by Faith Cook
The year 2007 celebrates an unusual number of anniversaries of Christian achievement. The abolition of the slave trade two hundred years ago has received full coverage, as has the life of John Newton who died that same year. The revivals on Mow Cop in Staffordshire, also in 1807, together with the beginnings of Primitive Methodism have been commemorated. So too has the birth of Charles Wesley in 1707. But one anniversary of equal significance has in the main been neglected.
The three hundredth anniversary of the birth of Selina Countess of Huntingdon occurs on 24 August 2007. Described as ‘one of the brightest stars in God’s firmament’, Selina’s claim to be remembered rests on several important factors.
Perhaps foremost of these is the astonishing influence she exercised on virtually all the eminent men of the eighteenth century Evangelical Revival. Like the spokes of a wheel, her influence radiated outwards, touching a wide circle of men and women.
The lives of countless men who achieved great things for Christ during that dramatic century, reveal the effects of her encouragement, her prayers, her initiatives and her support.
Born into one of the highest ranking families in the land, and mingling regularly with royalty, Selina was powerfully converted in July 1739. Without hesitation she began to identify herself with the despised Methodists – much to the embarrassment of her friends and family.
Scornfully described as ‘crackbrained enthusiasts and profane hypocrites’ the Methodists were generally reviled. It seemed to be social suicide for Selina to join those who, in Charles Wesley’s words:
Esteem the scandal of thy cross
And only seek divine applause.
Her friendship with the Wesley brothers was warm and genuine. Sensing that John was cast down, she wrote him a letter dated 2 February 1741: ‘Let not your hands hang down, my dear friend. Think what you are set for – the defence of the gospel. Trample on men and devils. The hour is hastening when it will be seen how faithful a Master we serve’.
She read through Wesley’s early journals and persuaded him to press ahead with publication.
A flame for Jesus
In Charles Wesley, Selina found a kindred spirit and her correspondence with him over the years is both fascinating and heartening. It was she who warned Charles when he was tempted to embrace some erroneous teachings of the early Moravians. She nursed his wife Sally, desperately ill with smallpox, even though she had lost two of her own boys (aged ten and thirteen) to the dreaded disease.
George Whitefield, whom she appointed as her private chaplain, preached regularly at her home, Chelsea Farm, to a wide cross section of the aristocracy – seeing significant conversions among them.
Describing Selina as ‘all in a flame for Jesus’, Whitefield’s lifelong estimate of the Countess was one of constant respect and admiration. So strong was his confidence, that in his will he bequeathed his Savannah orphanage in Georgia to her – fully anticipating that the sixty-three-year-old Countess, who had never left English shores, would be the best one to continue his work.
Men of the revival
Selina developed remarkable friendships among the Dissenters as well as among members of the Established Church. The ageing Isaac Watts had expressed disapproval of the youthful Whitefield, but Selina’s respect for the evangelist brought a significant change.
With Philip Doddridge she had a yet warmer relationship, supporting students for the ministry who attended his Academy. ‘I never saw so much of the image of God in a woman upon earth’, he confessed.
When Doddridge was dying, Selina raised money to send him to Lisbon with his wife Mercy in hope of a recovery. Her grief at his death was deep and poignant.
The list of other well-known men of the revival influenced by the Countess is amazing. Among them we find Benjamin Ingham, Howell Harris, Henry Venn, John Berridge, William Grimshaw, John Fletcher, William Romaine, Daniel Rowland, William Williams, Augustus Toplady, Thomas Haweis, Martin Madan, Thomas Charles and many others. Little wonder then that Ronald Knox, no natural admirer of the Countess, could write: ‘The ascendancy she seems to have established over their minds may well leave the reader gasping’. But he hastens to add, ‘she did not domineer over them [but] devoted herself to prayer for their effectiveness’.
Not only did Selina encourage and stimulate others to greater achievements, but her own undertakings for the kingdom of God were remarkable by any standard. In 1757, seeking a cure for her seventeen-year-old son Henry who was rapidly going blind, the Countess visited Brighton – and met a woman who was eager to know how her sins could be forgiven.
As Selina spoke simply to a small group of women, some were converted, and before long the work spread with numbers of both men and women deeply affected. These new believers would need a place of worship where they could continue to hear evangelical preaching.
With typical resolution, Selina decided to sell some of her jewels to raise enough money to build a small chapel. A new chapter in her life had begun.
The peoples of Lewes, Bath, Bristol and other towns watched in bemused amazement as the Countess continued her chapel-building enterprises in their localities. And if she built chapels she would need preachers to fill their pulpits.
Letters went out to her friends all over the country – some demanding, some bullying, some pleading – all making arrangements for them to preach in these chapels and the many others for which she undertook responsibility.
Training gospel preachers
As the revival gained momentum, the bishops of the day became increasingly reluctant to ordain evangelical men to the parish churches. Selina used her unique social position to lobby them until they complied with her wishes.
But gradually even she could no longer persuade these unsympathetic clerics to oblige. How could she provide preachers for the increasing number of chapels she had built or acquired? With the people clamouring to hear more of the message which had brought them spiritual peace, something had to be done.
Trevecca College was the answer. Together with Howell Harris, the Countess set up an academy in a disused farm in Trevecca, Wales, to train gospel preachers. On her sixty-first birthday (24 August 1768) the college was opened by George Whitefield, as strains of William Williams’ hymn, Guide me O thou great Jehovah, newly translated into English, echoed around the Welsh hills.
Despite poor health, the elderly Selina had already selected her students, bought their clothes, horses, books and desks, and would arrange their tuition and organise their preaching engagements.
A mother to us all
Before long, Trevecca students were travelling the length of the land – preaching churches into existence. Some of the most outstanding preachers of the following century were trained at Trevecca – men like Matthew Wilks who succeeded Whitefield at the Tabernacle, and Thomas Snell Jones who exercised a fifty-eight-year ministry in Edinburgh.
Little wonder that George III, noting all that Selina and her students were accomplishing, could say, ‘I wish there was a Lady Huntingdon in every diocese in the kingdom!’
Sometimes tender, sometimes unreasonable, Selina loved these students as her own family – for her husband Theophilus and all but two of her seven children had died. One student wrote, ‘She is a mother to us all and indeed she calls us her children’. More than two hundred young men received at least a minimal training at Trevecca.
Nor were Selina’s ambitions for the spread of the gospel confined to England. ‘Give the Lord your youth and strength over the whole world’, the sixty-five-year-old Countess urged as she financed six students to take up responsibilities at Whitefield’s orphanage in Savannah and to reach out to the indigenous Indian population.
Undeterred by overwhelming odds – the American War of Independence, the failure of her appointed leader, and a devastating fire at the premises – Selina was prepared to sail to the New World herself.
My work is done
The Countess was undoubtedly a trailblazer. She has been described as ‘an English Deborah’, or even ‘the Queen of the Methodists’. Her influence for the gospel can be compared to the effects of a stone thrown into a pond with ripples extending outwards in concentric circles.
Her many chapels, forced out of the Church of England in 1782, were bonded together into the Countess of Huntingdon Connexion.
‘My work is done, I have nothing left to do but to go to my Father’, murmured the frail eighty-three-year-old Countess the night before she died on 17 June 1791. To the very last she was planning further missionary endeavour.
When news of her death broke, tributes of love and gratitude sounded from many pulpits. One with whom she had worked closely could write, ‘Thousands, I may say tens of thousands in various parts of the kingdom, heard the gospel through her instrumentality that in all probability would never have heard it at all, and I believe through eternity will have cause to bless God that she ever existed’.
And we also, in our generation, do well to remember the life and example of Selina Countess of Huntingdon.