I love reading about the faith champions of the past, and I am gradually building a small collection of biographies of female faith champions on this website. Some women I have written about so far include Nino of Georgia, Catherine of Siena, and Phoebe Palmer. I have also reposted articles from other writers. The following article about Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon, was written by Wade Burleson, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Enid, Oklahoma. It was recently posted on his website Istoria, and is used here (with some edits) with his permission.
The Countess of Huntingdon’s chapel in Bath.
Currently, the Museum of Bath Architecture, owned & run by the Bath Preservation Trust.
(Image used with permission)
We are living in an era of increasing recognition that the New Testament Scriptures teach the equality of men and women in the New Covenant, with qualified servant leadership based on gifting and not gender. Nevertheless, it is argued by some that the equality of Christian women violates the tradition of the church. They say, “If the New Testament actually taught equality we would see women as church and religious leaders in centuries past.” Yes, we would . . . and we do. Christian history is filled with gifted women advancing the kingdom through preaching, evangelizing, teaching, and leading others spiritually. I’d like to acquaint you with one such woman from the 1700s.
Her name is Selina Shirley, but she is most often referred to as the Countess of Huntington. Her husband Theophilus Hastings held the same title the legendary Robin Hood possessed centuries earlier: the Earl of Huntingdon. Selina’s husband was influential and rich, but it was she who would make an immeasurable impact on the advancement of evangelical Christianity in both England and America.
Selina Shirley was born on August 24, 1707, in Chartley, England. Baptized as an infant into the Anglican Church, Selina lived a privileged life while growing up in English high society. At age twenty-one, she married the Earl of Huntington. Selina named among her friends King George II, Sarah Churchill the Duchess of Marlborough, and Lady Mary Wortley Montague. If there were a movie made of her life today it would be a cross between Pride and Prejudice and Downton Abbey.
Just in her late twenties, Selina came to know Christ personally through the testimony and encouragement of two girlfriends who had become Christians under the ministry of the Wesley brothers and George Whitfield. Her conversion was so radical, her husband sought the Bishop’s help in bringing her back to sanity and proper Anglicanism. Shortly after Selina’s conversion, one of her high society friends, the Duchess of Buckingham, wrote to Selina and also sought to convince her of her error of listening to the preaching of non-conformists like John and Charles Wesley and George Whitefield. The Duchess of Buckingham wrote:
The doctrines of these preachers are most repulsive and strongly tinctured with impertinence and disrespect towards their superiors, in perpetually endeavouring to level all ranks and do away with all distinctions. It is monstrous to be told that you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl upon the earth. This is highly offensive and insulting, and I cannot but wonder that your ladyship should relish any sentiments so much at variance with high rank and good breeding.
The pressure to renounce her evangelical faith only deepened her commitment to the cause of Christ. The Countess of Huntington became close friends with the Wesleys and Whitefield, and they used her influence to throw dinner parties and provide opportunities for her friends to hear the leaders of the Great Awakening share the good news. She herself began participating in the teaching of the gospel. She wrote to Charles Wesley:
For the past two weeks, I have given instruction and some short exhortations to the weak, and have found them to be of great use, especially among my work people, with whom I spend a part of every day.
One of those who eventually fell under the influence of Selina’s gospel ministry was her husband. He came to faith in Christ shortly before suffering a fatal stroke at his Downing mansion on October 13, 1746. Selina was now a wealthy widow at the tender age of thirty-nine.
In the days following her husband’s death, Selina corresponded with her friends Isaac Watts, hymn-writer of works such as Joy to the World and At the Cross, and pastor Philip Doddridge, author of the Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul, a book that would later be influential in the calling and conversion of Charles H. Spurgeon. In her correspondence, the Countess wrote,
We agree that the one thing worth living for must be proclaiming the love of God to man in Christ Jesus. As for me, I want no holiness he does not give me; I can wish for no liberty but what he likes for me, and I am satisfied with every misery He does not redeem from me, that in all things I may fee, ‘without Him, I can do nothing.’
Meanwhile, Charles and John Wesley split with George Whitfield over a disagreement concerning aspects of salvation. The Wesleys did not hold to “imputed righteousness” as did Whitefield. Charles Wesley called the doctrine “imputed nonsense.” The Wesleys much preferred to trust in methodical disciplines in the Christian life (thus, “Methodism”) instead of the righteousness of Jesus Christ for our right standing with God. Whitefield found the acrimony with the Wesleys disheartening. Soon it hit his hip pocket as most of the Methodists in England became ardent followers of the Wesleys (e.g. Wesleyans). The supporters of Whitefield’s orphanage and preaching crusades were diminishing.
In stepped Countess Huntington. She loved the doctrine of imputed righteousness and understood it to be the very gospel itself. She opened her majestic mansion in Park Street (London) for Whitefield to preach, and she named him the “chaplain.” The difference between a “chaplain” and a parish priest is that a “chaplain” was a privately funded pastor rather than state-funded. Even though privately funded, the Prime Minister of England, members of parliament, and others began coming to the Countess’ house for religious conversation. Many men and women in London—initially beyond the reach and sphere of Whitefield’s influence—came to faith in Christ through the influence and friendship of Countess Huntingdon.
Philip Doddridge would later write of the spiritual awakening in London during the 1750s and say, “Religion was never so much the subject of conversation.” The Spirit was the direct Agent of the “Great Awakening” in England, but one of the means He used was the Countess of Huntington.
The Countess was responsible for founding 64 chapels and contributed to the funding of many others. Lady Huntingdon and her chaplains were initially members of the Church of England, but in 1779 the Church of England prohibited her chaplains from preaching in a building that had already been rented by the Countess. To avoid the authoritarian top-down control of the Church of England, the Countess took shelter under the Toleration Act and became one of England’s “official” dissenters.
In 1783 Selina founded the Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion, a society of Calvinistic Evangelical churches within Methodism. It was one of the most significant non-Wesleyan groups that resulted from the Great Awakening. [More on this here.]
The Countess of Huntingdon died at 83 years of age. Until her death in London in 1791, she faithfully oversaw all of her chapels and chaplains. Just prior to her death, she insisted that no biography be written of her life until 50 years had passed. She placed this stipulation in the will which also contained instructions for the distribution of her chapel trust funds. At her funeral, it was said of her,
Lady Huntington devoted herself, her means, her time, her thoughts to the cause of Christ. She did not spend her money on herself; she did not allow homage paid to her rank to remain with herself.
I sometimes wonder if modern conservative evangelicals are swimming upstream in their attempts to restrict gifted women from Kingdom work, both through a misunderstanding and misapplication of the New Covenant Scriptures as well as a very poor comprehension and understanding of our evangelical past as it relates to women.
For you ladies who feel the call of God to minister in the Kingdom of Christ to people in need of a Savior, I would encourage you to become familiar with the life and ministry of the Countess of Huntingdon. She is a model worthy of imitation.
You can read other articles on Wade Burleson’s blog here.
Portrait of Selena Hasting by an unknown artist (Wikimedia Commons)
The Means of Ministry: Gifts, Grace, Faith . . . Gender?
Phoebe Palmer: The Mother of the Holiness Movement
Count Zinzendorf and an Egalitarian Revival
The Apostolic Ministry of Gospel Women
Women Church Leaders in the New Testament