Matthew Henry was born at Broad Oak, October 18, 1662, into the godly home of Philip and Katharine Henry. He had one brother, John who died at the age of sixth, and four sisters, Sarah (the oldest), Katharine, Eleanor, and Ann (the youngest).
When three years old it is said that he could read the Bible distinctly, and he early showed a strong passion for books. Lest he should injure his health by excessive application, his mother was frequently obliged to drag the little student from his closet, and chase him out into the fields.
He had for his tutor Mr. Turner, a young man who then lived at Broad Oak, and who afterwards published a folio volume of "Remarkable Providences;" but whether Mr. Turner had then acquired his taste for extraordinary narratives, or whether the imagination of his pupil was inflamed by their recital, we cannot tell. There is no love of the marvellous in his writings. But in the formation of his character, and the direction of his studies, by far the most influential element was veneration for his learned and saintly sire.
The father's devotion and industry inspired the son. And surely this was as it ought to be. Though love to a pious father is not piety, yet with the children of the godly the fifth commandment has often proved the portico and gateway to the first; and perhaps theirs is the most scriptural devotion whose first warm feelings towards their "Father who is in heaven," mingle with tender memories of their father that was on earth. No character could be more impressive than Philip Henry's, no spirit more impressible than that of Philip Henry's son. Till an upgrown lad he was in his father's constant company. He witnessed the holy elevation and cheerful serenity of his blameless life. He was aware how much his father prayed in secret, and besides occasional sermons, He heard his daily expositions and exhortations at the worship of the family. And from what he saw, as much as from what he heard, the conviction grew with his growth, that of all things the most amiable and august is true religion, and of all lives the most blessed is a walk with God. A hallowed sunshine irradiated Broad Oak all the week; but like rays in a focus, through the Sabbath atmosphere every peaceful feeling and heavenly influence fell in sacred and softening intensity. On these days of the Son of man, the thoughtful boy was often remarkably solemnized; and when the services of the sanctuary were over, would haste to his little chamber to weep and pray, and could scarcely be prevailed on to come down and share the family meal. On one of these occasions his father had preached on the grain of mustard-seed, and, wistful to possess this precious germ, he took the opportunity of a walk with his father to tell his fears and anxieties about himself. The conversation is not recorded, but he afterwards told his confidante, his sister, that he hoped he too had received a "grain of grace," and that in time it might come to something. With his young sisters he held a little prayer-meeting on the Saturday afternoons; and amid the sequestered sanctity of their peaceful home, and under the loving eye and wise instruction of their tender parents, these olive plants grew round about the table.
As we have already noticed, the learning and religious experience of Philip Henry drew to his house many of his most renowned contemporaries; such as the quaint and lively Richard Steel; the venerable Francis Tallonts; the accomplished but extremely modest John Meldrum of Newport, after whose funeral Mr. Henry said, "The relics of so much learning, piety, and humility, I have not seen this great while laid in a grave;" William Cook, "an aged, painful, faithful minister," at Chester, so absorbed in study and in communion with a better country that he scarce ever adverted to any of the things around him; and Edward Lawrence, whose emphatic counsels, e.g. "Tremble to borrow two-pence," "Make no man angry or sad," did not sink so deep into the memories of his own motherless children as into those of their happier companions at Broad Oak. On a mind so pious and reverential as was that of the younger Henry, the sight and conversations of so many distinguished ministers produced a strong impression; and, united to his natural gravity and studiousness, predisposed himself for the ministry. It was his great delight to be in their society, or in the company of warm-hearted Christians, listening to their discourse, or essaying to join in it. He inherited all his father's affection for the Bible, doting over its every sentence with curious avidity, and treasuring up its sayings in his heart. And having long practised the transcription of sermons, anon he began to make them.
At the age of eighteen his father took him to the academy of Mr. Doolittle at Hackney. The journey on horseback was effected in five days. On arriving at London he writes, "I never saw so many coaches. If I should say we saw somewhat above a hundred after we came into the town I should speak within compass." The following extract from his first letter to his sisters gives a glimpse of the state of non-conforming churches in London in the year 1680, and presents the young student in an interesting point of view.
