A godly wife and mother in Puritan England
On 25 May 1707, in Broad Oak, a godly woman died at the age of almost 78. Christened as Katherine Matthews, her influence on both her husband and her children left an enduring impression on the Christian church.
Her husband was Philip Henry, a minister of the gospel at Worthenbury, which lay between Shropshire and Cheshire. Her second son, however, was the famous Matthew Henry, perhaps one of the greatest Bible commentators the world has known.
Her holiness and piety of life, which flowed from her close walk with Christ, rightly gained the respect of husband and children alike.
Little is known of her early life, but she was brought to faith in Jesus Christ under the preaching of a Nonconformist minister, Richard Steel. In the late 1650s she fell in love with Philip Henry.
This did not meet with the immediate approval of her father, who sought a man of greater wealth for his daughter. Undeterred, she continued in steadfast loyalty to her future husband.
In a letter to her father she protested: ‘Mr. Henry is a gentleman, a scholar, an excellent preacher, and a good man’. The criteria she set for choosing a husband confirmed her maturity; the features she had cited were all estimations of Philip Henry’s character.
Her answer to her father’s further objections was similarly spiritual. She confessed that the family knew little of him or his background, ‘but I know where he is going to, and I should like to go with him’.
After some delay, on 26 April 1660, their marriage was celebrated at Broad Oak; the bride was 31 and her bridegroom two years younger. As a wife, her spiritual gifts were fostered for the good of her husband and their children.
Their married life was happy and peaceful, but not without testing. They were blessed with two sons, four daughters, and 22 grandchildren. The focal point of the couple’s lives was devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ. Philip laboured in the ministry of the gospel, and she supported him through good times and bad.
Many years later, her son Matthew Henry described the devotional habits of his godly parents: ‘They constantly prayed together, morning and evening; from his own experience of this practice he would encourage others to follow their own: to do all they can in helping one another to heaven’.
Philip’s love for his wife is recorded in his diary on a wedding anniversary: ‘A day of mercy never to be forgotten. God has given me one, every way my helper, in whom I have much comfort, and for whom I thank God with all my heart’.
This was heartfelt praise from a man who knew the importance of such comfort. After the great ejection in 1662, the class-distinction between the couple could not have come under greater strain. During this period of severe hardship she never complained, but showed herself a patient and cheerful fellow sufferer, caring for her husband through bitter persecution.
In October 1662, God blessed the couple with a child, whom they named Matthew. The future Bible commentator and minister was born prematurely, perhaps due to his mother’s anxiety over Philip’s ejection from his church. Matthew was a poorly child but, growing up in that godly household, would later arise to call his mother blessed.
Katherine Henry inherited her father’s property in Broad Oak, and the family were spared the privations that afflicted other ejected ministers. However, their new-found wealth was employed in relieving as many of these persecuted families as possible.
A major portion of Katherine’s income was disposed of in this manner. The benefit to her husband was immediate and lasting, as it enabled him to continue to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ until his death.
Throughout the 1660s, the laws of the land became increasingly stringent against the Nonconformists. Not least of these was the Five-Mile Act of 1665, which sought to deny ejected ministers all opportunity of preaching the gospel or coming within five miles of a municipal centre.
Philip Henry continued his public ministry and was arrested on numerous occasions, as he chose to obey God rather than man. Again his wife proved a well-suited comfort and help to him, supporting her husband unswervingly.
As a couple they experienced many of the afflictions common to man. In 1667 their eldest son died after falling ill with measles. The same illness affected Matthew, but to their relief (and the blessing of the church) he was spared.
Katherine never eclipsed her husband or attempted to usurp his headship. Peace and godliness reigned in their home life. The centrality of Christ in their daily lives, and the importance of family worship, contributed greatly to their usefulness.
After 39 years as a preacher, Philip died on 24 June 1696 following a long illness. On his deathbed, he turned to his son Matthew and said: ‘The Lord bless you, and grant that you may do worthily in your generation, and be more serviceable to the church of God than I have been’. They were prophetic words.
In her grief, Katherine showed herself to be a truly godly widow, receiving all-sufficient grace from God. Her state of mind at that time is conveyed in a letter written to a friend:
‘It is my comfort and joy that the people of God do sympathise with me in this great loss; and truly I have reason to acknowledge the goodness of God that did spare him so long, and does support and send reviving in the midst of trouble. Pray for me that I may be a widow indeed, trusting in God; that my children may in all things carry themselves like the children of such a father’.
Example of faith
Matthew Henry went on to serve God greatly, through many years of ministry and his widely read commentary on the whole Bible. Much of what we know of Katherine’s godly life comes from his biography of his father.
She left an abiding impression on her son. She was a calm and happy woman, whose grace and wisdom testified to her close walk with Christ. In the years following her husband’s death, she continued to encourage her son in every way possible. Matthew explained that her role was one of ‘a skilful and faithful counsellor’.
Lasting and eternal things were her focus, cherishing the very thought of Christ. As a mother she looked after the spiritual interests of her children’s souls, and later in life they would often recollect her earnest prayers. She was in every sense an example of Christian faith to her children.
In 1706 Matthew completed his work on the Pentateuch. This allowed Katherine to glimpse the work she did not see completed. In the spring of the following year she fell ill and entered into the joy of her Lord on 25 May 1707.
Matthew Henry delivered a funeral sermon at Broad Oak on the text: ‘Her children arise up and call her blessed’ (Proverbs 31:28). The sermon was copied out and subsequently attached as a postscript to his biography of his father.
Katherine was described as a woman who knew a degree of wealth, but was rich in distributing to the needs of others. She left neither material nor spiritual debts, for throughout her Christian life she was ‘up and doing’ for Christ.
In the sermon he rightly honoured his mother, which is the first commandment with promise (Ephesians 6:2). He called her ‘blessed’, conscious of the blessing she had been to himself and others.
God is a covenant-keeping God, and his covenant blessings were in evidence within the Henry family. Katherine deserved both the praise of her husband and the public appreciation of her son. Another contemporary source confirms this testimony.
Richard Steel, under whose ministry she had first come to faith in Christ, observed of the young Katherine Henry: ‘she made it her business to regulate her life by the Word of God, the efficacy of which she knew in the ministry of that now happy divine, whose name is precious with some of you’.
The Christian religion raises womanhood to a place of honour that no false religion or humanistic philosophy can ever match. The plan of redemption and the covenant of grace includes both sexes. The Scriptures and history of the Christian church confirm the honour that God has bestowed upon womanhood.
Katherine Henry may seem remote, yet there is much of lasting value in her example. She provides an inspiring example of holiness and godliness to Christian wives, mothers, and all who seek to please God through union with Jesus Christ. Her life also highlights the importance of family worship, which is neglected at a high price.
None who follow her example will live unfruitful lives. None can improve upon her principle of seeking to regulate her life by the Word of God. Such women are the backbone of the church.
They will receive, not only the praise of husbands and children, but also the praise of him who is not ashamed to call them his own on the great day of Christ. In eternity they will know what it is to be truly ‘blessed’.