The Countess of Huntingdon's College, Trevecka (1768-1791)

The Countess of Huntingdon's College, Trevecka
The Countess of Huntingdon's College, Trevecka, opened 1768 [source: DWL, MS NCL L64/1/8]

Trevecka College was opened in 1768 by Selina, Countess of Huntingdon. (Trevecka was the spelling commonly used by English writers in the eighteenth century; it was also sometimes spelled Trevecca. The Welsh spelling was formerly Trefecca, and is now Trefeca.) This small hamlet near Talgarth, in what is now Powys, was the setting for two theological colleges, which are often confused. In the hamlet itself lies the former Calvinistic Methodist College (founded in 1842), now a conference centre, which stands on the site of Howel Harris's settlement. The Welsh evangelist Harris assisted Lady Huntingdon in finding a quite separate building, about half a mile down the road towards Talgarth, for her college.

The Countess had been considering the creation of a 'nursery' (Harding, 173) or college to train evangelical preachers for some years before the actual opening, which may have been finally triggered by the expulsion of six evangelical students from St Edmund Hall, Oxford in 1768. The dedicatory sermon was preached by the Calvinist Methodist George Whitefield on 24 August 1768. The first president or superintendent was John Fletcher, vicar of Madeley, who gave advice but did not reside in the college (the Countess had previously approached the Moravian Francis Okely, who declined). The appointment of suitable men to teach the students initially proved difficult. The first master appointed in 1768, John Williams, a protégé of Harris with limited experience, was dismissed in 1772. The second master, Joseph Benson, formerly tutor at John Wesley's school at Kingswood and senior to Williams, joined in early 1770 but his tenure was brief, a consequence of the Arminian controversy which divided the Methodist movement. Members of the college were obliged by the Countess to disavow Wesley's Arminian doctrines: Benson was dismissed at the end of the year and Fletcher resigned in March 1771. Thereafter the Countess supervised the college herself, assisted by resident masters and a housekeeper. She had rooms in the college and stayed there for extended periods every year until a few years before her death. Following Williams's dismissal a senior student carried out administrative duties. The tenure of another master from Kingswood School, Isaac Twycross, was also shortlived, but the next master, Samuel Phillips, was appointed in 1774 and served for at least ten years. A second John Williams, clergyman and son of William Williams of Pantycelyn, was the last master in charge of the college, from c.1786 to 1791. John Jones helped out until the college moved to Cheshunt in 1792. The college was funded entirely by the Countess, at a cost of £500 to £600 a year, according to the Apostolic Society Report for 1791.

Trevecka differed from all other colleges at the time in that the emphasis was on training the students to be preachers, with academic study regarded as secondary. Entrance was dependent on vocation and the profession of religious sentiments acceptable to the foundress. At least 235 students passed through the college between 1768 and its closure in 1791. Two of the six students expelled from St Edmund Hall, James Matthews and Joseph Shipman, were among the first to be admitted; others applied to the Countess, or were recommended to her by clergy or people of standing, or were introduced by current students. There is no record of any fee-paying students being enrolled. There was a short period of probation, with students being tested on their capacity to preach. The poor preparation or hostility to learning of some the students caused problems; some were required to study with a minister or clergyman before admission. There was no set length for the course, though originally there were plans to make it three years; most students seem to have spent a much shorter time in the college, as they were regularly sent out on preaching tours. It is perhaps because of the emphasis on preaching that the students wore gowns. The curriculum was dominated by biblical studies, exegesis, with some Latin and Greek, and preaching. The students had access to the Countess's own collection of books. Rhetoric was not taught, in the belief that preaching should be direct and personal, leading to conversion.

The students were housed in the college but often sent on preaching trips to supply chapels connected with the Countess. This took them as far away as Cambridgeshire and Sussex. Welsh students were expected to preach in their own language at open-air meetings in the neighbourhood. The Countess wished to create a corps of effective preachers, able to work with the poor and labouring classes in the manner of the Wesleys, Whitefield, Fletcher, Henry Venn, and John Berridge. The possibility of overseas missions was also in her mind, so she wanted people who could fend for themselves and she discouraged social pretensions. In 1772 she sent a group of students on an unsuccessful expedition to Bethesda, Whitefield's ill fated Orphan House in Savannah, Georgia, which he had willed to her in the hope that she would carry out his plan to turn it into a college.