"On Saturday my father went to Islington, and I went to cousin Hotchkiss and Mr. Church's. Mr. Church came with us to see first Bedlam and then the monument. The monument is almost like a spire steeple, set up in the place where the great fire began. It is 345 steps high, and thence we had a sight of the whole city. Yesterday we went to Mr. Doolittle's meeting-place; his church I may call it, for I believe there is many a church that will not hold so many people. There are several galleries; it is all pewed; and a brave pulpit, a great height above the people. They began between nine and ten in the morning, and after the singing of a psalm, Mr. Doolittle first prayed and then preached, and that was all. His text was Jer. xvii. 9. In the afternoon my father preached on Lam. iii. 22, at the same place. Indeed, Mr. Lawrence told him at first he must not come to London to be idle; and they are resolved he shall not; for he is to preach the two next Sabbaths, I believe, at Mr. Steel's and Mr. Lawrence's. On Sabbath-day night about five o'clock, cousin Robert and I went to another place and heard, I cannot say another sermon, but a piece of another, by a very young man, one Mr. Shower, and a most excellent sermon it was, on the evil of sin. The truth was we could scarce get any room, it was so crowded.
"This morning we went to Islington, where I saw the place we are like to abide in, and do perceive our rooms are like to be very strait and little; that Mr. Doolittle is very studious and diligent, and that Mrs. Doolittle and her daughter are very fine and gallant.
"Dear sisters, I am almost ever thinking of you and home; but dare scarce entertain a thought of returning, lest it discompose me. I find it a great change.
"Pray do not forget me in your thoughts, nor in your prayers, but remember me in both. So commending you all to the care and protection of Almighty God, whose kingdom ruleth over all, I rest, your ever loving and affectionate brother,
They were troublous times, and it was not long before Mr. Doolittle's academy was dispersed. Matthew Henry went back to Broad Oak, and the next time he returned to London it was to study law. He had not abandoned his original destination; but as it was then very problematical whether nonconformists would ever be allowed freely to exercise their ministry, it is possible that he may have wished to secure to himself the alternative of an honourable profession. He never became an enthusiast in his legal studies; but he learned enough to add considerably to his store of information, and he always looked back with pleasure to friendships which he formed at Gray's Inn.
It was in 1687, when the penalties against dissent were somewhat relaxed, that Matthew Henry was ordained a minister. On the eve of this important event he devoted a considerable time to self-examination; and in the paper in which he records its results, he writes—
"I think I can say with confidence that I do not design to take up the ministry as a trade to live by, or to enrich myself, out of the greediness of filthy lucre. No! I hope I aim at nothing but souls; and if I gain those, though I should lose all my worldly comforts by it, I shall reckon myself to have made a good bargain.
"I think I can say with as much assurance, that my design is not to get myself a name amongst men, or to be talked of in the world as one that makes somewhat of a figure. No; that is a poor business. If I have but a good name with God I think I have enough, though among men I be reviled, and have my name trampled upon as mire in the streets. I prefer the good word of my Master far before the good word of my fellow-servants.
"I can appeal to God that I have no design in the least to maintain a party, or to keep up any schismatical faction; my heart rises against the thoughts of it. I hate dividing principles and practices, and whatever others are, I am for peace and healing; and if my blood would be a sufficient balsam, I would gladly part with the last drop of it for the closing up of the bleeding wounds of differences that are amongst true Christians."
For five and twenty years Mr. Henry was minister of the Presbyterian congregation at Chester, and many things combined to make it a happy pastorate. Broad Oak was not far from Chester, and till the year 1696, when Philip Henry removed to the better country, many delightful visits were exchanged between the father and the son. Wrenbury Wood, the home of his elder sister, Mrs. Savage, was still nearer; and by their respective marriages his other three sisters all settled in Chester, and with their families became members of his flock. And his congregation increased. Not only was it needful to enlarge the place of worship, but many of his hearers were men of education and mental enlargement, to whom it was animating to preach, and in whose intelligent Christian fellowship it was pleasant to spend his occasional hours. The number of communicants was eventually 350, and Mr. Henry had the greatest joy which an earnest minister can have—he knew of many to whose salvation God had blessed his instructions and entreaties. And so long as he remained with them, he had that other greatest joy—he saw his children walking in the truth.
Like his father, Mr. Henry found great delight in study and like that father, his turn of mind was systematic. His sermons were a series. To the volatile auditories of modern times there would be something appalling in a body of divinity which occupied the Sabbaths of fourteen years. But the later Puritans, especially, were lovers of order and routine; congregations were more stationary, and the world had then a feeling of latitude and leisure which it can never know again. And perhaps the regular recurrence of similar services, and the weekly resumption of the stated subject, and the placid distillation of scriptural lessons, were as congenial to Sabbath rest and spiritual growth as the endless variety and turbulent excitement which our own generation, more languid or more mercurial, craves. And there is no reason why method should produce monotony. In the hands of Matthew Henry, besides its continuous instructiveness, method was often a stimulus to attention, and an additional means of vivacity. On the subject, "Put off the old man, put on the new," he gave a course of many sermons in the following scheme:—
1 "Put off pride, and put on humility.
