The Countess of Huntingdon’s Text by Frank W. Boreham

August 24, 1707 – June 17, 1791

The Countess of Huntingdon stands absolutely alone in history. Her extraordinary achievement is without precedent and without parallel; in all our annals there is no record that we can compare with hers. Since the world began, no one person of either sex has done for any nation what she did for ours. It is the unique distinction of her long and illustrious career that, without thrusting herself into prominence or compromising in the slightest degree the instinctive delicacy of her sex, she compelled every man in England, from the king upon his throne to the ploughman in his cottage, to give serious and earnest consideration to the impressive appeal of the everlasting gospel. By her wise, winsome and essentially womanly ministry, she brought an entire people face to face with Jesus Christ. Henry Venn spoke of her as a star of the very first magnitude; Macaulay said that, if she had been a Roman Catholic, she would have been canonized as Saint Selina; while a third authority declares deliberately that she is the greatest woman who has ever lived.


By a singular coincidence, the man who, in the whole course of history, did more than any other man for the evangelization of the English-speaking people, and the woman who, of all women, achieved most for the same end, passed away within a few weeks of each other. No two individual lives have more profoundly affected our British destinies than the lives of John Wesley and the Countess of Huntingdon. They were both born when the eighteenth century was dawning; despite their prodigious labors and constant anxieties, both lived to a great age; and the eighteenth century was getting ready to die when they went down to their honored graves.

Look at her! She is only nine; very pretty; with rosy cheeks, sparkling eyes and a wealthy shock of nut-brown hair. Notwithstanding her great position, her proud title and her exalted rank, she is perfectly natural, exquisitely girlish and entirely free from any suspicion of affectation. Watching her at her play, nobody would suspect that she is the heiress of a noble house that boasts its hoary (respected) traditions, its princely lineage and its numerous royal alliances. She is a favorite with her playmates and companions; and all the sparkle dies out of a frolic (a fun time) when the vivacious yet thoughtful little Lady Selina is called to leave it. But, this evening, an unwonted heaviness broods over her gay young spirit. The sprightliness has vanished; she is singularly quiet. She is in no mood for a romp with her sisters. She walks apart, and, in striking contrast with her usual reluctance to go to bed, she seeks, earlier than the appointed hour, the solitude of her own room. Something must have happened to cloud her blithe young spirit with such unaccustomed gloom. It has!

She was out for a walk with her sisters this afternoon when they encountered something that lay altogether beyond the bounds of all previous experience. They met a village funeral on its way to the little cemetery on the hillside. The coffin was being borne along the country road on the shoulders of four sturdy rustics. Selina’s eager mind was all alert on the instant. Who was it that had died? It was a child! Did children die? She had never conceived of such a possibility. And who was the child? Was it a boy or a girl? It was a girl! With eyes full of sad surprise the sisters stared at each other. And was it a big girl or a little girl? How old was she? She was nine! The other sisters looked meaningly (purposely) at Selina; for Selina was nine! The bright, sensitive child was profoundly impressed. She insisted on their following the cortege at a respectful distance, and they stood near enough to the open grave to hear every word of the burial service. The first vague consciousness of mortality – and immortality – fastened itself upon her mind. She was a citizen of eternity! There was another world, and, sooner or later, she would be summoned to pass into it! She feels this evening that she would give everything – her wealth, her title, her prospects, her all – for some sure hope of happiness in that world as well as in this one. But on what foundation can she base such a hope? That is the question; and, to that question, the poor little Lady Selina can see no possible reply.

She could imagine no reply and she could think of nobody who could help her. At the dawn of the eighteenth century, English standards and English manners were at their lowest ebb. Politics had degenerated into an undignified squabble; society was as corrupt as it could very well be; music, art and literature were all degraded; the sports and pastimes of life were universally squalid and often obscene; even religion had become formal, sanctimonious and largely hypocritical. “The saint,” says Addison, “was of a sorrowful countenance and generally eaten up with spleen (gloominess) and melancholy.” The parson of the period, as the Countess’s biographer points out, was respected for his cloth rather than for his qualities. He sat in the kitchen of the village inn, smoking tobacco and drinking ale with his parishioners, or he played the fiddle in the taprooms of the countryside in the daytime and at the dances and merry-making at night. He was pinched in means (he was tight financially), and was glad to be invited to a meal with the butlers in the servants’ hall. A higher class of clergyman went fox-hunting with the neighboring gentry and cut a brave figure in the social life of the period. A still higher grade mingled with the wits in the city taverns and coffee-houses. “But the devout minister of religion was rarely to be met with; the earnest, eloquent, persuasive, energetic, urgent messenger of the gospel was almost unknown.” In what direction, then, could the little Lady Selina look for an answer to her troublesome question? On what foundation could she base her hope of happiness hereafter? She called into the void; there was no answer; and the silence mocked her passionate insistence.