In an undated letter of about 1774 to William Piercy, who was the tutor in charge of the students at Bethesda, she revealed some of her own educational ideas. She commended Bishop Thomas Sherlock for style and the nonconformist Stephen Charnock for both style and ideas. She regarded Milton as important, both for his description of the Fall and his beautiful images. She thought Bishop Thomas Newton, Milton's eighteenth-century editor, had a systematic approach to facts which would be a good example to the students. She valued clarity and recognised the difficulty of presenting complicated ideas in a lively manner. Most interestingly, she urged patience in teaching. Both learning and spiritual knowledge were best built by example, rather than by constant attempts to check and correct the students. She believed that if the self-love of young people was indulged, they could be influenced as they began to recognise their own ignorance (Cheshunt A4/3/9b).

Her wish was that the Trevecka students should proceed into Anglican orders, but the bishops were wary of her nominees and only about twenty, including Henry Mead and James Glazebrook, received episcopal ordination, a few of them, such as Edward Burn and John Eyre, after further study at one of the universities. Following the secession of the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion from the Church of England in 1782, some were ordained as ministers in what was now a dissenting sect. Many were ordained as Independent ministers. Her prominent former students included Eyre, first editor of The Evangelical Magazine, and together with the Independent minister Matthew Wilks among the chief founders of the London Missionary Society; and John Clayton, a leading Independent minister in London.

As the Countess grew near to death, it became clear that a new home would have to be found for the college as the lease was running out. In 1787 supporters in her Spa Fields Chapel in London formed what they called the Apostolic Society to raise subscriptions for the college and to continue it in Wales or elsewhere in the future, but on a more carefully regulated basis. In her will she left the society the college library and furniture, but her funds were exhausted. After her death on 17 June 1791 the society took very little time to move the college much nearer London, securing a large house at Cheshunt in Hertfordshire and renaming the institution Cheshunt College.

Despite its academic and organisational problems Trevecka provided an important precedent for the development of ministerial training on a non-denominational evangelical basis, and a steady stream of preachers for the evangelical movement.

Stephen Orchard and Isabel Rivers


 

Archives

Correspondence relating to the creation of the college and its subsequent affairs, together with some of the Countess of Huntingdon's surviving books and the Minute Book of the Apostolic Society, are held in the collections of the Cheshunt Foundation at Westminster College, Cambridge.

Published sources

Harding, Alan, The Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion: A Sect in Action in Eighteenth-Century England (Oxford, 2003), chapter 5.
Nuttall, Geoffrey F., 'The Students of Trevecca College 1768-91', Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion (1967), 249-77.
-----, The Significance of Trevecca College, 1768-91 (London, 1969).
Orchard, Stephen, Cheshunt College (Saffron Walden, 1968).
-----, 'Selina, Countess of Huntingdon', The Journal of the United Reformed Church History Society, 8:2 (2008), 77-90.
Schlenther, Boyd Stanley, 'Hastings, Selina, Countess of Huntingdon (1707-1791)', ODNB.
-----, Queen of the Methodists: The Countess of Huntingdon and the Eighteenth-Century Crisis of Faith and Society (Bishop Auckland, Durham, 1997).
Welch, Edwin, Calendar and Index of Cheshunt College Archives, List & Index Society Special Series, 14 (London, 1981).
-----, Cheshunt College: The Early Years: A Selection of Records, Hertfordshire Record Publications, 6 (Linton, Cambridgeshire, 1990).
-----, Spiritual Pilgrim: A Reassessment of the Life of the Countess of Huntingdon (Cardiff, 1995), chapter 7.


Stephen Orchard and Isabel Rivers, 'The Countess of Huntingdon's College, Trevecka (1768-1791)', Dissenting Academies Online: Database and Encyclopedia, Dr Williams's Centre for Dissenting Studies, July 2011.