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Philip and Matthew Henry

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Category Articles
Date October 4, 2019

When Philip Henry’s mother lay dying of the consumption that was to remove her from this life on the 6th March 1645, she said to those around her, ‘My head is in heaven, and my heart is in heaven; it is but one step more, and I shall be there too.’ It was a sentiment well expressed, and one that was to characterize the Henry household, especially, perhaps, her godly son Philip, and to no less a degree his son Matthew, whose praise is throughout the Church of Christ.

A popular saying of our day declares that a person can become so ‘heavenly-minded’ as to be ‘no earthly use.’ But a consideration of the lives of those who have been of most use to the Church of God on this earth disproves any such superficial cliché. Philip Henry believed that every day spent on earth was a day lost in heaven, and the earnest prayers of his son Matthew reduce themselves to this ‘Lord, let me not remain one day more than there is work for me to perform.’ It was this kind of thinking that ran in the spiritual bloodstream of the Henrys, and which ran richest during those years when God gave gifts to his Church in the lives of a father and a son of that family.

Philip Henry was born on a day, the name of which was later to take on a black significance in the life of non-conformist Christianity St Bartholomew’s, 24th August. The year was 1631. It was on the same day thirty-one years later that he underwent a death-like experience with two thousand other ministers of the gospel who refused to subscribe to a persecuting King’s Act of Uniformity, and were ejected from their livings. The place of his birth was Whitehall, in the City of London, and the manner of his early upbringing may be easily surmised from the dying sentiments of his mother, already mentioned. Like many of that age, he was something of a prodigy in learning, and his mother took pains to advance her son’s education. However, one aim above all others was always present with her: the spiritual advancement of her family. Accordingly, when morning lectures were begun in one of the city churches by such men as Philip Nye and John Hill, she requested the Principal of her son’s school that leave of absence (6-8 a.m. daily) might be granted from his studies to attend on these. Permission was granted (on the undertaking that his regular work was not abated) and we have a picture of the young Philip Henry, aged about fifteen, taking clear and copious notes of the things he heard concerning eternal life. ‘If ever any child,’ he says, ‘. . . enjoyed line upon line, precept upon precept, I did. And was it in vain? I trust not altogether in vain.’

That last remark is characteristic of the humility of Philip Henry; far from that time being in vain, it was this period in his life that brought him into a clear understanding of God’s ways in the gospel. No specific date marked his actual conversion, and it is probably this fact that moved him to speak out against those of his day who pressed for an exact time in such eternal matters. His reasoning is still relevant for us today: ‘Who can so soon be aware of the daybreak, or of the springing up of the seed sown?’ And his application is beyond dispute; ‘The work of grace is better known in its effects than in its causes.’ The life that Philip Henry manifested before the world and within the Church in the ensuing years can only mark him out as a man in whom was the grace of God.

From his school in London, Henry moved to Oxford in December 1647. There he was noted for his diligence, not only in normal studies, but in spiritual development, especially in discovering the ways of the Lord with his life. This ‘marking of providences’ features very much in the lives of the Henrys. Thus he could look back on a chain of events that might have concluded with his admittance to the Royal Court when quite young, and rejoice that the Lord ordered it differently and chose a better inheritance for him. At Oxford itself he was kept busy ‘tracing the rainbow through the rain,’ and so, when an invitation was eventually extended to him to begin a pastoral ministry in the village of Worthenbury in Flintshire, we may be assured that he desired to go only in the way of the Lord’s own choice.

Henry’s actual removal to that place was at the instigation of the wife of Judge John Puleston. She desired a tutor for her sons, and, after painstaking inquiries had concluded to her satisfaction, she arranged for the young Oxford graduate to take up residence in that out-of-the-way place in September 1653. The arrangement was that he should live with the Pulestons, educate her sons in the classics, and preach the morning sermon each Lord’s Day in the village church. The preaching arrangement proceeded favourably for a time, until one Lord’s Day afternoon the stated supply failed to arrive. Philip Henry preached twice on that day and for all future Sabbaths at Worthenbury it was deemed unnecessary and undesirable to seek for a preacher outside the parish.

