Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Huntingdon, Huntingdon County
The Countess of Huntingdon, Selena Hastings, was a Methodist religious reformer and is the namesake of Huntingdon County.
Born in 1707 in Leicestershire, England, Selena Hastings’ childhood was unmarked by any remarkable religious piety. She married Theophilus Hastings, the Ninth Earl of Huntingdon, and had seven children. After experiencing many illnesses throughout her life, Selina became heavily involved in Methodism. Her religious efforts created a new sect of Methodism under her many chapels and chaplains, known as “The Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion.” The Church of England attempted to bring her work to a halt in 1779, branding her a dissenter, but she continued her evangelical mission. She died in 1791 in London, England and became the namesake for Huntingdon County.
Religious leader Selina Hastings was born as Selina Shirley on August 24, 1707 at Stanton Harold in Leicestershire, England. Devoting her life to spreading Methodism, Hastings has been hailed the “Queen of Methodism” and a leader of the Evangelical Awakening alongside John and Charles Wesley, and George Whitefield.
Hastings was the daughter of Lord Washington Shirley and Lady Mary Shirley. She grew up as one of three children and spent her childhood between Leicestershire and her family’s Irish estates. When Hastings was a child, Lady Mary left the family after contracting syphilis from her husband. Hastings was unaware of her mother’s illness, causing Hastings to gain a passionate loyalty to her father and to forever feel abandoned by her mother. In 1728, she married Theophilus Hastings, the ninth Earl of Huntingdon. Their marriage was a loving one, but they were never without turbulence: Hastings was often kept away by illness and legal disputes over her father’s estate lead to familial strife among the Shirley’s. Theophilus and Hastings had seven children: Francis, George, Elizabeth, Ferdinando, Selina, and Henry. Of these seven, only Selina, Francis, and Elizabeth survived past adolescence.
The influence of her sister-in-law’s preaching, in addition to a near-fatal illness, caused her to convert to the new Christian sect of Methodism in 1739. She joined John Wesley’s Methodist Society in Fetter Lane, London where the popular ideology of an emotional faith in God and the morality of the individual were featured. Hastings later developed a fondness for the preaching of George Whitefield, a leader of the Evangelical Revival, whom she invited into her London home to deliver speeches to audiences of distinguished guests. There was a split between the Wesleys and Whitefield, which Hastings attempted to reconcile, but her change of loyalties led to a strained relationship with the Wesleys.
When her husband died in 1746, Hastings became entirely devoted to her religion. With the muscle of her wealth and social status, she directed her efforts towards converting the upper class. She funded 60 chapels, led missions from England, and founded the Trevecca House (a college to train preachers) in Brecknockshire, Wales. Because of her work, the religious network known as “The Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion” was formed. This network became known as Hastings’s own sect of Calvinistic Methodism and included chapels and chaplains operating with her support. It is argued that Hastings’ religious zeal arrived as a result of her earthly troubles. Boyd Stanley Schlenther writes in his biography Queen of the Methodists: The Countess of Huntingdon and the Eighteenth Century Crisis of Faith and Society, “It is no disparagement of the Countess of Huntingdon to conclude that her passionate promotion of evangelical preaching and the celebrity celerity with which she frequently acted…was driven by an unconscious personal need for inner fulfillment.” Hastings believed that when she attained the appropriate level of faith for herself, the world would then be converted.
Opposition to Hastings’ work came from the Church of England in 1779. While she considered herself a part of the Church, they felt differently. The Church ordered Methodist ministers to disassociate with Hastings’ offices and towns. As reported in Lady Huntingdon’s Reformation, she writes to Reverend 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.” Hastings attempted to skirt their ruling under the authority of the Toleration Act, which allowed non-conformists their own place to worship. Through the Act she had to register her chapels as “dissenting places of worship” with ecclesiastic or civil authorities, driving away many influential members of the Connexion.
She continued to persevere, despite the Church of England’s regulations and her illnesses, until her death on June 17, 1791, in London. Trevecca College now rests in Cambridge and many of her chapels are still in use today as Methodist congregations. Huntingdon College, a Methodist institution in Alabama, stands in her honor. She also became the namesake of Huntingdon County due to her remarkable piety and the considerable funds she donated to Reverend D. William Smith of the University of Pennsylvania, who later laid out the county.
Schlenther, Boyd Stanley. Queen of the Methodists: The Countess of Huntingdon and the Eighteenth Century Crisis of Faith and Society. Durham: Durham Academic Press, 1997.
Tyson, John R. “Lady Huntingdon’s Reformation.” Church History. Vol.64, No.4. Cambridge: Cambridge, 1995. 580-93.
York, Laura. “Hastings, Selina (1707-1791). Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. Detroit: York, 2002.