Flying High: The Lives of 5 Notable Women in Georgian High Society-Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon
Written by Jess Burchett
She was born Selina Shirley in 1707, second daughter of the 2nd Earl Ferrers. A child of privilege, she spent her childhood in Leicestershire and her family’s Irish estates. She moved from Northamptonshire to Leicestershire when she was 17, marrying Theophilus Hastings, 9th Earl of Huntingdon in 1728. This was arranged by his elder half-sister, Lady Elizabeth Hastings, a well-known religious philanthropist and supporter of women’s education. Within the first 10 years of marriage, she gave birth to seven children, four of whom sadly died young. Throughout her youth and marriage she was known to always conduct herself in a highly virtuous and religious way, assured that personal righteousness would save her soul.
As a married couple, Lord and Lady Huntingdon frequently attended where George Whitefield (a young methodist) preached. With the preacher’s influence, she grew to be a devout Christian, encouraging others of British Nobility to hear the gospel that Whitefield preached. This led to her joining the first Methodist society founded by John Wesley, in London. Her conversion to Methodism defined the next 54 years of her life – she committed all of her wealth and energy to spread the word of God. In April 1730, she became one of the 21 aristocrats whose support Thomas Coram would enlist in his efforts to establish the Foundling Hospital. Her financial support even led to the presentation of the Foundling Hospital Charter to King George II in 1735.
Her husband died in 1746, and Selina committed herself to the work of the great revival with Whitefield and Wesley. She became the ‘elect lady’ of the new movement and used her right as a peeress to appoint evangelical clergymen as her chaplains and built 64 chapels in Brighton, Bath, Tunbridge Wells, and other aristocratic centres. In 1748 she gave Whitefield a scarf as her chaplain, giving him the right to preach in one of her London houses to aristocratic audiences. She hosted large dinner parties where he would preach after they had eaten. He went on to assist her in founding the Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion, a Calvinistic movement within the methodist church – Calvinism is a major branch of Protestantism that emphasises the sovereignty of God and the authority of the Bible.
Following the expulsion of six Methodist students from Oxford in 1768, the Countess founded an evangelical training college, Travecca House, in Mid Wales for clergymen. Also during the mid-1760s, she met and befriended Mohegan preacher Samson Occom, then on a tour of England to raise funds for Indian missions in the colonies. With the construction of these chapels in England and Wales, plus mission work in colonial America, she is estimated to have spent over £100,000 on these activities, a huge sum when a family of four could live on £31 per year.
She did become a slave owner herself in 1770 when she inherited Whitefield’s overseas estates in Georgia and South Carolina, including the Bethesda Home for Boys. On Whitefield’s advice, she bought additional slaves for the orphanage’s benefit. However, she also promoted the writings and freedom of formerly enslaved Africans who followed religious views compatible with her own. This included the publication of Phillis Wheatley’s 1773 volume of poems, an African servant to John Wheatley, which was dedicated to the Countess.
After the Patriot victory in the American War of Independence, the British evacuated thousands of former slaves from the colonies, who became known as Black Loyalists. About 3,000 were resettled and given land and supplies. The Countess sent missionaries to these colonies to attend to the Black Loyalists.
The Countess died in 1791, and much of her movement merged with the Congregationalist Church. However, there are still 25 Connexion congregations functioning in England, with others in Sierra Leone. The chapels of her Connexion survive mostly under congregational operation.
Though a pivotal figure in the Evangelical Revival, she requested that no biography be written of her after her death. She was clearly a modest and generous woman who sought success in her work for Christ over any sort of personal recognition, never spending her money on herself.
Written by Jess Burchett
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