Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon

THE FOUNDRESS OF A RELIGIOUS COMMUNITY.

At the time when the two leaders of Methodism, Wesley and Whitefield, took adverse positions on points of theology—the former, zealous for what was termed the Arminian; the latter, for the Calvinistic, mode of holding and proclaiming the one Christian truth, which gives all glory to God, and leaves human responsibility unimpugned; Lady Huntingdon warmly professed her approval of Calvinistic doctrine, and gave the whole of her influence to that side of Methodism. Whitefield conscious of his want of ability to govern a community, wisely abstained from the attempt to found a denomination, and gave his powerful aid to his noble patroness in her wide-spread endeavours to maintain and spread Calvinistic Methodism. It was in this way that her ladyship became the head of what was termed “the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion.” This costly movement included the erection of many spacious churches, the support of ministers, and the founding and endowing of a college at Trevecca, in Wales, for the education of young men, who were left at liberty, when their studies were completed, to serve in the ministry of the gospel either in the Countess's Connexion, in the Established Church, or in any other of the Churches of Christ. In 1792, the college was removed from Trevecca to Cheshunt, where it still exists in a state of efficiency and usefulness. Her pecuniary resources were not large, yet she devoted upwards of £100,000 towards the spread of evangelical religion. Although the term “Connexion” is still applied to the body, they do not exist in the form of a federal ecclesiastical union. The congregational form of Church government is practically in operation among them, and several of the congregations have joined that communion.

CONVERSION.

According to some, only the scum and offscourings of society need to be born again. We believe that the purest, gentlest, loveliest, must undergo this change before they enter the kingdom of God. It is a radical reform, great in its character and lasting in its consequences. Lady Huntingdon's outward conduct was always blameless, and she had moreover a zeal of God, yet for many years she was an utter stranger to the spiritual nature of the gospel of Christ. She saw not the depravity of the human heart; she knew nothing of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ, and of the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit. She entertained high opinions respecting the dignity of human nature; and aspired to reach, by her own works, the lofty standard she had placed before her. Liberal in her sentiments, prudent in her conduct, courteous in her deportment, and profuse in her charities, she surpassed her equals by birth, and the multitudes around her. But the Countess was far from enjoying the happiness which she anticipated would result from her endeavours to recommend herself to the favour of Heaven. Her sister-in-law Lady Margaret Hastings had been awakened to see the value of religious truth, and often conversed with her respecting the concerns of her soul. Her experience formed a contrast to the state of Lady Huntingdon's mind. A severe illness soon laid the Countess low, and brought her to the confines of the grave. She looked back to her past life, but the piety, virtue, and morality in which she had trusted, appeared to be tainted with sin. The report of the earnest preaching of certain clergymen, who were called Methodists, reached Donnington Park; the truth impressed some members of the Hastings family; and through them Lady Huntingdon was directed to the truth as it is in Jesus, and obtained lasting peace. The change in her heart exerted a beneficial influence on her body; her disorder took a favourable turn; she was restored to perfect health; and she solemnly dedicated herself to God as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to the Lord.

CHARACTER OF THE COUNTESS OF HUNTINGDON.

She was not what is usually termed beautiful, yet there was a grace and sweetness about her features which fully compensated for more perishable charms. Her figure was noble and commanding; her eyes were large and lustrous; her nose slightly acquiline; her lips well-formed and expressive; her forehead bold and intellectual. Her head-dress was plain and quite unfashionable; her bonnet unpretending; and her gown invariably black silk.

Lady Huntingdon possessed great natural talents. This is vouched for, not so much by her letters as by her actual administrative performances, by what she did in governing so long a large association, and in directing and controlling the minds of many educated clergy and uneducated lay-preachers. The leading and most noted public men, such as Chesterfield, Bolingbroke, and several of the bishops, listened with enthusiasm to her conversation. The celebrated ladies who ruled the court, and drew the flower of the nobility to their feet, were powerfully influenced by her Ladyship. Her conversational powers were remarkable. There was scarcely a subject on which she could not talk with freedom.

The Countess sympathised with human misery in all its forms, and to the utmost of her ability relieved it. Her nature was exceedingly generous. One of her ministers once called on her Ladyship with a wealthy person from the country. When they left, he exclaimed, “What a lesson! Can a person of her noble birth, nursed in the lap of grandeur, live in such a house, so meanly furnished; and shall I, a tradesman, be surrounded with luxury and elegance! From this moment, I shall hate my house, my furniture, and myself, for spending so little for God and so much in folly.” Religion with her was not a creed, nor an ecclesiastical position, but a living power. She admired consistency, and exemplified it in her life. It must not be supposed that she was perfect. She had her frailties, which she was aware of, and mourned over. But her private virtues and her public acts have ranked her among the most illustrious reformers of the Christian Church.

