Lady Huntingdon’s Hymn Book (1774)
The collection of hymns published under the auspices of Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon (née Shirley, 1707–91), the titled patron of much evangelical advance in the 18th-c times of revival. Her life was almost co-terminous with that of John Wesley, and her conversion from formal religion to living faith in Christ came a year later than his; the first Methodist Conference was held in her (stately) Leicestershire home and she had a warm friendship with Charles W. Both brothers eventually divided from her on doctrinal grounds, when the extraordinary Conference minutes of 1770 could not be explained away. The Huntingdons’ London house was no.11 Downing St; Selina was widowed in 1746 aged 39, left with her 4 surviving children and a life’s work ahead. By now Reformed (Calvinist) in her theology, she gave special support at various times to men such as Howell Harris, Thos Haweis qv, Martin Madan, Wm Romaine, and Geo Whitefield, and was instrumental in the conversion of Lord Dartmouth (William Legge) who became a key figure in the ministry of John Newton. It was probably Lady H who reconciled the more conservative Doddridge and Watts to the preaching and methods of Whitefield. Her training college at Trevecca, S Wales (from ‘Trefeca Isaf’, ‘Rebecca’s Home’) was opened in 1768, performing useful service while beset with problems and never quite fulfilling the high hopes of its founders. Though remaining an Anglican nearly all her life, in 1781– 82 she reluctantly registered the chapels opened in her Connexion as ‘Dissenting places of worship’ (after a legal judgement against her over the Spa Fields Chapel in Clerkenwell, London, opened in 1779), in order to be free to appoint CofE clergy as ‘chaplains’. This had been a failing palace of entertainment, typically re-ordered for Christian use. But when the first ordinations were held at Spa Fields in 1783, several Anglican incumbents withdrew from the Connexion, including her long-standing and plainspeaking friend Jn Berridge, also Henry Venn, Wm Romaine and (for a time) Thos Haweis.
The hymn-book published in 1774 grew from a core of 231 hymns (including 13 for children) prepared for the new Bath chapel in 1765. Clearly reflecting the doctrine of its compilers, it came to be used in all her chapels and sometimes beyond. It was one of a series of such books, some co-edited by the Countess’s brother-in-law W Walter Shirley, qv. Wm T Brooke, writing in Julian, carefully lists these collections in 9 main sections beginning in 1764, but says that their history ‘is very involved and obscure’. The 1774 book is the 4th in this list, advertised as being sold in Bath and Bristol, and had a notable section on ‘the Sacrament’; but the 1780 edn (no.7) has some claim to be the definitive one. This contains 289 hymns, some doxologies, and the words of the choruses in Handel’s Messiah. The hymns are printed anonymously. As Faith Cook says, ‘These dumpy little books, measuring about three or four inches square, were bound in red morocco leather with gold tooling’. A much larger edn, with 730 hymns and writers’ names included, was authorised in 1854. It was once though that Lady H herself wrote hymns but the evidence is uncertain. Steve Turner says that she was the first hymnal editor to include Amazing grace following its appearance in the 1770 Olney book. Dubbed ‘the St Teresa of the Methodists’ (Horace Walpole, tongue in cheek?) she had been ‘unfortunate in her biographers’ (Skevington Wood) until Faith Cook wrote Selina, Countess of Huntingdon in 2001. Earlier treatments included the massive, essential but flawed work by Aaron Seymour in 1839, Gilbert Kirby’s 1990 booklet The Elect Lady, and Lady Elizabeth Catherwood’s 1991 Evangelical Library lecture, Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon—an English Deborah. No.963.