2 Put off passion, and put on meekness.
3 Put off covetousness, and put on contentment.
4 Put off contention, and put on peaceableness.
5 Put off murmuring, and put on patience.
6 Put off melancholy, and put on cheerfulness.
7 Put off vanity, and put on seriousness.
8 Put off uncleanness, and put on chastity.
9 Put off drunkenness, and put on temperance.
10 Put off deceitfulness, and put on honesty.
11 Put off hatred, and put on love.
12 Put off hypocrisy, and put on sincerity.
13 Put off bad discourse, and put on good discourse.
14 Put off bad company, and put on good company.
15 Put off security, and put on watchfulness.
16 Put off slothfulness, and put on diligence.
17 Put off folly, and put on prudence.
18 Put off fear, and put on hope.
19 Put off a life of sense, and put on a life of faith.
20 Put off self, and put on Jesus Christ."
At another time he gave a set of sermons on "Penitent Reflections and Pious Resolutions," taking for his general text, "I thought on my ways, and turned my feet unto thy testimonies," and selecting for particular reflections and resolutions such antithetic texts as—
1 "I have sinned."—Ps. xli. 4.
"I will do so no more."—Job xxxiv. 32.
2 "I have done foolishly."—2 Sam. ii. 10.
"I will behave myself wisely."—Ps. ci. 2.
3 "I have perverted that which is right."—Job xxxiii. 27.
'I will never forget thy precepts."—Ps. cxix. 93, &c.
Those who are acquainted with that beautiful work, "Buchanan's Comfort in Affliction," will know where to find a recent example akin to the foregoing, in which a leading text is the subject, and other texts happily selected supply the particular instances.
In those primitive days Mr. Henry's Sabbath-morning congregation met at nine o'clock. The service usually began with singing the Hundredth Psalm; and, after a short prayer, Mr. Henry expounded a chapter of the Old Testament, having begun with Genesis, and continuing in regular order. Then, after another psalm and a longer prayer, he preached a sermon about an hour in length, and after prayer and singing, the congregation was dismissed with the blessing. The afternoon service was nearly the same, except that it was a chapter of the New Testament which was then expounded. On Thursday evening he gave a lecture, which was well attended by his own people, and to which some Episcopalians came, who did not choose to forsake their own church on the Lord's day. For this weekly lecture he found a subject which lasted twenty years, in " Scriptural Questions." It was Oct. 1692 when he began with. Gen. iii. 9, "Adam, where art thou?" and it was May 1712 when he arrived at Rev. xviii. 18, "What city is like unto this great city?"
The solemnity with which Baptism was administered, and the Lord's Supper celebrated, in Matthew Henry's meeting-house, struck many at the time; and from the fervour of his own spirit they proved eminently means of grace. His "Communicant's Companion" is still well known, and by its minute directions, shows how vital to the believer, and how blessed to the affectionate disciple, he deemed a due commemoration of his dying Lord. His original biographer remarks, "His soul was formed for this ordinance. He was full of love to Christ, and thankfulness to God for Christ."
His tender nature drew him towards the young, and his playful simplicity made him their apt instructor. An hour of every Saturday was devoted to public catechising, and many young persons ascribed their first earnestness in religion to the close dealing and touching addresses with which this exercise was frequently ended.
There were then no religious nor philanthropic societies but the public spirit of Mr. Henry prompted him to efforts beyond the bounds of his own congregation. When a series of sermons "for the Reformation of Manners" was projected, he did his utmost to promote it, and contributed four of his most able and important addresses. And moved by the miserable case of the prisoners in Chester gaol, he was in the habit of visiting them and preaching to them, till the curate of St. Mary's prevailed on the governor to discharge him. In the meanwhile his disinterested labours had been the means of much good to the criminals.
