Clarke, Adam (1760/62–1832), methodist minister and scholar, was born at Moybeg, near Maghera, Co. Londonderry, son of John Clarke (fl. 1762), schoolmaster, whose early marriage to a Miss McLean prevented him from completing a degree in TCD. The family had been wealthy, but the schoolmaster's income was small, and he moved first to Garvagh and then to Cappagh, near Portstewart, Co. Londonderry. Clarke was educated by his father and apprenticed to a linen draper, Francis Bennett, who was a relative. After conversion to methodism (1778) Clarke was unhappy about the ethics of commercial life, even though Bennett offered him any opening he chose. The local methodist superintendent recommended him for training at Kingswood school, Bath, England; he arrived there in 1782, with three halfpence in his pocket. After only a month at the school, he met John Wesley (qv), who immediately ordered him to go as a junior preacher to Wiltshire. Despite his lack of formal education, Clarke served only a quarter of the usual probationary period, and in 1783 was the youngest man yet accepted into ‘full connexion’ and ordained. He made a vow about this time not to study Greek and Latin any more, but later changed his mind.
Clarke became a popular preacher, strongly influenced by Wesley. After overcoming opposition from her parents, he married (17 April 1788) Mary Cooke of Trowbridge, Wiltshire, and was briefly superintendent in Dublin in 1790. He returned to Britain, and was three times president of the methodist conference in Britain (1806, 1814, 1822) and four times president of the Irish conference (1811, 1812, 1816, 1822). Despite his travels, his preaching load, and his church responsibilities, he became by dint of lifelong concentrated efforts one of the most distinguished scholars of his day, expert especially in the classical and biblical languages, but also interested in science. As a member of the British and Foreign Bible Society, he was involved with the preparation of Bibles in Near Eastern languages, and supported a proposal for an Irish-language Bible. He worked on deciphering the Rosetta stone, reported to a royal commission on the location of state papers, and began reediting Thomas Rymer's early eighteenth-century Fœdera, a large compilation of papers on foreign affairs. He translated books from French and German, produced an ambitious bibliography in six volumes listing important works in biblical languages since the invention of printing (with a further two volumes identifying the best translations into English), and wrote on the Wesleys.
His many other books on biblical and theological subjects include a chronology of scripture, but he expended most labour on, and was most famous for, a huge Commentary on the Bible. He began work in 1798, published the first of eight volumes in 1810, and the last in 1826; it was widely used, and reprinted in 1851. Stephen Dawes, writing in 1994, claims that Clarke's Commentary was not only the most impressive work of methodist scholarship of its period, but one of the first to acknowledge the importance of scientific detachment in examining biblical records.
In acknowledgement of his attainments, Adam Clarke received an MA (1807) and LLD (1808) from Aberdeen University; he was MRIA, a fellow of the Antiquarian Society and of the Royal Asiatic Society, and a member of the American Historical Institute. He founded schools and churches in Shetland, and is still remembered in his native locality for founding Portrush and Portstewart methodist churches and six local schools. He retained until the year of his death an interest in their progress, and had intended to retire to Portstewart, but died of cholera on 26 August 1832 in London. His many friends included distinguished scholars, noblemen, and the duke of Sussex (a younger son of George III), and he was survived by six of his twelve children, the Rev. J. B. B. Clarke (d. 1855) being one. The first volume of his biography was written in the third person by himself, and has much of interest on his early life and surroundings.