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Matthew Henry: his life and influence

October 2012 | by John Brand

Matthew Henry: his life and influence

Allan Harman
Christian Focus, 207 pages, £8.99, ISBN: 978-1845507831

Matthew Henry must surely be one of the best and most influential names in Christian history and, at the same time, one of the least known lives. Now, at long last, we have been blessed with a good biographical account of this most famous of all Bible commentators, thanks to the efforts of Allan Harman.
As the subtitle indicates, Harman sets out to do two things: introduce us to the life, family and world of Matthew Henry; and then consider and explain the influence of his writings on so many down through the years. All in all, I found this book fascinating and enlightening.
Matthew Henry was the son of Philip, himself a contemporary and friend of some of the best known Puritans. Matthew, the second of six children, was born in 1662, the year of the Act of Uniformity in England, which resulted in 2000 Church of England ministers, among them Matthew’s father, Philip, being ejected from their ministries and labelled as Nonconformists.
Harman paints a vivid picture of these circumstances, which are crucial to understanding the context into which Matthew Henry was born and in which he became so influential.
Matthew Henry’s family life as a child and its profound impact on his spiritual growth and development are well portrayed, as are his studies, and his call to and preparation for the ministry — a challenging prospect given the ecclesiastical and political turmoil of his day.
For 25 years, Matthew Henry ministered in Chester among a people who dearly loved him and responded to his ministry. Devoted to the systematic exposition of the Bible, he preached through the entire Bible more than twice during those years in Chester, as well as embarking on his major writing project.
Henry’s pastor’s heart is movingly laid bare for us, in the agonies he experienced as he responded to numerous invitations to relocate, and then finally as he accepts a call to Hackney.
The pain felt by both pastor and people was deep and the bond never really broken. He wrote in his diary: ‘By this determination, I brought on myself more grief, and care and concern, than I could have imagined, and have many a time wished it undone again; but having opened my mouth, I could not go back’ (p.119).
Henry, already suffering from the poor health that had dogged him for several years, only had two years of ministry in his new charge, before dying while returning to Hackney from a visit to Chester, which was combined with other preaching commitments.
Alongside the depiction of his preaching, pastoral and writing activities, Harman paints a vivid and moving portrait of a man who faithfully shepherded his family as well as his flock. He opens a window into a Puritan home, where the Scriptures were loved and studied.
One of the salutary lessons of Harman’s account is the fact that ‘the congregation that had enjoyed and been blessed by Matthew Henry’s biblical ministry for 25 years gradually moved its theological stance to become a centre of Unitarianism’ (p.121).
As to his writings, Matthew Henry’s biographer brings to light the extent of this work and also something of its impact. Matthew Henry is, of course, best known for his exposition and commentary on the whole Bible. In fact, he had only got as far as Acts by the time of his death and that work was completed by others, using Henry’s own notes and written records made of some of his expositions.
It would be hard to overstate the influence this work has had on the church over the years. Jim Packer says of it: ‘the Commentary remains an all-time classic, standing head and shoulders above any other popular exposition produced either before or since’ (p.170).
Jonathan Edwards quoted extensively from it in his writings, as did John Wesley, who actually produced an abridgement which made it more accessible price-wise, but also allowed him to leave out the parts to which he had theological objections, since he disagreed with Henry’s Calvinism.
Of his influence on Charles Wesley, Harman quotes another writer who asserted that, when Wesley wanted to write a hymn based on a biblical passage, ‘he turned first to Matthew Henry to see what ideas the venerable Puritan commentator was prepared to share with him’ (p.190).
Spurgeon wrote the preface for a new edition of the Commentary in his time and exhorted his own son with the words, ‘Read Matthew Henry right through, if you can, before you are married; for, after that event, I fear that Jacob may supplant him’ (p.195).
The Commentary was not, however, Henry’s only written work. He was a prolific writer, despite his busy pastoral and preaching ministry. He compiled a Collection of family hymns, wrote a biography of his father Philip, developed an extensive catechism, wrote A method of prayer and numerous other works as well.
If, like me and many others, you are thankful to the Lord for Matthew Henry’s Commentary and perhaps some of his other work, you will want to learn about the man himself, and there’s no better way to do that than to read this biography.
John Brand
Edinburgh

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