David Dickson was born about the year 1583. He was the only son of Mr John Dick or Dickson, merchant in Glasgow, whose father was an old feuar and possessor of some lands in the barony of Fintry, and parish of St Ninian’s, called the Kirk of the Muir. His parents were religious, of considerable substance, and were many years married before they had David, who was their only child. As he was a Samuel asked of the Lord, so he was early devoted to Him and the ministry. Yet afterwards the vow was forgot, till Providence, by a rod and sore sickness on their son, brought their sins to their remembrance, and then he was sent to assume his studies at the University of Glasgow.
Soon after he had received the degree of Master of Arts, he was admitted professor of philosophy in that college, where he was very useful in training up the youth in solid learning; and, with the learned Principal Boyd of Trochrig, the worthy Mr Blair, and other pious members of that society, his labours were singularly blessed in reviving serious piety among the youth in that declining and corrupted time, a little after the imposition of Prelacy upon the Church. Here, by a recommendation of the General Assembly not long after our Reformation from Popery, the regents were only to continue eight years in their profession; after which, such as were found qualified were licensed, and, upon a call after trial, were admitted to the holy ministry: by which constitution, the Church came to be filled with ministers well-qualified in all the branches of useful learning. Accordingly, David Dickson was, in 1618, ordained minister to the town of Irvine, where he laboured for about twenty-three years.
That same year, the corrupt Assembly at Perth agreed to the five articles imposed upon the Church by King James IV and the prelates. David Dickson at first had no great scruple against Episcopacy, as he had not studied those questions much, till the articles were imposed by this Assembly. These he closely examined; the more he looked into them, the more aversion he found to them; and when some time after, by a sore sickness, he was brought within view of death and eternity, he gave open testimony of the sinfulness of them.
But when this came to take air, James Law, Archbishop of Glasgow, summoned him to appear before the High Commission Court, January 29, 1622. Dickson, at his entrance to the ministry at Irvine, had preached upon 2 Cor 5:11, “Knowing the terrors of the Lord, we persuade men;” and when he perceived at this juncture a separation (at least for a time), the Sabbath before his compearance he chose the next words of that verse, “But we are made manifest unto God.” Extraordinary power and singular movings of the affections accompanied that parting sermon.
David Dickson appeared before the Commission, where, after the summons being read, and after some reasoning among the bishops, he gave in his declinature; upon which, some of the bishops whispering in his ear, as if they had favoured him upon the good report they had heard of him and his ministry, said to him, “Take it up, take it up.” He answered calmly, “I laid it not down for that end, to take it up again.” Spottiswoode, Archbishop of St Andrews, asked if he would subscribe it. He professed himself ready. The clerk, at the Archbishop’s desire, began to read it; but had scarcely read three lines, till the Archbishop burst forth in railing speeches, full of gall and bitterness; and turning to Mr David, he said, “These men will speak of humility and meekness, and talk of the Spirit of God, but ye are led by the spirit of the devil; there is more pride in you, I dare say, than in all the bishops of Scotland. I hanged a Jesuit in Glasgow for the like fault.” Mr David answered, “I am not a rebel; I stand here as the King’s subject; grant me the benefit of the law, and of a subject, and I crave no more.” But the Archbishop seemed to take no notice of these words.
Aberdeen asked him, whether he would obey the King or not? He answered, “I will obey the King in all things in the Lord.” “I told you that,” said Glasgow, “I knew he would seek to his limitation.” Aberdeen asked again, “May not the King give the same authority that we have, to as many sutors and tailors in Edinburgh, to sit, and see whether ye be doing your duty or not?” Mr David said, “My declinature will answer to that.” Then St Andrews fell again to railing, “The devil,” said he, “will devise; he has Scripture enough;” and then called him knave, swinger, young lad; and said he might have been teaching bairns in the school. “Thou knowest what Aristotle saith,” said he, “but thou hast no theology.” Because he perceived that Dickson gave him no titles, but once called him Sir, he gnashed his teeth, and said, “Sir! you might have called me Lord; when I was in Glasgow long since, ye called me so, but I cannot tell how, ye are become a puritan now.”
