English minister and Bible commentator
Matthew Henry was born in 1662 in a Welsh
farmhouse close to the border of England and Wales. A few weeks earlier, his
father Philip Henry (1631-1696) had been ejected from his ministry in the
Along with nearly two thousand
other ministers, Philip Henry had refused to submit to the Act of Uniformity,
which had come into effect on 24 August 1662 and was radically opposed to all
that Puritans like Henry stood for.
Philip thus left his charge at
Worthenbury, Shropshire, and took up residence a few miles away at Iscoed,
Flintshire. Matthew Henry’s formative years were consequently spent in a
Christian community that lay ‘under the cross’ of state harassment and
Childhood and conversion
Matthew was Philip Henry’s
second son. Born prematurely to his mother Katherine Henry, he apparently
suffered from a weak constitution during his childhood. But what he lacked in
physical health he made up for in spiritual vigor.
There is credible evidence
that he could read portions of the Scriptures when he was only three years old.
And according to his own reckoning, his conversion took place before he turned
eleven. It was one of his father’s sermons that, in Henry’s words,
‘melted’ him and caused him to ‘enquire after Christ’.
Schooled by his gifted father
till he was eighteen, Henry went on to study at a Nonconformist academy in
Islington, then a village near London. After 1662, Nonconformists like Henry
were barred from graduating from either of the ancient universities of Oxford
and Cambridge. As a result, various Nonconformist academies had come into
existence to provide a liberal arts education and training for ministry.
The tutor at this academy was
an eminent Presbyterian scholar, Thomas Doolittle (1631-1707), who had been
converted as a boy in Kidderminster under the preaching of Richard Baxter
(1615-1691). In 1682, however, persecution forced the academy to move, and Henry
Ministry in Chester
Three years later he journeyed
again to London, this time to study at Grays Inn, one of four principal London centers
for law studies. Whatever the immediate motives behind this move, Henry ‘ever
kept in view’ the vocation of pastoral ministry, says John Bickerton Williams
in his biography of the Puritan commentator. However, this ambition was not realized
Upon his return from London in
June 1686, Henry began preaching in the neighborhood of his parents’ farm. The
following year, while on business in Chester, he spoke for a number of evenings
in the house of a baker.
His preaching made a favorable
impression on a good number of Chester Nonconformists, and he was subsequently
asked to become the minister of a Presbyterian congregation in the town.
Henry went once again to
London to be ordained on 9 March 1687 by six Presbyterian pastors. This group
included Richard Steele (1629-1692), a native of Cheshire who had been involved
in the ordination of Matthew Henry’s father thirty years’ earlier.
Henry began his ministry in
early June 1687. Over the course of the next two decades his congregation
increased to more than 350 members. Not surprisingly, his success as a pastor
caused other churches to seek him as their minister.
Door of opportunity
He declined calls from two
London churches in 1699 and 1702, a Manchester cause in 1705, and from two more
London churches in 1708. The church in the capital that had sought to call him
in 1699 was located in Hackney, and they renewed their efforts in 1710.
Discussion between Henry and
the leadership of this church went back and forth for several months. Finally,
in mid-July 1711, Henry set down on paper eleven reasons he believed were
leading him to London.
Foremost among them was his
conviction that ‘a much wider door of opportunity to do good’ was open in
London than in Chester. He also noted that in London he would have much better
access to printers and libraries, a matter of some concern since he was now
engaged in writing his monumental commentary on the Word of God.
His ministry in London
commenced on 18 May 1712. It is noteworthy that he preached to a much smaller
congregation that Lord’s Day than the one he had left in Chester. According to
J. B. Williams, there were fewer than a hundred members in the church when Henry
The two years of ministry in
London were ones of zealous activity, but also ones in which Henry became
increasingly ill, suffering from diabetes and repeated attacks of kidney stones.
Worn out by his labors, he died from a stroke while on a preaching tour of
Cheshire in June 1714.
Exposition of the Bible
Henry was the author of a
goodly number of publications, some of which had a wide circulation in the years
following his death — for example, A Communicant’s Companion (a
treatise on the frame of heart in which to receive the Lord’s Supper written
in 1704) and Directions for Daily Communion with God (1712). But the work
for which Henry is best known is undoubtedly The
Exposition of the Old and New Testaments.
Henry had begun this
massive work in November 1704. By the time of his death ten years later, the
project had got as far as the end of the book of Acts. It would be finished by a
number of ministers after his death.
The commentary is quintessentially
Puritan. It focused on biblical spirituality and was alert to the need to
glorify God in the whole of life. It was also chock-full of the terse and
piquant aphorisms that the Puritans delighted to use to penetrate the hearts of
their hearers and readers. Here are a few examples:
‘God’s grace can save
souls without preaching, but our preaching cannot save them without God’s
grace, and that grace must be sought by prayer’ (on Ezekiel 37:1-14).
‘Ministers may be serving
Christ, and promoting the great ends of their ministry, by writing good letters,
as well as by preaching good sermons’ (on Acts 18:7-11).
‘It is easier to build
temples than to be temples to God’ (on 2 Chronicles 24:1-14).
‘The pleasures of sense are
puddle-water; spiritual delights are rock water, so pure, so clear, so
refreshing — rivers of pleasure’ (on Exodus 17:1-7).
‘The beauty of holiness is
that which the grave, that consumes all other beauty, cannot touch, or do any
damage to’ (on Psalm 49:6-14).
The ministry of George
Whitefield (1714-1770), who was born the year Henry died, was deeply impacted by
his commentary. He read it throughout his ministry. A recent study by an
American scholar, David Crump, has shown that Henry’s ‘in depth, practical,
Calvinistic and biblical exposition’ formed the backdrop for many of
Whitefield’s friend, the
hymn-writer Charles Wesley (1707-1788), was so moved by Henry’s comments on
Leviticus 8:35 that he based one of his most famous hymns on them. Henry had
written: ‘we have every one of us a charge to keep, an eternal God to glorify,
an immortal soul to provide for, needful duty to be done, our generation to
serve; and it must be our daily duty to keep this charge, for it is the charge
of the Lord our Master, who will shortly call us to an account about it’.
Gripped by this comment,
Wesley sat down to write A charge to keep I have in which he used many of
Henry’s actual phrases.
Some words by the Calvinistic
Baptist preacher and educator John Ryland Sr (1723-1792) sum up the impact that
Henry’s Exposition made in the decades following its publication.
‘It is impossible for a
person of piety and taste’, declared Ryland, ‘to read the Exposition
of Mr. Henry without wishing to be shut out from all the world to read it
through without one moment’s interruption’.
Henry himself well knew this
delight in good Christian books. He stated in his diary on one occasion: ‘I am
always best when alone. No place is like my own study: no company like good
books; especially the book of God’.
Little wonder, then, that he
helped to shape the spirituality and Christian convictions of so many eighteenth
and nineteenth century readers.
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