Matthew Henry

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Matthew Henry was born on 18 October 1662, not long after Black Bartholomew's Day (24 August 1662), the date on which his father - in common with about 2000 other ministers of the gospel - was ejected from the Church of England for refusing to compromise his conscience by taking the Oath of Uniformity (binding those who took it to the prescribed forms of rite, ritual, administration of the ordinances, and prayers of the Church of England of its day). 350 years since his birth, what can we learn of his life and take from his legacy?

His life

Matthew Henry was the son of Philip Henry, a gifted scholar and faithful pastor with English and Welsh blood in his veins. Philip married a woman called Katherine Matthews who lived at Broad Oak in Flintshire, not far from Whitchurch. Matthew - born at the farm in Broad Oak which had become the family home - was the second child and second son.

Marriage had given Philip an advantage over many other ejected ministers - the blessing of private means - and so he and his family did not face some of the privations suffered by other ejected ministers. As a result, Matthew grew up in a loving, stable and comfortable home, with both parents concerned for the spiritual well-being of their children and where the worship of God had a daily and a weekly rhythm.

Born weak and sickly, Matthew nevertheless had a vigorous intelligence and it was vigorously trained. From the age of about ten he began to feel the convicting influence of the Spirit through the Word, and made a public profession of faith at the age of sixteen or seventeen.

In July 1680 Matthew was sent to Thomas Doolittle's Dissenting academy in Islington, London, where he had a good testimony among his fellows. When sickness swept through the city, Matthew returned home to continue his studies. In 1685 he returned to London to study law at Holborn Court, Gray's Inn. Thus Matthew obtained a good education at a time when Dissenters were at best second-class citizens and at worst rebellious schismatics: persecution was fierce (Philip spent three weeks in custody at Chester during this period). By the end of his training, Matthew knew Greek, Hebrew and Latin, with some French. He was a converted man with a sound grasp of theology, quick and plain with his pen and learning to speak slowly and clearly. When he returned to Broad Oak in June 1686, his thoughts went again and more earnestly toward gospel ministry.

God's blessing on Matthew's early preaching efforts confirmed his desire. Before long, in January 1687, a group of saints in Chester (spurred on by rumours of greater religious freedom) called the twenty five year old to be their pastor. Matthew headed first to London, where on 9 May he was ordained by six Presbyterian ministers, stating his convictions in language adapted from the Westminster Confession. His first sermon in his new charge was preached on Thursday 2 June 1687.

The new pastor set to work systematically and warm-heartedly. Each service included - alongside prayer and sung praises - both an exposition of the Scriptures and a sermon, and in this way the people were exposed repeatedly to the whole counsel of God from both Old and New Testaments. Under God's blessing, Matthew saw several new communicants joining the church every month, with thronged services. He married - despite her mother's initial opposition - a lady called Katherine Hardware in July 1687, but his wife died of smallpox after eighteen months, leaving an infant daughter. On 8 July 1690 he married again to Mary Warburton; their first two daughters both died in infancy.

He preached widely and pastored effectively. His preaching was, in some ways, as methodical as his expounding. His first series was on the misery of the sinner, followed by one on conversion, then Christian conduct, then comforts for saints, with closing sermons to summarise the key points of the whole series. His notes were careful, his language plain, his texts varied, his applications close and searching, his structures memorable and engaging. He was an energetic and earnest pulpit presence.

During this period, Matthew also began to publish, beginning with polemical pamphlets and including a selection of psalms and hymns. His first major work was his father's biography, published in 1697 (Philip died in 1696). On 12 November 1704, Matthew started work on his written exposition of the Old Testament (completed on 18 July 1712, moving to the New Testament and reaching the end of Acts by 17 April 1714). The first volume was published in 1706.

