Protestant Profiles #17: Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon

Selina Hastings (1707-1791)

Selina_Hastings,_Countess_of_Huntingdon_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_18444

Born: Leicestershire, England
Role: Patroness of evangelical ministry; founder of eponymous Connexion; Principal of Trevecca College
Emphases: Training of effective gospel ministers; Calvinistic Methodism; renewal of English Church

Due to a combination of illness and endeavouring to spend more time with family during a holiday break, this installment of the series is regrettably both late and concise.  

Selina Shirley (later Hastings) was born in the early 18th century to a noble family and herself married an earl in 1728. Her marriage lasted for the better part of two decades, before her husband’s death in 1746. Following her conversion seven years earlier, the Countess Huntingdon was active in the evangelical scene of the Anglican church – but her significance to Protestant history – and the Methodist movement in particular – largely came about during her four and a half decades of widowhood.

The Countess was part of the very early Methodist movement and a member of the society established by the Wesley brothers and others. But over time, she found that her theological perspective aligned much more comfortably with the emergent Calvinist branch of Methodism, which included figures such as George Whitefield (see next profile).

Taking advantage of a legal provision which allowed the English nobility to establish their own private chapels and appoint chaplains (in reality ‘preachers’) as they saw fit, the Countess financed and facilitated a network of godly, revivalistic preachers across the country. While there were apparently some grumblings within church and society that she was overstretching this provision, the Countess was not prevented from establishing more than 60 chapels that allowed for ministers of her choosing to conduct evangelistic preaching ministries.

The Countess established an evangelical Bible College in Wales in 1768 – effectively the world’s first Methodist seminary – but it did not manage to attract the number of ministry candidates she had hoped for. Eventually her excessive liberality with respect to acquiring personal chapels and chaplains reached a breaking point with the Anglican establishment and in 1783, she found herself and part of her network operating outside of the state church – effectively becoming a dissenting denomination which would come to be known as the “Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion.” While the Connexion had an entirely male ministry, it was at the time perhaps the only English denomination that was in effect headed by a woman.

One of her biographers, H.M. Jones says of the Countess:

“Lady Huntingdon’s significance was remarkable. The roles she exercised (hostess, patroness and private spiritual exhorter) were acceptable for a woman of high rank, but she exercised them on an unparalleled scale, thanks to her combination of rank and wealth with an iron will and charismatic character. She thus acquired a degree of religious authority that was, for a woman, almost unprecedented. By hosting worship and preaching in her own home (a great mansion) she created an alternative space for worship from that of the established church. By giving her patronage to not one or two, but to hordes of preachers and clergy, she became, in one sense of the word, their bishop.”[1]

Measuring the Countess’ true impact as a patron of the Methodist renewal movement is a difficult task. On the one hand, the college and denomination she founded continue to this day in different forms – but they do not appear to be making the same impact on the 21st century religious landscape of the U.K. that their founder had on the 18th. On the other hand, everyone who heard Whitefield and the other preachers that she supported is long gone – and yet in the last 250 years or so, surely thousands upon thousands of people have become Christians in England, Wales and around the world during the harvest of the seeds the Countess of Huntingdon sowed through her financial and spiritual investments in her 50 years of zealous ministry.

Sources

[1] D.M. Jones, “Huntingdon, Selina Hastings, Countess of”, Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals, p. 320-321.

“Countess of Huntingdon” wikipedia

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