All this time he stood silent, and once lifted up his eyes to heaven, which St Andrews called a proud look. So after some more reasoning betwixt him and the bishops, St Andrews pronounced his sentence, in these words: “We deprive you of your ministry at Irvine, and ordain you to enter in Turriff, in the north, in twenty days.” “The will of the Lord be done,” said Mr David; “though ye cast me off, the Lord will take me up. Send me whither ye will, I hope my Master will go with me; and as He has been to me heretofore, He will be with me still, as with His own weak servant.”
Mr Dickson continued preaching till the twenty days were expired, and then began his journey. The Earl of Eglinton prevailed with the Archbishop of Glasgow, that he might come to Eglinton, and preach there; but the people from all quarters resorting to his sermons in Eglinton’s hall and court-yard, he enjoyed that liberty only two months; for the Archbishop sent him another charge, and he went to the place of his confinement.
While in Turriff, he was daily employed to preach by Mr Thomas Mitchell, minister there. But he found far greater difficulty, both in studying and preaching, than formerly. Some time after, his friends prevailed with the Archbishop of Glasgow to repone him, upon condition he would take back his declinature; and for that purpose wrote to Mr Dickson to come to Glasgow. He came as desired; but though many wise and gracious persons urged him to yield, yet he could not be persuaded. Yea, at last it was granted to him, that if he, or any friend he pleased, would go to the Archbishop’s castle, and either lift the paper, or suffer his friend to take it off the hall-table, without seeing the Archbishop at all, he might return to Irvine. But he found that to be but a juggling in such a weighty matter, in point of public testimony, and resolved to meddle no farther in this matter, but to return to his confinement. Accordingly, he began his journey, and was scarcely a mile out of town, till his soul was filled with such joy and approbation from God that he seldom had the like.
Some time after, by the continued intercession of the Earl of Eglinton, and the town of Irvine, with the Archbishop, the Earl got a license to send for him, and a promise that he should stay till the King challenged him. Thus he returned, without any condition on his part, to his flock, about the end of July, 1623.
While at Irvine, David Dickson’s ministry was singularly countenanced of God, and multitudes were convinced and converted. Few who lived in his day were more instrumental in this work than he; so that people, under exercise and soul-concern, came from every quarter about Irvine, and attended his sermons. The most eminent Christians, from all corners of the Church, came and joined with him at the communions, which were indeed times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord. Yea, not a few came from distant places, and settled at Irvine, that they might be under his ministry; yet he himself observed, that the vintage of Irvine was not equal to the gleanings of Ayr in Mr Welch’s time; where indeed the Gospel had wonderful success in conviction, conversion, and confirmation.
He commonly had his week-day sermon upon Monday, which was the market-day then at Irvine. Upon the Sabbath evenings many persons under soul-distress used to resort to his house after sermon, when usually he spent an hour or two in answering their cases, and directing and comforting those who were cast down. In all this he had an extraordinary talent; indeed he had the tongue of the learned, and knew how to speak a word in season to the weary soul. In a large hall, which was in his own house, there would sometimes have been scores of serious Christians waiting for him after he came from church. These, with the people round the town, who came into the market, made the church as throng, if not thronger, on the Mondays than on the Lord’s day. By these week-day sermons the famous Stewarton sickness (as it was called) was begun, about the year 1630, and spread from house to house for many miles in the valley where Stewarton water runs. Satan, indeed, endeavoured to bring a reproach upon such serious persons, as were at this time under the convincing work of the Spirit, by running some, seemingly under serious concern, to excess, both in time of sermon and in families. But the Lord enabled Mr Dickson, and other ministers who dealt with them, to act so prudent a part, that Satan’s design was much disappointed; and solid, serious, practical religion flourished mightily in the west of Scotland about this time, under the hardships of Prelacy.
About the years 1630 and 1631, some of our Scottish ministers, Messrs Livingstone, Blair, and others, were settled among the Scots in the North of Ireland, where they were remarkably owned of the Lord in their ministry and communions about the Six-Mile Water, for reviving religion, and the power and practice of it. The Irish bishops, at the instigation of the Scots bishops, got them removed for a season. After they were silenced, and had come over to Scotland, about the year 1631, Mr Dickson employed Messrs Blair, Livingstone, and Cunningham at his communion, for which he was called before the High Commission; but the prelates’ power being on the decline, he soon got rid of that trouble.
Several other instances might be given concerning Mr Dickson’s usefulness in answering perplexing cases of conscience, and in counselling students who had their eyes to the ministry. While he was at Irvine, the prudent directions, cautions, and encouragements given to such, were extremely useful and beneficial. Some examples might also be given of his usefulness to his very enemies; but there is little room here to insist on these things.
