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Countess of Huntingdon

Praise for the Countess of Huntingdon emanated from many sources. Even King George III expressed the wish that “there was a Lady Huntingdon in every diocese in my kingdom.” On another occasion he told Charles Wesley’s son, “It is my judgement, Mr Wesley, that your uncle and your father and George Whitefield and the Countess of Huntingdon have done more to promote true religion in this country than all the dignified clergy put together, who are so apt to despise their labours.”

Selina’s grandfather was Sir Robert Shirley, proclaimed First Earl of Ferrors and Viscount Tamworth by Queen Anne.  The wealth of the family lay in great estates in England and Ireland.  Sir Robert’s second son was Washington who married Mary Levinge in 1702. They moved to Ireland where Washington served as an army officer. There, a first daughter was born, but they returned to England for the birth of their second, Selina, in August 1707.  Soon after her birth the family returned to Ireland, where Selina spent much of her youth. Selina was five when another sister was born, but a year later her life was torn apart when her mother and father separated.  Her mother left with her younger sister. Very little is extant about Selina’s childhood, apart from a few anecdotes.  From these emerge a picture of a serious-minded child who often contemplated the eternal world. One incident left a profound impression on her life; she witnessed the funeral of a child of her age, which she followed to the graveyard. Afterwards, she would pray earnestly when she came to die that God would deliver her from her fears and grant her a happy departure.  Although unconverted, she had a concern for her soul.

At the age of twenty-one Selina married Theophilus Hastings, who would become the 9th Earl of Huntingdon. Theophilus had the honour of carrying the sword of state at George II’s coronation.  God was weaving his plan. The Huntingdons were to be found often at court mixing with royalty and other aristocracy. This influence God would later use to the furtherance of the Gospel.  Marriage to Theophilus brought many duties, organising servants and the oversight of her husband’s estates, her husband relying much on her diligence, despite her ill health. Within five years of marriage she had also the care of four children.

The Countess, with homes in various parts of the country, travelled extensively. She mixed in influential circles, but was gradually becoming disillusioned with life. She felt it to be empty and void of purpose.  This disillusionment was compounded when her fifth child died in infancy and she received the news that her mother had completely disowned her.  It was at this point that God began to move in her life.  It was through the preaching of Benjamin Ingham that Selina’s sisters-in-law were converted.  It would be through their faithful witness that Selina would be converted. While she was a regular churchgoer and very much a philanthropist, giving much to good causes, Selina had no peace of heart. She saw the joy and happiness emanating from the lives of those who embraced Christ, and it was on 26th July 1739 that Selina was saved, not from a life of degradation, but from her own self righteousness. She would now commence a life devoted to Christ and His cause. There was a marked change; she had an insatiable desire to read the Scriptures and to witness. News of the conversion of the Countess of Huntingdon generated much gossip in court circles, especially since she was perceived to side with Methodism.  Methodists were disdained by the Established Church because they preached the Gospel to all in the open air, and such practices were considered undignified. Selina’s conversion was considered a betrayal of her class and the Church of England in which she was raised.  The setbacks she had encountered in a difficult childhood had prepared her to deal with life as a religious outcast.

She began to form close relationships with many of the field preachers and to provide much needed financial support for the spread of the Gospel. In the eighteenth century, materialism and human reason prevailed. God was rejected and His Word considered redundant. Commerce was a driving force, and drinking was the country’s favourite pastime. Alcohol abuse was prevalent, with many employers quite happy to pay their workers wages in gin. Selina understood that the only solution to these problems was the Gospel, and she was determined to support those who would take the message to desperate souls.

The Countess continued to face personal tragedy.  She lost several of her children, and then her beloved husband Theophilus when she was only thirty nine. Despite these personal setbacks, she remained devoted to the Lord.  Only months after her husband’s death, she wrote, “I want my heart on fire always, not for self delight, but to spread the gospel from pole to pole.”  She appointed a personal chaplain – George Whitefield – and she organised meetings in her home and invited many of the aristocracy to come and hear him preach. Many of the nobility were touched through the humbling message of the Gospel.

In 1747, Selina went to Wales, accompanied Harris Rowland and others as they preached, and witnessed the response of their hearers under tremendous conviction of sin. Shortly after this a Bible college was started in Trevecca, near the home of Harris. It was the Countess’s desire to see men trained and equipped to take the Gospel throughout the country. Churches were built and the college maintained solely from the purse of Lady Huntingdon.  Her concern for souls remained undiminished regardless of their social status; she wanted lost sinners to hear of Jesus Christ. Preaching stations established throughout the country exceeded one hundred, and she organised weekly pulpits supply from the students of Trevecca. These works were commonly known as ‘Lady Huntingdon’s Connexion’.

Selina’s vision extended to the expenditure of the huge sum of £600 to send two missionaries to India some twenty years before the arrival of William Carey. And she provided the financial resources to continue the work in America commenced by George Whitefield, and bequeathed to her upon his death. This legacy spoke volumes of the esteem in which she was held.

Lady Huntingdon died at the advanced age of 83, her life’s work complete. The doctor attending heard her utter these words, “My work is done, I have nothing to do but go to my heavenly Father.”  Her last wish was to be buried beside her husband, Theophilus, with no monument to be erected in her memory. However, throughout the country there were souls who were monuments, thankful to God for the life of Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, for through her devotion to God, they heard the Gospel and were converted.

In all avenues of work two ingredients are required, manpower and finance. In the eighteenth century, God called men to preach, and He used Lady Huntingdon to provide financial support.  May He be pleased to provide such in our day with a vision for His glory!  Lady Huntingdon received the praise of King George III, but, her sole desire was the praise of the King of Kings. She lived to hear these words, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”  In our day, may we use what God has given to us to labour for Him!

Maurice McCaughey.