gospel ministry was her husband. He came to faith in Christ shortly before suffering a fatal stroke at his Downing mansion on October 13, 1746. Selina was now a wealthy widow at the tender age of thirty-nine.
In the days following her husband’s death, Selina corresponded with her friends Isaac Watts, hymn-writer of works such as Joy to the World and At the Cross, and pastor Philip Doddridge, author of the Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul, a book that would later be influential in the calling and conversion of Charles H. Spurgeon. In her correspondence, the Countess wrote,
We agree that the one thing worth living for must be proclaiming the love of God to man in Christ Jesus. As for me, I want no holiness he does not give me I can wish for no liberty but what he likes for me, and I am satisfied with every misery He does not redeem from me, that in all things I may fee, ‘without Him, I can do nothing.’
Meanwhile, Charles and John Wesley split with George Whitfield over a disagreement concerning aspects of salvation. The Wesleys did not hold to “imputed righteousness” as did Whitefield. Charles Wesley called the doctrine “imputed nonsense.” The Wesleys much preferred to trust in methodical disciplines in the Christian life (thus, “Methodism”) instead of the righteousness of Jesus Christ for our right standing with God. Whitefield found the acrimony with the Wesleys disheartening. Soon it hit his hip pocket as most of the Methodists in England became ardent followers of the Wesleys (e.g. Wesleyans). The supporters of Whitefield’s orphanage and preaching crusades were diminishing.
In stepped Countess Huntington. She loved the doctrine of imputed righteousness and understood it to be the very gospel itself. She opened her majestic mansion in Park Street (London) for Whitefield to preach, and she named him the “chaplain.” The difference between a “chaplain” and a parish priest is that a “chaplain” was a privately funded pastor rather than state-funded. Even though privately funded, the Prime Minister of England, members of parliament, and others began coming to the Countess’ house for religious conversation. Many men and women in London—initially beyond the reach and sphere of Whitefield’s influence—came to faith in Christ through the influence and friendship of Countess Huntingdon.
Philip Doddridge would later write of the spiritual awakening in London during the 1750s and say, “Religion was never so much the subject of conversation.” The Spirit was the direct Agent of the “Great Awakening” in England, but one of the means He used was the Countess of Huntington.
The Countess was responsible for founding 64 chapels and contributed to the funding of many others. Lady Huntingdon and her chaplains were initially members of the Church of England, but in 1779 the Church of England prohibited her chaplains from preaching in a building that had already been rented by the Countess. To avoid the authoritarian top-down control of the Church of England, the Countess took shelter under the Toleration Act and became one of England’s “official” dissenters.
In 1783 Selina founded the Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion, a society of Calvinistic Evangelical churches within Methodism. It was one of the most significant non-Wesleyan groups that resulted from the Great Awakening. [More on this here.]
The Countess of Huntingdon died at 83 years of age. Until her death in London in 1791, she faithfully oversaw all of her chapels and chaplains. Just prior to her death, she insisted that no biography be written of her life until 50 years had passed. She placed this stipulation in the will which also contained instructions for the distribution of her chapel trust funds. At her funeral, it was said of her,
Lady Huntington devoted herself, her means, her time, her thoughts to the cause of Christ. She did not spend her money on herself she did not allow homage paid to her rank to remain with herself.
I sometimes wonder if modern conservative evangelicals are swimming upstream in their attempts to restrict gifted women from Kingdom work, both through a misunderstanding and misapplication of the New Covenant Scriptures as well as a very poor comprehension and understanding of our evangelical past as it relates to women.
For you ladies who feel the call of God to minister in the Kingdom of Christ to people in need of a Savior, I would encourage you to become familiar with the life and ministry of the Countess of Huntingdon. She is a model worthy of imitation.