It is a long past midnight. The Lady Selina – now a graceful girl of nineteen – has just returned from the ball. Wearing her beautiful dress, and with her jewels still flashing in her hair, she has thrown herself on her knees beside her bed in a tempest of tears. Never for a moment has she forgotten the tumult of concern that was aroused in her heart ten years ago by that mournful little pageant on the country road. Many and many a time has she stolen away to the cemetery on the hillside and, kneeling beside the grave under the gnarled old yew – the grave of the girl who, in life, she never knew – she has prayed that she may yet find an answer to her question.

And, although no satisfactory answer has reached her, although she is still in the dark as to the true foundation on which the hope of eternal happiness must be based, she has done her very utmost to merit the approbation of the Most High. “She aspired after rectitude,” her biographer tells us, “and was eager to possess every moral perfection. In all such matters her Ladyship outstripped the multitude in an uncommon degree. She was rigidly just in her dealings and inflexibly true to her word. She was a strict observer of her several duties in every relationship of life. Her deportment was courteous, her conduct was prudent, her sentiments were liberal, and her charity was profuse. She was a diligent inquirer after truth and was a regular attendant at public worship.” Yet, for all that, she is uneasy and dissatisfied. She has felt – and never more keenly than tonight – that none of these things provide a solid foundation on which to rest her hope of everlasting felicity.

And, even if they could, there is another question. What of her sin? “My best righteousness,” she tells us, “now appeared to be but filthy rags, which, so far from justifying me before God, increased my condemnation. I was filled with remorse, I saw that my heart was deceitful above all things and desperately wicked; and I saw that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” This evening she was on her way to a brilliant social function. She is society’s darling, the happiest of a happy and distinguished coterie (exclusive, inner circle). Wealth, beauty and popularity are all hers. But, for some strange reason, as she was being driven in her splendid equipage to the ball, the old thoughts came surging back upon her. The old question repeated itself again and again. Years before, as a little child, she had memorized the questions and answers of the Westminster Shorter Catechism; and tonight, sitting in her carriage, the first question and the first answer returned to her troubled mind: “What is the chief end of man?” “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.”

To enjoy Him forever – it was her one desire!
To glorify God – but how?

“I saw,” she cries, “that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God!” Leaving the pleasures to which she had looked forward with such bright anticipations, she hurried home from the brilliant ballroom, and, speaking to nobody as she passed along the hall and up the stairs, she sought the silence of her dainty room. And here she is, charmingly robed and bejeweled, yet weeping as though her heart must break. The old question is as insistent as ever; yet, still, there is no answer. She has relied upon her integrity, her charity, her exemplary behavior; but she feels that she is building upon the sand. This is not the true foundation.

The question is answered at last! The beautiful Lady Selina has married into one of the noblest houses in England. She is now the Countess of Huntingdon. And, in marrying the Earl, she has formed a fast friendship with his sisters, Lady Betty and Lady Margaret Hastings. By this time strange things are happening in England. All over the country men are preaching: they are preaching without a book; they are preaching in fields, on village greens, and by the open roadside. Everybody is talking about this startling innovation. Moved by curiosity, the Ladies Betty and Margaret go to hear the new preachers. They can scarcely believe their ears. These men talk about religion as if religion really mattered! They speak with fervor, with urgency, and with wistful entreaty. There are tears in their eyes as they tell of the love of God, of the grace of Christ, of the wondrous virtue of the Cross, and of their own experience of the divine mercy. The Lady Margaret capitulates unconditionally; her life is transfigured; and she enters into a gladness of which she had never previously dreamed. She tells everybody of her radiant experience. Her sister-in-law, the Countess of Huntingdon, is ill; but, sitting by her bedside, the Lady Margaret tells her that, “since she had known the Lord Jesus, and trusted Him for life and salvation, she had been as happy as an angel!” The Countess is profoundly impressed both by the words and by the shining countenance of the speaker. She vaguely feels that she has found a clue to the baffling problem that has distressed her so long. As soon as she is allowed a book, she reads carefully the First Epistle to the Corinthians, always her favorite portion, “Not many wise, not many mighty, not many noble are called,” says Paul, in the first chapter of that epistle. “Not many!” “Oh, how I thank God for the little letter “m!” her ladyship used to say. “Supposing, sitting up in bed, I had read that not any noble are called!” She read on until she came to this: “Other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ!There was the answer to her question!