The great business of Mr. Henry's life was the cultivation of piety in himself and others. His religion was not the less profound that it was mild and evenly; nor is it the less fitted for imitation that it adorned and cheered a life of tranquil tenor. The present volume contains "Directions for Daily Communion with God," and his own practice was a constant effort to "begin and spend and conclude each day with God." Besides the full and deliberate worship of God in his family, he abounded in secret prayer. It was his recourse in every undertaking. His sermons were begun, his books were published, his journeys were commenced, and the important steps of his history were taken with prayer. "What incomes of grace," he wrote, "yea and outward good things, as far as they are indeed good for us, have we by an access to God in Christ. Such have a companion ready in all their solitudes; a counsellor in all their doubts; a comforter in all their sorrows; a supply in all their wants; a support under all their burdens; a shelter in all their dangers; strength for all their performances; and salvation ensured by a sweet undeceiving earnest. What is heaven but an everlasting access to God? and present access is a pledge of it." And as he had devout and confident recourse to the throne of grace, so he was an alert and thankful observer of those providences which answered prayer. He would say that the good things of God's children "are not dispensed out of the basket of common providence, but out of the ark of the covenant;" and "those mercies are the sweetest which are seen growing upon the root of a promise." Like his contemporary in Scotland, Thomas Boston, his diary is full of recognitions of God's superintending care and kind interposing hand. Gratitude for mercies was constantly irradiating his path and sweetening his spirit; and if he sometimes sought the prayers of his friends, he also sought the help of their praises. On special occasions he invited them to his house to join in thanksgiving for recent deliverances or distinguishing favours. "O magnify the Lord with me; let us exalt his name together."
In a pre-eminent degree Mr. Henry possessed a spiritual mind; and of that spirituality one great secret was his devout and delighted observance of the Lord's day. On it he accumulated all the endearment and veneration of a grateful and conscientious spirit, and in it he collected patience and impulse for the days to come. To him the Sabbath was like a reservoir on the summit of a hill. He was sure that if this day were filled with heavenly things it would send down its bright and refreshing streams through all the week.
The better to "fix his heart," and help his memory, he kept an occasional journal. As affording the most intimate view of his character, we may give a few extracts from it.
"June 23, 1696—This afternoon about three o'clock, my father's servant came for the doctor, with the tidings that my dear father was taken suddenly ill. I had then some of my friends about me, and they were cheerful with me; but this struck a damp upon all. I had first thought not to have gone till the next day, it being somewhat late and very wet, and had written half a letter to my dear mother, but I could not help going; and I am glad I did go, for I have often thought of that, 2 Kings ii, 10. ' If thou see me when I am taken up from thee,' &c. The doctor and I came to Broad Oak about eight o'clock, and found him in great extremity of pain; nature, through his great and unwearied labours, unable to bear up, and sinking under the load. As soon as be saw me he said, 'Oh son, you are welcome to a dying father; I am now ready to be offered up, and the time of my departure is at hand.' A little after midnight, my mother holding his hands as he sat in bed, and I holding the pillow to his back, he very quietly and without any struggling, groan, or rattling, breathed out his dear soul into the hands of the Lord Jesus Christ, whom he had faithfully served."
"July 1.—There are some things I would more particularly engage myself to upon this providence.
"1. To be more grave and serious.
"2. To be more meek and humble, cautious and candid, because these were the graces that my dear father was eminent for, and God owned him in them, and men honoured him for them. I am sensible of too much hastiness of spirit. I would learn to be of a cool, mild spirit.
"3. To be more diligent and industrious in improving my time, for I see it is hasting off apace, and I desire to have it filled up, because I see I must shortly put off this my tabernacle, and there is no working in the grave."
"Oct. 18, 1697.—Through the good hand of my God upon me I have finished my thirty-fifth year—one half of the age of man. It is now high noon with me, but my sun may go down at noon. I was affected this morning when alone, in thinking what I was born—a rational creature, a helpless creature, and a sinful creature. Where I was born—in the church of God, in a land of light, in a house of prayer. What I was born for—to glorify God my Maker, and prepare to get to heaven."
"Jan. 1, 1701. Being more and more confirmed in my belief of the being and attributes of God, of the mediation of the Lord Jesus Christ between God and man, and of the reality and weight of invisible things; and being more and more satisfied that this is the true grace of God wherein I stand; I do solemnly resign and give up my whole self to God in Jesus Christ. I commit my soul and all the concerns of my spiritual state to the grace of God, and to the word of his grace, subjecting myself to the conduct and government of the blessed Spirit, and to his influences and operations, which I earnestly desire and depend upon for the mortifying of my corruptions, the strengthening of my graces, the furnishing me for every good word and work, and the ripening of me for heaven. I commit my body and all the concerns of my outward condition to the providence of God, to be ordered and disposed by the wisdom and will of my Heavenly Father. Not knowing the things which may befall me this year, I refer myself to God. Whether it shall be my dying year or no, I know not; but it is my earnest expectation and hope that the Lord Jesus Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life or death, by health or sickness, by plenty or poverty, by liberty or restraint, by preaching or silence, by comfort or sorrow. Welcome, welcome, the will of God, whatever it be."
