Clarke, Dr Adam
1762-1832; e.m. 1782

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WM minister and polymath. He was born at Moybeg, Co. Londonderry in 1760 (or, according to his father, 1762), the son of a schoolmaster. He came under Methodist influence in 1778, travelled to England in 1782, met John Wesley in Bristol and was sent into circuit. Unusually, he was received into full connexion after only one year in the itinerancy. In 1788 he married Mary Cooke, daughter of a wealthy Trowbridge clothier, whom he had met during his first year in circuit. Part of his circuit ministry was spent in such outlying parts of the connexion as the Channel Islands and the Shetlands.

He became a leading figure and a moderating influence in British Methodism after Wesley's death. He encouraged the increasing role of the laity, including women, in WM, though distancing himself from the more extreme radicals. In 1815-1819 he managed to survive criticism from his fellow Wesleyans, including Richard Watson, over his adoptionist views on the 'eternal sonship' of Christ and his interpretation of Luke 1:35 in volume 1 of his New Testament Commentary (1817). Three times President of the British Conference (1806, 1814 and 1822), he also presided over the Irish Conference on four occasions. But in 1831 he was successfully debarred from chairing the British Conference for a fourth time by none other than Jabez Bunting. He was actively involved in combatting poverty and African slavery, and established Strangers' Friend Societies in several cities.

His scholarship was outstanding and wide-ranging. His chief reputation was as a linguist, particularly in Middle Eastern and Oriental languages (including Persian, Arabic, Ethiopian, Coptic and Sanskrit); this enabled him to play an important part in the work of the Bible Society. (But when shown the Rosetta Stone, now in the British Museum, in 1803 with its three parallel inscriptions in Greek, Hieroglyphics and demotic, he mistook the third of these as Coptic, which was at least a step towards the correct identification.) In 1808 he received an honorary doctorate from Aberdeen and was elected a Fellow of the Antiquarian Society and a member of the Geological Society in 1823. He was also a foundation member and a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society and was elected to the Royal Irish Academy. In 1808 he was engaged to edit a new and more complete edition of Thomas Rymer's Foedera, a collection of State Papers from the time of the Norman Conquest to the accession of George III, a task to which he gave much time during the next decade, though he resigned before much more than the first volume was completed. His major publication was his eight-volume Commentary on the Bible (begun with the Gospels in 1798 and published between1810 and1825), which was enriched by his extensive linguistic studies and was widely used for many years.

He was a keen advocate of missions at home and overseas, of which he claimed first-hand experience through his service in the Channel Islands, 1786-1789. He supported the moves in 1813-14 to create District missionary societies. In 1818 he undertook the Christian instruction of two Buddhist priests, Munhi Rathana and Dherma Rama, from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). They were baptized Adam and Alexander respectively in 1820, but problems arose in Ceylon after their return, where missionary attitudes towards Buddhism did not match his. In the 1820s he had oversight of the Shetlands Mission and in 1831 established six mission schools in counties Londonderry and Antrim. He died of cholera on 26 August 1832 and is buried close to John Wesley at Wesley's Chapel, London. There are memorials to him both at Wesley's Chapel and at Eastcote Methodist Church in West London.


'I seriously believe that the whole book of God stands much in need of being correctly translated.But in this belief, no man's private labours will avail anything at present. While the common translation is authorized by Law, & has alone dictated Salvation for nearly 200 years, the majority of people will not readily admit that it can be easily mended:or that an attempt to do this can be wholly destitute of danger to the cause of divine Revelation. The mass of the people can seldom be brought to consider that there is an esential difference between making & mending. If you attempt to alter any thing in the Bible, you are considered as pretending to mend the Revelation of God: for it is impossible to convince some persons that God never spoke in English to any of the Prophets, Evangelists or Apostles. I have nearly fixed my opinion on this business: the public shall have their venerable & comparaively excellent translation, accompanied with the best notes I can possibly subjoin - at the same time I will reserve to myself the liberty of translating every portion of the original, in these notes, which I am satisfied I can make appear more to the honour of its glorious Author, and the advantage of both the learned & unlearn'd reader. By this means, without giving any shock to he prejudice of total or semi believers, I can still accomplish the end I before designed: & give the essence of my version in these notes to the public.'

Adam Clarke to Joseph Dutton of Liverpool, 13 May 1801 (in the Methodist Archives at the John Rilands University Library, Manchester)

'I have been running through Adam Clarke's Commentary on Saint Matthew; there is some very forcible, practical matter, and some curious information, but surely a strange farrago of out of the way learning, which does not suit the feelings of anyone who would read the Scripture devotionally.'

