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Significant Scots
The Reverend John Dick


DICK (the Reverend) JOHN, D.D., an eminent divine of the Scottish Secession church, was born at Aberdeen on the 10th October, 1764. His father, the reverend Alexander Dick, a native of Kinross, was minister of the Associate congregation of Seceders in that city.

Of the earlier years of Dr Dick little more is known than that he distinguished himself at the grammar school. On entering the university, in October, 1777, when in his thirteenth year, he obtained a bursary in King’s College, having been preferred to competitors of long standing.

Dr Dick entered on his University course in King’s College, which he had been induced to prefer to Marischal’s, on account of the advantages to be derived from the bursary which he had obtained. Here he studied humanity under professor Ogilvie, Greek under Leslie, and philosophy under professor Dunbar, and on 30th March, 1781, he took the degree of A.M.

On the arrival of the period when it became necessary for him to choose a profession, he determined on devoting himself to the ministry in connection with the Secession, but to this resolution many of his friends were opposed; some of whom pressed him to join the Scottish establishment, others the Episcopal, while his father expressed an aversion to his dedicating himself to the ministry at all, from a fear that he was not at heart sufficiently devoted to the sacred calling which he desired to assume. He, however, adhered to his original resolution, and proceeded to prepare himself accordingly.

In 1780, after undergoing the usual examination, he was admitted by the Associate presbytery of Perth and Dunfermline, to attendance in the divinity ball, Aberdeen, then under the superintendence of the celebrated John Brown of Haddington, where he studied for five years, spending during this time the greater part of his vacations with a paternal uncle, who took great pains in improving the language of his young relative, and in assisting him to rid himself of the provincial peculiarities by which it was disfigured.

On entering the divinity hall, a very remarkable temporary change took place in Dr Dick’s personal manners. From being extremely lively and gay in his deportment, he, all at once, became grave and thoughtful, and continued thus for two years, when he again resumed the original and natural characteristics he had thus so strangely and suddenly laid aside, and remained under their influence throughout the rest of his life, which was distinguished by a singular flow of animal spirits. The cause of this change of manner is said to have been certain deep religious impressions which had imprinted themselves on his mind, and had weighed on his spirits during the two years of his altered demeanour.

Dr Dick now devoted himself, in an especial manner, to classical literature, and pursued his studies in this department of learning with a zeal and assiduity which soon introduced him to an intimate and extensive acquaintance with the more celebrated writers of antiquity. He also laboured assiduously to acquire a mastery of the English language, to eradicate Scotticisms from his speech and writings, and to attain a pure and elegant style; a pursuit in which he was greatly aided by the celebrated Dr Beattie, who was then reckoned a master in the art of composition.

In 1785, Dr Dick, who had now attained the age of twenty-one, received his license as a preacher from the Associate presbytery of Perth and Dunfermline, and soon afterwards began to attract notice by the elegance of his sermons, the gracefulness of his delivery, and the dignity and fervour of his manner in the pulpit. The consequence of this favourable impression was, that he received shortly after being licensed, simultaneous calls from three several congregations, - those of Scone, Musselburgh, and Slateford, near Edinburgh, to the last named of which he was appointed by the synod, and was ordained on the 26th October, 1786, at the age of twenty-two.

With this appointment Dr Dick was himself highly gratified. He liked the situation, and soon became warmly attached to his people, who, in their turn, formed the strongest attachment to him. During the first year of his ministry he lived with Dr Peddie of Edinburgh, there being no residence for him in the village. One, however, was built, and at the end of the period named, he removed to it, and added to his other pursuits the culture of a garden which had been assigned him, and in which he took great delight. A few years afterwards he married Miss Jane Coventry, second daughter of the reverend George Coventry of Stitchell in Roxburghshire; a connexion which added greatly to his comfort and happiness.

Dr Dick’s habits were at this time, as indeed they also were throughout the whole of his life, extremely regular and active. He rose every morning before six o’clock and began to study, allowing himself only from two to three hours’ recreation in the middle of the day, when he visited his friends, or walked alone into the country. Nor was his labour light, for, although an excellent extempore speaker, he always wrote the discourses he meant to deliver, in order to ensure that accuracy and elegance of language which, he rightly conceived, could not be commanded, or at least depended on in extemporaneous oratory. The consequence of this care and anxiety about his compositions was a singular clearness, conciseness, and simplicity of style in his sermons. Nor was he less happy in the matter than the manner of his discourses. The former was exceedingly varied and comprehensive; embracing nearly the whole range of theology.

In 1788, two years after his settlement at Slateford, Dr Dick made his first appearance as an author. In that year he published a sermon, entitled "The Conduct and Doom of False Teachers," a step suggested by the publication of "A Practical Essay on the Death of Christ, by Dr M’Gill of Ayr," in which Socinian opinions were openly maintained. The general aim of Dr Dick’s discourse was to expose all corrupters of the truth, particularly those, who, like Dr M’Gill, disseminated errors, and yet continued to hold office in a church whose creed was orthodox. During all the debates in this case, which took place before the General Assembly, Dr Dick attended, and took a deep interest in all the proceedings connected with it which occurred in that court.

