Selina died in 1791 from respiratory complications and was buried next to her husband. She had no money to leave behind (in fact, she was in debt), having spent everything she owned for the furthering of the gospel. Some of her chapels continued into the twenty-first century. Selina was and is still a controversial figure. She has been accused of being domineering, sometimes irascible, and taking too much responsibility on herself. She remains a towering figure in eighteenth-century Christianity, not only in England, but in many countries where she sent missionaries or supported preachers.
“And what if you save (under God) but one soul?”
This question, addressed to a still hesitant John Wesley, is a good summary of the life goal and drive of Selina Hastings, countess of Huntingdon.
Selina’s Early Life
Born in 1707 to an upper-class family in Northamptonshire, England, Selina faced challenges from an early age. She was only six when her parents separated over issues of money and alleged infidelity. She and her older sister Elizabeth stayed with their father, rejecting her mother’s claims over the family’s estate. Only after her mother’s death, Selina extended her assistance to her younger sister Mary, who had lived with their mother.
Selina’s marriage, at 21 years of age, to Theophilus Hastings, ninth earl of Huntingdon, brought her much happiness. Her letters reveal her love for her husband and their seven children, all born within the first ten years of marriage. But this early joy was marred by persistent health problems that forced Selina to spend much time at the thermal springs of Bath. She profoundly disliked the decadence of the place and missed her family, yearning to return home.
This dissatisfaction was only one aspect of her overall discontent. Amid problems of various kind, she was mostly dissatisfied with herself, a feeling that didn’t find relief in the Christianity she tried to live out in church attendance and charitable acts. What she lacked was a clear understanding of the gospel of grace.
From an early age, when the sight of a child in an open casket impressed on her the nearness of death, Selina had tried to live a godly life, but had felt increasingly inadequate. It was only in 1739 that her sister-in-law Margaret explained how she had finally found peace and assurance by simply believing that Christ had won the battle she had tried so hard to fight. Margaret directed Selina to some young pastors who were known by the disparaging name of Methodists. Selina thrived under their preaching.
Developments in Selina’s Theology
The countess’s sudden turn to Methodism was seen with disapproval by many of her relatives, who considered these preachers fanatic. Seven years later, her daughter Elizabeth, then 15, complained that her mother had become “righteous overmuch.”
But Selina persisted. John and Charles Wesley became some of her closest friends and she supported their ministry. It was around this time that she encouraged John Wesley to preach to the miners near her home. To his objection, “Have they no churches and ministers already?” she replied, “They have churches, but they never go to them! And ministers, but they seldom or never hear them! Perhaps they might hear you.”
John followed her advice in 1742, beginning a ministry that revolutionized his views and methods of preaching.
Eventually, Selina turned away from some of John Wesley’s teachings, particularly his belief that Christians can reach and must strive for perfection in this life. This doctrine, she felt, was driving her away from the assurance she had found in the simple message of salvation by faith alone. Because of this, she developed closer ties George Whitefield, who had also diverged from John Wesley on other issues, such as predestination. She appointed Whitefield as her chaplain in 1748.
This change in her theology followed a difficult time of her life, when two of her children died of smallpox and, three years later, her husband died of a stroke. More than ever, she needed to hear the good news of the gospel, free from any condition.
But her trials didn’t stop. In 1758, her son Henry died of a mysterious illness which had deprived him of his sight. In 1763, her daughter Selina died of a violent fever. Throughout this trying time, she found much comfort in the words of preachers who had become her close friends, such as Howell Harris, John Berridge, John Fletcher, and William Romaine.