Taking the measure of a 300-year-old minister

By Jerry Johnston

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, May 24 2014 5:00 a.m. MDT

Updated: Friday, May 23 2014 9:04 p.m. MDT

I have a new hero this week. I try to get a new one at regular intervals.

This week, my hero is Matthew Henry, a fleshy Presbyterian minister from England who lived in the 1600s.

In fact, 2014 marks the tri-centennial of Henry’s death in 1714.

Henry, the man, may be pushing up daisies now, but the words he left behind him remain as fresh as any daisy out there.

After 300 years, what he wrote still sings.

And he's still changing lives.

In my book, that earns him hero status.

Henry’s masterwork was his Complete Commentary on the Old and New Testaments. My edition runs to six volumes. I’ve dipped into that work over the years, but this being Henry’s tri-centennial, I decided to sit down and do some serious study.

Henry had an encyclopedic mind. He could remember every event, proverb and parable and practically every saying found in the scriptures.

He also had a poetic mind, which means he sees connections between verses and stories that others can’t. He linked things together in fascinating ways. He comments on every verse in the Bible, and most of those comments are worth remembering.

His Commentary isn’t big on deep scholarship. He’s chosen to give us, instead, “devotional commentary.” Henry wanted us to see new truths and feel new channels for the spirit, not just learn new facts and figures.

Many of Henry's thoughts and observations remain popular today.

One of his most quoted is from Genesis, where he writes that Eve was created from Adam’s rib — not his head so she could “rule over him” and not from Adam’s feet so she’d be “trampled,” but from Adam’s side, to be his equal.

Henry also gave us the phrases “better late than never,” “saying and doing are two different things,” and dozens of others.

One of my favorite quotes is: It is good for us to keep some account of our prayers, that we may not “unsay” them in our practice.

Henry’s Commentary has influenced thousands of ministers. George Whitefield, the driving force of the Great Awakening, said he read the Commentary through four times, the last time on his knees.

I don’t suggest such Spartan tactics, but you may want to glance through a few pages just to see what surfaces.

I think you’ll find, as I did, that the song of Henry is as vibrant in the digital age as it was in the parchment age.

Reading him makes me think of a poster I saw not long ago in a shop in Baker, California.

It is a drawing of the future where people are jetting around in air cars. One guy, however, has slipped up and accidentally left his drink on top of his jet car. The caption reads: Technologies change. People never do.

The fact Henry could have written down his thoughts 300 years ago and have them speak to us so clearly and deeply today tells me the poster maker probably got it right.

Email: jerjohn@deseretnews.com

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