In Broad Oak, a Welsh farmhouse at Iscoid, Flintshire, Matthew Henry was born, on October 18, 1662. His father, Philip Henry, a well-known clergyman, was one of two thousand who resigned or were ejected from their livings because they “dissented” to the conditions laid down in the Act of Uniformity, and were afterwards called “Dissenters”. His mother was of an ancient and honourable family. She had a modest inheritance, so Philip Henry was able to live at Broad Oak and exercise a selfless ministry amongst the people of the district. Matthew was their second son — so frail at birth that he was baptized when he was only a day old, lest he died within the week. As a boy he was physically weak, but mentally, and indeed, spiritually strong. (He is said to have read aloud a chapter of the Bible when he was only three years old!)
In Broad Oak, Philip Henry frequently boarded and trained a candidate for the ministry, who repaid him by acting as a tutor to the children. One of these young students, a certain William Turner, gave Matthew his first love for Latin, and in the Commentary there are many apposite quotations from the Classics. Until he was eighteen, the education of Matthew was supervised by his father, a considerable scholar and a gifted teacher. Because of the increasing laxity at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, Matthew was sent, in 1680, to the Academy at Islington, London. (The “Dissenting Academics” which were established in 1662 and the following years maintained a high standard of academic education at a time when the ancient universities betrayed their trust and forfeited the respect of serious-minded educationists, who desired intellectual freedom.) At Islington the famous Thomas Doolittle, M.A. (late of Pembroke College, Cambridge), was the Principal, and his Assistant Tutor was Thomas Vincent, M.A. (Christ Church, Oxford). Like other Academies it was forced, by persecution, to move from place to place on five occasions, but , in spite of such breaks in continuity, it was considered by many to be the foremost Presbyterian Academy. Of its Principal, Matthew Henry said, “He was very studious and diligent”, but of its accommodation he described its rooms as “very straight and little”. When the Academy was compelled to remove to Battersea, London, Matthew returned home, in 1682. At Broad Oak, though he was of considerable help to his father in pastoral work, he realized that there was not much likelihood of getting a “call” to a settled pastorate. The village was remote, the restrictions on dissenting ministers were severe, and he had no desire to live in comparative idleness.
He decided to return to London to go to Gray’s Inn and study Law. It was soon apparent that his remarkable memory and easy eloquence promised well for a distinguished future. But at this time he was greatly influenced by the preaching of Dr. Stillingfleet at St. Andrew’s Holburn, and by Dr. Tillotson at Lawrence Jewry. At this time, also, he gathered some of his friends in a small group which met for prayer and Bible study, just as, later, the Wesley’s founded the Holy Club at Oxford.
Returning to Broad Oak, he began to preach as a candidate for the ministry. The people who heard him in Chester were so impressed that they asked him to become their pastor. After much self-examination he decided to answer the “call”. Certain London ministers ordained him, privately on May 9th 1687, but in 1702 he obtained a document certifying the regularity of his Presbyterian ordination fifteen years earlier.
He held the pastorate in Chester from 1687 to 1712.
His first wife, Katherine Hardware, died of small-pox, as she gave birth to a child. Subsequently he married the granddaughter of Peter Warburton, a judge of the Court of Common Pleas. Though three of their nine children died in infancy, this was as happy as the first had been. No domestic tragedy could mar the beauty of his home life. It was moulded on the pattern of Broad Oak, where his father’s house was often described as “a house of God and a gate of heaven”. In Chester Matthew Henry conducted family prayers in his home at the beginning and end of the day. In the morning he expounded the Old Testament, and in the evening the New Testament. Probably these expositions, amended as the result of questions and comments from his family and his neighbours, were the basis of his Commentary.
In public services he usually prayed for half an hour, preached for an hour, and joined in singing the Psalms from a selection which he himself had made. His sermons were expository, never political but always practical in their application to the problems of ordinary life. They frequently contained some reference to the condition of the people of the Reformed Churches, who were suffering from severe persecution on the Continent.
On Saturday afternoons he held catechism classes for children, in preparation for their attendance at the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, which, he stressed, was a fulfilment of their baptismal covenant.
Though he had strong personal convictions on the cardinal doctrines, he was not intolerant, and visited all who were in need, whatever might be the communion to which they belonged. He preached six days a week to various congregations within a radius of thirty miles, but always contrived to be in his own pulpit at Chester on Sunday. His influence in the city grew rapidly, and a new meeting-house was built to accommodate the large congregations which now came to hear him.
After recovering from a serious illness in 1704, he began his Notes on the New Testament, and the entry in his diary concluded with a typical prayer: “The Lord help me to set about it with great humility.”
Six years later, in 1710, an urgent “call” came to him from the congregation in Silver Street, Hackney, London. He was reluctant to leave Chester, but felt that his work on the Commentary would be helped by easier access to books and to Biblical scholars in London. “I look back with sorrow for leaving Chester,” he said; “I look forward with fear; but unto Thee, O Lord, do I look up.”
It was not surprising that his attempt to discharge the duties of a large pastorate and, at the same time, to write a detailed commentary on the whole Bible overtaxed his physical resources. He was troubled by the poor quality of his religious life in England, and this increased his weakness. In 1714, whilst paying a visit to his old friends in Chester, he died from apoplexy, at Nantwich. He was only fifty-two, and it seemed a tragic ending; but as one of his relatives said: “I believe it was most agreeable to him to have so short a passage from his work to his reward.” To have exercised so virile and continuous a ministry, to have been a pastor with such intimate insight into the problems of his people, and to have produced so monumental a work as his Commentary, was an astonishing achievement. For two and a half centuries innumerable people have been enlightened and inspired by his interpretation of the Scriptures. Its essentials have stood the test of time, as, in his own day, they stood the test of human experience. The explanation is, surely, that it had its origin in his fellowship with his Master and in his constant concern for the deepest needs of the people committed to his care.