THE HIGHER CHRISTIAN LIFE.

Full salvation through full trust in Jesus is at once the provision and the demand of the gospel, and is, of course, the privilege and duty of all. But the truth that the Lord Jesus is the righteousness of the believer, in the sense of sanctification as well as in the sense of justification, many are slow to perceive. Yet Scripture and the lives of the great and good abundantly prove, that in both senses Christ is complete to the believer, and in both, the believer is complete in Christ. The Countess of Huntingdon is a true and noble type of the real, whole-souled Christian. Religion took a strong hold upon her inner nature, and her apprehension of Christ in His fulness was so clear, that she was filled with heavenly consolations. The language of her heart, as well as of her lips, was beautifully expressed by her friend Dr. Watts:—

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all!

The fashionable circle in which she moved was astonished; and unable to comprehend the spiritual darkness through which she had passed, and the spiritual light she now enjoyed, ridiculed her as a fanatic. Some nobles even wished Lord Huntingdon to interpose his authority; but he refused to interfere with her religious opinions. Dr. Southey, unblushingly asserted that the religious feelings of Lady Huntingdon originated in a decided insanity in her family; and adds that all the arguments of Bishop Benson failed in bringing her to a more rational sense of devotion. “Such a statement,” remarks her latest biographer, “would not have deserved notice, were it not that the talents and reputation of the poet laureate might be regarded by many as a guarantee for its validity.” When the rupture took place between the Prince of Wales and his father, George II., and the Prince set up his own court at Kew, Lady Huntingdon attended it occasionally; but her frequent absence was noticed, and provoked sarcasm. One day the Prince of Wales inquired of Lady Charlotte Edwin where Lady Huntingdon was that she so seldom visited the circle. Lady Charlotte replied with a sneer, “I suppose praying with her beggars.” The Prince shook his head, and, turning to her Ladyship, said, “Lady Charlotte, when I am dying, I think I shall be happy to seize the skirt of Lady Huntingdon's mantle, to lift me up with her to heaven.”

HER CHAPLAINS.

The religious sentiments and the glowing eloquence of the most remarkable evangelist of modern times soon attracted the attention of the Countess of Huntingdon, and, in 1748, she made George Whitefield one of her chaplains. She then, and for many years afterwards, thought that, as a peeress of the realm, she had a right to employ the clergymen of the Church whom she had appointed as her chaplains in openlyproclaiming the everlasting gospel. Whitefield often preached in the drawing-rooms of the Countess to large numbers of the most highly distinguished nobility. Gifted by nature in an unusual degree as a public speaker, her chaplain, despite the vilest aspersions, spoke as one who had received a commission from on high to proclaim the unsearchable riches of Christ; and this mission he fulfilled with unabated ardour and success for nearly forty years. In the New World as well as the Old, Whitefield had his trophies, and was listened to with great delight by the princes of intellect and the beggars in understanding. If souls would hear the gospel only under a ceiled roof, he preached it there. If only in a church or a field, he proclaimed it there. In temples made with hands, the parliament of letters, of fashion, of theology, of statesmanship,—such men as Hume, Walpole, Johnson, Goldsmith, Reynolds, Garrick, Warburton, and Chesterfield, acknowledged the power of the preacher. On Moorfields, Kennington Common, and Blackheath, vast crowds were powerfully impressed, and cried out for salvation. He preached at Kingswood, and the miners came out of their coal-pits in swarms—thousands on thousands flocked from Bristol, till about twenty or thirty thousand persons were present. The singing could be heard for two miles off, and the clear, rich, and powerful voice of Whitefield could be distinctly heard for about a mile. This is his own world; he loves, he says, to “mount his field throne.” These colliers are as ignorant of religion as the inhabitants of negro-land—as hardened as the islanders of Madagascar—without feeling or education, profligate, abandoned, ferocious. He addresses them, and what is the result? Tears flow from eyes which perhaps never shed them before. Those white streaks which contrast so strongly with the dark ground on which they are interlined, tell of the emotion that is going on within. This celebrated preacher, in his letters speaks of Lady Huntingdon in very flattering terms. He says, “She shines brighter and brighter every day, and will yet I trust be spared for a nursing mother to our Israel.”

