Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Hastings, Selina

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HASTINGS, SELINA, Countess of Huntingdon (1707–1791), second of three daughters and coheiresses of Washington Shirley, second Earl Ferrers, was born on 24 Aug. 1707. She married on 3 June 1728 Theophilus Hastings, ninth earl of Huntingdon, and resided with him at Dunnington (or Donington) Park, in the parish of Castle Donington in Leicestershire. In the early part of her married life she was merely known as the Lady Bountiful of her own immediate neighbourhood, until she was ‘converted’ by her sister-in-law, Lady Margaret Hastings. In the popular phraseology, she ‘turned methodist,’ to the great dismay of her friends, who asked Lord Huntingdon to interfere. Lord Huntingdon recommended a conversation, which proved fruitless, with Bishop Benson, his old tutor at Oxford, but interfered no further. Lady Huntingdon identified herself the remainder of her long life with ‘the people called methodists,’ and her husband frequently attended with her George Whitefield's preaching, though he never became an actual convert. Lady Huntingdon was mainly instrumental in introducing the ‘new light’ into aristocratic circles, into which it probably would never otherwise have found its way. Her frequent visits at Twickenham, the residence of her aunt, Lady Frances Shirley, brought her also into contact with some of the chief literary celebrities of the day.

Lady Huntingdon was very intimate with the two brothers Wesley, who frequently visited her at Donington Park, was a constant attendant at their meetings in Fetter Lane, and was a member of the first methodist society formed in that place in 1739. She was present when John Wesley withdrew from his connection with the Moravians there, and did her best to dissuade Charles Wesley from joining them. She is also said to have been the first to urge Maxfield, the first itinerant lay preacher, to exercise his gifts in public, and she became the first supporter of itinerant lay preaching in the neighbourhood of Donington Park, commencing the work by sending out her own servant, David Taylor, to preach. The loss of her two sons, George and Ferdinando Hastings, from small-pox in 1743 made her cling more closely to the consolations of religion. On 13 Oct. 1746 her husband died. When her son Francis attained his majority, she left Donington Park, and took a house at Ashby with her other children and her sisters-in-law, the Ladies Hastings. She was no longer tied so much to one spot, and the marriage of her sister-in-law and first spiritual director, Lady Margaret Hastings, with Benjamin Ingham [q. v.], a methodist preacher, interested her still more deeply in the cause.

She had become acquainted with George Whitefield before his voyage to America in 1744, and on his return in 1748 she requested a common friend, the Welsh evangelist, Howel Harris [q. v.], to bring him to her house at Chelsea as soon as he came on shore. A year before she had appointed him her chaplain, and now, to give him a wider sphere, she removed to London, and opened her house in Park Lane for him to preach in twice a week to the aristocracy. In 1749 Lady Huntingdon made a vain effort to reconcile Whitefield to the Wesleys, siding with Whitefield, with whom she became more and more intimate. In 1750 he visited her at her country house at Ashby, when he said ‘she looks like a good archbishop with his chaplains around him.’ Lady Huntingdon exercised her right as a peeress to appoint as many chaplains as she pleased, and thus protected many clergymen suspected of methodism. The oldest and most influential of these chaplains was William Romaine, but she was the patroness of many others. She opened a correspondence with James Hervey [q. v.], who visited her at Ashby in 1750. In 1756 she made the acquaintance of Henry Venn, who became one of her favourite chaplains. She enabled several well-known evangelical clergymen, such as Moses Browne [q. v.] and Martin Madan, to obtain ordination. In 1758 she became acquainted with John William Fletcher of Madeley [q. v.], who often preached for her. She was also intimate with Augustus Toplady, who called her ‘the most precious saint of God he ever knew.’ John Berridge [q. v.], William Grimshaw (1708–1763) [q. v.], and most other evangelical clergymen of eminence were more or less intimate with her. She was a friend of Doddridge; Rowland Hill, who, though he was in deacon’s orders, can scarcely be reckoned as regular clergyman, was her chaplain; she was a friend of Dr. Watts, the independent, and also of Abraham Booth [q. v.], the particular baptist, whose once famous treatise, ‘The Reign of Grace,' she distributed widely, and she was at one time in the habit of attending Dr. Barker’s ministry at Salter’s Hall. She also kept up her interest in the Moravians, and ventured to remonstrate with Count Zinzendorf upon his opinions. The ‘connexion' of which she was the founder seems to have grown up by degrees. Her first regular chapel was built at Brighton, and paid for by the sale of her jewels in 1761. She soon founded various chapels in Sussex. In order to attract the upper classes, she chose such places as Bath, Tunbridge, and London as her strongholds. When she built the chapel in Spa Fields in 1779, Mr. Sellon, a clergyman, opposed the arrangement. She thought that as a peeress she had a right to employ her own chaplains at any time and place in the most public manner. A trial took place in the consistorial court of London, and the result was that she was obliged to take shelter under the Toleration Act; her ministers took the oath of allegiance as dissenting ministers, and her chapels were registered as dissenting places of worship. The parochial ministers who were her chaplains, Romaine, Venn, Berridge, and others, hereupon withdrew from her connexion, though they still continued to take a deep interest in her work.