Selina, Countess of Huntington - History
The life and times of Selina, Countess of Huntingdon
[Full text of vol 1 here, and vol 2 here]
MULBERRY GARDENS CHAPEL
It was some time in the year 1773 that the Rev. Lawrence Coughlan, an episcopally-ordained clergyman, who had just returned from Newfoundland, and was then preaching in the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion, first directed her Ladyship's attention to this scene of her labours. In a letter to one of her students, (the late Rev. John Hawkesworth), dated October 1773, she says I am treating about ground to build a large, very large chapel at Wapping, in London. The lease was for twenty-one years and during the building of the chapel Dr. Peckwell, assisted by Mr. Coughlan, the Rev. C. Stewart Eccles, an Irish clergyman who had returned from Georgia, and others, with several of her students, continued to preach under the Mulberry Trees with great acceptance and success. The Rev. John Clayton, having finished his academical course at Trevecca, under the patronage of Lady Huntingdon, had now commenced preaching in her Ladyship’s chapels, and also in the Tabernacle connexion. Having obtained an established reputation as a preacher, Lady Huntingdon appointed him to supply the Mulberry Gardens, where his ministry was much approved. About the period of which we are now writing, the Rev. George Burder also occasionally preached at this place.
[footnote: Mr. Burder's first serious impressions were received at Tottenham-court Chapel, where he frequently heard Mr. Whitefield and Captain Scott he also occasionally heard Mr. Romaine with much profit. It is a singular circumstance, that Mr. Clayton and Mr. Border were at this period scarcely determined whether to take their lot with the Dissenters or not. They had found abundantly more of the power of God with the Evangelical clergymen and with the Calvinistic Methodists end they were rather inclined to enter into the Church, under the apprehension of obtaining a more extensive field of usefulness. It seems Mr. Clayton was at one time upon the eve of receiving episcopal ordination but, upon further investigation, was led to dissent for reasons that appeared to him of sufficient weight. He afterward became pastor of the Weigh-house meeting, one of the oldest and most respectable of the Dissenting churches in London and Mr. Burder was pastor of Fetter-lane meeting, which has always ranked amongst the most ancient of the congregational persuasion, and in which both his father nnd brother were active and useful deacons for many years.]
He had been a stated communicant at the Tabernacle, and had just then began his ministerial career in the Methodistical way, by preaching in the open air, which (says he) I have never seen reason to repent — I believe it is the best way still — and I rejoice that I began, at first, to go without the camp, bearing his reproach.
The chapel was not opened till the close of the year 1776, and the delay was principally owing to some unpleasant differences relative to the choice of a resident minister. Mr. Toplady was then living in London, and was consulted by her Ladyship on the best means of terminating this painful controversy. His letter, detailing the particulars of the dispute between Mr. Coughlan and the managers appointed by her Ladyship, is dated October 29, 1776, from which we select the following extracts:—
I have had a long interview with Messrs. Young and Gibbs, who have perused and taken a copy of the rough draught of the lease sent by your Ladyship. Since that period, 1 have requested to see them again but four or five days are now elapsed without their coming. I would repeat my call on them at one or both of their houses, but I know, by experience, that I should run a very great risk of not meeting with them.
From the conversation I had with them, they really strike me as upright, undesigning men, who have taken much pains to have a fixed stand for the Gospel at the Mulberry Gardens, and who have met with little more than slander and misrepresentation in return. They aver, that they never had the remotest wish of rendering the Chapel a Dissenting Meeting that they would never consent to such a perversion of it from its original purpose that they earnestly desire the whole management of the spiritualities may be vested entirely in your Ladyship and that it may be conducted on the same plan as your other chapels, where a rotation of ministers is kept up. They further add, that the sole reason why the building is at a dead stand (for so it still remains), is, Mr. Coughlan's visit to them, informing them, 'that, by your Ladyship's authority, he was to be stated minister of the chapel when finished'. Upon which, when the people heard of it, they peremptorily refused, and at this very day refuse to advance any farther subscriptions and, moreover, insist upon their past subscription money being returned to them, as they are determined that neither Mr. Coughlan nor Mr. Latless (who went with him on the above occasion), shall be fixed as a minister over them. If I may presume to give my judgment, I am most clearly of opinion that a people who have expended, and are expending, a considerable sum of money for erecting a place of religious worship on the plan of the Gospel, ought not to have Mr. Coughlan rammed down their throats, supposing him to be ever so good a kind of man. I am by no means convinced that they ever made any proposal to Messrs. Young and Gibbs respecting the transfer of the chapel from your Ladyship's patronage to their connexion. I have been twice at Mr. Keene's house, but he was, both of these times, from home. I shall take the first opportunity of putting the question to him .