"Oct. 18, 1701.—I have thought much this day what a great variety of cross events I am liable to while in the body, and how uncertain what may befall me in the next year of my life; pain, or sickness, or broken bones, loss in my estate, death of dear relations, reproach, divisions in the congregation, public restraints and troubles: my fortieth year may be as Israel's was, the last of my sojourning in this wilderness. The worst of evils would be sin and scandal. The Lord keep me from that, and fit me for any other."
"Dec. 31, 1703.—Unfixedness of thought, a wretched desultoriness. Some speak of time well spent in thinking; but I find unless in speaking, reading, or writing, my thinking doth not turn to much account. Though I have had comfort in some broken good thoughts, yet I can seldom fix my heart to a chain of then. Oh that the thought of my heart may be forgiven!
"I have oft bewailed my barrenness in good discourse, and unskilfulness in beginning it, and coldness of concern for the souls of others; and in reflection on this year I find it has not been much better. I bless God I love good discourse, and would promote it, but I want zeal."
"Jan. 1, 1705.—I know this is the will of God, even my sanctification. Lord, grant that this year I may be more holy, and walk more closely than ever in all holy conversation. I earnestly desire to be filled with holy thoughts, to be carried out in holy affections, determined by holy aims and intentions, and governed in all my words and actions by holy principles. Oh that a golden thread of holiness may run through the whole web of this year!
"I know it is the will of God that I should be useful, and by his grace I will be so. Lord, thou knowest it is the top of my ambition in this world to do good, and to be serviceable to the honour of Christ and the welfare of precious souls. I would fain do good in the pulpit, and good with my pen; and, which I earnestly desire to abound more in, to do good by my common converse."
"Jan. 1, 1706.—I know not what the year shall bring forth; but I know it shall bring forth nothing amiss to me, if God be my God in covenant; if it bring forth death, that I hope shall quite finish sin and free me from it. Lord, let thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word. I commit my family to my heavenly Father, to God, even my own God, my Father's God, my children's God. Oh pour out thy Spirit upon my seed, thy blessing, that blessing of blessings, upon my offspring, that they may be praising God on earth when I am praising him in heaven."
"Dec. 31, 1707.—I begin to feel my journey in my bones, and I desire to be thereby loosened from the world, and from this body. The death of my dear and honoured mother this year has been a sore breach upon my comfort; for she was my skilful faithful counsellor; and it is an intimation to me that now, in the order of nature, I must go next ... As to my ministry here, Mr. Mainwaring's leaving me and his wife has been very much my discouragement. But Providence so ordered it that Mr. Harvey's congregation are generally come into us, or else we began to dwindle, so that I should have gone on very heavily."
"March 8, 1713, London.—I preached Mr. Rosewell's evening lecture, Ps. 89.16, 'The joyful sound.' As I came home I was robbed, The thieves took from me about ten or eleven shillings. My remarks upon it were,—1. What reason have I to be thankful to God, who have travelled so much, and yet was never robbed before. 2. What a deal of evil the love of money is the root of, that four men would venture their lives and souls for about half-a-crown a-piece. 3. See the power of Satan in the children of disobedience. 4. See the vanity of worldly wealth; how soon we may be stripped of it. How loose, therefore, we should sit to it."
As might easily be surmised from the extent of his writings, Mr. Henry was a hard student. His plan was to rise early: he was usually in his study at five o'clock, sometimes as early as four; and except the hour allowed for breakfast and morning worship, remained there till noon, often till four in the afternoon. Nothing more tried his meek and patient spirit than intrusions on his studying time. "I am always best when alone. No place is like my own study: no company like good books, especially the book of God." But with all his love of leisure and retirement he was no hermit. He was rich in friends. He was much consulted by them; and besides an extensive correspondence, he showed his interest in them by his minute and affectionate intercessions. "How sweet a thing it is to pray, minding a particular errand." That errand was often some conjuncture in the history of a friend, or a friend's family. And nothing leaves a softer halo round his memory than his filial and fraternal piety. His conduct was a reverential transcript from his father's bright example; the best tribute which love and veneration can render: and his own life was a sermon on the text which he selected after his beloved mother died, "Her children shall rise up, and call her blessed." He and his sisters grew up together in the holy atmosphere of their Broad Oak home; and though they all eventually had houses of their own, they never knew a suspicion or a quarrel, a dry word or a divided interest.
