Matthew Henry on Prison Evangelism: "They love darkness and sit in it. My heart bleeds for them." by Philip Eveson
Philip Eveson Writes:
Besides the work in his own church, Matthew had been engaged, almost from the beginning, in preaching to the prisoners in Chester castle. It was the jailor’s wife who seems to have been instrumental in bringing this need to the attention of Matthew. She was a godly lady, deeply concerned about the eternal destiny of those who were incarcerated. For nearly twenty years Matthew faithfully visited the prison and preached to the inmates. He himself was moved by the condition of those so obviously dead in sins and feeling nothing of the awful doom that awaited them beyond this world. He said of such people that their ‘peace is like the sleep of a man in a lethargy: it is not peace—but senselessness and stupidity. They love darkness and sit in it. My heart bleeds for them. Men are destroyed for lack of knowledge.’ In a letter to his wife, who was staying with her parents at the time, Matthew mentions how he had been ‘spending some time this morning with the poor man that is to be hang’d this afternoon. ’Twas a melancholy thing to hear him give orders for the making of his own grave.’
Matthew encouraged these poor wretches to turn to the Lord and know salvation in Christ, using Old and New Testament passages in his messages. He spoke to them about Manasseh’s repentance when he was imprisoned (2 Chronicles 33:12), reminding them that ‘There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death’ (Proverbs 14:12, NKJV). By warning and pleading from such texts as Proverbs 14:9; Ecclesiastes 9:5; and Leviticus 26:23–24, he encouraged his hearers that their imprisonment could turn out for their good as Psalm 119:67 indicated: ‘Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word’ (NKJV). He urged them to flee from the wrath to come ‘when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven ... in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (2 Thessalonians 1:7–8, NKJV). Other texts Matthew used were taken from Jeremiah 3:21; Luke 12:5; and James 1:15. These evangelistic sermons were brought to a stop by a local Anglican curate, upset that a Nonconformist was engaged in this ministry. He pressed the governor of the prison to discourage the practice and eventually Matthew’s services were terminated; but not before he preached his last sermon there concerning the penitent thief on the cross from Luke 23:39–43.