It was David Dickson who brought over the Presbytery of Irvine to supplicate the Council in 1637 for a suspension of the service-book. At this time, four deputations from different quarters met at the council-house door, to their mutual surprise and encouragement; which were the small beginnings of the happy turn of affairs that next year ensued. In that great revolution, Mr Dickson had no small share. He was sent to Aberdeen, with Messrs Henderson and Cant, by the Covenanters, to persuade that town and country to join in renewing the Covenants. This brought him to bear a great part in the debates with the learned Drs Forbes, Barrow, Sibbald, etc, at Aberdeen, which, being in print, need no further notice at present.
When King Charles I was prevailed upon to allow a free General Assembly at Glasgow, November 1638, Mr Dickson and Mr Baillie, from the Presbytery of Irvine, made no small figure in all the important matters before that grave Assembly. Mr Dickson signalised himself, in a most seasonable and prudent speech, when his Majesty’s Commissioner threatened to leave the Assembly; as also, in the 11th session, December 5, he had another most learned discourse against Arminianism.
By this time, not only the Lord’s eminent countenancing of Mr Dickson’s ministry at Irvine spread abroad, but his eminent prudence, learning, and holy zeal, came to be universally known, especially to ministers, from the part he bore in the Assembly at Glasgow; so that he was almost unanimously chosen moderator to the next General Assembly at Edinburgh, in August 1639. In its 10th session, the city of Glasgow presented a call to him; but, partly because of his own aversion, and the vigorous appearance of the Earl of Eglinton, and his loving people, and mostly for the remarkable usefulness of his ministry in that corner, the General Assembly continued him still at Irvine.
Not long after this, about 1641, he was appointed professor of divinity in the University of Glasgow, where he did great service to the Church by training up young men for the holy ministry; and yet, notwithstanding of his laborious work, he preached on the forenoon of every Sabbath, in the High Church there; where for some time he had the learned Mr Patrick Gillespie for his colleague.
In the year 1643, the Church laid a very great work upon him, together with Messrs Calderwood and Henderson, to form a draft of a directory for public worship, as appears by an Act of the General Assembly.
When the pestilence was raging at Glasgow in 1647, the masters and students, upon Mr Dickson’s motion, removed to Irvine. There it was that the learned Mr Durham passed his trials, and was earnestly recommended by David Dickson to the Presbytery and Magistrates of Glasgow. A very strict friendship subsisted between these two great lights of the Church; and among other effects of their religious conversation, we have “The Sum of Saving Knowledge,” which has been printed with our Confession of Faith and Catechisms. This, after several conversations upon the subject, and manner of handling it, so that it might be useful to vulgar capacities, was dictated by Messrs Dickson and Durham to a reverend minister about the year 1650; and though never judicially approven by the Church, yet it deserves to be much more read and practised than what it at present is. [It was the reading of this treatise that brought M‘Cheyne to a clear understanding of the way of acceptance with God, as appears from the following extract from his diary: “March 11th, 1834. - Read in the ‘Sum of Saving Knowledge,’ the work which I think first of all wrought a saving change in me. How gladly would I renew the reading of it, if that change might be carried on to perfection!” - EDITOR]
About this time he was translated from the profession of divinity at Glasgow to the same work at Edinburgh; at which time he published his Praelectiones in Confessionem Fidei (“Lectures on the Confession of Faith”), which he dictated in Latin to his scholars. There he continued his laborious care of students in divinity, the growing hopes of the Church; and either at Glasgow or at Edinburgh, the most part of the Presbyterian ministers, at least in the west, south, and east parts of Scotland, from 1640, were under his inspection. From the fore-mentioned book, we may perceive his care to educate them in the form of sound words, and to ground them in the excellent standards of doctrine agreed to by the once famous Church of Scotland; and happy had their successors been, had they preserved, and handed down to posterity, the scriptural doctrines, pure and entire, as they were delivered by our first reformers to Mr Dickson and his contemporaries, and from him and them handed down without corruption to their successors.
All this time, viz, in 1650 and 1651, Mr Dickson had a great share in the printed pamphlets upon the unhappy debates betwixt the Resolutioners and the Protesters. He was in favour of the public Resolutioners; and most of the papers on that side were written by him, Baillie, and Douglas; as those on the other side were written by James Guthrie, Patrick Gillespie, and a few others.