When the first volumes of his Commentary had been published, and Mr. Henry's talents as a divine and an expositor were known, he received repeated calls to come and be a London minister. He was invited to succeed Dr. Bates, then Mr. Nathanael Taylor, then Mr. Spademan; but all these invitations he resolutely and successfully refused. At last the congregation at Hackney made an onset which he could no longer withstand. After a year of hesitation and painful anxiety He agreed to go. Among many considerations which influenced him, the two following were the most powerful:—"There is manifestly a much wider door of opportunity to do good opened to me at London than is at Chester, in respect to the frequency and variety of week-day occasions of preaching, and the great numbers of the auditors. The prospect I have of improving these opportunities, and of doing good to souls thereby, is, I confess, the main inducement to me to think of removing thither.
"Though the people at Chester are a most loving people, and many of them have had, and have an exceeding value for me and my ministry, yet I have not been without my discouragements, and those such as have tempted me to think that my work in this place has been in a great measure done: many that have been catechised with us, have left us, and very few have been added to us."
It was on the 18th of May, 1712, that Mr. Henry began his labours at Hackney. He was in his fiftieth year, and had been five and twenty years at Chester. He found abundance of that occupation to which he had looked forward with such desire, having opportunities of preaching almost every day of the week, and sometimes twice or thrice on the same day. And probably it was in this way that he accomplished most; for his Hackney congregation was not large. He found only a hundred communicants. It was not a lively period in the history of religion anywhere, and the London churches widely shared the spiritual torpor which soon after his decease transformed the Presbyterian chapel at Chester into a Unitarian meeting-house.
On leaving his former flock Mr. Henry promised to visit them once a year. In the summer of 1713 he fulfilled that promise, and again in May, 1714, he quitted Hackney for the same purpose. The two last Sabbaths of this visit were employed on the texts, "There remaineth a rest for the people of God," and, "Let us fear lest a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it." That rest was nearer than he knew. On Monday, June 21, he set out on his return to London. He was engaged to preach at Nantwich on the way. His horse threw him, but he denied that he had sustained any injury. Accordingly, he preached on Prov. xxxi. 18; but every one noticed that he was not so lively as usual. He was short, and afterwards very heavy and sleepy: He asked his friends to pray for him, "for now I cannot pray for myself." He remarked, "Sin is bitter," and said, "I bless God I have inward supports." But he was soon seized with apoplexy, and at eight on the following morning, June 22, he fell asleep.
On the following day his eldest sister, Mrs. Savage, has this entry in her journal:—
"Wednesday, June 23.—I went to the place to take leave of the dear earthen vessel, in which was lodged such a treasure, and shall always remember there was nothing of death to be seen in his face, but rather something of a smile. How is the gold become dim, and the fine gold changed! That head, that hand so fitted for service, now cold and moveless. Lord, what is man, the greatest, the best? When God bids Moses go up and die on Mount Nebo, it is observable he adds, 'As Aaron thy brother was gathered to his people.' Sure this should mind me of my own dissolution, as sprung from the same good olive, and spending our childhood together in much comfort and pleasure, under that dear and benign shadow. I have reason to think he loved me the best of all his sisters, and it is with satisfaction I think of the love I had for him, and the great unity that was amongst us then, so that I do not remember one angry or unkind word betwixt us. Though I well remember that I have thought my dear mother had most tenderness and love for my brother, yet I was so far from envying for his sake that I complied with her, and loved him with a pure heart fervently. I remember the many cares and fears I had for him when he was ill of a fever at London, at Mr. Doolittle's, and the strong cries and tears I offered in secret to my heavenly Father, accompanied with a purpose of a particular act of religion that I would be found in, if God should hear prayer for him, and spare him to us, greatly dreading how my dear parents could bear the stroke. God was graciously pleased then to hearken to our petitions, and give him to us again; but, after a time, my good purposes (to my shame) proved abortive."
"Friday, June 25.—We gathered up the mantle of this dear Elijah, took the remains to Chester, lodged then, in the silent tomb, 'the house appointed for all living.' We laid him in Trinity Church, by his dear first wife, accompanied with a vast crowd desiring to pay their tribute to his blessed memory."
In 1687 Mr. Henry married Miss Hardware, a young lady remarkable for her beauty and piety; but when they had been only eighteen months united she was seized with the small-pox, and died. His second wife was Miss Warburton, of Grange, the virtuous daughter of a respected family. By this marriage a son and five daughters survived him. The son inherited the estate of Grange, and assumed the maternal name. It is feared that he did not inherit his father's piety. For some time he represented the city of Chester in Parliament.
