One of the most famous historical figures associated with Christendom has to be Matthew Henry. Many know of him because of his famous commentary that he did on the whole Bible. It is an exquisite work. My family have benefited immensely from this marvellous work which spans 6 volumes. It has to be a must for any serious Christian family. In fact, George Whitefield, is was said, read through the whole work 4 times and the 4th time was done while on his knees. Charles Spurgeon said, “Every minister ought to read it entirely and carefully through once at least.”
However, for many Christians their knowledge of him stops there. They know of him as the author of the commentary but do not know anything of the man himself. To be honest, until recently I was in the very same boat. I knew nothing of him personally. When I started digging, I found some wonderful accounts of his life growing up, how he got saved, and how he went about his calling to serve the church through his writing and his pastoring – he was a pastor for much of his life. I also learned that he suffered a lot during his life which makes the work he produced and the service he rendered all the more remarkable and inspiring. He was a man who was extremely devoted to the Word and whose love for it influenced Christians for hundreds of years.
Henry was born prematurely on the 18th October, 1662 to Philip and Katherine Henry in at a farm called Broad Oak, Iscoyd (Wales). He was the 2nd son born in the family. Due to his premature birth, he was counted as a sickly child through much of his childhood but an avid learner.
At the time of his birth, his father had just been ejected through the 1662 Act of Uniformity. The Act stated that any minister who refused to conform to the Book of Common Prayer would be ejected from the Church of England. They become known as non-Conformists. This meant they were unable to go to school, get degrees and to generally participate in public affairs. Fortunately for Matthew, his father had his own private means to support the family and provide for them an education. As a child he learned Greek, Hebrew, Latin, German and French. This then allowed him to read a broad range of literature which undoubtedly aided in his development of his commentary.
As can be ascertained clearly, Henry grew up in a Christian home. He apparently showed such an aptitude towards learning that he could read the Bible by the age of 3. His father lead the family in devotions every day and gave a short exposition of the passage being covered. It followed one of the devotions on Psalm 51:17 which caused his heart to melt led him to “enquire after Christ”. So clearly the value of family devotions cannot be downplayed.
Although his health was questionable, he would spend several hours each day in private study of the scriptures (following his being led to enquire after Christ). When he was 10, he suffered an intense and prolonged fever which just about took his life. Shortly after this time, his thoughts were greatly drawn to his own spiritual condition. Following a sermon on judgment, he wrote the following, “I was under great fear of hell, till the Lord comforted me. I, having engaged in serious examination – what hopes I have that when I die and leave this earthly tabernacle I shall be received into heaven – I have found several marks that I am a child of God.” Those marks were (in his own words):
- “There is true conversion where there have been covenant transactions between God and the soul. And I found that there have been such between God and my soul, and I hope in truth and righteousness. If I never did this before, I do it now; for I take God in Christ to be mine. I give up myself to be his in the bond of an everlasting covenant never-to-be-forgotten. But hath it been in truth? As far as I know my own heart, I do it in truth and sincerity. I did it December 7, and September 5, and October 13, and many other times. I do it every day.”
- “Where there hath been true repentance for sin, and grief, and shame, and sorrow, for it, as to what is past, with all the ingredients of it, as confession, aggravation, self-judging, self condemning, &c. And I have found this in me, though not in that measure that I should ever affront him as I have done; and ministers have assured me, that having repented of sin and believed on Christ, I am to believe that I am pardoned. Now I have done this, and I do really believe I am forgiven for Christ’s sake. This is grounded on several Scriptures, Proverbs 28:13; Isaiah 55:7; Matthew 5:4; Acts 2:37,38; Acts 3:19; 1 John 1:9. And many other Scriptures there are where God doth expressly call people to return and repent. But hath this sorrow been true? As far as I know my own heart, it hath been true. ‘But I sin often.’ I lament and bewail it before the Lord, and I endeavor, by the grace of God, to do so no more.”
- “Where there is true love of God. For to love the Lord our God with all our soul, and with all our strength, is better than whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices. Now, as far as I know my own heart, I love God in sincerity. But is that love indeed sincere? As far as I can judge it is so; for,
- I love the people of God; all the Lord’s people shall be my people.
- I love the Word of God. I esteem it above all. I find my heart so inclined. I desire it as the food of my soul. I greatly delight in it, both in reading and hearing of it; and my soul can witness subjection to it in some measure. I think I love the Word of God for the purity of it. I love the ministers and messengers of the Word. I am often reading it. I rejoice in the good success of it. All which were given as marks of true love for the Word, in a sermon I lately heard on Psalm 119:140: ‘Thy word is pure, therefore thy servant loveth it.”
That is from an 10-year old boy. Such was his awareness and maturity that he was severely and closely examining himself to show that he was indeed a Christian and that he had the marks expected of such a person.
Henry was educated at an academy of Thomas Doolittle until 1682 and then moved to Gray’s Inn, a legal school in England. However, after a time, he left his legal studies in order to pursue studies in theology. In 1687, he became a minister in a small Presbyterian congregation in Chester. Within a few years, the congregation had increased to 250. In 1712, he moved to become the minister of a church in Hackney. Then 2 years after that, he died suddenly of an apoplexy while returning from a visit back to Chester.
In 1687, Henry married for the first time to Katherine Hardware. However, 2 years later in 1689, she died in childbirth leaving a daughter (also named Katherine). A year and a half later, he married again to Mary Warburton. Through her, he had 1 son and 8 daughters (3 of whom died while infants). Mary survived Henry at his death in 1714. Through these times of intense tragedy and loss, he maintained his devotion to the Word and to serve those in his congregations. He never once blamed God for his pain and instead wrote, “the Lord is righteous, He takes and gives, and gives and takes again.”
At the time of his death, Henry had not completed the commentary of the Bible – he had completed Genesis to Acts. However, he had made extensive notes for the balance of the books which allowed other non-conformists to collate and prepare the balance of the commentary in his name. His reputation, as we mentioned before, is bound to his commentaries.
Matthew Henry has been a great importance in the life of my family and his story is fascinating and inspiring. We must all give thanks to God for preserving for a time this wonderful, godly man whose service and influence have lasted hundreds of years.