A few years afterwards, the Countess took under her protection William Romaine, by appointing him one of her chaplains. He had for a long time occupied an important position in London, where he published several popular treatises, and a great number of separate discourses. But the preaching of the gospel was his enthusiastic work, and the Calvinistic aspects of truth were put and kept in uniform prominence by him. He was a man of fervent piety,—and to shelter him from persecution, Lady Huntingdon secured his services to preach to the nobility in her drawing-rooms, the poor in her kitchen, and to all classes in her various places of worship.

About 1764, she added to the number of her chaplains the Hon. and Rev. Walter Shirley, rector of Loughrea, in Ireland. His connexion with her ladyship raised a violent storm of persecution against him in his own county. But his heart was too deeply impressed with the truth to allow his tongue to be silent. He became a warm and devoted labourer in the various churches erected by the Countess. Thomas Haweis, LL.B., was also chaplain to the Countess. Mr. Haweis took a prominent part in the formation of the London Missionary Society, published many sermons, a commentary on the Bible, and other works. He was a man of great zeal and piety, and highly respected.

BIOGRAPHY.

Lady Selina Shirley, the second daughter of Washington Shirley, was born at Stanton Harold, long the seat of the Shirley family, on the 24th August, 1707. The mansion was situated in a fine park of one hundred and fifty acres, well wooded, and diversified by hill and dale. It stood near the ancient town of Ashby-de-la-Zouch. The grounds were laid out with great taste, and a spacious lake of ornamental water reflected a handsome stone bridge, which was thrown across it. She inherited the talents and benevolent disposition of her father, and from a very early age sought Divine direction in all that she did. When only nine years old, she saw a corpse about her own age carried to its last resting place. She followed it to the grave, and with many tears cried earnestly to God on the spot, that whenever He should be pleased to take her away, He would deliver her from all fears, and give her a happy departure. She often afterwards visited the grave, and always preserved a lively sense of the affecting scene.

She received an education which successfully drew out the talents of her mind, the disposition of her heart, and the graceful deportment of her manners. Her acquirements were much beyond the ordinary standard of the age in which she lived. When she grew up, and was introduced into the world, and made her appearance at court, she manifested no inclination to follow the example of her companions in the gaieties of fashionable life. The habitual realization of Divine things preserved her amid scenes of great danger.

Lady Selina Shirley often prayed that she might marry into a serious family, and on June 3rd, 1728, she was united in matrimony to Theophilus, the ninth Earl of Huntingdon. None kept up more the ancient dignity and heraldic glory than the house of Huntingdon; but the strict decorum and outward propriety which she observed were far more grateful to her than riches or renown. Mary Queen of Scots was for some time confided to the keeping of the Earl of Huntingdon; and King James the First and his consort were often visitors at the famous castle of Ashby. Lady Huntingdon maintained, in this high estate, a peculiar seriousness of conduct. Though sometimes at court, she took no pleasure in the fashionable follies of the great. At Donnington Park she was known as the Lady Bountiful  by her neighbours and dependants. Often might she have been seen standing over the sick and dying, administering to their temporal wants, and reading the Scriptures to them.

Her heart was now truly engaged to God, so she laid her coronet at the Redeemer's feet, and resolved, according to her ability, to lay herself out to do good. In 1738, when John and Charles Wesley preached in the neighbourhood of Donnington Park, she sent a kind message to them, acknowledging that she was one at heart with them, bidding them good speed in the name of the Lord, and assuring them of her determination to live for Him who had died for her. The oratory of the Methodists was fervid and powerful; and the spiritual fire which glowed within, animated their discourses, and attracted many to the standard of the cross. The number of ordained ministers was insufficient to meet the demands for their services. But a new agency was now springing up: holy and gifted laymen began to preach, and their labours were crowned with greater success than those of the most illustrious men sent from colleges and universities. It should never be forgotten that we owe all the blessings which the world has received from lay preachers chiefly to the good sense and spiritual discernment of Lady Huntingdon.

In the summer of 1743, the Earl and Countess of Huntingdon, with the Ladies Hastings, visited Yorkshire, where the work of the Lord was making great progress. Soon after her return she was called upon to endure severe domestic trials. Two of her beloved sons died within a short period of each other, one aged thirteen, and the other aged ten years. In April, 1746, Lady Huntingdon was attacked by a serious illness; but by the skill of her medical attendants, and the blessing of God, she was restored to health and strength. Scarcely had she recovered from the loss of her children, and her own illness, before she was bereaved of her husband, Lord Huntingdon, who died at his house in Downing Street, Westminster, October 13th, 1746. But these and subsequent personal and family afflictions only awakened her mind toward religious concernments, and caused her to be more energetic in the diffusion of Christian principles. Lord Huntingdon left his widow in uncontrolled command of an income amply sufficient for maintaining her position, with her surviving children, in the style which befitted her rank; but confining her expenditure within narrow limits, she regarded her fortune as a trust which it was her happiness to administer in furtherance of the highest purposes.

