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Adam Clarke’s Advice to a Young Preacher

Adam Clarke (1760–1832)

Adam Clarke (1760–1832)

This is one of several items I re-blog every once in a while. And, here’s why. It illustrates one of the huge gulfs between contemporary Methodism and the original Methodism that arose under the leadership of John Wesley. Methodism originally combined: serious Biblical study, impassioned preaching, a personal experience of faith, a serious discipline for spiritual formation and the service of God in the world.

This is from a letter by Adam Clarke to a young man contemplating the ministry. Readers will find this advice a bit (ehem!) challenging. Actually, I think it is good advice myself, though I’d (of course) update the reference works, and have to acknowledge I’m quite a bit more “rusty” on biblical languages (and thus much more reliant on secondary sources) than I wish I were.

First (after the divider rule) I quote Adam Clarke at length. Then (after the next divider) I give some reflection on why I think these remarks are important.

(I’ve done some re-formatting. I found this letter in a brief biography of Adam Clarke’s life which had been written by his son-in-law, Samuel Dunn and included in a compendium of Clarke’s writings called Christian Theology.)


“I would lay down two maxims for your conduct:

  1. Never forget any thing you have learned, especially in language, science, history, chronology, antiquities, and theology.
  2. Improve in every thing you have learned, and acquire what you never had, especially whatever may be useful to you in the work of the ministry.

“As to your making or composing sermons, I have no good opinion of it.

Hebrew_bible_4“Get a thorough knowledge of your subject: understand your text in all its connection and bearings, and then go into the pulpit depending on the Spirit of God to give you power to explain and illustrate to the people those general and particular views which you have already taken of your subject, and which you conscientiously believe to be correct and according to the word of God. But get nothing by heart to speak there, else even your memory will contribute to keep you in perpetual bondage. No man was ever a successful preacher who did not discuss his subject from his own judgment and experience. The reciters of sermons may be popular; but God scarcely ever employs them to convert sinners, or build up saints in their most holy faith. I do not recommend in this case a blind reliance upon God; taking a text which you do not know how to handle, and depending upon God to give you something to say. He will not be thus employed. Go into the pulpit with your understanding full of light, and your heart full of God; and his Spirit will help you, and then you will find a wonderful assemblage of ideas coming in to your assistance; and you will feel the benefit of the doctrine of association, of which the reciters and memory men can make no use. The finest, the best, and the most impressive thoughts are obtained in the pulpit when the preacher enters it with the preparation mentioned above.

“As to Hebrew, I advise you to learn it with the points. Dr. C. Bayley’s Hebrew Grammar is one of the best; as it has several analyzed portions of the Hebrew text in it, which are a great help to learners. And Parkhurst’s Hebrew Lexicon exceeds all that ever went before it. It gives the ideal meaning of the roots without which who can understand the Hebrew language? Get your verbs and nouns so well fixed in your memory that you shall be able to tell the conjugation, mood, tense, person, and number of every word; and thus you will feel that you tread on sure ground as you proceed. Genesis is the simplest book to begin with; and although the Psalms are highly poetic, and it is not well for a man to begin to acquire a knowledge of any language by beginning with the highest poetic production in it; yet the short hemstitch form of the verses, and the powerful experimental religion which the Psalms inculcate, render them comparatively easy to him who has the life of God in his soul. BYTHNER’S Lyra-Prophetica, in which all the Psalms are analyzed, is a great help; but the roots should be sought for in Parkhurst. Mr. Bell has published a good Greek grammar in English; so have several others. The Greek, like the Hebrew, depends so much on its verbs, their formation and power, that, to make any thing successfully out, you must thoroughly acquaint yourself with them in all their conjugations, &c. It is no mean labor to acquire these; for, in the above, even one regular verb will occur upward of eight hundred different times! Mr. Dawson has published a lexicon for the Greek Testament, in which you may find any word that occurs, with the mood, tense, &c. Any of the later editions of Schrevelius will answer your end. Read carefully Prideaux’ History. The editions prior to 1725 are good for little; none since that period has been much improved, if any thing.

“Acquaint yourself with British history. Read few sermons, they will do you little good; those of Mr. Wesley excepted. The Lives of holy men will be profitable to you.

“Live in the divine life; walk in the divine life, Live for the salvation of men.”

— Adam Clarke, found here: Clarke in the Pulpit and in Prayer.


preachingBefore I go any further, let me add one quick note: it seems likely to me that Clarke emphasizes studies in Hebrew in this passage because it could be assumed that this young man already knew Greek and Latin — education being a bit different in those days than it is now. Nowadays, no such assumption can be made, and the study of ancient Greek should be emphasized first.

But, here’s why I think this is good advice:

(1.) Content must take precedence over form. Preaching has become empty and boring for lack of fresh content, fresh insight arising from the preacher’s immersion in the Scriptures and the life of prayer.

The absolute first rule of public speaking (to my mind) is: have something to say.

No amount of borrowed illustrations or quickie sermon helps will make up for this deficiency. Training in Homiletics cannot help if there is no deep insight from Scripture and prayer and life.

I agree that not everyone will be an Adam Clarke. And, this advice is quite off-putting in that way. Not all of us (certainly including myself) will achieve the command of ancient languages that Clarke achieved. No, not everyone is going to develop the passion for ancient languages that he had. On the other hand, bear in mind, that this man was one of Wesley’s local preachers! He was not a scholar working in a secluded University. He was engaged in ministry and preaching. And, look what he produced!

Reading should be wide. All knowledge — granted it is legitimate knowledge — is relevant to the preacher’s task.

(2.) The absolute second rule of public speaking (to my mind) is: speak with passion and enthusiasm.

You have to care. You have to think that what you have to say is important. It needs to show that you do.

Preachers can only become preachers through deep, sustained Bible Study and prayer. All other knowledge they can gain is bound to be of benefit.

(3.) My third rule would be this: Live the life of faith. Then, you can talk about it. As Clarke says: ““Live in the divine life; walk in the divine life, Live for the salvation of [others].”

But, you can never be a preacher by studying preaching. The preacher must preach from the overflow.

Well, that’s my opinion, anyway.

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