“There is something so noble, so commanding and so engaging about her that I am quite captivated with her ladyship. She is an honour to her sex and the nation.”
King George III
What would you do if your very wealthy husband died leaving you in charge of his entire fortune? Would you travel? How about a huge mansion and lots of servants? Maybe the thought of finding a new equally rich husband is entrancing.
Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, did none of those things. She devoted her entire fortune to the spread of the Gospel. She devoted the rest of her life to telling others about the Lord Jesus Christ. She worked hard towards converting the upper class in England. She funded over 60 chapels, led missions from England, even to the “Colonies”, and founded the Trevecca House (a college to train preachers) in Wales.
She did not just use her husband’s money, but she also sold her own country homes, jewelry, and other valuables and gave the money to the cause of Christian work. She was totally sold out for Christ. She bequeathed her entire estate to support the work of evangelism at her death.
Selina Shirley, born in 1707, the daughter of Lord Washington Shirley, Earl of Ferrars, and Lady Mary Shirley, had been raised to fear God. She married Theophilus Hastings, the ninth Earl of Huntingdon in 1728 at the age of twenty-one. They had seven children.
It was not until after the death of four of her children, and her own severe illness, that Selina realized that she did not have a personal relationship with God. She began to seek Him and was converted in 1739 during the time of revival that came to England. Selina gave her heart totally to Christ and began working as a faithful witness right away. She was willing to help with her own time and effort as well as financially. Her husband does not appear to have been as religiously zealous as she was, but he did not stop her from helping.
She made friends with John and Charles Wesley and George Whitefield, evangelists who were leading in the revival that had come. Because of her position, she was able to open many doors for these men. They visited her in her home and preached in her town.
But it was after her husband’s untimely death in 1746 that Selina was able to begin to pour herself fully into the work of evangelism. She spoke of Jesus to everyone she met and her witness spread far and wide, even among the aristocracy. The King himself held her in high regard.
Now, here is a part of her story that is really interesting to us women in the 21st century. Imagine a woman standing up against a large institution in our day. We have some heroines who are fighting against abortion, for example. We applaud them, but do not think it too unusual in our times. But in the 18th century, it was unusual for a woman to take a firm stand against a national institution. I am talking about Selina’s stand for religious freedom against the Anglican Church.
You might think that the Church would be thrilled with all of the conversions and would be really happy with Selina. They were not. When there was a dispute involving who would be able to preach in the chapels that were founded by Selina, officials from the Anglican Church pressed a case against her. They tried to get Methodist ministers to disassociate with Selina’s offices and towns.
After unsuccessfully trying to come to an agreement with the Anglican Church, she finally had to give up. She wrote to a former student, John Hawksworth, “I am to be cast out of the Church now only for what I have been doing this forty years—speaking and living for Jesus…. Blessed be God, I have not one care relative to this event but to be found faithful to God and man through all. You will smile and rejoice with me in all I may suffer for our dear Immanuel’s sake.” Selina had not wanted to leave the Church. She was not personally in favor of “dissenting”. She wanted to get along, but she wanted the Church to recognize the Methodist practices as valid means to worship.
Selina tried to get around their ruling by registering her chapels as “dissenting places of worship” that was allowed by the “Toleration Act”. Her chapels would no longer be subject to the Anglican Church hierarchy and her preachers could occupy pulpits in any diocese in the land without fear of recriminations.
It is hard for us to understand why this should happen. How can one Church, the Anglican Church, tell everyone else how to worship? Remember, in England, the church stayed under the authority of the Monarch ever since the days of Henry VIII. The Anglican Church was the official and highest authority. The Wesley’s had struggled with this issue but decided not to pursue the freedom to worship as they believed.
Selina and one brave minister stood alone against Church. She went on to persevere against the opposition until her death in 1791. She was a woman ahead of her time.
While she was registering her churches with the Dissenters in 1782, there were 251 total groups that applied under the Toleration Act. Her brave action brought courage and conviction to many others and by the early 1790’s, 832 churches registered as Dissenters. Selina had set the precedent.
Trevecca College trained many ministers and is still in existence today. Many of the chapels that Selina founded are still in use. Her influence went across the ocean to the Colonies. Though she was sympathetic to the Colonists, she tried to remain loyal to England during the American War for Independence. There was however a college founded in Alabama, Huntingdon College, which still stands today in her honor.
Lady Selina Huntingdon is still remembered, not just for the money she was so generous with, but because of her personal involvement. She touched the lives of everyone with whom she came into contact. And at her deathbed, her concern was only about the salvation and welfare of others. Her last words were, “My work is done. I have nothing to do, but go to my Father.”
Upon her death, a friend wrote of her in a letter, “… I feel consolation in acknowledging, that of all the daughters of affliction, she exhibited the greatest degree of Christian composure that ever I witnessed; and that submission to divine allotment, however sever and painful, which nothing but divine aid could inspire…. Wherever a fellow creature existed, so far her prayers extended.” Even on her deathbed, Selina was talking about sending missionaries to Otaheite, in the South Seas, to introduce this group of people to Christ. “… indeed, her whole life seemed devoted to one great object: the glory of God, and the salvation of his creatures.” John C. Lettsom, 18 June, 1791.
Though most of us are not born wealthy or have great wealth, we do have the same message to extend to others – Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. It would have been easy for Lady Selina Hastings to just give money to organizations and live a comfortable life of luxury and ease. But she devoted herself to Christ tirelessly. We can do the same.