With regards to Henry’s preaching, the biography draws out the wholesomeness of it, both in content and manner of serving: ‘As to the subjects he preached upon, he did not use to dwell long upon a text. Better one sermon upon many texts, viz. many scriptures opened and applied, than many sermons upon one text. To that purpose he would sometimes speak.’ Again, we are told, ‘He used to preach in a fixed method, and linked his subjects in a sort of chain. He adapted his method and style to the capacity of his hearers, fetching his similitudes for illustration from those things that were familiar to them. He did not shoot the arrow of the Word over their heads in high notions, or the flourishes of affected rhetoric, nor under their feet, by blunt and homely expressions, as many do under pretence of plainness, but to their hearts, in close and lively applications.’ In this, he seems to have been following some sound and seasonable words that found an entrance into his heart when spoken by Mr Malden at the close of his ordination: ‘This word went near my heart,’ he records in his diary at that time, ‘As the nurse puts the meat first into her own mouth, and chews it, and then feeds the child with it, so should ministers do by the Word, preach it over beforehand to their own hearts; it loses none of the virtue thereby, but rather, probably, gains. As that milk nourisheth most which comes warm from the breast, so that sermon which comes warm from a warm heart. Lord, quicken me to do thy will in this thing.’

From this, it will be seen that Philip Henry had retained the ability to be exhorted as well as to exhort. Although now himself an ordained minister of God’s Word, he, too, was subject to that Word, and to this end he never abandoned his childhood practice of writing down sermon notes and afterwards digesting them for his own soul’s good. Time and time again, references are made to sermons heard, with their effect upon him, while notes from other men’s sermons, written out in his own hand, were retained by him to the last. He urged fellow-ministers to sit under the sound of the truth when opportunity presented itself; and to sit, ‘not as masters, but as scholars; not as censors, but as hearers.’ Small wonder that such preaching, and such a high estimation of the preacher’s calling, earned the testimony from Lady Puleston that the young man had done more for the parish in six months than had been done in the previous eighteen years.

It is well to remember at this point that the actual communicants in the Worthenbury church numbered only around forty, and never at any time during the ministry of Philip Henry did they double this number. But God was preparing certain instruments of witness in those days, and the young minister’s course was clear: he must be diligent and faithful on the earth, all the issues and outcomes lay in the eternal purposes of God in heaven. The narrowness of the sphere of labour, however, in no way restricted Henry’s work; numerous were the fruitful branches that ran over the wall from the Flintshire village. His own home was a very Bethel to many. God in his grace and goodness had early provided a bride for his servant, one who was ‘of one heart, of one mind, striving together for the faith of the gospel.’ A traditional story illustrates her temperament when barriers were being placed in the way of their forthcoming marriage. ‘Among other objections urged by her friends against the connection was this — that, although Mr Henry was a gentleman, and a scholar, and an excellent preacher, he was quite a stranger, and they did not even know where he came from. “True”, replied Miss Matthews, “but I know where he is going, and I should like to go with him”.’ God blessed the marriage over the years with two sons and four daughters, the younger son being the famous Matthew who lived to render such service to the Lord’s people through his preaching and commentary. However, Philip Henry could not make his daughters preachers and commentators; but he did the next best and lawful thing: he bequeathed each of them a full set of Matthew Poole’s Annotations of the Bible to read in their families. (We may remember how profitable another father’s bequest was to that daughter who married the Bedford tinker and first opened his eyes to the issues of eternal life revealed in her literary dowry.)

But the days were hastening on to the fateful year 1662. Already, trouble had begun to brew for the Worthenbury pastor. Although the actual ejection day was not until the 26th August of that year, Philip Henry was forbidden to preach from the preceding October. As with Samuel Rutherford before him, his ‘dumb Sabbaths’ were to prove like ‘a stone tied to a bird’s foot.’ While at Worthenbury, he had received many enticing ‘calls’ to larger churches and congregations, but these failed to draw him from his village charge. However, when that Black Bartholomew’s Day dawned, what enticement had failed to accomplish, conscience performed, when it had its perfect work, and Philip Henry withdrew with his wife and family, in common with two-thousand others who could not conform, ‘for conscience sake.’

The rigours of the coming years make sad reading for the Church of Christ. Act after Act was passed and non-conformists were pressed to extremes. The Five Mile Act forbade any minister to live within five miles of a place where he had held a pastorate. The Henrys had moved to a house at Broad Oak, but some of the zealous persecutors of the day claimed that this house was within ‘five reputed miles’ of Worthenbury, and laboured for his eviction. In an effort to ‘live peaceably with all men’, Mr Henry withdrew with his family to Whitechurch. God soon granted a vindication to his silenced saint, however, for when the ‘actual’ distance between Worthenbury and Broad Oak was taken, the house was found to be outside the limits fixed by the Five Mile Act by sixty yards!

