Matthew Henry

The Bible, Prayer, and Piety

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Editor(s): 
Paul Middleton, Matthew A. Collins
  • London: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , May
     2019.
     304 pages.
     $95.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780567670212.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The three-hundredth anniversary of Matthew Henry’s (1662–1714) death was marked by a symposium held in Chester, England, where Henry ministered for twenty-five years. Scholars shared perspectives on Henry’s life and work as “arguably the best known expositor of the Bible in English” (1). Henry’s Exposition of the Old and New Testament, with Practical Remarks and Observations was a monumental, six volume commentary on the Bible, published between 1707 and 1725. Henry was a Presbyterian, nonconformist minister, who expounded scripture to the end of the book of Acts, and after his death, the New Testament was completed through the work of fourteen nonconformist ministers (43). By 1855, Henry’s Exposition had been published in some twenty-five different editions. Today it is still widely used and is available in an online edition. Henry’s more than thirty books discuss family religion, the instruction of youth, and religious faith. Of importance was his Scripture Catechism (1703) and his Communicant’s Companion (1704). Henry’s Method for Prayer (1710) is a devotional classic and with his other works presents a practical Christian piety, focused devotionally on scripture reading and prayer.

Edited by Paul Middleton and Matthew A. Collins, the four parts of the essays in Matthew Henry: The Bible, Prayer, and Piety present the “Context and Biography” of Henry; his work on “The Bible”; and “Prayer and Piety,” and concludes with “Cataloguing the Works of Matthew Henry.” The book is most welcomed. Despite Henry’s longevity and pervasive popularity as a leading figure for evangelical religion, there have been few scholarly assessments of Henry’s life and overall approach to the Bible. These fine pieces present a rounded picture of Henry’s work and approach.

Henry’s ministry was centered on scripture study. He distinguished his work from Matthew Poole’s, Synopsis Criticorum (1669–1676) by claiming his work, as Stuart Weeks writes, was “less focused upon the small components of the text, and more upon its broader sense” (92). Thus, Henry could write that “the exposition which (like this) is put into a continued discourse, digested under proper heads, is much more easy and ready to be read through for one’s own or others’ instruction” (92). Henry said his expositions aimed at giving “what I thought the genuine sense, and to make it as plain as I could to ordinary capacities, not troubling my readers with the different sentiments of expositors.” He indicated he mixed in “remarks” that would be profitable in “aiming in all to promote practical godliness, and carefully avoiding matters of doubtful disputation and strifes of words” (92).

Henry’s practices are well documented in studies of Henry’s expositions. These include Collins’ piece on “Professors of Religion and Their Strange Wives: Diluvian Discourse in the Eyes of Matthew Henry” which examines the theme of intermarriage—found in Ezra and Nehemiah, and extended by Henry to other events of the Hebrew Bible all the way back to the antediluvian age—and how it brought many calamities to Israel, through to the post-exilic period.

Middleton’s study of Henry on the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, likewise shows Henry’s interest in extending a theme, emphasizing how the prophetic literature conveys God’s judgment, leading to “a wholescale rejection” of God’s “chosen people” culminating in the killing of Jesus and the persecution of the church.

Essays by David J. Chalcraft (Joshua 7), George J. Brooke (Psalm 1), and Loveday Alexander (Matthew 24:45–51) are studies of Henry’s treatments of single chapters and convey Henry’s methods of biblical interpretation. These pieces form a bridge to part 3: “Prayer and Piety.” Christine Helmer’s splendid essay on “Prayer and Providence: Matthew Henry and the Theology of the Everyday” focuses on Henry’s Method for Prayer. Helmer shows Method to be part of the a long Catholic tradition of monastic prayer Henry wants to show how ordinary Christians can pray in their daily lives Helmerdiscusses Henry’s “theological appreciation for the ‘everyday’ as representative of an early modern contribution to Christian theology” (191). Lay Christians, living out their vocations (as in Luther and Calvin’s thought), can bring their problems directly to God, without need for a priest, as in Roman Catholicism. This opens a whole new sense of God’s work in the world. All things in everyday life are under God’s divine watchfulness.  Helmer sees Henry’s text as marking an important transition theologically between the sixteenth-century Reformation’s focus on the world and God’s continuing concern with the whole as a whole. Henry indicates prayer is dependence on God. The Christian’s prayers strengthen one’s dependence on God and the priority of God’s will. Prayer orients the particulars of the world to divine providence (202).

Henry sought the cultivation of “pious affections,” as Michael A.L. Smith shows in “‘The Expressing of Devout Affections of the Heart’: Piety and the Affections in the Works of Matthew Henry.” Believers are both active and passive, their feeling being “essential to devotional practice.” Believers must, writes Smith, “allow God to work upon their affections and direct them to worship” (216). There can be a variety of affective responses—sometimes vigorous felelings; other times, a more contemplative sense. Smith sees this as paralled by later Methodism and Revivalism.  There needs to be “a spectrum of affective responses to worship. At times vigorous feeling was prescribed, at others contemplative affect” (216). Smith sees this as being “paralleled in the rise of Methodism and Revivalism later in the century” (217).

Ligon Duncan’s “Matthew Henry’s Legacy in Prayer and Piety” presents an overview of Henry’s A Method for Prayer toward showing its timelessness and continuing legacy. Henry used the devotion of set prayers as modeled by the Anglican Prayer Book, yet expressed them as Puritans did—in free prayer. In this, “Henry shaped the devotional life of Protestant Christians in the eighteenth century” (242).

These excellent essays provide a more full-orbed picture of Henry than we have had to date. Henry’s interpretation of the Bible, his theological discussions of prayer and prayer’s practical implications, along with his prescriptions for a vital Protestant piety in the Puritan tradition make Henry a very important figure in Protestant life. His enduring legacy continues as these pieces convey. This is an important work for understanding Henry and the implications and ongoing significance of his life and labors. 

Finally, very valuable is Philip Alexander’s annotated bibliography of Henry’s work. This is a fitting conclusion to this excellent volume on Henry, whom George Whitefield called “the great Mr. Henry” (87).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Donald K. McKim is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
September 21, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Paul Middleton is senior lecturer in New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Chester, UK.

Matthew A. Collins is senior lecturer in Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Judaism at the University of Chester, UK.

Comments

Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.