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Benevolent Designs: The Countess and the General: George Washington, Selina Countess of Huntingdon, their correspondence, & the evangelizing of America Paperback – July 4, 2013
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About the Author
Markham Shaw Pyle, who holds his undergraduate and law degrees from Washington & Lee, is, inter alia, co-author of an acclaimed centenary history of the Titanic enquiries in Britain and the United States, co-author of an account of that portentous year 1937, author of a history of Congress' 1941 vote to keep the draft four months before Pearl Harbor, and the co-editor and co-annotator of scholarly editions of Kipling's Mowgli stories and of Kenneth Grahame's tales of Rat, Mole, Toad, and Mr. Badger.
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Third, and most prominently, Pyle examines the life and works of Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, who was a supporter of Wesley's and an underwriter for the early phase of Methodism, and who is (by my own quick mental survey) one of three women who have founded a Christian denomination. (I am thinking of Aimee Semple McPherson and Mary Baker Eddy here, but there may be more.) I will confess that I had not heard of the Countess, or of her denomination (known, charmingly, as "Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion") until reading this book, and it gave me the greatest pleasure to, as it were, fill in this particular blank in my historical knowledge.
BENEVOLENT DESIGNS covers a great deal of Protestant theology, particularly with regard to the dispute between Calvinism (which of course includes predestination) and Arminianism (which, as Wikipedia helpfully reminds us, is not to be confused with Armenians). The Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion was a largely unsuccessful attempt to steer the course of Methodism towards Calvinism. (As a Southern Baptist, I should point out here that my denomination combines the two doctrines.) But Pyle here is less involved with the theology and more with the practical effect of the Countess's faith in action.
The Countess's grand plan, as explicated in the book, was to plant settlements of her co-religionists in the American frontier, where they would be well-placed to instruct the local Indian tribes and civilize and Christianize them. In aid of this, she contacted her kinsman in America, a prominent man, a leader of his generation, and the Father of our Country. The correspondence between the Countess and General Washington is the anchor of the book, as well as its primary ornament.
Washington was, quite rightly, concerned that the American backwoods be settled by yeoman farmers and not exploited by land speculators. He was concerned with keeping good relations with the Indian tribes--as a participant in the French and Indian Wars, Washington was intimately familiar with what the tribes could do militarily if they were aroused. Washington's interests did not exactly coincide with the Countess's, but Pyle makes the case that they dovetailed nicely.
BENEVOLENT DESIGNS is a well thought-out, illuminating piece of history covering topics that are often sadly neglected. Pyle writes with integrity, authority, and an appealing energy (despite the occasional detour). But perhaps the most revealing aspect of the book is the long passages quoted from the letters of George Washington--both to the Countess and to other correspondents. Washington is not the best prose stylist among the Presidents; Lincoln was far more eloquent and TR was far more prolific. But Washington here exhibits both his own ingrained nobility and an admirable blunt directness. Pyle wisely steps back and lets the General speak, and the book is better for it.