By his sermons, and his abundant personal labours, Matthew Henry served his generation; by his industrious and ingenious pen he has done a service to the world. From time to time he published tracts and treatises, which met with some attention even in that drowsy age, and many of which have been highly valued since. The "Pleasantness of a Religious Life" has been often republished, and no treatise on the Lord's Supper is better known or prized than the "Communicant's Companion." The present volume contains other specimens of his practical theology, which, though they have not gone into oblivion, have not got into the wide circulation to which their solid worth and earnestness entitle them. In reading his "Directions for Daily Communion with God," the interest and profit of the perusal will be augmented by remembering that it was his own daily effort to "walk with God."
However, these and all his other treatises—enough to engross the leisure hours of any other pastor, if not to immortalize any other divine—were incidental efforts on the part of this herculean student, and mere episodes in a colossal undertaking. His industry, piety, and sanctified genius, have left their peerless memorial in "An Exposition of the Old and New Testament;" and like the Penseroso, and other poems, which are read with double interest because their author wrote "Paradise Lost," the following tracts, if excellent themselves, should be read with keener expectation by those who remember that their author wrote Henry's Exposition.
It is with literary monuments as with architectural trophies; we like not only to know who reared them, but how they went to work, and we would be glad to learn how far they enjoyed their labour, and what were their emotions when the task was done. Kennicott's process in collating the Hebrew text, and Johnson's operations in compiling his mighty Lexicon, are among the most interesting curiosities of literature, and few passages in autobiography are more thrilling than those, for instance, in which Gibbon records his moon-light musings when the "Decline and Fall" was finished, and Pollok describes the rapture in which he completed the "Course of Time." Few achievements can be so vast as a continuous commentary on the Bible. We are therefore grateful to Dr. Adam Clarke's biographer for telling us how, during the forty years that his book was in building, he would sometimes be so absorbed that he did not observe the knock at the study-door, but was discovered on his bended knees with the pen in his hand and the paper before him; and how, when the last sentence was written, he led his son into the library, and surprised him by the new spectacle of the great table, cleared of all its folios, and nothing but a Bible remaining. "This, Joseph, is the happiest period I have enjoyed for years. I have written the last word. I have put away the chains that would remind me of my bondage. And there have I returned the deep thanks of a grateful soul to the God who has shown me such great and continued kindness." And we can sympathize with his family, who, sharing in his emancipation, testified their joy by presenting him with a silver vase. And it exceedingly enhances our interest in Scott's Notes, when we remember the circumstances of bodily suffering and financial anxiety in which they were written, and if we sometimes deem them common-place or meagre, we rebuke our discontent by asking, "How could they be better when the press was always clanking at his heels, and he often rose from a bed of sickness to write them?" Matthew Henry did not live to finish his great undertaking, but to the research of his biographer, we are indebted for some interesting particulars regarding the commencement and progress of the work. It was a labour of love, and like the best productions of the pen, flowed from the abundance of the author's mind. The commentary was all in Matthew Henry before a word of it was written down. In his father's house, as we have seen, the Bible was expounded every day, and he and his sisters had preserved ample notes of their father's terse and aphoristic observations. Then during his own Chester ministry he went over more than once the whole Bible in simple explanations to his people. Like the Spartan babe whose cradle was his father's shield, it would be scarcely a figure to say that the Bible was the pillow of his infant head, and familiar with it from his most tender years it dwelt richly in him all his days. It was the pivot round which his meditations, morning, noon, and evening, turned, and whatever other knowledge came in his way, he pounced on it with more or less avidity as it served to elucidate or enforce some Bible saying. What has been remarked of an enthusiast in Egyptian antiquities—that he had grown quite pyramidal—may be said of the Presbyterian minister at Chester; he had grown entirely biblical. He had no ideas which had not either been first derived from Scripture, or afterwards dissolved in it. And as his shrewd sense, his kindly nature, his devotional temperament, and his extensive information were all thoroughly scripturalized, it needed no forcing nor straining. It was but to draw the spigot, and out flowed the [distinctive] exposition. "The work has been to me its own wages, and the pleasure recompense enough for all the pains."
