Born into a privileged family in 1707, Selina Shirley married the Earl of Huntingdon, one of the leading peers of the realm, in 1728. Yet her position in high society did not bring her satisfaction. She acknowledged the emptiness of all things when we do not use “this life as the way and means to lead us to a better”. And some time afterwards she expressed herself as willing to “undergo everything” so that she might “come to the true knowledge” of Christ. She was realising more and more that her own good works could not satisfy God; they no longer satisfied herself. Indeed she felt herself to be “nothing but sin”. Visiting clergymen were plied with questions from the Scriptures as the young Countess searched for what would quieten her troubled conscience. Yet they had no satisfying answers to give her. Selina stood on the verge of despair and became seriously ill.
During her illness, she remembered the description that her sister-in-law Margaret – who later married the prominent Methodist preacher Bernard Ingham – had given of the change she had experienced “since I have known the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation”. An earlier biographer describes what happened next: Selina “felt an earnest desire, renouncing every other hope, to cast herself wholly upon Christ for life and salvation. She instantly from her bed lifted up her heart to Jesus the Saviour with this importunate prayer, and immediately all her distress and fears were removed.” Another biographer, reflecting her previous dislike of George Whitefield’s preaching, comments: “Her understanding was renewed in knowledge. . . . All offence at the gospel plan of salvation died away . . . and from that moment she learnt to count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus our Lord.” This took place in 1739.
Within five years, Howell Harris was describing her as “fitted for that great work and place that I believe the Holy Spirit has called her [to]”. And indeed she was. As she grew in grace and in knowledge – partly under the influence of Whitefield’s preaching – her doctrinal position improved, from a strong sympathy with the Wesley brothers’ Arminianism and perfectionism to more scriptural views. Her grasp of sound doctrine was later demonstrated in a letter to Henry Venn, later to become the noted minister of Huddersfield: “O my friend, we can make no atonement to a violated law – we have no inward holiness of our own; the Lord Jesus Christ is the Lord our Righteousness. Cling not to such beggarly elements, such filthy rags – mere cobwebs of Pharisaical pride – but look to Him who hath wrought out a perfect righteousness for His people. You find it a hard task to come naked and miserable to Christ, to come divested of every recommendation but that of abject wretchedness and misery and receive from the outstretched hand of our divine Emanuel the riches, the super-abounding riches of redeeming grace. But if you come at all, you must come thus, and like the dying thief, the cry of your heart must be, ‘Lord, remember me’. There must be no conditions – Christ, and Christ alone, must be the only Mediator between God and sinful men – no miserable performances can be placed between the sinner and the Saviour. Let the eye of faith ever be directed to the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Her counsels were nothing if not plain – to the point of bluntness. She continued her letter to Venn: “No longer let false doctrine disgrace your pulpit. Peach Christ crucified as the only foundation of the sinner’s hope. Preach Him as the Author and Finisher, as well as the sole object of faith – that faith which is the gift of God. Exhort Christless, impenitent sinners to fly to this city of refuge – to look to Him who is exalted as Prince and a Saviour to give repentance and the remission of sins. Go on thus, and may your bow abide in strength!”
During a visit to Wales, Selina saw the powerful effects of the preaching of the Word of God, particularly during a sermon by the prominent Welsh preacher Griffith Jones. She afterwards went among the people asking why they there in such distress. They were afraid, they explained, that their sins would keep them away for ever from the mercy of God. Back in London, she wrote, “This is the Lord’s doing and it is marvellous in our eyes. Many on these solemn occasions . . . were brought out of nature’s deepest darkness into the marvellous light of the all-glorious gospel of Christ.” She was now contemplating beginning the “great work” she was to give her life to. Concerned for the spiritual welfare of England’s upper class, she decided to appoint Whitefield as her chaplain. She was then be able to invite politicians, members of the nobility and even royalty – people who might never otherwise be willing to listen to the pure gospel – to come to her home to hear her chaplain preach.
The Scottish sceptic, David Hume, reacted admiringly, even although he was not moved from his militant unbelief. “Mr Whitefield is the most ingenious preacher I ever heard,” he declared; “it is worth going 20 miles to hear him”. Yet the preacher did not hold back the truth. On one occasion he described the pride, vanity and deceit of the natural heart so pointedly that Lady Suffolk thought he was deliberately insulting her. She restrained herself until the service was over; then she flew into a rage and abused the Countess. She was so insulted that she refused to have any contact with Selina again, even on her deathbed. Yet there was fruit. Among those converted was Lord Dartmouth, a young politician who was later to become President of the Board of Trade.
The Countess was never one to miss an opportunity of doing good. While spending some time in Brighton one spring, she heard about a soldier’s wife who had just given birth to twins and was not expected to live. She helped the poor woman in various ways and began to teach her about spiritual things. As the dying mother began to understand something about her sinful state, she pleaded with the Countess to come again and teach her from the Bible before it was too late. Next door was the public bakehouse, where people brought their ready-kneaded dough to bake in a communal oven. Listening through a crack in the wall, those waiting their turn at the oven were able to hear some of what was said. As news got round about the tall stranger from London who was telling of the way of forgiveness, other women asked to be allowed in. Soon the room was full, and God was pleased to bless her teaching to the conversion of at least one individual.
