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Matthew Henry — an overview

October 2012 | by Jeremy Walker

Matthew Henry — an overview

Matthew Henry was born on 18 October 1662, not long after Black Bartholomew’s Day (24 August 1662).

This was the date on which his father — in common with 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.
This oath bound those who took it to the prescribed rites, ordinances and prayers of the Church of England of its day.
350 years since his birth, what can we learn from Matthew Henry’s life and legacy?

His life

He 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 Whit-church.
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 10 he began to feel the convicting influence of the Spirit through the Word, and made a public profession of faith at the age of 16 or 17.
In July 1680, he was sent to Thomas Doolittle’s Dissenting academy in Islington, London. When sickness swept through the city, he 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 who would face fierce persecution.
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.

Gospel ministry

When he returned to Broad Oak in June 1686, his thoughts went more earnestly toward gospel ministry. God’s blessing on his early preaching efforts confirmed this desire. Before long, in January 1687, a group of saints in Chester, spurred on by rumours of greater religious freedom, called the 25-year-old to be their pastor.

 

Old Chester

Matthew headed first to London, where on 9 May he was ordained by six Presbyterian ministers. He stated his convictions then 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 prayer and sung praises, an exposition of the Scriptures and a sermon. In this way the people were repeatedly exposed 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 and 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 18 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 and his preaching was, in some ways, as methodical as his exposition.
His first sermons were on the misery of the sinner, conversion, Christian conduct, comforts for the saints, and closing sermons to summarise key points. His notes were careful, his language plain, his texts varied, his applications close and searching, and his structures memorable and engaging. He was an energetic and earnest preacher.

Bible exposition

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. This was completed on 18 July 1712. He also began work on the New Testament. His 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 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’s Gospel that day and preached on 1 Thessalonians 4:17-18 in the afternoon service.
On his arrival in Hackney, he began expounding Genesis and Matthew. He preached 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 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 5.00am on 22 June, and died shortly afterward, being 52 years old.
On Friday 25 June, his body was returned to Chester and interred in Holy Trinity, alongside his first wife. Little is known of the reaction of the Hackney church or his surviving family, but there were expressions of abiding grief and sweet memories.

George Whitefield read Matthew
Henry’s commentary on his
knees

His writings

When the name Matthew Henry is mentioned, many immediately think of his commentary, a fitting monument to this man of the Word. Here, his intimate personal acquaintance with the Scriptures, his puritan upbringing and training, and the discipline of his weekly exposition all come to fruition.
It was a long-term labour of love. Henry chipped away at this work at all available hours, feeling the pressure to accomplish as much as he was able. He managed to reach the end of the Acts of the Apostles, and do substantial work on Romans and Revelation also.
Others took up the commentary 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.
Matthew Henry’s exposition is often dismissed today as, at best, a sort of devotional trawl through the Bible, lacking proper critical apparatus, sacrificing academic nous for catchy alliteration, but with a little something to be said for its pithy pungency.
To judge him this way 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 and relentlessly at the heart. Others tell you what the text means, Henry presses home what it means to you and to others. His exposition carries you 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.

Tributes

Henry’s admirers and students are legion. They range 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 George Whitefield, who read it repeatedly, sometimes on his knees, and drew on it constantly in his sermons; to C. H. Spurgeon, who urged, ‘Every minister ought to read it entirely and carefully through once at least’.
His other writings include a wonderful study of daily communion with God, a methodical survey of scriptural thoughts for use in prayer, together with biographical studies and a variety of sermons.
As a man and minister, in private and public, in preaching and 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 someone to be appreciated and emulated, and to be read and enjoyed. I hope that this brief memorial will encourage you to do just that.

Jeremy Walker

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