The subject of this memoir did not appear again as an author till 1796, when he published another sermon, entitled "Confessions of Faith shown to be necessary, and the Duty of Churches with respect to them Explained." This sermon, which was esteemed a singularly able production, had its origin in a controversy then agitated on the subject of the Westminster Confession of Faith in relation to seceders who were involved in an inconsistency by retaining the former entire, while, contrary to its spirit, they threw off spiritual allegiance to magisterial authority. In this discourse Dr Dick recommends that confessions of faith should be often revised, and endeavours to do away the prejudice which prevents that being done.

From this period till 1800, the doctor’s literary productions consisted wholly of occasional contributions to the Christian Magazine, a monthly publication conducted by various ministers belonging to the two largest branches of the Secession. The contributions alluded to, were distinguished by the signature Chorepiscopus. But in the year above named the able work appeared on which Dr Dick’s reputation as a writer and theologian now chiefly rests. This was "An Essay on the Inspiration of the Scriptures;" a production which was received with great applause, and which made the author’s name widely known throughout the religious world. The popularity of this work was so great that it went through three editions during Dr Dick’s lifetime, and a fourth, on which he meditated certain alterations, which, however, he did not live to accomplish, was called for before his death.

Dr Dick had now been fifteen years resident at Slateford, and in this time had been twice called to occupy the place of his father, who had died in the interval; but the synod, in harmony with his own wishes, declined both of these invitations, and continued him at Slateford. The time, however, had now arrived when a change of residence was to take place. In 1801, he was called by the congregation of Greyfriars, Glasgow, to be colleague to the reverend Alexander Pirie, and with this call the synod complied, Dr Dick himself expressing no opinion on the subject, but leaving it wholly to the former to decide on the propriety and expediency of his removal. The parting of the doctor with his congregation on this occasion was exceedingly affecting. Their attachment to each other was singularly strong, and their separation proportionally painful.

Having repaired to Glasgow, Dr Dick was inducted, as colleague and successor, into his new charge, one of the oldest and wealthiest in the Secession church, on the 21st May, 1801. Previously to the doctor’s induction, a large portion of the members of the congregation had withdrawn to a party who termed themselves the Old Light; but the diligence, zeal, and talents of its ministers speedily restored the church to its original prosperity.

From this period nothing more remarkable occurred in Dr Dick’s life than what is comprised in the following brief summary of events. In 1810, he succeeded, by the death of Dr Pirie, to the sole charge of the Greyfriars. In 1815, he received the degree of Doctor of Divinity from the college of Princetown, New Jersey, and in the following year he published a volume of sermons. In 1820, he was chosen to the chair of theological professor to the Associate Synod in room of Dr Lawson of Selkirk, who died in 1819; an appointment which involved a flattering testimony to his merits, being the most honourable place in the gift of his communion. Yet his modesty would have declined it, had not his friends insisted on his accepting it. For six years subsequent to his taking the theological chair, Dr Dick continued sole professor, but at the end of that period, viz., in 1825, a new professorship, intended to embrace biblical literature, was established, and the Rev. Dr John Mitchell was appointed to the situation. From this period Dr Dick’s labours were united with those of the learned gentleman just named.

On the retirement of the earl of Glasgow from the presidentship of the Auxiliary Bible Society of Glasgow, in consequence of the controversy raised regarding the circulation of the Apocrypha, Dr Dick was chosen to that office, and in March, 1832, he was elected president also of the Glasgow Voluntary Church Association, to the furtherance of whose objects he lent all his influence and talents. But his active and valuable life was now drawing to a close, and its last public act was at hand. This was his attending a meeting on the 23rd January, 1833, in which the lord provost of the city presided, for the purpose of petitioning the legislature regarding the sanctification of the sabbath. On this occasion Dr Dick was intrusted with one of the resolutions, and delivered a very animated address to the large and respectable assemblage which the object alluded to had brought together; thus showing that, consistently with the opinions he maintained as to the power of the civil magistrate in matters of religion, he could join in an application to Parliament for the protection of the sacred day against the encroachments of worldly and ungodly men.

On the same evening Dr Dick attended a meeting of the session of Grey-friars, to make arrangements for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, but on going home he was attacked with the complaint, a disease in the interior of the ear, which brought on his death, after an illness of only two days’ duration. This excellent man died on the 25th January, 1833, in the sixty-ninth year of his age, the forty-seventh of his ministry, and the thirteenth of his professorship. His remains were interred in the High churchyard of Glasgow on the 1st of February following, amidst expressions of regret which unequivocally indicated the high estimation in which he was held. About a year after his death, his theological lectures were published in four volumes, 8vo, with a memoir prefixed.

It only remains to be added, that Dr Dick, during the period of his ministry in Glasgow, attracted much notice by the delivery of a series of monthly Sabbath evening lectures on the Acts of the Apostles, which were afterwards published at intervals in two volumes; and, on a second edition being called for, were collected in one volume. These lectures, which were followed up by a series of discourses on the divine attributes, are reckoned models for the exposition of the Holy Scriptures.


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