Mr. Coughlan has been thrice with me. I do not heartily fall in with all he says. He will have it that Young and Gibbs are Dissenters. They solemnly deny that charge and I firmly believe them. He denied to me, and called God to witness the truth of the denial, that he ever proposed himself to Young and Gibbs as the designed minister of the chapel in debate. On the contrary, they declare themselves ready to make affidavit of it before any magistrate or bench of magistrates in London. What shall we say to these things? I would not be rash or uncharitable but I am prodigiously mistaken if Mr. Coughlan is not the snake in the grass or the Jonas, who, for some hidden ends of his own, has raised the whole of the present storm .
Allow me likewise, without offence, to decline, most tenderly and most respectfully, letting my name stand on any instrument wherein Mr. Parker has anything to do. I have known him well and he is among that particular sort of good men whom I hope to meet in Heaven, but with whom I must beg to be excused from having much personal intercourse on earth.
Several letters passed between Lady Huntingdon and the managers relative to the Mulberry Gardens Chapel. Mr. Coughlan defended himself with much ingenuity, and deprecated the idea of ever having entertained an idea of becoming minister of the chapel. Such contradictory statements, observes her Ladyship, are puzzling, and leave a melancholy uncertainty of the truth and fidelity that ought to sway every honest heart. On the 8th of November, Mr. Hall, her Ladyship's attorney, called on Mr. Toplady, desiring such information as was in his power to give concerning the chapel. At his request, says Mr. Toplady, I entrusted him with the rough draught of the deed, drawn up for you by your Ladyship's lawyer in Wales. The same evening I wrote to Young and Gibbs, and forwarded my letter by a special messenger apprising them that, by your direction, I should engage a select number of your friends in town, to give them (Young and Gibbs) the meeting, on any day which they should fix at which time, I added, I hoped the good providence of God would give such a turn to affairs as might result in the mutual satisfaction of both parties. I had no answer till the 14th, when I received a letter from Gibbs, which ran thus:—
"Sir,—I received your letter, and the same day received one from her Ladyship, which gives us no such information as what you mentioned in yours. And as our business is with her Ladyship alone, we shall not wait on you nor you on us."
I immediately communicated the contents of the above to Mr. Hall by the penny-post, and desired him to act as he thought would be most agreeable to you. What has been since done, I know not.
An appeal on the part of the managers was made to Lady Huntingdon, who consulted with Mr. Toplady, Mr. Shirley, and others, on the best means of terminating this painful controversy. Through the kind interference of these gentlemen, who took great interest in all the affairs relating to Mulberry Gardens Chapel, the matter was amicably arranged, and the chapel opened according to the forms of the Church of England, and was supplied by a periodical change of ministers. The building, which was of considerable extent, was fitted up in a tasteful and elegant manner. The labours of her Ladyship's ministers gave great offence to their more regular brethren, who, alarmed at their popularity and ashamed by their diligence, endeavoured to silence them by various acts of persecution. Their efforts, however, were vain. Being sincere in the cause they had undertaken, opposition gave a stimulus to their exertions, and abundant success attended their unwearied and indefatigable labours.
The Independent Meeting House (called Nightingale-lane Meeting), of which the Rev. Henry Mayo, D.D., had for many years been the respected minister, was the freehold of Messrs T. & R. Allen, brewers as was also the Mulberry Garden Chapel. Wishing for the ground on which the Nightingale-lane meeting stood to enlarge their brewery, and refusing to renew the lease of the Mulberry Garden chapel, they proposed to the Nightingale-lane congregation an exchange of buildings, and engaged, on their agreeing to move, to fit up at their own expense, the whole or any said part of the said chapel for their accommodation. The proposal was at length accepted. The chapel (a little contracted) was fitted up and opened on Sunday, April 1st, 1798. The late Rev. John Humphrys, LL.D., preached in the morning, from 1 Kings viii, 57, and the Rev. John Knight in the afternoon from Haggai ii. 9. The place was still to be called Nightingale-lane Meeting, nor was its name changed till the building was removed for the London Docks, when the congregation having purchased and fitted up a commodious Hall, in Pell-street, for a place of worship, it was usually denominated Pell-street Meeting. Throughout the whole management of the business in question, there was nothing dishonourable either on the part of Mr. Knight or his friends.