Lady Huntingdon now became the open and avowed patroness of all the zealous ministers of Christ, especially of those who were suffering for the testimony of Jesus. In the spring of 1758 she threw open her house in London for the preaching of the gospel. Many of the distinguished nobility attended the services; among whom were the Duchess of Bedford, Grafton, Hamilton, and Richmond; Lords Weymouth, Tavistock, Trafford, Northampton, Lyttleton, Dacre, and Hertford; Ladies Dacre, Jane Scott, Anne Cronnolly, Elizabeth Kepple, Coventry, Hertford, Northumberland, etc., etc. She was far in advance of her times in catholicity of spirit and liberality of sentiment, and frequently stimulated the great leaders of Methodism to extend their operations, when they were inclined to restrict them to certain modes of action. She loved all who loved the Lord Jesus Christ, and formed an acquaintance with many pious and distinguished Dissenters.

Hitherto, her Ladyship had confined her exertions to England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales; but in 1772, in consequence of becoming proprietrix of possessions in the province of Georgia, she organized a mission to North America. On the 27th of October, the missionaries embarked, and after a passage of only six weeks, reached the place of their destination, without having experienced one day of real bad weather. Their labours were crowned with singular success.

Her labours increased with her years. She saw the spiritual darkness which was overclouding the people; was thoroughly acquainted with the character of the agency already in existence, and knew how insufficient it was to reach the mass of the people. But instead of being honoured for endeavouring to bring the sound of the gospel within the hearing of the people, her labours were denounced as irregular, and her name was blackened with reproach. Towards the close of 1781, her mind was greatly distressed by unpleasant differences which sprang up in her congregation at Reading. Still it was evident that God was blessing her labours, that the fields were white unto the harvest. The Countess, therefore, determined to appoint four of her most distinguished clergymen to itinerate through England, and blow the gospel trumpet. Many were converted to the Lord, and small congregations were gathered, which grew into important churches.

It had always been the earnest desire of Lady Huntingdon that neither she nor her Connection should sever the tie that bound them to the Church of England. But in consequence of processes instituted in the Ecclesiastical Courts, and the law laid down on the subject, no alternative was left them. Accordingly, in 1783, they reluctantly assumed the position of Dissenters, at the same time retaining the liturgy with some modifications, the forms and even the vestments of the Church of England, without its Episcopacy. A confession of faith was drawn up, and a declaration was set forth, that “some things in the liturgy, and many things in the discipline and government of the Established Church, being contrary to Holy Scripture, they have felt it necessary to secede.” Hitherto the great burden of conducting the affairs of her Connection had mainly devolved upon the Countess herself; but now feeling the infirmities of age, she bequeathed by her will, dated January 11th, 1790, all her churches and residences to trustees. Her family confirmed this disposition of her property, and the trustees strictly carried out the intentions of the testatrix.

Now, almost at the close of her long and arduous course, the venerable Countess truly experienced the blessedness of those who die in the Lord, and whose works do follow them. Sometimes she appeared to catch a glimpse of the celestial mansions, and then her weather-beaten features were lighted up with a heavenly glory. The bursting of a blood-vessel was the commencement of her last illness. She manifested the greatest patience and resignation, and said to Lady Ann Erskine, “All the little ruffles and difficultieswhich surrounded me, and all the pains I am exercised with in this poor body, through mercy affect not the settled peace and joy of my soul.” On the 12th of June, 1791, a change passed over the Countess which afforded apprehensions of approaching death. A little before she died, she frequently said, “I shall go to my Father to-night;” and musingly repeated, “Can He forget to be gracious? Is there any end of His loving-kindness?” Her physician visited her, and shortly after her strength failed, and she appeared to sink into a sleep. A friend took her hand, it was cold and clammy; he felt her pulse, it was ceasing to beat; and as he leaned over her, she breathed her last and fell asleep in Jesus. She died at her house in Spa Fields, June 17th, 1791, in the eighty-fourth year of her age.

The news of her decease plunged the Christian world into grief and sadness. She was interred in the family vault at Ashby-de-la-Zouch. Her principal places of worship were hung in black; and not only her own ministers, but many in the Establishment and among the nonconformists, preached a funeral sermon to testify to her worth. Many tears were shed at the mention of her name; a medal was struck off as a memento of her death; and her well-known features were embalmed in the hearts of her people.