Adam Clarke: Self-taught Preacher and Methodism’s Greatest Scholar
by G. M. Best
Born probably in 1760, Clarke was the son of a local schoolmaster who supplemented his poor income by farming in a township called Moybeg near to Tobermore in County Londonderry in Northern Ireland. His father was a member of the Church of England but his mother was a Scottish Presbyterian. Clarke says he was only six years old when he first started thinking about the need for salvation. As a young man he was apprenticed to a linen manufacturer but he abandoned that career in 1779 after he and his mother became involved in the Methodist movement. Clarke became a member of a Methodist class group and then commenced preaching.
Clarke was determined to self-educate himself to the highest possible level. In 1782 John Wesley recommended that he should travel to Bristol to use the library he had created at Kingswood School. Clarke used the little money he had to sail to Liverpool and then take coaches first to Birmingham and then to Bristol. He had been led to believe by Wesley that Kingswood School was like a university college and he was rather taken aback to find it was essentially a school for young boys. Its headmaster, Thomas Simpson, had not even been informed that Clarke would be coming to the school and he begrudgingly provided him with a tiny room, which only contained an old bed and a chair. Mrs Simpson was convinced that the Irishman might have brought an infection from Ireland and she insisted Clarke should cover himself in a foul-smelling ointment, which was supposedly designed to cure ‘the itch’. The couple offered him very little food and compelled him to wash outside in a shallow and stagnant pond. When Clarke complained that his room was freezing cold, they told him to keep warm by pulling himself up and down on a stick that was suspended from the roof. Mrs Simpson even objected to him using candles to study at night.
Clarke spent five weeks at Kingswood. He thought some of the teachers were very good, notably Cornelius Bayley, whom he judged ‘a man of the strictest morals and exemplary piety’, but he protested to Wesley about the Simpsons’ manner of running of the school. It contained a mix of fee-paying pupils and the sons of lay preachers and it was obvious to Clarke that the latter were viewed by the Simpsons as second-class students:
The school was the worst I had ever seen…It was perfectly disorganised…They mocked at religion, and trampled underfoot all the laws. The little children of the preachers suffered great indignities; and it is to be feared their treatment there gave many of them a rooted enmity against religion for life…Had this gross mismanagement been known to the Methodist preachers, they would have suffered their sons to die in ignorance, rather than be sent to a place where there was scarcely any care taken either of their bodies or souls.
Wesley responded by sacking the Simpsons and Clarke commenced training as an English local preacher in Bradford on Avon. In the space of just ten months he preached on over five hundred occasions in Wiltshire, Somerset and Dorset. In 1783 he was admitted to full connexion (i.e. he agreed to become a full-time itinerant preacher prepared to travel across the entire country). He did not have an easy start. His first posting was to Norwich. This was such a poor circuit that it could not provide him with a horse and he had to travel everywhere by foot, carrying everything he required in a saddle-bag. His second posting was to Bodmin and there he suffered serious injury when his horse threw him. After that Clarke was sent to Plymouth and, because he learned French, for three years to the Channel Islands. Though not ranked among the best of Methodist’s preachers, he attracted large crowds. He earned a reputation for speaking very clearly and in a manner that was both learned and yet easily understood. Any spare moment he had in his busy schedule was spent studying.
Clarke obviously retained some links with Bradford-on-Avon because in 1788 he married Mary Cooke whose father was a clothier in Trowbridge. In 1789 Wesley asked him to take charge of the Bristol circuit. Clarke seriously disliked having to stay at the New Room:
The noxious breath of so many hundreds of people who assembled there throughout the week made the place extremely unhealthy. The plan of building the lodging rooms over the chapel…was greatly prejudicial to the health of the preachers and their families.
In 1790 Wesley sent him to Dublin and that made him effectively Wesley’s chief representative in Ireland. After Wesley’s death Clarke returned to Britain and based himself first in Manchester, next Liverpool, and then, in 1795, London. It has been computed that during his three years’ stay in London he walked at least seven thousand miles in fulfilling his duties. Any spare time he had continued to be spent in furthering his academic studies. In 1797 he published his first book which was on the use and abuse of tobacco. By this stage Clarke was among the key figures urging that the Methodists should form their own Church and break away from the Church of England. He was particularly keen that the Methodist preachers should be permitted to offer the sacraments. The New Room’s opposition to Methodism becoming a separate Church had to be silenced and that undoubtedly explains why Clarke was appointed in charge of the Bristol circuit from 1798 to 1800. It was his role to see that the New Room was marginalised in favour of the new King Street Chapel built next to it.
After 1800 Clarke returned to working in Manchester, Liverpool and London. He became a prolific writer. Between 1802 and 1806, he published an eight-volume ‘Bibliographical Dictionary’ that studied chronologically ‘the most curious books in all departments of literature from the infancy of printing to the modern day’ and examined the best English translations of Greek and Latin classics. His main interest was ancient history and he proved to be a very gifted linguist. He learned about twenty languages and was proficient in ten of them, including Hebrew, Persian, Arabic, Ethiopian, Coptic and Sanskrit. He was one of the scholars asked to work on the famous Rosetta Stone, a then recently discovered Egyptian stele inscribed in three languages. He failed to decode it, although he knew it offered the means of helping decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs. After 1805 Clarke published works on a variety of topics, ranging from the history of the Israelites to the Eucharist, and he was increasingly viewed as Methodism’s greatest scholar. Clarke was awarded first an M.A. from Aberdeen University and then, in 1808, an honorary ‘Doctor of Laws’, the highest academic accolade awarded to someone for exceptionally insightful and distinctive academic work.
