All in a flame for Jesus: Selina Countess of Huntingdon
King George III and Queen Caroline had an unusual visitor at court that day. As the tall woman, striking in her appearance and bearing, slowly withdrew from the royal presence the king turned to his queen and made an astonishing remark:
I wish there was a Lady Huntingdon in every diocese in the kingdom… there is something so noble, so commanding and so engaging about her, that I am quite captivated with her ladyship. She is an honour to her sex and the nation.
Selina Countess of Huntingdon was well into her sixties at the time, frail in health but still resolute in purpose. She had asked for an audience with the king in order to complain about the frivolous parties being thrown by Archbishop Cornwallis and his wife at Lambeth Palace. The prelate found himself duly rebuked by the palace, his rowdy revelries brought to an end.
Born into the aristocratic Shirley family in 1707 and marrying into the still more prestigious Hastings family in 1728, Selina enjoyed a privileged position. Yet as a young woman she was profoundly discontented. Only with her new birth in 1739 during the early days of the Evangelical Revival, did the strong-minded and somewhat petulant Selina become truly noble.
Devoted to doing good
Never one to do things by halves, the young Countess immediately began to support gospel preaching in her area and to encourage the ministry of John and Charles Wesley. ‘This one thing I do…’ said the apostle Paul and it was Selina’s watchword as well. To Charles she wrote, ‘I am crucified to the world and all the world to me… My little all has long been his [Christ’s].’ With a family of six and the Hastings estates to run, Selina was limited at first in what she could do. Nevertheless she devoted her means to promoting the education of under-privileged children from villages around her Leicestershire home. Before long she had opened and staffed four separate schools.
As she called on the tenants on her husband’s estates, Selina lost no opportunity of doing good. She helped the poor, suggested simple remedies for the sick, and most of all ‘reminded them of the fountain that is open for sin and uncleanness.’ The results were far-reaching. She could report to Charles Wesley, ‘God blesses my labours for their bodily health… and many God sends home aseeking him.’
Nor did Selina confine her labours to the poor. She had previously mingled constantly among the haughty élite of the day – women like the prejudiced Duchess of Buckingham who described evangelical doctrine as ‘most repulsive and strongly tinctured with impertinence’. Now tongues started wagging amongst these members of high society as Selina, with the partial support of her husband Theophilus, began to cast in her lot with the Methodists – a despised ‘sect’ and so called in derision. It amounted to an act of social suicide for one of her standing. But the Countess was not fazed by critical comments. Instead she set out to influence these haughty men and women of the higher echelons of society with the humbling gospel that had revolutionised her own life.
Influence and impact
Following the death of Theophilus and with fewer family responsibilities, Selina flung herself wholeheartedly into reaching such people. Appointing George Whitefield as her personal chaplain in 1748, she invited him to preach in her Chelsea home to what he described as ‘a most brilliant assembly’. Earls, dukes, politicians, poets, orators and even royalty could all be found gathered there at different times. The influence of these gatherings began to change the mindset of people in high places towards the Evangelical Revival and to cast a protective cloak over the fledging Methodist movement. Early hostility gradually turned to a bemused tolerance.
Selina’s tireless efforts began to impact on virtually all the eminent men of the eighteenth-century Evangelical Revival to an astonishing degree. Like the relationship between the hub of a wheel and its spokes, her influence radiated outwards, touching a wide circle. The list included almost all the well-known evangelical preachers. In addition to the Wesleys and Whitefield we discover many others whose lives she touched, men like Philip Doddridge, Benjamin Ingham, Howell Harris, Henry Venn, John Berridge, William Grimshaw, John Fletcher, William Romaine, Daniel Rowland, William Williams, Augustus Toplady, Martin Madan and Thomas Charles. She wrote to them, prayed for them, and stimulated them to fresh endeavour.
It is easy enough to read about Selina’s activities and to pass judgement on her, suggesting that she exceeded the biblical norms for Christian womanhood. It is harder to substantiate such an opinion. These were not men of weak personality – far from it – they were the giants of the faith raised up by God for a period of extraordinary gospel advance. Nor did Selina ever usurp a preaching role, rather her influence was one of pressure from the sidelines and of providing constant encouragement. Little wonder then that Ronald Knox, no natural admirer of the Countess, could later write:
She did not domineer over them, did not put herself forward as a prophetess. She devoted herself to praying for their effectiveness. No, it is difficult to accuse her of going beyond her measure.
An inspirational example
Above all the Countess of Huntingdon was a woman of vision and sacrificial determination. The country desperately needed preaching centres where the unreached masses could hear the gospel. What could be done? In answer Selina set up and financed a number of meeting houses: in Bath, Bristol, Brighton and other places, goading and bullying ordained men into taking turns to occupy the pulpits. But it was not enough. Eventually, together with Howell Harris, she planned and set up Trevecca College, near Talgarth in Powys, to train young evangelical men for the ministry.
In August 1768, on Selina’s sixty-first birthday, George Whitefield opened the college and fifteen students were admitted. Totally financing the project, she covered their board, books, clothes, horses, and even organised their preaching appointments. She watched over them as if they were her own sons, following their progress with her earnest prayers. Over two hundred, some to be among the most outstanding preachers of the following century, received their basic training at Trevecca during her lifetime.
Yes, Selina could be dictatorial and unreasonable at times, but the contribution she made to the evangelisation of England and Wales was incalculable. She was a trailblazer and so unique in one sense, but her commitment to the cause of Jesus Christ is surely one we may all strive towards. Our constant temptation is to make our families, our work, our careers the centre of our lives, but of Selina, as Cardinal Newman wrote, ‘She acted as one ought to act who considers this life a pilgrimage and not a home.’
For Christian women, Selina has set an example to stimulate and inspire us. Like her we too should exert every effort to encourage and pray for our ministers and leaders; like her we may also suggest and support new initiatives. Her deep compassion for the unconverted is a constant challenge to our indifference. She gave everything in self-denying service: her time, money, strength – all poured out for Christ’s sake – until Whitefield could say, ‘She is all in a flame for Jesus.’
Faith Cook is the author of a number of books including ‘Selina: Countess of Huntingdon’.