Phillip Henry—Father of a Commentator
Matthew Henry’s Home Life
And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.
For three hundred years, Matthew Henry’s Commentary of the Bible has been a household word among English-speaking Christians. Three hundred years is a long time. During these years, many commentaries have come and gone, but the deep spiritual comments of Matthew Henry continue to draw the attention of serious Christians worldwide. It is hard to say how many hands have reached for his commentaries over this long space of time, but I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say it’s in the millions. We want to pull back the curtain and gaze into the home life that produced a heart, a life, and this famous commentary. It has come to us through the diligent labors of a father, who took the above Bible verse very seriously.
I have received several letters alerting me to the rich treasures hidden in the lives of Phillip and Matthew Henry; however, I was not able to find a source to glean from until now. Banner of Truth Trust has provided an extensive reprint of both lives, and it has been an excellent resource. I have not been disappointed as I studied. In fact, the deeper I studied into these two lives, the more it became evident to me: there is a giant of a man behind the commentator Matthew Henry. Yea, the more I read, the more difficult it is to determine who the commentator is. Praise to God whose infinite wisdom is past finding out.
Phillip Henry’s Heritage
The more I study the households of Zion, the clearer it is to me, that God prepares choice servants through the generations that precede them. Matthew Henry is no exception. Phillip Henry was born in 1631 in Westminster, England, to Christian parents with a clear testimony of godliness. His father, John Henry, was servant to the king, and had several different responsibilities. It seems that Phillip’s mother Magdalene, had the greatest spiritual influence on him, though she died when he was only fourteen years old. She separated herself from the vanities of the king’s court, though she lived in the midst of them, and gave herself to the training of her children. She led them in prayers and catechized them daily in the Scriptures, as Lois and Eunice did to Timothy. As her young son showed deep interest in spiritual things, she dedicated him to God for the service of a higher King.
Young Phillip’s Spiritual Pursuits
A discerning mother, she saw clearly the budding desires of her gifted son, and was quick to give direction to his studies. It seems in those days, parents were not afraid to guide the young ones out of childhood and into adulthood at an early age. Magdalene ordered a rigorous schedule of spiritual pursuits for her son, though he was only ten years old. I should hasten to note, that Phillip was ravenous to keep her schedule because of his holy desires for wisdom. To him, “Wisdom was the principle thing,” and he sought it with earnest at an early age. Lord, lift our eyes higher, that we may see what can be done with a child when you start young. I believe a mother’s faithful teaching of Scripture, God also helping her, created these holy desires. Let’s look more deeply into the rigors that Phillip willingly submitted to from age ten to fifteen.
• Early Morning Lectures
His mother got special permission for him to attend a lecture of Bible expositions, each morning at 7:00 A.M. Several godly men held these lectures seven days a week. His mother expected him to take notes on all he heard; and, of course, he went off to school after this.
• Thursday Night Lectures
Every Thursday evening, his mother took him to another church to sit under the ministry of other godly men. These were the days when nonconformists were rising up and proclaiming reform in the state church. It seems evident that Mrs. Henry felt led to put her son under many of their influences.
• Sabbath Day Preaching
The family attended two different churches each Lord’s Day. One in the morning and another in the early evening. Again, the purpose for this was to sit under the teachings of godly men. These different churches covered a wide range of Protestant theology. One was a Presbyterian, one an Independent, and another, Episcopal.
• Monthly Fast Days
Young Phillip kept the fast days that were held each month at his home church. He sat on the pulpit steps with joy, recording every sermon of the day. These fast days were very rigorous. They started at 8 AM, and finished at 4 PM. There were times of singing, times of preaching, and times of open confession and prayer. We can get a glimpse into their affect on him by an entry in his diary. He states, “My soul rejoiceth and is glad at the remembrance of those days. I loved it, and loved the messages, and felt sweet meltings of soul in prayer and confession of my sins.”
• Writing Sermons
Phillip’s mother trained him to copy the sermons as he was listening. He practiced this discipline from an early age, and continued until a few years before his death, when his eyesight dimmed. Let me explain what the term “writing sermons” means. He learned to write extensive comments about all the main points of the sermon so he could then rehearse them to his mother and father. This practice taught him to meditate and communicate truth at an early age. It is no wonder, that he became a well-known expository preacher.