David Dickson continued at Edinburgh, discharging his trust with great diligence and faithfulness, until the restoration of Prelacy, upon the return of Charles II; when, for refusing the oath of supremacy, he was, with many other Worthies, turned out; so that his heart was broken with this heavy change on the beautiful face of that once famed Reformed Church. He married Margaret Robertson, daughter of Archibald Robertson of Stone-hall, a younger brother of the house of Ernock, in the shire of Lanark. By her he had three sons: John, clerk to the Exchequer in Scotland; Alexander, professor of Hebrew in the College of Edinburgh; and Archibald, who lived with his family afterwards in the parish of Irvine.
On December 1662, he fell extremely sick, at which time worthy Mr Livingstone, now suffering for the same cause, though he had then but forty-eight hours’ liberty to stay in Edinburgh, came to see him on his death-bed. They had been intimately acquainted nearly forty years, and now rejoiced as fellow-confessors together. When Livingstone asked the professor, what were his thoughts of the present affairs, and how it was with himself? his answer was: “That he was sure Jesus Christ would not put up with the indignities done against His work and people;” and as for himself, said he, “I have taken all my good deeds, and all my bad deeds, and have cast them together in a heap before the Lord, and have fled from both to Jesus Christ, and in Him I have sweet peace.”
Having been very low and weak for some days, he called all his family together, and spoke in particular to each of them; and having gone through them all, he pronounced the words of the apostolical blessing (2 Cor 13:13,14) with much gravity and solemnity. Then putting up his hand, he closed his eyes; and without any struggle or apparent pain, immediately expired in his son’s arms, and, like Jacob of old, was gathered to his people in a good old age, being upwards of seventy-two years.
He was a man singularly endowed with an edifying gift of preaching; and his painful labours had been, in an eminent manner, blessed with success. His sermons were always full of solid and substantial matter, very scriptural, and in a very familiar style; not low, but extremely strong and affecting, being somewhat akin to the style of godly Samuel Rutherford. It is said, that scarce any minister of that time came so near Mr Dickson’s style or method of preaching as William Guthrie, minister of Fenwick, who equalled, if not exceeded him. [A story is told of an English merchant who had occasion to visit Scotland about the year 1650. On his return, he was asked what news he had brought with him, when he replied: “Great and good news! I went to St Andrews, where I heard a sweet, majestic-looking man (Blair), and he showed me the majesty of God. After him, I heard a little fair man (Rutherford), and he showed me the loveliness of Christ. I then went to Irvine, where I heard a well-favoured, proper old man, with a long beard (Dickson), and that man showed me all my heart.” “The whole General Assembly,” says Wodrow, “could not have given a better character of the three men.” - EDITOR]
His works are, a Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, on Matthew’s Gospel, on the Psalms of David and on the Epistles; his Prælectiones in Confessionem Fidei, or, Truth’s Victory over Error; his Therapeutica Sacra, or, Cases of Conscience Resolved, in Latin and English; and a Treatise on the Promises. Besides these, he wrote a great part of the Answers to the Demands, and Duplies to the Replies of the Doctors of Aberdeen, and some of the pamphlets in defence of the public Resolutioners, as has been already observed; also some short poems on pious and serious subjects, such as, the Christian Sacrifice, True Christian Love, to be sung with the common tunes of the Psalms. There are also several other pieces of his, mostly in manuscript, such as, his Tyrones conscionaturi, supposed to be dictated to his scholars at Glasgow; Summarium libri Isaiæ; his Letters on the Resolutioners; his First Paper on the public Resolutions; his Replies to Mr Gillespie and Mr James Guthrie; his Non-separation from the Well-affected in the army; as also, some sermons at Irvine, upon 1 Tim 1:5; and his Precepts for the Daily Direction of a Christian, etc, by way of a Catechism for his congregation at Irvine; with a Compend of Sermons upon Jeremiah and the Lamentations, and the first nine chapters of the Romans.
This article on David Dickson is from John Howie’s Scots Worthies, first published 1775, revised and enlarged 1781. Revised from the author’s original edition, by Rev W H Carslaw, (Edinburgh: Johnstone, Hunter and Company, 1870), pp 288-297.