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A Remarkable Friendship

Author
Category Articles
Date November 9, 2007

The year 2007 has been one of significant anniversaries for the Christian church. Among the most notable were the births of Selina, Countess of Huntingdon (see faith Cook’s biography1) and of Charles Wesley exactly three hundred years ago. From far different backgrounds, these two became closely linked in God’s purposes during the great Evangelical Revival of the eighteenth century, playing a crucial role in it.

When an impoverished Anglican rector, Samuel Wesley, and his wife Susanna welcomed their eighteenth child in Epworth, Lincolnshire on 18 December 1707, it was hardly expected that little Charles would survive. Frail and premature, the infant was carefully wrapped in soft wool, and laid to one side. Selina Shirley, on the other hand, born four months earlier, joined a wealthy family with royalty among its forebears. Never would these two have met in the normal course of life, but in the plan of God their paths not only crossed but ran parallel for almost half a century, interlinking at many crucial points.

Charles Wesley and his older brother John were both converted in 1738 after years of seeking to please God and to earn their salvation by upright and noble living. Alive to God and understanding at last that a sinner can only be justified by faith in the atoning work of Jesus Christ, these two, together with George Whitefield, set countless tongues in London wagging as they began to preach this ‘new message’. ‘Crackbrained enthusiasts and profane hypocrites’ was the opinion many expressed about these first Methodists, and doubtless Selina, now married to Theophilus Hastings, Earl of Huntingdon, would have agreed.

Still trying to merit God’s approval by good works, Selina was a dissatisfied woman despite her material abundance. But all was to change in July 1739 when after long and painful searching, she too cried out to God for salvation and experienced peace of conscience through forgiveness of sin. Selina lost no time in contacting the Wesley brothers and was soon regularly corresponding with them, although she probably did not meet them personally until 1741. They became her early spiritual guides. To Charles she wrote in 1742, ‘I owe you all, double and more than this is due to you, first cause in God’s hand of every spiritual blessing I possess.’

So began a remarkable friendship. Nor was it merely one sided. Charles confided in Selina his early fears about preaching and sent her drafts of his first hymns for her appraisal. When some Moravians began propagating error among the Methodists in 1741, Charles was almost swept away. Selina’s influence and warnings drew him back from the brink, so preserving his usefulness.

Lonely and often depressed during the early years of her Christian life, Selina depended heavily on Charles for spiritual help. She felt able to confide in him, whereas her relationship with John Wesley was often strained. In 1749, when Charles wanted to marry Sally Gwynne (the story of Sally Wesley is told in the same author’s Sound of Trumpets2), twenty years his junior, Sally’s mother was not best pleased. How could a poor wandering preacher support her daughter? Selina’s offer to make up any shortfall in the £100 a year that Charles could promise eventually persuaded Mrs Gwynne.

Soon after this, Selina, now widowed, moved down to Bristol where Charles and Sally lived. Sharing their love of music, they often sang Charles’ hymns together while Sally played on her harpsichord. Although Selina had moved strongly away from the Wesleys’ Arminian position and now had Whitefield as her personal chaplain, her spiritual reliance on Charles remained strong. She followed his preaching with her prayers and valued his support. ‘I trust God will abundantly reward those prayers you offer for me,’ she wrote, ‘I value them more than a thousand worlds.’ Selina loved Sally like a daughter and when the young woman succumbed to smallpox, she nursed her through her illness, even though she had lost two of her own sons to the same virulent infection.

Tensions were inbuilt into the Evangelical Revival, particularly between the Calvinist and Arminian sides of the work. But it was partly this strong friendship between Charles and Selina that kept the overall harmony for thirty years. John Wesley even suspected his brother of being over-influenced towards Calvinistic doctrines by Selina. Sadly, the year 1770 would prove one of crisis and change. Selina’s relationship with John Wesley had been fraught for some time – they were too much alike. But trouble flared when John published the Minutes of his 1770 Preachers’ Conference. Any cursory reading of the ambiguous wording of these Minutes suggested that John was now promoting salvation by both faith and good works. Selina wept in dismay. Surely John Wesley had reneged on the faith. She instantly overreacted, banning him from all the pulpits of the churches for which she had responsibility.

This event led on to an irreparable split between the Calvinist and Arminian wings of the revival. To Selina’s great sorrow Charles Wesley cut off all relationship with her, From now on she largely went her own way. Only one further contact between the two has been recorded. When Selina wrote to Charles in 1775 asking after John who was apparently dying, Charles sent a brief answering note, but added wistfully, ‘We shall be in our death not divided.’

When Charles died in 1788 Selina did her best to support Sally and his family. She herself had only three more years to live, dying in 1791. So as 2007 draws to a close we do well to remember this remarkable friendship between Charles Wesley and Selina Countess of Huntingdon, both ranking among God’s greatest gifts to his church.

Notes

    • Selina, Countess of Huntingdon

      Her Pivotal Role in the 18th Century Evangelical Awakening

      by Faith Cook


      price £18.75

      Description

      The year 2007 has been one of significant anniversaries for the Christian church. Among the most notable were the births of Selina, Countess of Huntingdon (see faith Cook’s biography1) and of Charles Wesley exactly three hundred years ago. From far different backgrounds, these two became closely linked in God’s purposes during the great Evangelical Revival […]


    • price £5.75

      Description

      The year 2007 has been one of significant anniversaries for the Christian church. Among the most notable were the births of Selina, Countess of Huntingdon (see faith Cook’s biography1) and of Charles Wesley exactly three hundred years ago. From far different backgrounds, these two became closely linked in God’s purposes during the great Evangelical Revival […]

Taken with permission from the Evangelical Presbyterian, Nov/Dec, 2007.

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