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The Countess and the Preachers

Author
Category Book Excerpts
Date August 22, 2023

The following is excerpted from ‘Doors of Opportunity’, which constitutes chapter 15 of Faith Cook’s Selina, Countess of Huntingdon. It sketches a period of time in which her patronage of new dissenting chapels and itinerant preachers was beginning to bear fruit.

As the Countess’s chapels began to increase, so did the administrative labour of ensuring that the pulpits were supplied with preachers – a task she undertook singlehanded at this time. The men on whom she could call early in the 1760s were few in number so she had to organize a system of constant replacements. If Berridge were preaching for two months in Brighton, someone had to care for his people. So while Madan went to Everton for that purpose, Romaine would have to serve for him at the Lock Hospital.

Or if Fletcher came to Ote Hall, Venn might find himself asked to go to Madeley for a few weeks. Accustomed to issuing orders to her domestic staff, the Countess could sometimes sound more than a little peremptory in her instructions on such arrangements. Usually her friends were happy to comply, but with the needs of their own congregation a first responsibility, some found they had to refuse her pressing invitations. A letter from Berridge, who was never unduly overawed by the Countess, illustrates the point:

My Lady, I cannot see my call to Brighthelmstone; and I ought to see it for myself, not another for me. Was any good done when I was there? It was God’s doing, all the glory be to him … I am not well able to ride so long a journey; and my heart is utterly set against wheel-carriages on these roads. Indeed I see not my call; I cannot think of the journey; and therefore pray your ladyship to think no more of it. I write plainly, not out of forwardness, I trust, but to save your ladyship the trouble of sending a second request, and myself the pain of returning a second denial. You threaten me, madam, like a pope, not like a mother in Israel, when you declare roundly, that God will scourge me if I do not come; but I know your ladyship’s good meaning … Whilst I was looking towards the sea, partly drawn thither with the hope of doing good, and partly driven by your Vatican bull, I found nothing but thorns in my way; but as soon as I turned my eyes from it, I found peace [1].

Whether the Countess shared Berridge’s sense of humour, we do not know. She certainly did not appear to resent his way of speaking. Rumours were rife about the financial rewards these men enjoyed as a result of their services. Jealous minds assumed that her two chaplains, Romaine and Whitefield, as well as the other preachers, were secretly amassing small fortunes as a result of their labours. Thomas Haweis, later to become a chaplain to the Countess himself, is categorical on this point:

I believe I may venture to say that his [Romaine’s] labours were without the least expectation of any remuneration, and that all he ever got from Lady Huntingdon barely paid his journeys and his expenses. I mention this because many have circulated the basest stories respecting him and Mr. Whitefield. But I may venture to say that neither of the former were ever a shoe-latchet the richer for any service done her Ladyship.

But in case any should come to the opposite conclusion and judge the Countess mean in not recompensing these men more adequately, Haweis added:

Not that this is meant to impeach her ladyship’s boundless liberality. Never perhaps did mortal make nobler use of what she possessed, live less attached to earth or dispense it with more open hand. I have often said she was one of the poor who lived upon her own bounty, and if she grudged anything, it was to herself … Never did human being sit more loose to money or more jealously watch over the distribution of it … I leave this testimony to her worth in this respect, that every shilling she possessed should be employed for the glory of God. But with all her fortune and self-denial her finances were inadequate to her calls, and it was impossible that she could have done the noble acts that marked her character if she had not found such men as these with disinterested zeal. [2].

A further testimony to the Countess’s unstinted generosity, even to the point of stringent self-denial, comes from the pen of her friend William Grimshaw who sent a ‘begging letter’ on behalf of one of his young converts, Titus Knight, who had established an Independent church in Halifax. His people were too poor to finance a much needed building but Grimshaw knew of one who would help if she could:

I have had two visits from Mr Knight … The people among whom he is sowing the seed of the kingdom are poor and their means are very limited, yet the Lord has put it in their heart to build a house for his word. Now I have come to the point – can your Ladyship spare a mite to aid these worthy souls? The demands on your generosity I know to be great, and on that account I feel a repugnance at asking, because I am persuaded you would give even to the gown on your back if the case required it .. .’ [3].

Needless to record, the Countess did help the struggling cause and the chapel was built. [4].

To suggest, therefore, that Selina was less than open-handed towards her chaplains and helpers would be misleading. A letter from Fletcher, written shortly before his settlement at Madeley and after he had spent some weeks preaching in Brighton, refers to a generous gift he had just received, a gift that would ‘deprive [him] for many months of the unspeakable advantage of living upon Providence’. [5].

Throughout his early years in Madeley, Fletcher turned constantly to the Countess for advice, and not advice only but also for consolation when trials seemed to weigh him down and his mind was distressed by spiritual failure. In January 1761 he wrote:

‘I had a secret expectation to be the instrument of a work in this part of the church; I did not despair of soon being a little Berridge; and thus warmed by sparks of my own kindling I looked out to see the rocks broke in pieces … but to the great disappointment of my hopes I am now forced to look within and see the need I have of being broken.’

And in another letter he wrote:

‘Conscious that few people can sympathise with me in so feeling a manner as your Ladyship, I shall make no apology for pouring out my complaints before you in this letter.’ [6].

The term ‘a mother in Israel’, first used of Deborah in the book of Judges, has been applied, and justly, to many women over the centuries of Christian history, but its use seems particularly apt in reference to the Countess. Perhaps her wealth, her social status, her strength of character and intellectual calibre were factors that initially attracted some. But it was other qualities that drew men – often themselves wise and experienced Christians – to her for advice and consolation. Ronald Knox comments on this surprising situation:

She did not domineer over them, did not put herself forward as a prophetess in the style of Madame Guyon. She devoted herself to praying for the effectiveness of their preaching … No, it is difficult to accuse her of going beyond her measure. And yet the ascendancy she seems to have established over their minds may well leave the reader gasping. [7].

Although her grasp of Christian doctrine and innate practical wisdom were also clearly reasons for this, it was the godliness of her life, her width of compassion and her deep concern for the progress of the kingdom of God that lay at the root of her influence.

Footnotes

1 Berridge, Works, p. 455.

2 Haweis, Life of Romaine, p. 85-6.

3 Quoted more fully in my William Grimshaw of Haworth, p. 235.

4 Known as Square Chapel, Halifax, this was the church in which J. H. Jowett was later brought up.

5 Seymour, Countess, vol. 1, p. 234.

6 Ibid., p. 240.

7 Robert Knox Enthusiasm (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1950), p. 487.

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