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Matthew Henry

July 2014 | by Philip Eveson

June 2014 is the 300th anniversary of Matthew Henry’s death. In this extract from Philip Eveson’s Bitesize Biography, we are reminded that this Puritan, whose Bible commentary has had a profound and lasting impact on many Christians, faced the normal ‘ups’ and ‘downs’ of pastoral ministry.

Matthew Henry lived at a time when there was an upsurge in scientific enquiry, much encouraged by Protestant and Puritan belief that humans have a responsibility under God to manage and use the resources of the earth wisely.

Matthew Henry lived at a time when there was an upsurge in scientific enquiry, much encouraged by Protestant and Puritan belief that humans have a responsibility under God to manage and use the resources of the earth wisely.

Arising from such well intentioned thinking about God’s created world, the Royal Society was established in the year of Matthew’s birth, the same year that the chemist and physicist, Robert Boyle (16271691), published his findings on gases, now known as ‘Boyle’s law’.

While Boyle and others like him worked within the context of God’s revealed Word, there were other thinkers and scientists, like John Locke (16321704), whose works questioned biblical beliefs. It was becoming fashionable by the turn of the century for those clergymen and college students who had imbibed their ideas to jettison traditional Christian teaching.

Prayerful concern

In view of these developments, one can understand Matthew’s concern for the spiritual state of church and country as the new century began.

His prayers on the final day of 1701 witness to his deep disquiet: ‘The low condition of the church of God ought to be greatly lamented; the Protestant interest small, very small; a decay of piety; attempts for reformation ineffectual. Help, Lord!’

The new century did bring its own joys and encouragements to the Henry household. Matthew’s one and only son, Philip, was born in May 1700, with four more daughters joining the family in the following ten years, all of whom survived infancy.

Later, to the grief of the family, Philip despised his godly background, even distancing himself from his illustrious grandfather by adopting his mother’s maiden name of Warburton; and it was as Henry Warburton that he represented Chester in Parliament for the Tories, in 1747.

He also had his grandfather’s old meeting-place at Broad Oak pulled down. In view of what became of him, his aunt Sarah’s prayers and thoughts at his birth become particularly striking: ‘The Lord make him like his dear grandfather. We have long desired a young Philip Henry, if God please; but, methinks, I would rejoice with trembling, as in all my other comforts.

‘When I see how many ministers’ children prove a blemish to that high and holy calling, I fear and tremble, lest any of ours should prove so’.

Philip never married, and died in 1760, leaving a fine country house, Hefferston Grange, in Weaverham, Cheshire.

New chapel

Around the turn of the century there were also some encouraging new developments for Matthew in his ministry at Chester. The work had grown and the old meeting-place at White Friars was now proving to be rather inconvenient.

In addition, Anthony Henthorn, the owner of the property, was no longer with them, having moved to Ireland around 1692, and his son died in 1695. His grandson was not so sympathetic to their cause, so it was agreed to purchase a plot of land to build a chapel to house the people who attended.

As a result of the freedoms obtained under the Toleration Act of 1689, it was becoming common for dissenters to erect more obvious places of worship. A site was obtained in Crook Lane, just off Watergate Street, near Trinity Church, and the foundation stone laid in September 1699.

The cost of building the new place of worship came to over £532. A list of those who contributed to the cost indicates that 242 people gave an amount that totalled just over £491. The remaining shortfall was soon cleared.

It was John Hulton, his late sister Ann’s husband, who had the responsibility of collecting the money and paying for the work to be done. Matthew was well pleased with the new building and commented later: ‘It is a very commodious, capacious, pleasant place, and many a comfortable day we have had in it. Blessed be God’.

It was on 8 August 1700 that the congregation gathered for the opening service, when Matthew preached from Joshua 22:22-23: ‘The Lord God of gods, the Lord God of gods, he knoweth, and Israel he shall know; if it be in rebellion, or if in transgression against the Lord … that we have built us an altar’.

