“I Thank God for the Letter ‘M’”

As dawn broke over the residence of Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, her illness seemed fatal. Her personal chaplain, George Whitefield, who had preached in all of her houses to most of her noble friends, now moved purposefully towards the window. Opening it, he heard the voices of thousands of admirers as they prayerfully sang a petitionary hymn:[1] “Among the great ones may she stand.”[2]

Eighteenth-century England was hard and brutal. Alcohol and poverty proved a malevolent mix for the lower classes. Highwaymen roamed the heaths along roads into London. Poverty, inequality, and drunkenness was a heady cocktail for violence. For this hour, God provided Whitefield and Wesley, men who feared not the mobs while loving the masses and preaching Christ to the forgotten and stricken. And for these servants, God provided Selina, whom Horace Walpole dubbed, “St. Teresa of the Methodists.”[3]

Selina Shirley was born to the Earl and Countess Ferrers in a 40-room mansion in Northamptonshire on August 24, 1707.[4] At age 20, she herself married nobility, the 9th Earl of Huntingdon.[5] Positioned above baronets, squires, knights, and yeomen in English society, they enjoyed a life of luxury and influence,[6] yet she was spiritually empty and distressed. That changed on July 26, 1739, when at the prompting of her sister-in-law, Lady Margaret Hastings, she accepted Christ as her Savior.[7]

Though wealthy, Selina became a great friend of the poor. She visited and prayed for them in their sickness with such love, that when they died, they felt liberty to leave their children in her care. Her love also extended to the high and the mighty. She was a regular visitor to the Royal Court, even addressing the king once about the lavish lifestyle of Archbishop Cornwallis and his wife.

Many poor received the evangelical call to repentance, but the nobility spurned it. For one, the Duchess of Buckingham did not believe that people with “blue blood” had to listen to the gospel’s humiliating truths. Sneering at the growing sect of the Methodists, she wrote, “Their doctrines are most repulsive and strongly tinctured with impertinence and disrespect towards their superiors, in perpetually endeavoring to level all ranks, and do away with distinctions. It is monstrous to be told that you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl the earth.”[8] It took a woman of courage like Selina to place the claims of Christ before such people.

She used to say she thanked God for the letter ‘M’ in 1 Corinthians 1:26: “For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called.” Otherwise, the verse would have read, “not any noble.”

Through the countess’s efforts, over 200 chapels and mission stations were established, and in 1828, 40 years after her death, some 35,000 worshippers attended them.[9] Over 150 men trained for the ministry at her alternative to Oxford and Cambridge, Trevecca House in Breconshire. Some graduates traveled as far as Georgia, where they assisted Whitefield in reaching the Indians and then slaves from Africa. When 2,000 of the latter were emancipated and returned to Sierra Leone in 1792, at least half of them were associated with the fellowship of churches called the Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion.[10] A group of such chapels continues today in Sierra Leone, as they do in England.

A bishop once complained to the king that the countess and her ministers were making a stir in his diocese. “His Majesty offered a solution— ‘Make bishops of them—make bishops of them.’ The prelate replied: ‘That might be done, but please your Majesty, we cannot make a bishop of Lady Huntingdon.’ At that point the Queen interposed, ‘It would be a lucky circumstance if you could, for she puts you all to shame.’”[11]

As Whitefield and Wesley needed support from the countess, the Church today needs godly and powerful patronage. God’s people might pray that more fish shall be caught and found to have money in their mouths.[12] It is a wonderful thing to observe God’s stewardship of the resources surrendered to Him by wealthy, zealous converts such as Lady Huntingdon. This was true in times past, and, should it please Him, it will be so today.

 

[1] Gilbert W. Kirby, The Elect Lady (Northants, England: The Trustees of the Connexion, 1972), 29.

[2] The stanza went as follows:

Uphold this star in Thy right hand
Crown her endeavors with success;
Among the great ones may she stand,
A witness of Thy righteousness,
Till many nobles join Thy train
And triumph in the lamb that’s slain.

[3] Eerdmans’ Handbook to the History of Christianity, ed. Tim Dowley (Herts, England: Lion Publishing, 1977), 449.

[4] Faith Cook, Selina, Countess of Huntingdon (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2001), 5-6.

[5] Ibid., 15.

[6] One of her dresses was made from 19 meters of multi-colored silk, imported from France. And Selina was a frequent visitor at the luxurious spa at Bath, where she “took the [thermal] waters” to recover from the rigors of childbirth. Cook, 20, 25.

[7] Margaret had accepted the gospel preaching of Benjamin Ingham, an associate of the Wesleys, and she could not contain her joy, commending Christ to all her loved ones. Kirby, 15.

[8] Kirby, 18.

[9] Ibid., 54.

[10] Ibid., 60.

[11] Ibid., 36.

[12] “But so that we may not offend them, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.” (Matt. 17:27 NIV)