Even more severe, perhaps, than the Five Mile Act, was the Conventicle Act. This among other things, denied any non-conforming preacher the right to minister to any more than five (not of his immediate family) persons at one time. Yet, the strictness of this Act only serve to highlight the faithfulness and diligence of the man whose heart was set on the eternal day. Not until the year 1689 was full liberty of conscience realised under William of Orange; and so, for the twenty-seven years between that event and the ejectment, Philip Henry’s main charge was the household of Broad Oak. Of course, there were other engagements — invariably carried out under the risk of arrest — and many spheres of service entered into, especially during several periods of respite. Yet it remains true that the able minister’s flock was found mostly within his own four walls. But what ministry was forthcoming there! Over the years he followed a full and thorough exposition of the Scriptures from end to end, and the doctrines of the gospel distilled all around and watered the thirsty souls of the Lord’s people throughout the land. When the final announcement of freedom came under William III, it was a glad pastor who sprang into action and opened a preaching house at Broad Oak for the public worship of the Lord’s Name. In this capacity he served the Lord for another seven years of his life, until the Lord, in his own purposes — and according to Philip Henry’s great desire — removed him from the pulpit of active service to the rest of the redeemed of heaven with no lingering or waiting in between. He died at Broad Oak on the 24th of June 1696.

The desire of the Henrys to ‘mark providences that they might have providences to mark’, must often have been reflected upon in relation to those sad days of 1662. Philip Henry moved with his family to Broad Oak towards the end of the September of that year; three weeks later there was born into the family the second son whom the father and mother named Matthew. ‘Moses my servant is dead, now therefore, arise, Joshua . . .’ ‘Today you are cooking a goose’, said old John Huss at the stake, ‘but tomorrow a swan [Martin Luther] will rise out of the ashes.’ And with the birth of Matthew Henry, whose voice was to go out into all the world, the Lord was, surely, giving a blessed token that his Word will never be bound nor silenced, no matter how violently men may rage against it. God was raising up ‘the pen of a ready writer’, and the diligence and faithfulness of Philip Henry in expounding a whole counsel of God where God had set him, was to be the human instrument in the training of his son. Like his father, Matthew Henry had a great capacity for learning at a young age, and this was exploited to the full. However, it is with regard especially to his growing ‘in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ’, that the prayers and efforts of the parents were directed. One of the greatest joys, surely, that Christian parents can be afforded is to learn that they have been used of the Lord in the conversion of their own children. On the 7th December 1673, this joy began to dawn upon the ejected minister of Worthenbury. It was on a Lord’s Day afternoon that the young Matthew approached his father to be examined as to whether or not he had ‘the marks of true grace’ within his heart. ‘I told my father my evidences’, he says, ‘he liked them, and told me, if those evidences were true (as I think they were) I had true grace.’ In 1675, Matthew Henry had drawn up ‘A Catalogue of Mercies.’ In that Catalogue, he looks back three years, to a time when he was only ten years old, and traces the day that he first began to feel that God was stretching out his hand in salvation towards him. ‘I think it was three years ago’, he writes, ‘that I began to be convicted, hearing a sermon by my father on Psalm 51:17, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.”’ That text smouldered and burned in the young boy’s heart until the day that it burst into flames by the fanning of God’s Holy Spirit, when the rejoicing father was enabled to glorify God even in the life of his own flesh and blood.

In 1680 Matthew was sent to London to study under that ‘holy, faithful minister, Mr Thomas Doolittle, who then lived at Islington.’ From there he moved to Gray’s Inn during the Spring of 1685, with the intention of studying Law and spending his life in that occupation. During this Gray’s Inn period, however, we find him ever straining at the leash to be away and about his father’s business of preaching, and when things began to ease around the year 1687, his call to the Christian ministry and to the church at Chester had been extended and accepted.

