The name of Philip Henry (1631-1696) carries with it all that is pious, peaceful, and benevolent, yet towards him we find the spirit of bitter persecution arises. He was emphatically one of the "quiet of the land" acting with the greatest caution, anxious to avoid offence, though continually influenced by a spirit of supreme regard to God, and ready for every duty to which he believed his Master called him. Yet he was subject, with others with whom he was associated, to great oppression and trial, especially on the following occasion, the circumstances of which are particularly narrated in the memoirs of his life. At the beginning of the year 1681, a great drought prevailed in the land; it was generally apprehended that a famine would ensue. Many of the pious part of the people thought it was time to seek the Lord, who giveth rain in its season. In the neighbourhood in which Mr Henry resided, some desired to have a day set apart for fasting and prayer on this account. Suitable services were to be held at the house of a certain individual in Hodnet parish, Shropshire, June 14. Mr Henry, on being invited to attend and give his assistance, inquired how they stood with the neighbouring justices, and the reply was "well enough."
The drought continuing in extremity, some that had not been in the habit of attending such meetings were present, under the apprehension they had of a threatened judgment. Mr Edward Bury (1616-1700), of Bolas, well known by several useful books that he had published, prayed. Mr Henry prayed, and then preached on Psalm lxvi. 18 "If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me." Hence the doctrine was, that iniquity regarded in the heart will certainly spoil the success of prayer. When he was in the midst of his sermon, closely applying this truth, Sir Thomas Vernon and Charles Mainwaring, Esq, two justices of the peace for Shropshire, with several others of their retinue, came suddenly upon them, disturbed them, set guards upon the house door, came in themselves, severely rallied all they knew, reflected upon the late honourable "House of Commons," and upon the vote they passedconcerning the unreasonableness of putting the laws in execution against Protestant Dissenters, as if in so voting they had gone beyond their sphere, as they did who took away the life of King Charles I. They diverted themselves with very abusive and unbecoming talk, swearing, and cursing, and reviling bitterly. On being told that the occasion of the meeting was to turn away the anger of God from us in the present drought, they showed their ignorance and impiety by answering that such meetings as these were the occasion of God's anger. "While they were thus entertaining themselves, their clerk took the names of those who were present, in all about one hundred and fifty, and so dismissed them for the present.
Mr Henry noted, in the account he kept of this event, that "the justices came to this good work from the alehouse at Prees Heath, about two miles off, to which, and to the bowling-green adjoining, they, with other justices, gentlemen, and clergymen of the neighbourhood, had long before obliged themselves to come every Tuesday during the summer under a penalty of twelve pence a time if they were absent, and there to spend the day in drinking and bowling, which was thought to be as much more to the dishonour of God and the scandal of the Christian profession as cursing, and swearing, and drunkenness are worse than praying, and singing psalms, and hearing the Word of God."
It is supposed the justices knew of the meeting before, and might have prevented it by the least intimation; but they were determined to take the opportunity of making sport for themselves, and giving trouble to their neighbours.
After the feat done, they returned to the alehouse, and made themselves and their companions merry with calling over the names they had taken, making their remarks as they saw cause, and recounting the particulars of the exploit.
There was one of the company whose wife happened to be present at the meeting, and her name was taken down among the rest, with which they upbraided him. But he answered, that "she had been better employed than he was; and if Mr Henry might be permitted to preach in the church, he would go a great many miles to hear him." Tor which saying he was forthwith expelled their company, and was never more to show his face at that bowling-green. To which he replied, "that if they had so ordered long ago, it would have been a great deal better for him and his family."
Two days after they met again at Hodnet, where, upon the oath of two witnesses, who, it was supposed, were sent on purpose to inform, they signed and sealed two records of conviction. By one record they convicted the master of the house and fined him £20, and £5 more as constable of the town for that year, and with him all the persons whose names they had taken down, and fined them 5s., and issued warrants accordingly.
By another record they convicted the two ministers, Mr Bury and Mr Henry. The Act makes it only punishable to preach and to teach in any such conventicles, and yet they fined Mr Bury £20, though he only prayed, and did not speak one word either in the way of preaching or teaching, not so much as, "Let us pray." However, they said praying was teaching, and right or wrong he must be fined; though his great piety, peaceableness, and usefulness, besides his deep poverty, might have pleaded for him against so palpable a piece of injustice. They took £7 off from him, and laid it upon others; and for the remaining £13, he being utterly unable to pay, they took from him by distress the bed which he lay upon, with blankets and rug; also another feather bed, nineteen pairs of sheets, most of them new, of which he could not prevail to have so much as one pair returned for him to lie in. Also books to the value of £5, besides brass and pewter. And though he was at this time perfectly innocent of that heinous crime of preaching and teaching with which he was charged, yet he had no way to right himself but by appealing to the justices themselves in quarter-sessions, who would be sure to confirm their own decrees. So the good man sat down with his loss, and "took joyfully the spoiling of his goods, knowing in himself that he had in heaven a better and a more enduring substance."
But Mr Henry being the greatest criminal, and having done the most mischief, must needs be animadverted upon accordingly, and therefore he was fined £40. It was much pressed upon him to pay the fine, which might prevent loss to himself, and trouble to the justices. But he was not willing to do it, partly because he would give no encouragement to such prosecutions, nor voluntarily reward the informers for what he thought they rather deserved punishment; and partly because he thought himself wronged in the doubling of the fine. Whereupon his goods were distrained upon and taken away. But their warrant not giving them authority to break open doors, nor their watchfulness getting them an opportunity toenter the house, they carried away about 33 cart-loads of goods out of doors - corn cut upon the ground, hay, coals, etc - which made a great noise in the country, and raised the indignation of many against the decrees which prescribed this grievous ness ; while Mr Henry bore it with his usual evenness and serenity of mind, not at all moved or disturbed by it. He did not boast of his sufferings, or make any great matter of them, but would often say, "Alas! this is nothing to what others suffer, nor to what we ourselves may suffer before we die." And yet he rejoiced and blest God, that it was not for debt or evil doing that his goods were carried away; and "while it is for well doing that we suffer," he said, " they cannot harm us."