After the expiration of the lease, the old congregation belonging to Lady Huntingdon's Chapel dispersed, some to the Ladyship's Chapel at Spafields, and others to Sion Chapel but the greater part removed to Charlotte-street Chapel, where they continued to assemble till it was obliged to be taken down for the erection of the New Docks. The congregation, therefore, erected a new place of meeting in Pell-street, Wellclose-square, which was called the 'New Mulberry Gardens Chapel'. This spacious place of worship was opened on the same plan as the others in Lady Huntingdon's Connexion, in which the service of the Church of England is regularly performed. It was opened on the 29th of September, 1802, on which occasion three sermons were preached: that in the morning bv the Rev. John Hay, of Bristol: that in the afternoon by the Rev. F. W. Platt, of Holywell Mount Chapel : and that in the evening by the Rev. Griffith Williams, of Gate-street Chapel, Lincoln's-inn-fields. The chapel was supplied by a rotation of ministers, chiefly from the country, till the beginning of the year 1804, when the managers and people gave an unanimous call to the Rev. Isaac Nicholson, President of Lady Huntingdon's College, to be their pastor. This respectable clergyman accepted the invitation, and laboured there, with unabated ardour and growing usefulness for three years and a half, during which period one hundred and forty members were admitted to the society, a great proportion of whom were awakencd under his own ministry. It will long be remembered by many with what humility and dependence upon supernatural aid he entered upon his work at the Mulberry Gardens Chapel, and how highly he valued and earnestly requested the prayers of God's people, as a most sure prelude to success. But his labours were not confined to this sphere of usefulness — he had a lecture on Tuesday evenings, partly at his own expense nor did he ever refuse a call elsewhere.
He also accompanied a beneficial reorganisation of his church, for he was an enemy to promiscuous and unscriptural communion. Suitable officers were appointed, who, with their pastor, examined each member as to his experience, and after inquiring into his moral character, he was readmitted for communion. Other churches, probably, might be purged from errors of doctrine or practice, by the adoption of a similar plan of reformation.
Success accompanied Mr. Nicholson's labours, till the approaching termination of his mortal course. On the morning of June 21, 1807, he preached in his own chapel with so much energy and unction, that some of his hearers observed that he seemed to be ripening apace for glory. In the evening he preached at Stratford, where it pleased the Lord to visit him with the affliction which ended in his dissolution, which took place a few days after June 29th, in the forty-seventh year of his age. His remains were interred at Bunhill Fields, amidst a great concourse of serious persons. Mr. Platt spoke at the grave, and Mr. Rennet, of Birmingham (both ministers in the Countess's Connexion), preached the funeral discourse at the Mulberry Gardens Chapel, to an overflowing congregation, who testified their deep sorrow for his departure.
Soon after the Mulberry Gardens Chapel was built, a large edifice, erected for a Mariners' Lodge, was purchased by the friends of the Rev. J. Knight, and neatly fitted up as a place of worship. The place was capable of holding about three hundred and fifty persons, and was publicly opened on the 5th of March, 1805 Mr. Buck, Mr. Townsend, Mr. George Clayton, and Mr. Simpson, of Hoxton, assisting on the occasion. For some time it was supplied by the students from Hoxton Academy, and at the close of the year 1805, Mr. Thomas Cloutt, from that academy, was ordained pastor of this small Independent Church. This place was an asylum to the church and congregation of Mulberry Gardens, for prayer and church meetings, during the interval when the managers of that day set aside all the rules of Church government which Mr. Nicholson had formed, and to which they had cordially assented: this matter was ultimately settled by the High Court of Chancery.
The Independent cause in Pell-street meeting became extinct about ten years since. The building was put up for sale at the Auction Mart, when, fearing it might fall into the hands of persons who would employ it for works of the devil, Mr. Stoddart, the present minister of Lady Huntingdon's Chapel, purchased it, where, since that time, the Gospel has been occasionally, and is now statedly, preached: it is only about twelve yards from the present Mulberry Gardens Chapel.