In the face of discouragements and difficulties, some typical of any age and some peculiar to the times, the congregation grew and flourished, but Matthew's health began to suffer. He also began to receive repeated invitations to move to another sphere of pastoral labour. For years he declined such invitations, but London was calling. In 1710, a Hackney church which had initially approached him in 1699 came knocking once more. Tentatively and slowly the relationship developed, and - after much agonising of soul - Matthew's last Lord's day at Chester fell on 11 May 1712. He finished expounding Joshua and Matthew that day, preaching on 1 Thessalonians 4.17-18 in the afternoon service. On his arrival in Hackney he began expounding Genesis and Matthew, preaching on the first Sunday from Acts 16.9.

The move to London increased his labours, but he made regular visits to Chester. The last of these was in June 1714, when he preached to his previous congregation and to others, though evidently struggling with ill-health. Returning toward London, he reached Nantwich on Monday 21 June, where he preached without much vigour. A restless night followed. He suffered a stroke at 5 o'clock in the morning of 22 June, and died shortly afterward, being fifty-two years old. On Friday 25 June his body was returned to Chester, where his body was interred in the Anglican church building, Trinity, alongside his first wife. Little is known of the reaction of the Hackney church or his surviving family, merely a few hints of abiding grief and sweet memories.

His writings

When the name Matthew Henry is mentioned, the mind of many turns first to his commentary, a fitting monument to this man of the Word. Here, his intimate personal acquaintance with the Scriptures, his Puritanical upbringing and training, and the discipline of his weekly expounding all come to fruition.

It was a long-term labour of love. Henry chipped away at his work at all available hours, feeling the pressure to accomplish as much as he was able. As mentioned, he completed his exposition to the end of the Acts of the Apostles, with substantial work on Romans and Revelation also completed. Others took up the work and completed it from his notes under his name, although anyone familiar with Henry's style will notice a subtle shift as we move from his voice to that of others.

His exposition is often dismissed today as - at best - a sort of devotional trawl through the Bible, lacking a proper critical apparatus, sacrificing academic nous for catchy alliteration and apposition, with a little something to be said for its pithy pungency. To judge him thus is self-defeating nincompoopery of a high order. Henry's scholarship is of his time, but for his time he had the cutting edge and - besides - the display of learning is not his aim. He combines thoroughness with terseness, explanation with application, scholarly insight with popular tone. One may trawl through countless modern commentaries and come away with a technically accurate but potentially arid grasp of the sense; Henry drives engagingly at the heart. When you feel you know what the text says, he helps you to say it. Others tell you what it means; Henry presses home what it means to you and to others. Henry's Exposition carries you relentlessly from understanding to appreciation.

As such, these are sermonic storehouses which no preacher should be without as he studies not just what the Bible means but how to communicate it. Henry's admirers and students are legion, from Archibald Alexander - "taking it as a whole, and as adapted to every class of readers, this commentary may be said to combine more excellencies than any work of the kind which was ever written, in any language" - through Whitefield - who read it repeatedly (the last time, apparently, on his knees) and drew on it constantly in his sermons - to Spurgeon, who urged, "Every minister ought to read it entirely and carefully through once at least."

We have barely time to mention his other writings, including a wonderful study of daily communion with God, a cheering treatment of the pleasantness of a religious life, a methodical survey of Scriptural thoughts to employ in prayer, together with biographical studies and a variety of sermons - including funerals and ordinations - covering topics as diverse as meekness of spirit, sober-mindedness, and pastoral labour.

As a man and as a minister, in private and in public, in preaching and in writing, in his family, among his people, and further afield, Matthew Henry was a man delighted and governed by the Word of God. A man of such conviction and spirit is surely a man to be appreciated and emulated, to be read and enjoyed. I hope that this brief memorial will encourage you to do just that.

This short article first appeared in the
Evangelical Times. If you are interested in learning more, and will be in the London area on Monday 29 October at 1pm, I will be giving a lecture on Henry at the Evangelical Library. You can find many of Henry's writings available at WTS, or Apologies that a botch on my part meant that I managed to prepare but not post this on 18 Oct - it is backdated accordingly.

Ligon Duncan has prepared an updated version of Matthew Henry's Method for Prayer online.
Posted October 18, 2012 @ 8:34 PM by Jeremy Walker

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