Of his ‘work of faith, and labour of love’ at Chester, volumes could be written. At the time of his ordination, he had prepared ‘A Serious Self-examination Before Ordination.’ This seems to have formed the basis of all that he did during his twenty-five years with the Chester congregation. His heart was knit to the people of that place, although the shadow of death fell across his path on numerous occasions. Married in August of 1687, he was bereft of his young wife eighteen months later, at the young age of twenty-five. He was urged by his in-laws to remarry, which he did in 1690, but death soon visited the home in the removal of their little daughter in 1692. An entry in his diary at this time sums it all up, ‘I have been this day doing a work I never did before, burying a child.’ Sadly, it was a work that was to become familiar, for April of 1693 was to see him lay another infant daughter in the grave, and November 1698, yet another, while in between these two events had come one of the saddest visitations of death in the homecall of his father. Although absolutely reconciled to the nature of life and death, time and eternity, Matthew Henry’s true heart felt the blow upon it. ‘And now, what is this that God hath done unto us?’ he writes. This was recorded in no bitterness, but in honest enquiry as to what God had to teach those who remained. The lesson finally applied itself to the young man’s heart, to make himself more and more ready for the hour of death, ‘that when it comes’, he resolved. ‘I may have nothing to do but to die.’

Death, in fact, came relatively early for Matthew Henry, for he had only reached his fifty-second year when a fall from his horse proved fatal to his already failing and faltering health. Yet how much was produced in that one short life is epitomised in the massive volumes of commentary that grace, and have graced, the shelves of generations of ministers and preachers, and the people of God everywhere. This Exposition of the Whole Bible, of course, was only a part of his literary work in things spiritual, but it overshadows everything else he wrote. ‘And now’, Mr Spurgeon seems to be saying as he takes a deep breath at the commencement of recommending expositions in his First Lecture in Commenting and Commentaries, ‘First among the mighty for general usefulness. . . Matthew Henry.’ Few would disagree with him. How often, when a passage has been exegeted in the study, expounded precisely to our minds, overlaid with all the science of hermeneutic and textual evidence, have we still lacked one thing needful — that clothing of the whole with warm flesh and blood — and have found it in the pages of Matthew Henry! And that is precisely what he intended his work to be. ‘When the stone is rolled away from the well’s mouth’, he says, ‘by a critical explication of the text, still there are those who would both drink themselves and water their flocks; but they complain that the well is deep, and they have nothing to draw with; how then shall they come by this living water?’ So, he explains, ‘Some such may perhaps find a bucket here, or water drawn to their hands; and pleased enough shall I be with this office of the Gibeonites, to draw water for the congregation of the Lord out of these wells of salvation.’ That office has been well discharged, as the testimony of generations of able men witness: Isaac Watts, Philip Doddridge, John Ryland, William Romaine, Adam Clark, Robert Hall, would all gladly take their stand on that. Robert Hall’s biographer relates how that eminent pastor, ‘for the last two years [of his life] read daily two chapters of Matthew Henry.’ Whitefield read through the commentary four times, and often on his knees; while Spurgeon designates William Jay of Bath as ‘Matthew Henry preaching.’ ‘The great Mr Henry’, Whitefield called him, and all should want to add an Amen to that.

The last two years of Matthew Henry’s life were spent in the pastorate of the Independent church at Hackney in London. To this he had moved in 1712 after much heart-searching and heart-rending in leaving the people at Chester. At Hackney he completed the fifth volume of the Exposition — Gospels and Acts — but died before he could complete the final part of the work. He had, of course, left much material in preparation for the last volume, and a group of friends took on hand to complete the Commentary. But, as one writer has said, ‘They completed a sixth volume, but they did not continue Matthew Henry.’ Nevertheless, what an output those completed volumes represent for the years since the Exposition’s inception! Henry set his hand to it in 1704, issued the Five Books of Moses, 1706; the Histories, 1708; the Poetical books, 1710; the Prophets, 1712; and the Gospels and Acts in 1714 just before he died. We may well remember that all this was accomplished in the midst of family and pastoral life and not executed in ‘the studious cloisters pale.’ Let one extract from his diary show this clearly: ‘Between two and three o’clock this morning, while my wife was ill, I retired to seek God for her and the children. Being willing to redeem time, I did a little at my Exposition. . .’
‘By little strokes, men fell great oaks.’

Thus, Matthew Henry laboured on faithfully with an eye to heaven, so that, when it came his time to die, by the grace of God he had nothing to do ‘but to die.’ He fell from his horse on the way to Nantwich where he was heading to preach after two weekends with his old congregation at Chester. He fulfilled his preaching engagement after the fall, but the health that had begun to decline several years before due to diabetes, was insufficient to sustain his life after the injury, and he passed away on Tuesday, 22nd June 1714. Neither persecution, nor death itself, can silence the Lord’s voice through those that ‘he delights to defend’ and to use for his purposes in grace.


This article was first published in the February 1975 edition of the Banner of Truth magazine.

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