This may sound a most unusual text for such an occasion, but, as indicated by the title that the preacher gave it, namely, ‘Separation without rebellion’, Matthew was well aware of the prejudices and misconceptions entertained by those belonging to the established church.

Despite the Toleration Act, it was still a sensitive issue and many of Chester’s citizens and Anglican clergy would have been none too pleased with this new dissenting meeting-house for worship.

It was also for this reason that the sermon was not published during Matthew’s lifetime. Isaac Watts, the hymn-writer, wrote a commendatory preface when it appeared in print in 1726.

Growth

On the first Sunday in September of that year, when they held the first communion service in the new building, his sister Sarah was present. She commented: ‘I had a comfortable day joining with that assembly in holy ordinances.

‘In the forenoon, brother went on in expounding gospel psalms, such as especially look at Christ … We had the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper — the first in the new chapel — administered, which I have often found sweetness in. I received a pardon as being the purchase of that precious blood which purchases precious privileges, and nourishes precious graces and comforts. Lord, evermore give me of this bread’.

Under Matthew’s ministry the congregation in Crook Lane continued to grow, so that in May 1707 it was necessary for a gallery to be added in the chapel. Matthew reckoned that there were by then over 350 communicants. In large part, the increase was due to John Harvey’s flock joining them.

Old Mr Harvey had died quite suddenly in November 1699 and there was clearly some concern over what would happen to his congregation and whether they should amalgamate with Matthew’s.

It was a delicate situation for Matthew, who had always been very careful in his associations with the old minister to gain his confidence and support ever since he had been called to Chester. He did not wish to cause more trouble with any precipitous action.

Matthew wrote in his diary: ‘As to the disposal of the congregation, I have solemnly, and with the greatest indifference, referred it to God; resolving to be purely passive, and earnestly begging that it may be so ordered, as may redound most to his glory, and the furtherance of the gospel in this place’.

In the event, Harvey’s congregation chose his son Jonathan to succeed him and he was ordained a Presbyterian minister at Warrington in 1701. By 1706, Harvey’s congregation began to dwindle and by the beginning of the following year Jonathan resigned through ill health. He was only 30 years old when he died of tuberculosis in 1708.

Sensitivities

It was an embarrassing position for Matthew, but through the whole episode he was careful to act in a way that was above reproach. Harvey’s congregation had actually been voting with their feet for some time, moving over to him in dribs and drabs.

This is how he wrote about the whole affair: ‘I have had many searchings of heart about Mr Harvey’s congregation who come dropping in to us. As I have endeavoured, in that matter, to approve myself to God, and my own conscience; and my heart doth not reproach me; so, blessed be God, I hear not of any person, one or other that doth’.

In fact, Matthew Henry had been experiencing some difficulties among his own people. Alderman Mainwaring was no longer attending and his wife was a particular discouragement to Matthew.

The temptation for ministers to give up their preaching and pastoral work can be very strong, especially when people of promise disappoint, church discipline proves futile, and they become mouthpieces of Satan.

Matthew quotes the Lord’s Servant: ‘Then said I, I have laboured in vain, and spent my strength for nought’ (Isaiah 49:4), and adds: ‘These things are a temptation to me to lay aside the pastoral charge, but I dare not. I cannot do it’.

Matthew admitted in his diary that, ‘Providence so ordered it that Mr Harvey’s congregation are generally come in to us, or else we began to dwindle, so that I should have gone on very heavily’.

But he also knew what every minister with discernment is aware of, that numbers are not everything, and he did not rest content with additions by transfer from elsewhere. His desire was to see the congregation grow spiritually, that the ‘Word of the Lord might prosper among them’.

Over the next few years he saw answers to his prayers, with many converted and becoming members of the household of faith.

Philip Eveson

Matthew Henry, by Philip Eveson, is published by EP Books (128 pages, £5.99; ISBN: 9780852347997)