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Selina, Countess Of Huntingdon

Category Articles
Date September 22, 2005

When we study church history and see who God has used in an unusual way, we normally expect to be reading about preachers, men who have been used to bring many into the kingdom or to give strong leadership. But others were also much used in the Great Awakening of the 18th century: not preachers, nor men, but women, and one woman in particular who was of outstanding zeal, influence and usefulness. Faith Cook, as in all her writings grips the attention from beginning to end, and in a well researched volume she gives a lively account of one remarkable woman, Selina, Countess of Huntingdon (Selina, Countess of Huntingdon by Faith Cook, Banner of Truth. 478 pp.)

The Countess of Huntingdon lived from 1707 to 1791, and for 40 years was deeply involved with the leaders of the Methodist movement. She was born into aristocracy as Selina Shirley, both sides of the family being descended from royalty. The family lived in Northamptonshire in the British Midlands. It was not a happy childhood, and her parents separated when she was only six. Selina married Theophilus Hastings, the Earl of Huntingdon, in 1728 and so became the Countess.

Despite her wealth she found the typical social life of high society quite empty. Everything changed in 1739 when she was converted, largely through the testimony of her sister-in-law who had come to faith through the preaching of Benjamin Ingham. She now determined to use her energies, organizational skills and great wealth for the cause of the gospel. Within a short time she was identifying herself with the Wesleys and other early Methodist preachers. This was courageous because these itinerant preachers were despised by most of the aristocracy.

She laboured fervently for the salvation of all within her circle, both rich and poor. To reach the aristocracy she would bring the leading preachers of the day into her home and invite her friends and acquaintances to hear them. A number of noble and influential people were converted in this way.

In the years soon after her conversion she was very close with John and Charles Wesley. She was at first sympathetic to John Wesley’s teaching of Christian perfectionism. However in time she began to see the errors in his doctrine. By 1744 she was leaning towards Calvinism through the influence of Howell Harris and George Whitefield.

In 1746 her husband Theophilus died at the early age of 50. The Countess was devastated because it had been a happy relationship. However, after a few months of mourning Selina threw herself into the Lord’s work with an even greater zeal than before, and on a much larger scale.

She was closer now to Whitefield and the other Calvinistic Methodists than to the Wesleys, but she still occasionally invited John Wesley to preach at her home, and maintained an affectionate relationship with Charles and Sally Wesley. When she was in London she held services in her home twice a week with the finest evangelical preachers in the land speaking. A considerable number of the nobility attended. The Countess leased properties in several strategic centres throughout the country and regularly held preaching services there.

In many locations throughout Britain there were no church buildings in which the gospel could be preached, because the incumbents were opposed to the evangelical party. Thus it was that Selina built chapels for ‘her preachers’. Usually she gave generously herself, though most of her wealth was tied up in property so she didn’t have a great deal of ready cash. Sometimes she sold her jewellery to help, but she also solicited funds from friends who were sympathetic. By the end of her life she had been largely responsible for the erection of 64 chapels all over Britain. In 1778 she once said that she was responsible for 116 ‘preaching places.’

In 1768 she established a college for the training of ministers who generally were not welcome in the established colleges. Trevecca College was in Wales, initially under the leadership of John Fletcher. It produced a steady flow of preachers, some of whom ended up in settled pastorates, mostly dissenting, but the majority of them were itinerant preachers sent all over the land by the Countess.

In Faith Cook’s book we meet most of the great leaders and preachers of the period, including the Wesleys, George Whitefield, William Grimshaw, Henry Venn, John Berridge, William Romaine, Daniel Rowland, Howell Harris, William Williams, and Thomas Charles of Bala, all of whom had the greatest admiration for Selina.

She was a woman of astonishing energy, and while she was rather authoritarian and expected to have her own way, she was greatly loved and admired because of her zeal and godliness. She was sound and discerning in her beliefs and could argue her cause with the best of theologians. Undoubtedly she was one of the most influential figures of the great awakening.

This is a book we can highly recommend. It will thrill your soul and challenge you to greater efforts in Christ’s kingdom.

Roger Fellows
Sovereign Grace Journal

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