You might be tempted to think, “Poor child, he missed his childhood”; however, consider Phillip’s own testimony as he reflected on those powerful years in his life. “I was kept from the common sins of other youths, such as cursing, swearing, Sabbath breaking and the like. In addition, it prevailed, through grace, to bring me effectually to God.” As I studied, it seems to me that he came to a saving knowledge of Christ at age thirteen, however, as the custom was in those days, it was not acknowledged until he took communion at age sixteen, after several weeks of very challenging instruction with his minister. His own testimony at the end of this six-year period of seeking God is very convincing. “I confessed my sins before God, original and actual, judging and condemning myself for them. I cast all my transgressions away from me, receiving Christ Jesus the Lord as the Lord my righteousness. I devoted and dedicated my whole self, absolutely and unreservedly, to His fear and service.” May God give us more conversions like this one! It would be the joy of any parents’ heart: however, we must remember, this comes from guiding them toward spiritual pursuits while they are young. Space will not allow me to write the details of the godly life that sprung up out of this solid beginning. I must stay with the area of his home; however, I was delighted to find the words, made famous by Jim Elliot, written as a quote from his heart. “He is no fool who gives up that which he cannot keep, to gain that which he cannot lose.” These words were guiding principles in Phillip’s life.
Courtship and Marriage
Foundations are made up of stones, all carefully placed for strength to hold a building. In the same manner, the foundations that hold many generations of godly servants are made of individual stones, and a proper courtship and marriage is one of those solid stones. Sometimes these valuable stones are difficult to lay, and such was the case with Phillip Henry.
By the time Phillip was inclined to take a wife, he had been a preacher and pastor for five years. God was clearly leading him to a young woman, Katherine Matthews, who lived in the town where he served. The leadings and feelings were mutual on her part, and Phillip began the process of seeking her hand in marriage. This brought a time of trials and testing to him as her father and some of the town’s people did not approve. Phillip’s life as a preacher was blameless, but not all accepted the nonconformists in those days. “He is a stranger, and we don’t know where he comes from” were the words of some of the town’s people. Her reply to them is classic. She retorted with, “It is true, but I know where he is going, and I should like to go with him.” Phillip’s vision was clear, and Katherine knew, if a man knows where he is going, it matters not where he is from.
Katherine’s father was the greatest trial as he began to make the terms of the marriage so difficult that Phillip would just break off the relationship. In these things, God’s grace did shine, and through faith, patience and a humble spirit, he did eventually inherit the promise of a godly wife. They married in the spring of 1660, with the blessing of her father and the town’s people. The day before the wedding was spent in prayer and fasting, searching the heart and rededicating the life to God. This is quite different from the day before a wedding today. Six children were born from this holy union; two boys, and four girls.
There is very little record of this saintly woman’s life; however, the testimony of her son, Matthew Henry, speaks volumes about her. “My mother excelled as much in her sphere as my father did in his.” This speaks of a hidden woman who knew her place, and joyfully served there. Phillip said of Katherine, “After twenty years of marriage, we have had not one need of reconciling.” That means, there were no arguments, no disagreements. Phillip and Katherine were in love. The children knew it, and the recorded letters testify of it. They prayed together morning and evening without fail all their married days.
Dear fathers and mothers, this foundation stone is a many generation foundation stone. Solid marriages produce stable, secure children. Even the worldly psychologists will attest to this. Preachers, missionaries, godly mothers, and commentators, come from these stable homes. We must sigh and cry to God for our marriages, and get help if we need to, until our homes are healed, and our children blest.
Quiet Time, the Strength of Phillip’s Home
An atmosphere of grace permeated the home of Phillip and Katherine Henry. There are reasons for this. We have considered some of the reasons already; however, I believe the greatest strength of their home was in the secret place. There was a room in the house called the closet, and it was used as regularly as the bedroom or the kitchen. This godly father had a conviction about quiet time, or closet worship as he called it, and he never missed. Three times a day he retired into that sanctified room to pour out his heart to God, and to meditate. He walked before his family in a perfect way with a perfect heart, because he was often in solitude, stirring up his affections toward God through prayer and the study of the Word. He was found in his closet between four and five every morning. With conviction and a life to back it up, he guided his friends and family to “keep your secret duty whatever you do.” Look at this quote he wrote about the quiet time. “Apostasy generally begins at the closet door. Secret prayer is first neglected, and carelessly performed, then frequently omitted, and after a while wholly cast off; then farewell God, and Christ, and all religion.” I am shocked when I travel, and ask parents about their devotional life. Very few have any kind of consistent early morning time with God. Danger! Danger!
“He who makes his house a little church, shall find that God will make it a little sanctuary.” These words express the determined heart of a father who believed in family worship. In the resource that I studied, the term “he made conscience” was used to describe his desire to gather all in his house. It means that his conscience would not let him neglect this sacred duty. In all my studies of home histories, I have never seen such an example of dogged determination as he. Phillip Henry believed, if the fires of family devotions do not burn in a home, it can hardly be called a Christian family. I wonder how we Americans would fare with such an evaluation. In this responsibility, he was exemplary. He was uniform, steady, and constant, from the time he started his home to his dying day. This was done morning and evening, just as the daily sacrifices offered by devout Jews in the Old Testament. All the servants, visitors, workers, and even day laborers gathered for these delightful meals, which he fed to his family, and they were not disappointed.