The Countess often spent time in Bath taking the waters in the hope of benefiting her health. It seems unlikely that the waters did her health any good, but among those who benefited spiritually by her presence was Willielma Campbell, Lady Glenorchy. Only 24 and still young in the faith, she was unwell and her husband wanted to divert her from “the religious turn” she had taken. Where better, he asked himself, than Bath? Writing after her return to Edinburgh, Willielma referred to Selina’s friendship, and continued: “I hope the Lord permits it as a spur to me to be watchful and to keep near to Him who alone is able to keep me from falling”.
In an age when Anglican bishops were not noted for an enthusiastically biblical outlook, the Countess visited the Archbishop of Canterbury, now old and infirm, and warned him that death could come unexpectedly and he must be prepared. Concerned that Evangelical men would be ordained to pulpits of the Church of England, she tried to apply pressure on the bishops. It was a task which became even harder as the years went by; the bishops had little desire to have ministers in their dioceses whose main aim would be to proclaim: “Ye must be born again”. But in the 1750s, taking advantage of her privileges as a peeress, she embarked on a new plan: to provide places of worship where Evangelical men could preach. Her first such project was in Bristol in 1753. Bath too received its chapel. Among those who attended there were Lord and Lady Buchan, whose daughter, Lady Anne Erskine was now Selina’s permanent companion. As he lay on his deathbed, Lord Buchan told the Countess: “I have no foundation of hope whatever, but in the sacrifice of the Son of God. I have nowhere else to look, nothing else to depend on for eternal life and salvation.” His death made a serious impact on even the frivolous in Bath. And the Countess took advantage of the situation by arranging for Whitefield to preach twice a day on five successive days in her chapel. Whitefield, who had preached on many impressive occasions on both sides of the Atlantic, commented: “Such a like scene I never expect to see again on this side eternity”.
In 1773 a new chapel opened in Worcester. She told one of her preachers: “It will afford you unspeakable pleasure to hear of the amazing success that has attended our labours in Worcester. The chapel was crowded and multitudes went away unable to gain admittance. . . . I know not which way to turn; I have so many applications from the people in various parts of the kingdom for more labourers. . . . I feel that if I had a thousand worlds and a thousand lives, through grace assisting, that dear Lamb of God, my best, my eternal, my only friend should have all devoted to His service and glory.”
As the number of her chapels grew, the question arose, How to provide suitable preachers? It was no longer possible to fill all her pulpits by asking her ministerial friends to spend a period of weeks in one place or another. She saw the need of providing what she called “a nursery for preachers”. And it was Howell Harris who led her to a rundown farmhouse near his home at Trevecca. The Countess arranged for the property to be renovated and enlarged so that it might function as a college to prepare preachers for her churches. There were many problems and disappointments; there were questions at times about the effectiveness of the education provided, especially when students were sent all over the country to preach for weeks on end, as no one else was available. But there can be no doubt that many godly young men were given a useful preparation for their life’s work.
A visit by some Trevecca students to Hull resulted in the conversion of Joseph Milner, a clergyman and headmaster of the local Grammar School. He told the Countess that he thanked God that she had sent her students to Hull, for through them he had been convinced “of the great necessity he was under of securing an interest in Christ”. In later years, such was the transformation that had by then taken place in Hull, Rowland Hill could refer to it as “the garden of the Lord”.
On one occasion the Countess approached King George III about the frivolities taking place in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s London palace. After meeting her, the King commented: “I wish there was a Lady Huntingdon in every diocese in my kingdom”. And: “There is something so noble, so commanding, and withal so engaging about her, but I am quite captivated with her Ladyship. . . . She is an honour to her sex and the nation.”
She experienced many troubles: ill health, bereavement, interminable difficulties in administering Whitefield’s Orphan House in Georgia after his death – a project which effectively ended when the building was burnt down in 1773. And there were the cares of all her churches. These churches became known as The Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion and, during her lifetime, she kept a large degree of control over their affairs in her own hands. This method of church government was, of course, highly irregular, and it led to problems, particularly in the largest of her churches, at Spa Fields, in London. But these were irregular times, when the national Church showed so little concern for the spiritual welfare of those under her care. The Connexion still exists, with around 24 chapels. “These represent”, Mrs Cook tells us, “a wide spectrum of theological positions.”
In keeping with her standing in eighteenth-century society, the Countess could be somewhat imperious, yet she was genuinely humble. “Many sore trials in this great work the devil gives,” she noted, “but the Lord turns the bitter into sweet by making them trials of my faith and patience.” And a few months before her death, she told a friend: “I have no hope but that which inspired the dying malefactor at the side of my Lord; and I must be saved in the same way, as freely, as fully, or not at all”. Again: “I see myself a poor worm. . . . What hope could I entertain if I did not know the efficacy of His blood and had turned as a prisoner of hope to this stronghold?”
The Countess clearly was by no means perfect, but Mrs Cook sums up: “I have tried to give a fair and unbiased account of her life, and to interpret her actions in the light of her own deep and all-pervasive faith – a faith in the power and purposes of God that carried through a long life of earnest endeavour, sorrows, misjudgements, but above all of magnificent achievement in the cause of the gospel”. In this she has without a doubt succeeded. One would just note that she does not take seriously enough the doctrinal errors of John and Charles Wesley. Those who have read Mrs Cook’s earlier biography of William Grimshaw or her paperback, Samuel Rutherford and His Friends, will not be surprised to find this new work fascinating and well-written. Few noble have been called by the gospel, but some have, one of them being the Countess of Huntington. Her life of grace and the work she was raised up to do are well worth reading about in this fine volume. Would that there were more of her kind today!
1. A review article on Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, Faith Cook, Banner of Truth Trust, hardback, 494 pp, £19.95. Available from the Free Presbyterian Bookroom.