Much was incidentally jotted down, and the materials lay affluent about him, before he commenced writing for the press. It was the advice of the Rev. Samuel Clarke and other friends which moved him to begin, and the following entry in his journal announces the commencement of the work. "Nov. 12, 1704. This night, after many thoughts of heart, and many prayers concerning it, I began my Notes on the Old Testament. It is not likely I shall live to finish it, or if I should, that it should be of public service, for I am not par negotio; yet in the strength of God, and I hope with a single eye to his glory, I set about it, that I may endeavour something and spend my time to some good purpose, and let the Lord make what use he pleaseth of me. I go about it with fear and trembling, lest I exercise myself in things too high for me. The Lord help me to set about it with great humility." Yes,—"Fear and trembling," and "many prayers,"—these are the secret of its success. All the author's fitness, and all his fondness for the work would have availed little, had not the Lord made it grow. In September, 1706, he finished the Pentateuch; and on the 21st of November that year he writes: "This evening I received a parcel of the Exposition of the Pentateuch. I desire to bless God that he has given me to see it finished. I had comfort from that promise, 'Thou shalt find favour and good understanding in the sight of God and man.'" That volume came out separately, and though near her eightieth year, his mother lived to see it, and, scarcely hoping to read all the volume, the good old lady began with Deuteronomy. Every second year produced another volume, till April 17th, 1714, he records: "Finished Acts, and with it the fifth volume. Blessed be God that has helped me and spared me. All the praise be to God." Two months after he ceased from all his labours, and Dr. Evans and others took up the fallen pen. They completed a sixth volume, but did not continue "Matthew Henry."
The zest with which he began lasted all along. So dear was the employment that it was not easy to divert him from it, and each possible moment was devoted to it. Even when roused from slumber by illness in the family, his eye would brighten at the sight of it, and he would draw in his studying-chair "to do a little at the exposition." What he says in the preface to the Prophecies—his least successful volume—will awaken the fellow-feeling of the reader, and remind him of Bishop Horne's touching farewell to the Book of Psalms. "The pleasure I have had in studying and meditating on those parts of these prophecies which are plain and practical, and especially those that are evangelical, has been an abundant balance to and recompense for the harder tasks we have met with in other parts that are more obscure. In many parts of this field the treasure must be digged for, as that in the mines; but in other parts the surface is covered with rich and precious products, with corn and flocks, and of which we may say, as was said of Noah, 'These same have comforted us greatly concerning our work, and the toil of our hands,' and have made it very pleasant and delightful. God grant it may be no less so to the readers."
It would be easy to name commentators more critical, more philosophical, or more severely erudite; but none so successful in making the Bible understood. And the question with sensible readers will always be, not, What did the commentator bring to the Bible? but, What did he bring out of it? And tried by this test, Henry will bear the perpetual palm. His curious inferences, and his just though ingenious "Notes," are such as could only have occurred to one mighty in the Scriptures, and minute in the particular text; and to the eager Bible-student, they often present themselves with as welcome surprise as the basket of unexpected ore which a skilful miner sends up from a deserted shaft. Nor dare we admire them the less because detected in passages where our duller eye or blunter hammer had often explored in vain. On the other hand it is possible to name some who have commented more fully on particular books; but most of them are something more than expositions. They are homiletic notes and expository dissertations. In the language of quaint old Berridge, a preacher is a "Gospel-baker." In the same idiom, a commentator should be it "Bible-miller." Bread-corn must be bruised; and it is the business of the skilful interpreter to give nothing but the text transformed—bread-corn in the guise of flour. This was what Matthew Henry did, and he left it to "Gospel-bakers" to add the salt and leaven, or mayhap the sugar and the laurel-leaf, and make a sermon or an essay as the case might be.
To its author the exposition was a blessed toil; but he could not foresee the wide acceptance and growing favour which awaited it. He could not anticipate that the most powerful minds of after-ages should be its most ardent admirers, or that the panegyrics should be passed on it which we know that Ryland, and Hall, and Chalmers have pronounced. Still less could it occur to him that the kindness with which contemporaries received it should be a hundredfold exceeded by a generation so fastidious and book-surfeited as our own. But could its subsequent history have been revealed to his benignant eye, the circumstance which would have elicited the gladdest and most thankful sparkle would have been to behold it in thousands of Christian families, the Sabbath-companion and the household book.
It is not only through the glass doors of stately book-cases that its gilt folios shine, nor on the study-shelves of manses and evangelical parsonages that its brown symbol of orthodoxy may be recognised; but in the parlour of many a quiet tradesman, and the cupboard of many a little farmer, and on the drawers-head of many a mechanic or day-labourer, the well-conned quartos hold their ancestral station, themselves an abundant library, and hallowed as the heirloom of a bygone piety. In the words of a beloved friend, who has done much for Henry's Commentary, "It has now lasted more than one hundred and thirty years, and is at this moment more popular than ever, gathering strength as it rolls down the stream of time; and it bids fair to be The Comment for all coming time. True to God, true to nature, true to common sense, and true to the text, how can it ever be superseded? Waiting pilgrims will be reading it when the last trumpet sounds, Come to judgment."