I am sure, if we had the facts, this man’s home would be worthy of a whole book of study, however, there is very little record of it. How sad this is to me. I continually face the problem of writing about a godly Christian of the past, with little information about their home. It seems there was no vision. The record that we do have is a clear detailed explanation of every aspect of family worship. Family worship seems to have been his greatest strength, and that which had the greatest impact upon his children. Let’s look at the order of this sacred exercise, which he conducted for thirty minutes, twice each day.
• A Solemn Prayer
Phillip led his family to come like beggars to the Lord to ask alms of Him. He always sanctified the family’s devotional time with this kind of prayer. A petition ascended up out of a sincere heart, for bread to feed the family. This prayer often centered on the Word of God, that it might be a living, quickening word from God for the day. It was a prayer for understanding, and insight into the original intent of a particular portion of Scripture. It was not a long prayer, but more like a prayer you might hear before a sermon in a church service. "Evening, and morning, and at noon, will I pray, and cry aloud; and he shall hear my voice." Psalm 55:17
• David’s Psalms
In those days, there were no hymnbooks, as we know them. They sang the Psalms, one each time, whether short or long. It was considered sacrilegious to sing anything else; however, it is interesting to see how Phillip ordered the singing in his house. He stepped beyond the accepted norm to stimulate heartfelt worship during family devotions. The custom of the day was to read a verse, then sing it by memory. Phillip had songbooks for each one in the family, so they could sing verse by verse without any interruption. Hymns were normally sung in a very slow timing, but he encouraged a faster tempo during the singing. These two changes produced a joyful, wholehearted time of singing that gave clear definition to the term “family worship”. "The voice of rejoicing and of salvation is in the tabernacles of the righteous." Psalm 118:15
• Exposition of Scripture
Just like the priest was to light the lamps daily in the temple, Phillip Henry believed it was his responsibility to light a fire in his family with the Word of God. This exercise followed the singing of a Psalm. He went through the Bible in order, verse-by-verse, teaching and admonishing as he went. In this manner, he took his family through the entire Bible several times. This godly man was an expositor of the Word, and excelled in his explanations and applications to the text at hand. He had an amazing ability to break the Word down into easily understandable thoughts, and often gave the family a basic outline of the flow of thought in the verses read for the day. Phillip received many encouragements to put his expositions down on paper, for the benefit of a larger audience; however, he was a humble man, and thought some others could do a better job. I mentioned earlier that it is hard to determine who the commentator is. This is the reason why I stated it that way. There sat a boy named Matthew, copying sermons as his father spoke, and noting the outlines and the many applications as he listened. Many years later, Matthew sat down to write out his comments on the Scriptures, and what do you suppose flowed out? These expositions were given with very little preparation, and were filled with practical, useful answers for everyday life. "Whom shall he teach knowledge? And whom shall he make to understand doctrine? Them that are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts. For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little." Isaiah 28:9-10
• Open Discussion
After he finished his exposition, he then turned to the family for some discussion on the text. He wanted to see how much they had retained of the lesson of the day, and to hear their reflections on it. This man was a master teacher, who knew that learning is cemented into the fabric of the soul through dialogue. This also brought accountability to each member of the family, as they knew he would ask them later. "Then they that feared the Lord spake often one to another: and the Lord hearkened, and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before Him for them that feared the Lord, and that thought upon His name." Mal. 3:16
• Family Prayers
When all these holy exercises were finished, Phillip led his family to the throne of grace. With unction and much affection, he prayed through the issues facing the family at that time. He prayed about the things taught from the Word, and even the things taught through the singing of the Psalm. His prayers were free, extemporaneous expressions of his longing heart, though many used a prayer book in those days. He prayed about family sins, and begged for family blessings, finishing with thanksgiving for God’s tender mercies on them all. The children heard their names fervently expressed before the Lord on a regular basis. Matthew Henry recalls many occasions when the atmosphere was affected by his father’s prayers, and they knew they were in fact before God’s throne.
• The Family Blessing
This is truly the icing on the cake. When the benediction and doxology were finished, the children came with bended knee to ask father and mother for a spoken blessing upon them. This was given with sincerity and affection, not as a religious form; then each member went about their own activities.
I am sure you will agree, this was a teacher “extraordinaire”, but his teaching went far beyond the regular times of the day. Phillip was a tender, loving father, who kept the communication lines open at all times. He was fun to be around, and easy to talk to. This opened the door of the heart to many impromptu lessons as they walked through life. It is very clear to me, that he understood the power of relationships, and established his authority along lines of wisdom and love, rather than fear and judgment.