“Since I have trusted in the Lord Jesus Christ for life and salvation,” the Lady Margaret had said, “I have been as happy as an angel!”

“Other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”

“Now,” says her biographer, “the day began to dawn! Jesus the Sun of Righteousness arose, and burst in meridian (midday) splendor on her benighted soul. The scales fell from her eyes and opened a passage for the light of life. It streamed in, and death and darkness fled before it. When, in her own apprehension, upon the point of perishing, the words of the Lady Margaret had returned strongly to her recollection, and she had felt an earnest desire, renouncing every other hope, to cast herself wholly upon Christ for life and salvation. From her bed she lifted up her heart to her Savior; all her distresses and fears were immediately removed, and she was filled with joy and peace in believing. She determined thenceforward to present herself to God, as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable, which, she was now convinced, was her reasonable service.”

“On what foundation could she rest her hope of eternal happiness!” she had asked, beside that rustic grave.

“Since I trusted in Christ,” the Lady Margaret had said, “I have been as happy as an angel!”

“Other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”

“Renouncing every other hope,” her biographer tells us, “she cast herself wholly upon Christ for life and salvation.”

That night after the ball she felt that she had been building upon drifting sand; she felt now that her faith was founded upon the Rock of Ages.

Never was a vow fulfilled more literally, more completely and more cheerfully than the vow that the young Countess registered on that memorable day. “She determined to present herself to God as a living sacrifice,” and she did! From that moment to the end of her life she devoted the whole of her private income to the spread of the revival. For the preachers who were driven to the fields and highways, she built attractive sanctuaries. She called George Whitefield, John Wesley, and other of the flaming spirits of that stirring time, to her drawing room, and summoned the greatest in the land to hear them. The most dissolute men of the period and the greatest scoffers in the country partook of her hospitality. Princes and peers, actors and poets, statesmen and authors – you can scarcely find one distinguished name in the annals of the time but you will find that name also among the Countess of Huntingdon’s guests. From the moment at which God set her soul at liberty, she had such a thirst for the conversion of others that she compared herself to a ship in full sail, scudding before the wind, borne on by such an influence as could not be described. She took the movement that was struggling for expression in the highways and by-ways of England and introduced it into courts and castles. As Cardinal Newman says, “she opened new worlds to the revival.” In the nature of things, the Cardinal regarded the Countess as the great high priestess of a poisonous heresy; but he doffs his hat to her in spite of everything. He salutes her as one who simply and unconditionally gave up this world for the next. She is, he says, an example for all time. “She was the representative, in an evil day, of the rich becoming poor for Christ; of delicate women putting off their soft attire and wrapping themselves in sackcloth for the kingdom of heaven’s sake.” The Cardinal finds the whole story “very stirring and very touching.” The converts of the Countess, among both high and low, were innumerable. For while, three times a week, she crowded her drawing-room with the lordliest in the land, she assiduously visited among the poorest of the poor. In order to supply the country with a succession of evangelists, she built colleges, providing in the trust deeds that the men trained under her auspices should be free to join any denomination they liked. As long as she had money, she built churches all over the country, and then she sold her jewels to build more. Before our great missionary societies were established she planted missions on the West Coast of Africa, in the South Seas, and among the Indians of North America. In order that she might send the gospel unto every creature, she administered her modest household with the strictest frugality, and, at the age of eighty-four, died in debt. She made religion so lovable that the whole nation was sweetened by her influence. In an age in which the atmosphere of the English Court was by no means pure, the King would allow no jests to be made at her expense; and when, one day, Lady Charlotte Edwin broke that rule, the Prince of Wales rebuked her by saying that he would be very glad, on his deathbed, to be able to seize the skirt of the Countess of Huntingdon’s mantle.

All this was the superstructure; not the foundation. She clung to her text to the last. Other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Lest there should be any misapprehension, she put her faith in writing a few months before she died. “I do hereby declare,” she said, “that all my present peace and my hope of future glory depend wholly, fully, and finally upon the merits of Jesus Christ my Lord and Savior. I commit my soul into His arms unreservedly as a subject of His sole mercy to all eternity.” “There is but One Foundation,” she exclaimed near the end, “there is but One Foundation on which a sinner like me can rest.” That was the Foundation for which, as a little girl, she had sighed. She found it in her early womanhood, and, for sixty years, she built upon it bravely.

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