His father, an Anglican, was a village schoolmaster and farmer; his mother was a Presbyterian. His childhood consisted of a series of life-threatening mishaps. After receiving a very limited education he was apprenticed to a linen manufacturer, but, finding the employment uncongenial, he resumed school-life at the institution founded by Wesley at Kingswood.
In 1778, at the age of fourteen, Rev. John Wesley invited him to become a pupil in the Methodist seminary lately established at Kingswood, Bristol. In 1779, he converted to Methodism after listening to a preacher.
In 1782, at nineteen he became an itinerant preacher, appointed to the circuit of Bradford, Wiltshire, until 1805. He afterwards resided chiefly in London, and devoted much of his time to literary research.
While second to none in the labours of the ministry, Clarke was a most assiduous scholar. First the classics engaged his especial attention, then the early Christian fathers, and then Oriental writers; Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, and other Eastern tongues, with the literature which they represented, being among the subjects of his study. Natural science was a favourite subject, and he had an interest in what are called the occult sciences. He contributed to the Eclectic Review from the date of its establishment in 1804, and rendered much literary assistance to the British and Foreign Bible Society.
In 1815, Clarke removed and resided in an estate in Millbrook, for several years. In 1823, Clarke removed to London and afterwards to Haydon Hall, where he resided until his death.
As a preacher, he soon became remarkably popular. He rose to high rank in the Wesleyan body. Clarke was thrice President of the Methodist Conference in 1806, 1814 and 1822. At first he was moved from place to place, according to the Wesleyan arrangement, being engaged at various times in Ireland, Scotland, the Channel Islands, and Shetland (1826). Clarke was a preacher of rare power and gifts and particularly in his latter years, he preached to crowded churches.
Clarke was an amateur historian and scholar, and was invited by Brandt, secretary of the Royal Society of Antiquarians to see the newly acquired Rosetta Stone. At that time in 1803, the writing and composition of the stone had not been translated, nor had all three languages been positively identified. Clarke proposed that the stone was basalt, a theory which while recently was found to be incorrect was thought to be correct until the late 1900s when better scanning equipment was developed. He also proposed that the third language was Coptic (it was actually Demotic, which is written almost the same as, and has the same meaning as Coptic), a clue which was used by Jean-François Champollion who successfully completed the translation in 1822.
He is chiefly remembered for writing a commentary on the Bible which took him 40 years to complete and which was a primary Methodist theological resource for two centuries. Comments on this work are mixed, but recognize its erudition. By himself he produced nearly half as much material as the scores of scholars who collaborated on the twelve-volume The Interpreters' Bible. His commentary, particularly that on Revelation, identified the Catholic Church with the Antichrist.
As a theologian, Clarke reinforced the teachings of Methodist founder John Wesley. He taught that the Bible provides a complete interpretation of God's nature and will. He considered Scripture itself a miracle of God's grace that "takes away the veil of darkness and ignorance."
Perhaps his most controversial position regarded the eternal Sonship of Jesus. Clarke did not believe it biblically faithful to affirm this doctrine, maintaining that prior to the Incarnation, Jesus was "unoriginated". Otherwise, according to Clarke, he would be subordinate to God and therefore not fully divine. This was important to Clarke because he felt that Jesus' divinity was crucial to understanding the atonement.
Clarke's view was opposed by many Methodists, notably Richard Watson. Watson and his allies argued that Clarke's position jeopardized the integrity of the doctrine of the Trinity. Clarke's christological view was rejected in large part by Methodist theologians in favour of the traditional perspective.
Support for abolitionism
He joined with other ministers in being an early critic of slavery. In his commentary of Isaiah 58:6, he writes :
"Let the oppressed go free - How can any nation pretend to fast or worship God at all, or dare to profess that they believe in the existence of such a Being, while they carry on the slave trade, and traffic in the souls, blood, and bodies, of men! O ye most flagitious of knaves, and worst of hypocrites, cast off at once the mask of religion; and deepen not your endless perdition by professing the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, while ye continue in this traffic!".
Here are important books written by Clarke. There are also : three volumes of Sermons, besides several single discourses and detached pieces ; and many anonymous articles in the Classical Journal, in the Eclectic Review, and in various other respectable journals. To these may be added the new edition for the Record Commission of Thomas Rymer's Foedera, in folio, of which he saw the first volume, and part of the second, through the press. The edition was abandoned because of dissatisfaction with his efforts.
^Read 1879, ""It is assuredly a wonderful performance," says Archbishop Lowndes, "carried on as it was in the midst of journeying and privations, of weariness and painfulness, of care and distraction; and carried on too by an unaided and single-handed man, for he himself affirms that he had no mortal to afford him the smallest assistance."".
^Kelly 1891, pp. 70-71. "[...] his chief works is his Commentary on the Holy scriptures, on which he was engaged for thirty years, and which says Dr. Etheridge, "is one of the noblest works of the class in the entire domain of sacred literature.'
^Clarke 1817, Acts 13:48. "As many as were ordained to eternal life believed : This text has been most pitifully misunderstood. Many suppose that it simply means that those in that assembly who were fore-ordained; or predestinated by God's decree, to eternal life, believed under the influence of that decree. Now, we should be careful to examine what a word means, before we attempt to fix its meaning. Whatever ? may mean, which is the word we translate ordained, it is neither ? nor which the apostle uses, but simply ?, which includes no idea of pre-ordination or pre-destination of any kind. [...] what does the word ? mean? The verb or signifies to place, set, order, appoint, dispose; hence it has been considered here as implying the disposition or readiness of mind of several persons in the congregation, such as the religious proselytes mentioned Acts 13:43"