Matthew Henry - his life and influence
2012 is the 350th anniversary of the birth of the Bible commentator, Matthew Henry, but what happened later to his church?
Having served his congregation in Chester for 25 years, Matthew Henry was called to a church in London. Allan Harman takes up the story.
Before he returned to Chester he indicated that he was accepting their invitation to be their pastor, and, God willing, he would make the move to Hackney in the spring of 1712. This decision did not end his mental distress. This is how he described the situation: ‘By this determination I brought on myself more grief, and care, and concern, than I could have imagined, and have many a time wished it undone again; but having opened my mouth, I could not go back. I did it with the utmost impartiality (if I know any thing of myself) [to] beg of God to incline my heart that way which should be most for his glory; and I trust that I have a good conscience, willing to be found in the way of my duty. Wherein I have done amiss, the Lord forgive me for Jesus’s sake, and make this change concerning the congregation to work for good to it’.
The loss of Matthew Henry as the pastor was a severe blow to the Chester congregation, and great difŞculty was found in getting a successor. From the chapel records, it appears that a call was given to Mr. Blackmore, of Worcester, who, having preached for the congregation and given indication that he would accept a call, wrote an ambiguous letter: ‘... he after holding them long in suspense sent them a letter in Octobr following wch some tooke for a denyall & others lookt upon as dubious answer — such as his former Letters had been which occasioned a meeting of the Congregation — Octobr 21, when it was determined by the far Major part of those present to take Mr. Blackmore’s answer for a denyall & to desire those entrusted by the Congregation to manage this affayr relateing to a Minister to write to Mr. Aldred of Monton to request him to take on him the pastorall care & charge of the Congregation of Protestant Dissenters at Chester’.
The call to Mr. Aldred was also declined, but finally the Rev. John Gardner was installed as pastor in October 1713, and he continued to exercise his ministry until his death in November 1765. Henry’s great friend, William Tong, commented on Matthew Henry’s concern for his former congregation, and the satisfaction he felt with the settlement of Mr. Gardner, with Mr. Withington as his colleague from 1713 to 1720. He wrote: ‘These Disappointments gave Mr. Henry a great deal of Trouble, and cost him many Tears and Prayers; at length God provided wonderfully well for them; Mr. Gardner and Mr. Withington are Labouring among them in the Word and Doctrine with universal Acceptance’.
The next colleague, Robert Murrey, seems only to have been in Chester a short time in 1720. He had published a book entitled Closet Devotions in 1713 with a foreword by Matthew Henry, but his religious convictions seem to have changed and he probably dropped out of ministry altogether. In 1737 he edited a posthumous work by J. Platts that was very liberal in outlook.
The views of Robert Murrey and his connection with the congregation probably presaged a change that was taking place not only in the congregation at Chester, but more widely in English independency, as a move was under way to replace the older Calvinism with a Socinian approach and even a Unitarian one. It is hard to be certain when the change manifested itself unambiguously, as no written records of John Gardner’s preaching exist, and only one sermon from his successor John Chidlaw (colleague 1751-65, sole minister 1765-98).
Changes in the pulpit teaching seem to have resulted in a secession from the congregation in 1768, though the inßuence of John Wesley’s ministry may also have been a contributing factor. It is clear from his journal for Saturday April 2 of that year that he preached at Little Leigh, and in the evening at Chester. The next day, Easter Sunday, he preached again from his ‘old stand in the little Square at St. Martin’s Ash. The people were as quiet as in the House’. Those who seceded formed Queen Street Congregational Church. Whereas the trust deed of Matthew Henry’s chapel only said that it was for religious service, the trust deed for the new congregation, drawn up in 1773, was far more speciŞc in its Reformed statement of the faith, and in the demands it placed on its pastors. In the latter respect it stated: ‘... such minister to be of the Independent persuasion respecting Church government, and to hold, profess and embrace ex animo the truths comprised in the Westminster Confession of Faith & the larger and lesser Catechisms, contained therein, and also the present doctrinal articles of the Church of England in the plain, literal, and grammatical sense thereof; and no such Minister or Ministers shall be elected, nominated, and appointed as aforesaid, unless immediately before such election and appointment he shall solemnly declare in the presence of the members of the said Church or the major part of them his sincere approbation of the baptism of infants, & his renunciation of Arian, Socinian, Antinomian, or Arminian principles’.
Before Mr. Chidlaw died he had as an assistant the Rev. William Thomas, who served the congregation as its pastor from 1798 to 1809. Almost certainly the change to a Unitarian position became explicit during this ministry. No doubt exists about the views of his successor, the Rev. James Lyons (1808-13), for he resigned from the Particular Baptist Church in Hull in 1807 because he was ‘fully convinced there are no such doctrines in the sacred Scriptures as that of the Trinity, the equality of Jesus Christ with his Father, or of a vicarious sacriŞce of his death for the sins of men’. After leaving Hull he served in Scotland as a missionary for the Unitarian Fund before settling in Chester in November 1808.
Thus a congregation that had enjoyed and been blessed by Matthew Henry’s biblical ministry for 25 years gradually moved its theological stance to become a centre of Unitarianism. Crook Street Chapel, Chester, built in 1700 to contain the growing congregation that had gathered under Mr. Henry’s preaching, became a congregation that boasted of its liberalism.
On the occasion of the bicentenary of the congregation in 1900, one of the speakers referred to the fact that the congregation was: ‘always open for the free winds of heaven to blow upon them, and never submitting to any fetters, to any word of man who said, “Thus far, and no farther”. They had undergone greater changes of belief during the past 200 years, and who knew what changes would have taken place when the tercentenary came to be celebrated?’ There was no tercentenary of the chapel, for by the time 2000 had come the chapel had already been demolished for 36 years.
This is an edited extract from the book Matthew Henry — His Life and Influence by Allan Harman (published by Christian Focus, £8.99, ISBN 978 1 845 507 831), and is used with permission.