The Lord’s Day, Queen of Days
As we look into the schedule of their regular day, it is easy to see that every day of the week was a sanctified day, a day set apart for the Lord. This is New Covenant Christianity at its best. However, Phillip also delighted in the principle of the Sabbath carried out on the Lord’s Day. He did not press the laws of a Sabbath as in the Old Testament, like no cooking, or only a short walk, but instead, he lifted up many positive aspects that brought edification to his family. He made it the best day of the week, and gave special attention to teaching and training on that day. To Phillip, every day was a good day, but the Lord’s Day was the Queen of days. Each Sunday morning, he prepared a special teaching for the family, covering many topics through the years. There were more songs of praise and more family prayers on this special day also. On Sunday evening, he catechized and examined the children in the great doctrines of the faith, and then they finished with a healthy discussion on the Sunday morning sermon. I know that we should be careful about making lots of rules for the Lord’s Day, however, this example comes as a refreshing reminder of what could be, in an age when most “Christians” go to church, and then live the rest of the day for themselves. Are we so afraid of the law of the Sabbath, that we have forsaken the spirit of the Sabbath? Have we taken the Lord’s Day, profaned it, and made it common like all the rest of our days?
God’s Mysterious Providence
I never tire of gazing on the circumstances of men’s lives from heaven’s perspective. The mysterious hand of God moves behind the scenes, working out His divine will with amazing clarity. God makes no mistakes, and there are no tragedies when we view things from His throne. The life of Phillip Henry is no exception.
In the same year that his son Matthew was born, his world was turned upside down by the Act of Uniformity. In the midst of a prosperous, influential ministry, he lost all public opportunity to preach. What were the issues? The Act of Uniformity demanded several things which put the King of England in charge of the Church of Christ. Phillip Henry, along with 2,000 other ministers, could not comply with this edict, and they lost their pulpits for about ten years. To insure that these ministers would have no influence upon their people, the Five Mile Act was also enforced upon them. This meant that every minister had to move at least five miles away from his former congregation, and become a faithful church member in another congregation. Put yourself in his place. This was a tremendous humiliation, and an absolute dying to all personal ambitions of ministry.
At first glance, one might think this was a great tragedy, but let us take a closer look at this sad turn of events. Some beautiful, sovereign circumstances took place because of this special discipline upon Phillip’s life. What are they, and what was the result of the changes? Let’s look at them.
• Home Schooling
Sending your children to a “good school” was the normal thing to do in those days. I am sure Matthew would have attended one of these schools, but there was much uncertainty. The only thing to do was to school the children at home. Tutors were hired to do some of the teaching, and Phillip actively engaged his energies to give the children a good education. He taught all the children to write, and trained them to copy sermons in the manner that his mother had taught him. He gave them a well-rounded education in history, geography, and philosophy. And of course, he trained them in religion.
• A Faithful Example
You can stop a man from preaching, but you can never take a faithful man’s ministry away from him, because a man’s life is his ministry. This principle is clearly seen in the life of Phillip Henry. His example to his family and to the community is powerful. He always had his family in church, always supported the preacher with prayers, and hospitality, and he faithfully loved the brothers and sisters of his congregation.
• He Trained His Children
As you read about family worship at the Henry home, you might have thought this man was extreme, but consider another perspective. This man was full of the life and revelation of Almighty God. He was a fountain pent up. Like Jeremiah of old, the Word was like a fire shut up in his bones. You cannot stop a fountain from gushing forth. If you try to stop it from flowing one way, it will find another path and flow there. This is the nature of water. This prophet turned all his spiritual energies toward his home, and his children prospered, and well as his wife. When you bring a warrior home, he will turn his abilities into training soldiers. There is a great lesson in this for all of us fathers. We can be very spiritual men, yet our families can miss the benefits of our spiritual life. We must be careful to allow enough time for the family to prosper from it. In the case of Phillip Henry, he unknowingly raised a commentator during his hidden years. Not a bad investment of his time. Just like John Bunyan, who seemed to waste his years in a prison, God stepped in and made something valuable out of those years. Phillip preached through the Bible several times, and because he taught the children to take extensive notes, Matthew had a large stack of notes on the Bible by the time he was twenty-one. All this preparation made it very easy and natural to write a commentary of the Bible in his later years. Praise be to the only wise God!
The children that came forth from the home of Phillip and Katherine Henry all rose up with faith and zeal to worship and serve the God of their father. Except for John, who died of measles at age six, all the children had testimonies of godliness, and married partners of the same character. They went on to establish homes after the pattern we have seen in this study. God’s ways never change. His precepts are timeless. What worked for these saints of old will work for anyone who believes and obeys. By faith, let us rise up with confidence, and train a generation of children who love God.
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