In 1767 Trevecca House, in the parish of Talgarth in North Wales, was to be let on lease. Lady Huntingdon resolved, after consulting her friends, to open it as a seminary for the training of her ministers. Trevecca was opened by Whitefield on 24 Aug. 1768, Lady Huntingdon’s birthday. Fletcher was appointed president. He was to visit it as often as his duties at Madeley would allow him. Joseph Benson [q. v.], transferred from Kingswood, became after a short time the head-master on John Wesley’s recommendation. Lady Huntingdon henceforward spent much of her time at Trevecca, taking a deep interest in her students, and sending them about to ‘supply' the congregations under her patronage. After three years' residence they ‘might, if they desired, enter the ministry either of the church of England or any other protestant denomination.' As far as she could Lady Huntingdon kept her hold on the church of England. Her plan was to have ‘a rotation of clergy throughout the large chapels and congregations.’ Whitefield died in 1770, and left her by his will considerable possessions in America. This led her to commence mission work in that country. But soon after the arrival of her missionaries in Georgia, the orphan house which had been founded there by Whitefield was burnt down, and this entailed a loss of 10,000l. upon Lady Huntingdon. In 1770 also the famous minutes of Wesley’s conference, which were so obnoxious to the Calvinistic Methodists, appeared. Lady Huntingdon took an active part in the protest against these minutes, and one result of the disagreement was withdrawal of Fletcher from the presidency, and the dismissal of Benson from the head-mastership of Trevecca College. In spite of these checks the work grew largely. ‘Nothing,' she writes in 1774, ‘can express the difficulties I feel for helpers, from the amazing increase of the work everywhere.' Hitherto she had exercised morally, though not legally, entire control over the whole ‘connexion,' and supported the college at Trevecca at her own expense. her death might cause a collapse of the work. An association was therefore formed in 1790, at her own request, to aid her during her life, and to perpetuate the connexion after her death. Upon this event in 1791, Lady Anne Erskine took her place. Her chapels were bequeathed to four persons, and in 1792, when the lease of Trevecca House expired, the college was removed to Cheshunt in Hertfordshire.

Lady Huntingdon's interests were by no means confined to her own ‘connexion.' She used her social position to further her religious purposes. She visited her cousin, Laurence Shirley, fourth earl Ferrers, when under sentence of death, and Handel during his last illness in 1759. Her opposition to the agitation for a relaxation of subscription in 1772 was acknowledged in a letter from Burke. She remonstrated with the Archbishop of Canterbury (Dr. Cornwallis) for holding ‘routs,' and when her remonstrance was fruitless made her way to the court, and laid her case before George III and Queen Charlotte, by both of whom she was cordially received. On 17 June 1791 she died in her house at Spa Fields, London, and was buried at Ashby-de-la-Zouch. Her family consisted of four sons and three daughters. There are several portraits of her; one painted by Bowyer was engraved by J. Fittler in 1790, another in mezzotint by J. Russel appeared in 1773. ‘Lady Huntingdon’s Connexion' still holds its place among the religious communities.

[The Life and Times of Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, by a member of the House of Shirley and Hastings, 2 vols., London, 1839-40, 8vo (cf. a sympathetic review of this book written in 1840 by J. H. (Cardinal) Newman, in Essays Critical and Historical, i. 387 sq.); Lives of Whitefield, Wesley, Venn, Fletcher, Rowland Hill, Romaine, &c. passim; Bromley's Cat. of Brit. Portraits, p. 423.]

J. H. O.