Matthew was born prematurely on October 18, 1662, at Broad Oak, Flintshire, to Katharine and Philip Henry (1631-1696). His mother was the only child of Daniel Matthews; his father was the minister of the Worthenbury Church. The infant was baptized the day after he was born. It may seem unusual to baptize a child so shortly after birth but because of the high infant mortality rate parents often had their babies baptized as soon as possible. Given that Matthew was premature and weak, mother and father sensed increased urgency.
In May, just five months before Matthew was born, recently restored King Charles II enacted an Act of Uniformity to make the Church of England and its prayer book supreme in the land. Charles’s edict let all know that he was in charge of not only the kingdom but also its church. The Act of Uniformity required all ministers to affirm all of the Book of Common Prayer, to be ordained by the Church of England, to administer all the rites of the church, and to renounce the Solemn League and Covenant. The act was a particular problem for Philip Henry because he was a loyal Presbyterian, a dissenter, ministering in a Church of England pulpit. In the first half of the seventeenth century, Presbyterians had hoped that England would become a nation with churches ruled by elders and not prelates, but the events of the Civil War years and the Interregnum had not gone well for them. Pastor Henry’s refusal to comply with Charles’s act led to his dismissal from the Worthenbury Church on October 27, 1661. Some historians say that Philip Henry was one of the dissenting ministers included in the more than two thousand removed from churches in the Great Ejection, August 24, 1662, but this is not the case.
Matthew’s birth place, Broad Oak, was the ancestral home of his mother’s family and it was where he would live and visit during his life. One biographer says the boy could read from the Bible at the age of three and that he showed signs of great intelligence. When Matthew was about ten years of age, he survived a severe fever which his family had feared would lead to his death. After receiving his preparatory education in a nonconformist academy, he entered Gray’s Inn in 1685 to study for the bar, but as an adolescent he had professed faith in Christ in his father’s church and his interest soon turned from law to divinity. Henry had come under conviction of his sin and to faith through a sermon by his 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.” He continued law studies for a time as he commenced the study of theology. Matthew’s early ministry was informal pulpit supply but as word of his expository ability spread, he was invited in the summer of 1686 to preach to a group of dissenters gathered in the home of a confectioner named Henthorne who lived in Chester. He continued preaching sermons in Chester and eventually received an invitation to be the congregation’s minister.
Before Matthew Henry could be ordained, he had a problem to resolve. His father was thoroughly convinced of presbyterian polity, but Matthew was not so sure. He struggled regarding whether he would adopt episcopal polity versus prebyterian and be a bishop instead of an elder. One factor influencing his thinking was, according to Henry, Presbyterians recognized Church of England ordination, but vice-versa was not the case. That is, he could always change to a Presbyterian church as a Church of England minister, which meant if he decided later to minister in a Presbyterian congregation, he could do so. There were other factors influencing his decision as Henry concluded his debate of the subject.
The doubt is not whether episcopal ordination be lawful, especially considering that the bishop may be looked upon therein as a presbyter in conjunction with his co-presbyters, (and the validity of such ordination is sufficiently vindicated by the presbyterians in their Jus Divinum [see notes]), but whether it be advisable or no? (Williams, 75)
Ordination by presbyters seems to me more regular and conformable to Scripture, and more becoming one that disowns a prelatical power. (ibid. 76)
That ordination by presbyters is (though not the only valid) yet the best, most scripturally regular, and, therefore, the most eligible, ordination. (ibid. 78)
Henry was convinced that a plurality of presbyters constituted the best church leadership, but he was not persuaded it was the only church government taught in Scripture. Having resolved his ordination dilemma, he wrote to some Presbyterian ministers in London who knew him well and asked them to ordain him. On May 9, 1687, Matthew Henry was examined for ordination having made a full “confession of his faith,” which was a statement of what he believed. As he expressed who God is in his confession he showed the influence of the Westminster Standards on his thinking as he quoted from, without attribution, the Shorter Catechism, question 11, regarding providence. Henry’s examinations were sustained, and he was ordained privately “by imposition of hands, with fasting and prayer” (Williams, 79). Why was he ordained privately? The history of Presbyterians in England was one of ups and downs generally associated with the thinking of the reigning ruler, whether monarch or lord protector. It was a good idea always to be cautious when dissenting against the established church because rulers tend to readjust their thinking as politics ebb and flow. The Act of Indulgence had been issued by James II on April 4, a month before Henry’s ordination, which means the dangers of being a Presbyterian had been somewhat alleviated giving dissenters more freedom. But the trouble was, bishops of the Church of England differed in their aggressiveness concerning enforcing edicts of the king and if they had room enough between the lines of text in an edict, they took full advantage of it by inserting their own interpretations and views. So, not only did the Presbyterians have to deal with unpredictable monarchs, they faced the challenge of capricious prelates. Presbyterians did not know how things would work out regarding the Act of Indulgence and given their rocky history in England, it was wise to err towards caution. Presbyterian views played an important part in Matthew’s upbringing, but its significance has been lost by historians with one describing him as “an evangelical Church of England Minister,” another a “nonconformist minister,” and yet another said he was “a celebrated English nonconformist divine” (sources below).
