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.
Matthew was born prematurely 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, the 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 for ordination by the Church of England. They also had 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 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 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.
Matthew’s birth place, Broad Oak, was the ancestral home of his mother’s family and it was where he would live and return for visits during his later life. One biographer says the boy could read the Bible at the age of three and that he showed signs of great intelligence. When Matthew was about ten years old he survived a severe fever which his family had feared would lead to his death. After receiving preparatory education in a nonconformist academy, Matthew 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 ministry. Henry had come to faith in Christ through a sermon preached 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 began the study of theology. Matthew’s early ministry was through occasionally supplying pulpits 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 over prebyterian and become 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 internal 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)