Mr. Nicholson dying in June, 1807, the chapel was supplied by a variety of ministers till the October of the following year, when the Rev. Robert Stoddart, of Lady Huntingdon's Connexion, was publicly recognised as the stated pastor. He had commenced his labours in 1807, and was unanimously chosen by the church and congregation the first Sabbath in May 1808, when the sense of the church was taken by the Rev. W. F. Platt, of Holywell Mount. Mr. Stoddart was not publicly recognised until the October following, in consequence of his intended marriage with the daughter of the late Robert Hood, Esq., of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, who, at his decease, left 100l. to Cheshunt College, and gave the freehold ground, and was principally instrumental in the erection of the neat and commodious chapel, capable of containing eight hundred persons, in the Postern [footnote: by a fatal mismanagement in London, this chapel was lost to the Connexion some time ago] at Newcastle, where the Rev. J. Browning, (afterwards of Warrington), became the pastor. At the public recognition of Mr. Stoddart, Mr. Gould, of Stratford, began with prayer Mr. Young, now of Margate, then resident minister of her Ladyship's chapel at Canterbury, preached to the minister and people, from Col. ii. 5-7, which sermon was afterwards published.
Mr. Stoddart's introduction into the ministry and to the Mulberry Gardens Chapel was remarkable. Mr. Nicholson, while classical and divinity tutor at Lady Huntingdon's College, after the loss of an affectionate partner, fell into a state of nervous debility, and was advised by his medical attendant to try his native air in Cumberland, particularly desiring him to go by sea to Newcastle. Some days after his arrival at that place, there being but few students at College, he inquired if there was any young man in the Church who exhorted in the neighbouring villages? Mr. Stoddart was mentioned to him as one who usually exhorted the pitmen in the collieries at High Cross, where numbers of them resided. Mr. Nicholson sent for Mr. Stoddart, and from the simple narrative of his labours he was deeply affected, even to tears, and said, I think I see my errand in coming here I will write to the trustees of the College, and, if you please, you shall go with me when I return from Cumberland. Mr. Nicholson returned to London by sea, and was accompanied by Mr. Stoddart.
But for him (says he) probably I should never have seen London. I was his last student at the College. The wonderful dispensation of Providence in bringing me to the Mulberry Gardens Chapel, are still marvellous in my eyes. So deeply was it impressed upon the mind of Mr. Nicholson, that he again and again repeated to the elders and deacons of that chapel my history and the consequence was, an invitation given me to supply after his decease a people entirely unknown to me! It was truly said that the last days of that man of God were the best of all his days. The painful dispensation of Providence made him truly learned he had indeed the tongue of the learned to speak a word in season to them who were weary and faint on the way. His ministry, in the conversion of sinners, was eminently successful his life was holy, and his death triumphant.
Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon
|Short Name:||Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon|
|Full Name:||Huntingdon, Selina Hastings, Countess of, 1707-1791|
Born: August 24, 1707, Astwell House, Nottinghamshire, England.
Died: June 17, 1791, London, England.
Buried: St. Helen’s Church, Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Leicester, England.
Selena Huntingdon, née Shirley, Countess of, daughter of Washington, Earl Ferrers, was born Aug. 24, 1707 married to Theophilus Hastings, 9th Earl of Huntindon, June, 1728 and d. in London, June 17, 1701. At an early age she received serious religious impressions, which continued with her, and ruled her conduct through life. She was a member of the first Methodist Society, in Fetter Lane, London, and the first Methodist Conference was held at her house in June, 1744. Her sympathies, however, were with the Calvinism of G. Whitefield, and when the breach took place between Whitefield and Wesley she joined the former. Her money was freely expended in chapel building, in the founding of Trevecca College, South Wales (now Cheshunt), and in the support of her preachers. A short time before her death the Connection which is known by her name was founded and at her death it numbered more than sixty chapels. For use in these chapels she compiled A Select Collection of Hymns. Her own part in hymn-writing is most uncertain. The hymns, "Come, Thou Fount of every blessing," and "O when my righteous Judge shall come", have been specially claimed for her, but upon insufficient testimony. No mention of these hymns as being by her is made in her Life and Times, 1839. Miller says, "although the Countess was not much known as a hymn-writer, yet it is proved beyond doubt that she was the author of a few hymns of great excellence" (Singers & Songs, 1869, p. 183): but he neither names the hymns, nor submits the evidence. It is most uncertain that she ever wrote a hymn and it is quite clear that upon reliable evidence not one has yet been ascertained to be of her composing. Her history and that of her Connexion are elaborately set forth in The Life and Times of Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, London, Painter, 1839.