Matthew Henry continued with the Chester congregation for twenty-five years during which time a church building was constructed. He was often sought to relocate and serve other pulpits, but it was not until 1712 that he accepted a call to the chapel in Hackney, London. In his later years Henry suffered of “the stone,” a disease which it seems nearly everyone in his day experienced. May 31, 1714, Henry left for a visit to Chester to see his former congregation and friends. While on his return trip to London he became paralyzed, possibly caused by a stroke, and he had to stop in Nantwich. It is reported that he said to one of his friends as death approached, “You have been used to take notice of the sayings of dying men, this is mine, that a life spent in the service of God, and communion with him, is the most pleasant life that anyone can live in this world.” Henry worked faithfully sometimes preaching as often as seven times a week. After just a bit over fifty years of life, Matthew Henry died June 22, 1714. He was buried in the church yard of Trinity Church, Church of England.
Henry was married twice. His first wife was Katharine Hardware, who died of small pox shortly after the birth of their first child. In remembrance of his deceased wife, Matthew named the infant for her mother, but little Katharine lived only fifteen months before whooping cough took her life. Shortly thereafter Henry married Mary Warburton. The names of children given in Williams’s book are Elizabeth, Mary, Esther, Ann, Philip, Elizabeth, Sarah, Theodosia, and Mary. The absence of baby Katharine’s name indicates these were the children who survived to become adults. The repetition of both Elizabeth and Mary may indicate a fondness for the names, Henry was honoring ancestors with the same given names, or Williams or his printer made a mistake. Of course, given Henry’s dedication to Christ, he may have found the mothers of both the Lamb of God and the one who announced his arrival particularly blessed.
Matthew Henry is known primarily because of his commentary on the Bible. The massive work shows his dedication to the systematic exposition of Scripture which he learned from the Puritans as taught to him by his father. It was his practice to systematically preach through Scripture which then provided exegetical information for his commentary series. Henry’s comments show his faithfulness to preach the whole counsel of God. Writing a commentary on the whole Bible was an ambitious project which Henry, unfortunately, was not able to complete. The book of Acts is the last portion he wrote before he passed away. The remainder of the New Testament was completed by other men using Henry’s notes (see below for a list of the men). The date of publication of the first edition of Henry’s commentary titled, An Exposition of all the Books of the Old and New Testament: Wherein the Chapters are Summed up in Contents;…In Six Volumes, has proven elusive, but the third edition was issued 1721-1725 (maybe). Henry has been republished over the years in three, nine, and six volumes, as well as a single abridged version. A quick scan of the British Library shows about a dozen English editions. It is possible that Matthew Henry’s magnum opus is the most influential Bible commentary published since the Reformation because it has enjoyed use by a general Christian readership while works by John Calvin and Martin Luther have been used by the Reformed and Lutherans respectively. His other works were published in a collection titled, The Miscellaneous Works of the Rev. Matthew Henry, V.D.M. Containing in Addition to those heretofore Published, Numerous Sermons, now first Printed from the Original Manuscripts…[etc.], which includes a biography of his father, and it was published in two volumes in London by Joseph Ogle Robinson, 1833. There is also a set titled, The Select Works of the Late Rev. Matthew Henry; Being a Complete Collection of all His Treatises, Sermons, and Tracts, as Published by Himself; and a Memoir of His Life, two volumes, Glasgow: A. Fullarton & Co., 1833, which is possibly the same as the first two volume set but published beyond Hadrian’s Wall instead of London.
Notes—The header image is of a building in Chester, England, that was in existence during the time of Matthew Henry’s ministry. It is believed the verse was carved after the last outbreak of the Black Death, bubonic plague, in 1647-1648, because it was the only house that was not afflicted with the disease. See chestertourist.com for further information.
Broad Oak, Flintshire, United Kingdom may be represented today in The Broad Oak which is a pub about twenty miles northwest of Worthenbury where Philip Henry was a minister. The Broad Oak is about nine miles west of Chester.
The Act of Uniformity was enacted May 19, 1662.
The publications excluding Henry’s Presbyterianism are The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, Concise Dictionary of National Biography (circa 1930?), and Cyclopedia by McClintock and Strong.
Henry mentioned Jus Divinum which refers to Jus Divinum Regiminis Ecclesiastici, or The Divine Right of Church Government, by sundry Ministers of London, 1646, which was reprinted by Naphtali Press and edited by David Hall, but unfortunately, it is out of print, so maybe a used copy could be purchased if one is desired. The book sets forth the case that presbyterian polity is the polity of Scripture, which is something Matthew Henry, as noted in the quote from him above, disagreed with. Even though the book is out of print, its descriptive page is still available.
Henry’s commentary was completed by the following authors: Romans by Dr. John Evans; 1 Corinthians by Simon Browne; 2 Corinthians and the Thessalonian letters by Daniel Mayo; Galatians by Joshua Bayes, Ephesians by Samuel Rosewell, Philippians and Colossians by Dr. William Harris, 1 & 2 Timothy by Benjamin Andrews Atkinson; Titus and Philemon by Jeremiah Smith; Hebrews and Revelation by William Tong; James by Dr. S. Wright; 1 Peter by Zechariah Merrill; 2 Peter by Joseph Hill, the epistles of John by John Reynolds of Shrewsbury; and Jude by John Billingsley (Williams, Memoirs, vii).
The primary biographical source used was Memoirs of the Life, Character, and Writings, of the Rev. Matthew Henry, by J. B. Williams, edition from the third London edition, Boston: Pierce & Williams, 1830.