1760—August 16, 1832
Life of Methodist scholar, Adam Clarke

“I can’t do it!” What parent has not heard that? And, what child has not used it? When I was growing up, “I can’t do it” was often my defense when I felt inferior to the task or simply unwilling to try. Knowing how much more technical and advanced we are today than we were even a generation ago, I am sure that moms and dads will not have to fear hearing this expression again. However, if there are some who persist in using this antiquated expression, simply relate the following anecdote to them concerning one of England’s greatest scholars.

The exact year is uncertain, but his biographers are in agreement that it was in the early 1760s when he was born (the exact date being unknown due to the fact that the parish clerk failed to enter him in the register of the Church). His name was Adam Clarke. He was born in Ireland in the village of Moybeg. He was a Scotch-Irishman of English descent. His ancestors crossed over from England in the seventeenth century and settled in the region of Carrickfergus, where the great-great-grandfather, William Clarke, was an estated gentleman. Adam’s mother was a descendant of the Laird of Dowart, in the Hebrides, the chief of the clan of the Mac Leans.

“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”
– 2 Timothy 2:15

In his youth, Adam was a stout lad, full of life, and not overly fond of his books. He delighted to hear the wild Irish stories of ghosts and fairies, but for the Latin grammar, and more especially for mathematics, he possessed a thorough disgust. His father owned a tract of land which he farmed. Adam and his brother were employed alternately in work on the farm and helping one another along in the rudiments of classical learning, in which their father was a notable master.

His mother was a staunchly committed Presbyterian and taught him the Catechism of the Westminster Assembly, while his father was an Episcopalian and taught him the Apostles’ Creed–a mixture of doctrine which suited the boy well, for Adam was sensitive to spiritual matters. However, he was in great danger of growing up a dunce in other respects. The only studies to which he would apply himself were the English translation of the Fables of Aesop, Robinson Crusoe, the native fairy literature of Ireland, and the arts of magic, which later was taught him by a traveling tinker who had strayed into his home territory.

While at school one day, Adam was scolded by his teacher and mocked by his fellow-pupils for his poor progress in his school work. So traumatic was this occasion, that in his agony of spirit and shame he “felt as if something had broken within him,” and, taking his book with the resolve to change his ways, he began to study with a sense of power which was quite a surprise to him, and from that moment he became the star pupil of the school.

During the year 1777, a Methodist preacher, by the name of John Brettel, began preaching in the neighborhood, in barns, stables, schoolhouses, and in the open air, and young Adam, now about seventeen years old, was among his most attentive hearers. His father approved of the teachings of the itinerant as “the genuine doctrine of the Established Church,” while his Presbyterian mother, with equal admiration, declared, “This is the doctrine of the Reformers; this is the true, unadulterated Christianity.” As a result, the Methodist preacher was made doubly welcome at the Clarkes’ home, which subsequently became a stopping place for preachers.

It was not long before Adam was spiritually awakened and convicted of his sin. This sense of conviction and sense of spiritual need lasted for some time and was characterized with great agonies of mind, but at last in 1779, Adam was deeply converted. By this time, he was a well-learned lad. Although he had been obligated to spend his days on the farm, his nights afforded him time for study, and when he had found Christ as his personal and present Saviour, he immediately began to share Him with others. He would often toil from four in the morning till six in the evening, and then, walk three or four miles to a Methodist meeting. Before long, he too began to preach. With the encouragement of a fellow Methodist, John Bredin, Clarke left for the Kingswood School which John Wesley had started and assumed the role of itinerant that same year (1782).

From this small beginning, Adam Clarke went on to become a leader among Methodists in the British Isles, most notably as a Bible scholar and Conference President. But Clarke also distinguished himself to the royal family and the most learned societies of Britain. For several years, Clarke, in the midst of a busy ministry as a preacher, was employed by the King in the handling of some of the most important documents of the British Empire.

Adam Clarke was a man immersed in the Scriptures, loved for his character, and ardent in his love for and loyalty to the principles of the Methodist revival. He had no Methodist peers as a scholar and few peers as a preacher and gentleman. Few Methodists have ever been known as widely and as well received as Adam Clarke.

As a young boy, Adam Clarke decided to replace his, “I can’t do it,” with “I can do it, and by God’s grace, I will do it!” Young scholar, as you begin a new school year, my prayer is that you will allow both the challenge of the Apostle Paul to “study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed” and the example of Adam Clarke to be of challenge and encouragement to you.