The British government asked Clarke to undertake the completion of a collection of State Papers, embracing all the leagues, treaties, alliances, confederacies, and other agreements which had been entered into by the British Crown and the Methodist Conference reluctantly let him accept on condition he did not let it affect his Methodist commitments. It was a ten-year task! Clarke was elected a member or fellow of six of the most learned societies of the day: the British and Foreign Bible Society, the Royal Irish Academy, the Geological Society of London, the Royal Asiatic Society, the American Antiquarian Society, and the American Historical Institute. Among his many later works were ‘Clavis Biblica’ (a compendium of Biblical knowledge) in 1820 and the ‘Gospels Harmonised’ published posthumously in 1836. Clarke wrote of combining his writing with his role as a preacher and leader:
I have lived to know that the secret of happiness is never to allow your energies to stagnate. The old adage of ‘too many irons in the fire’ conveys an abominable lie. You cannot have too many. Poker, tongs, and all: keep them all going.
Clarke is mainly remembered today for just two works. The first is his ‘Memoirs of the Wesley Family’, the first attempt to recount the history of not just John Wesley but his entire family based on original documents. The second is his famous eight volume commentary on the Bible, which was published between 1810 and 1826. Each volume is around a thousand pages long. Clarke believed that the Bible was designed to take away ‘the veil of darkness and ignorance’ and convey all that humanity needed to know about the nature and will of God. Its role was ‘to make men wise, holy, and happy in themselves, and useful to one another’. However, he thought the Authorised Version produced by King James contained too many errors and so he based his commentary on his own retranslation of the Bible. Both his translation and his theology sometimes caused controversy - for example, he thought that ‘monkey’ was a better translation than ‘serpent’ in the Genesis account and theologically he rejected the traditional view that, because Jesus was ‘the Word of God’, he pre-existed before his human birth. Nevertheless, Clarke’s Commentary became the main study guide used by Methodists for almost two hundred years. Today it is still highly regarded as ‘an academic tour de force’, although parts of it are now condemned because of its strongly anti-Catholic and anti-Calvinist stance.
By the 1830s the depth and quality of Clarke’s writing had helped the Methodist Church to obtain recognition as a serious religious denomination in its own right. In 1820 a special chair was carved for Clarke from the roots of a single oak tree in recognition of his academic work and that now stands in the Wesley Museum at the New Room. However, Clarke was never just an academic. He said on one occasion:
Learning I love, learned men I prize; with the company of the great and the good I am often delighted. But infinitely above all these and all other possible enjoyments, I glory in Christ - in me living and reigning and fitting me for His heaven.
He thought God’s greatest gift to him was not his academic ability but having his ‘heart emptied of, and cleansed from, all sin and defilement, and filled with humility, meekness, gentleness, goodness, and love to God and man’. Like Wesley he placed great emphasis on the importance of heartfelt prayer. He wrote: ‘Prayer requires more of the heart than the tongue’ and that its role was not so much to tell God what you thought (because God already knew) but ‘to humble man’s heart, to excite his desire, to inflame his faith, to animate his hope, to raise his soul from earth to heaven’. Again, like Wesley, he urged Methodists to always live out their faith and to strive for perfection. Over his lifetime he preached in thirty-four circuits and he was elected President of the Methodist Conference three times and President of the Irish Methodist Conference four times. In whatever ways he could he always encouraged evangelism, promoted education, and engaged in charitable activities. After 1815 ill health forced him to end his itinerant ministry but he continued to preach locally. He used the money from his book sales to buy an estate near Liverpool called Millbrook and there he built a chapel and did much to help the poor. An example of this was his action in the severe winter of 1816 when many seamen in Liverpool were unable to work: he housed and fed and offered employment to twenty families on his estate. In 1822-23 he was elected President of the Methodist Conference for the third time and he sold Millbrook and spent the rest of his life living nearer to London.
As a much-honoured public figure, Clarke used his influence to encourage all Methodists to oppose slavery, very much continuing the work of Wesley:
Let the oppressed go free - How can any nation pretend to….worship God at all….while they carry on the slave trade, and traffic in the souls, blood, and bodies, of men!
As far as Clarke was concerned no-one involved in upholding slavery was a true Christian. At the 1830 Methodist Conference he encouraged all the Methodist ministers to sign a statement encouraging Parliament to abolish slavery and he asked every minister to arrange a public anti-slavery petition in his local area. William Wilberforce, then the chief voice of the anti-slavery movement, wrote a personal note of thanks to Clarke for adding the voice of all the Methodists to the anti-slavery cause.
Sadly, Clarke never got to see Parliament pass the 1833 Abolition Act. He died of cholera in 1832. He was buried in the City Road cemetery near to the body of John Wesley.