Letter from William Wilberforce to Lord Teignmouth, August 21, 1813

'We deeply regret to state, that intelligence has just reached us of the death of the Rev. Dr. Adam Clarke. He arrived at Bayswater, near London, at the home of Mr. Hobbs, on Saturday, the 25th inst., intending to preach at the anniversary of the Methodist chapel in that place on the following morning. He was thern in a state of ill-health, and became much worse early on Sunday morning, so as to be unable to fulfil his engagement. His disease, the malignant cholera, continued to increase, so as to baffle all the skill of physicians and the power of medicine; and he expired about twenty minutes past eleven o'clock on the evening of that day. He attended the late Confeence in Liverpool, in his usual health and spirits, and preached twice with great energy and pathos during its sittings; he took also a lively interest in the business of the Conference, and the general affairs of the Connexion, and expressed the most cordial attachment to his brethren and zeal for the furtherance of the cause of God. We stop the press to announce these particulars.'

Wesleyan Methodist Magazine, September 1832, p.692

'Many men were to be found with more elegantly formed minds than Dr. Clarke, but with that elegance, at an immeasurable distance from him in learning and critical acumen. Persons were to be found too, with finer voices, and who had cultivated the art of public speaking, with all its prettinesses, much his superior; but without a ray of his genius; without any of his depth, compass, originality, or wealth of thought. His mind, though in the strictest sense of the term, not an elegant one, was sufficiently elegant to preserve him from offending; his voice sufficiently tuned to please; his speaking sufficiently engaging to attract; and his diction, though remote from the ornate, partly through choice, has generally had the character of being remarkable for its simplicity, its purity, its strength, and its perspicuity… Profound and elevated as were his thoughts very often, he was never "hard to be understood".'

Wesleyan Takings (1840), pp.84-5

'Wherever you went [in South Derbyshire], to a farmstead or the home of prosperous master-workman, you might calculate on finding a copy of Clarke's famous Commentary. The first piece of luxurious furniture that a young Methodist would buy as soon as he found himself in a position to set up housekeeping was the voluminous exposition of the great Methodist saint and savant.'

(Benjamin Gregory, Autobiographical Recollections(1903) p.321)

  • Richard Watson, Remarks on the Eternal Sonship of Christ; and the use of reason in matters of revelation, suggested by several passages in Dr. A. Clarke's Commentary on the New Testament (1818)
  • Mary Ann Smith, An Account of the Infancy, Religious and Literary Life of Adam Clarke… (3 vols., 1833)
  • Anon [J.M. Hare], The Life and Labours of Adam Clarke … to which is added an historical sketch of the controversy concerning the sonship of Christ (1834)
  • William Jones, Memoirs of the Life, Ministry and Writings of Adam Clarke (1838)
  • Robert A. West, Sketches of Wesleyan Preachers (1849) pp.224-49
  • [John M. Hare], The Life and Labours of Adam Clarke LLD, FAS: a new narrative, with strictures on his creed, commentary and other works... (Halifax, 1858)
  • J.W. Etheridge, The Life of the rev. Adam Clarke (1858)
  • S. Dunn, The Life of Adam Clarke LLD (1863)
  • J. Everett, Adam Clarke Portrayed (2nd edn., revised, 1866)
  • Wesley and his Successors (1895) pp.67-72
  • Maldwyn L. Edwards, Adam Clarke (1942)
  • R.H. Gallagher, Adam Clarke, saint and scholar: a memoir (Belfast, [1963]);
  • Maldwyn Edwards, 'Adam Clarke the Man' in London Quarterly and Holborn Review, April 1964, pp. 147-51
  • Ian Sellers, Adam Clarke, Controversialist (WHS Lecture, 1975, St. Columb Major, [1976])
  • Wesley D. Tracy, When Adam Clarke Preached, People Listened: studies in the message and methods of Adam Clarke's preaching (Kansas City, 1981)
  • N.W. Taggart, The Irish in World Methodism (1986) pp.87-103
  • Gareth Lloyd, The Papers of Dr. Adam Clarke [a catalogue] (Manchester, 1991)
  • Barry W. Hamilton, 'The "Eternal Sonship" Controversy in Early British Methodism', in Wesleyan Theological Journal, 40:2 (Fall, 2005), pp.88-101
  • Oxford DNB