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Significant Scots
David Dickson


DICKSON, DAVID, an eminent Presbyterian divine of the seventeenth century, of whom Wodrow remarks, that, "if ever a Scots Biography and the lives of our eminent ministers and Christians be published, he will shine there as a star of the first magnitude." Remarkable not merely for the part he took in public affairs—his preaching produced the most astonishing effects in the early part of the century in which he lived. Fleming, in his work on the "Fulfilling of the Scriptures," says of Dickson’s pulpit ministrations, "that for a considerable time few Sabbaths did pass without some evidently converted, or some convincing proof of the power of God accompanying his Word. And truly (he adds) this great spring-tide, as I may call it, of the gospel, was not of a short time, but of some years’ continuance; yea, thus like a spreading moor-burn, the power of godliness did advance from one place to another, which put a marvellous lustre on those parts of the country, the savour whereof brought many from other parts of the land to see its truth." We may be permitted to devote a few pages to the history of a man thus recommended by his great public usefulness, his talents, and virtues.

The subject of our narrative was a native of Glasgow, in which city his father, John Dick, or Dickson, was a merchant. The latter was possessed of considerable wealth, and the proprietor of the lands of the Kirk of the Muir, in the parish of St Ninian’s, and barony of Fintry. He and his wife, both persons of eminent piety, had been several years married without children, when they entered into a solemn vow, that, if the Lord would give them a son, they would devote him to the service of his church. A day was appointed, and their Christian townsmen were requested to join with them in fasting and prayer. Without further detail of this story, we shall merely say, that Mr David Dickson, their son, was born in the Tron street (or Trongate) of Glasgow, in 1583; but the vow was so far forgot, that he was educated for mercantile pursuits, in which he was eminently unsuccessful, and the cause of much pecuniary loss to his parents. This circumstance, added to a severe illness of their son, led his parents to remember their vow; Mr Dickson was then "put to his studyes, and what eminent service he did in his generation is knowen." [Wodrow’s Analecta, MS Advocates’ Library, I. 128. Wodrow’s Live of Dickson, prefixed in Truth’s victory over Error, p. x.]

Soon after taking the degree of master of arts, Mr Dickson was appointed one of the regents or professors of philosophy in the university of Glasgow; a situation held at that period in all the Scottish colleges by young men, who had just finished their academical career, and were destined for the church. "The course of study which it was their duty to conduct, was calculated to form habits of severe application in early life, and to give them great facility both in writing and in speaking. The universities had the advantage of their services during the vigour of life; when they were unencumbered by domestic cares, and when they felt how much their reputation and interest depended on the exertions which they made. After serving a few years, (seldom more than eight, or less than four,) they generally obtained appointments in the church, and thus transferred to another field the intellectual industry and aptitude for communicating knowledge by which they had distinguished themselves in the university. It may well be conceived, that by stimulating and exemplifying diligence, their influence on their brethren in the ministry was not less considerable than on the parishioners, who more directly enjoyed the benefit of attainments and experience, more mature than can be expected from such as have never had access to similar means of improvement." [Report of the royal commission for visiting the Scottish universities, 1831, p. 221. Another practice at this period was, that the regents, when they took the oath of office, should engage to vacate their charge in the event of marrying. Mr James Dalrymple (afterwards the viscount of Stair) having married while a regent at Glasgow in 1643, demitted, but was reappointed. – Ibid.] But we must return from a digression, which seemed necessary in order to explain a system which is no longer pursued.

Mr Dickson remained several years at Glasgow, and was eminently useful in teaching the different branches of literature and science, and in directing the minds of his students to the end to which all such attainments should lead them—time cultivation of true piety. But in accordance with the custom already noticed, he was now removed to a more honourable, though certainly more hazardous calling. In the year 1618, he was ordained minister of Irvine. At this period, it would appear he had paid but little attention to the subject of church government; a circumstance, the more remarkable, when we consider the keen discussions between the presbyterians and episcopalians on such questions. But the year in which he had entered on his ministry, was too eventful to be overlooked. The general assembly had agreed to the five ceremonies now known as the Perth articles, and a close examination convinced Mr Dickson that they were unscriptural. Soon afterwards, when a severe illness brought him near death, he openly declared against them; and, no sooner had Law, the archbishop of Glasgow, heard of it, than he was summoned before the court of high commission. He accordingly appeared, but declined the jurisdiction of the court, on account of which, sentence of deprivation and confinement to Turriff was passed upon him. His friends prevailed upon the archbishop to restore him, on condition that he would withdraw his declinature; a condition with which he would not comply. Soon after, Law yielded so far as to allow him to return to his parish, if he would come to his castle, and withdraw the paper from the hall-table without seeing him; terms which Mr Dickson spurned, as being "but juggling in such a weighty matter." At length, he was permitted in July, 1623, to return unconditionally. [Wodrow’s memoir of Dickson, p. 12, 13. Livingston’s Characteristics, edit. 1773. p. 81.]

After noticing the deep impression Mr Dickson made upon the minds of his hearers, Mr Wodrow gives us the following account of his ministerial labours at Irvine:"Mr Dickson had his week-day sermon upon the Mondays, the market days 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 these who were cast down; in all which 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 he had in his house at Irvine, there would have been, as I am informed by old christians, several scores of serious christians waiting for him when he came from the church. Those, with the people round the town, who came in to the market at Irvine, made the church as throng, if not thronger, on the Mondays, as on the Lord’s day, by these week-day sermons. The famous Stewarton Sickness was begun about the year 1630; and spread from house to house for many miles in the strath where Stewarton water runs on both sides of it. Satan endeavoured to bring a reproach upon the serious persons who were at this time under the convincing work of the Spirit, by running some, seemingly under serious concern, to excesses, 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, as Satan’s design was much disappointed, and solid, serious, practical religion flourished mightily in the west of Scotland about this time, even under the hardships of prelacy."

About the year 1630, some of the Scottish clergymen settled among their countrymen, who had emigrated to the north of Ireland. While they were permitted to preach, they had been highly useful; but the Irish prelates did not long allow them to remain unmolested: they felt the progress of their opinions, and with a zeal, which, in attempting to promote, often defeats its own cause, determined to silence, or oblige the presbyterians to conform. In 1637, Robert Blair and John Livingston, against whom warrants had been issued, after secreting themselves near the coast, came over to Scotland. They were received by Mr Dickson at Irvine, and were employed occasionally in preaching for him. He had been warned that this would be seized upon by the bishops as a pretext for deposing him, but he would not deviate from what he considered his duty. He was, therefore, again called before the high commission court; but we are only told, that "he soon got rid of this trouble, the bishops’ power being now on the decline."

In the summer of the same year, several ministers were charged to buy and receive the Service Book; a measure which produced the most important consequences. Mr John Livingston, in his autobiography, has truly said that the subsequent changes in the church took their rise from two petitions presented upon this occasion. Many others followed, and their prayer being refused, increased the number and demands of the petitioners; they required the abolition of the high commission, and exemption from the Perth articles. These were still refused, and their number was now so great as to form a large majority of the ministers and people. The presbytery of Irvine joined in the petition, at the instigation of Mr Dickson, and throughout the whole of the proceedings which followed upon it, we shall find him taking an active, but moderate part.

When the general assembly of 1638 was convoked, David Dickson, Robert Baillie, and William Russell, minister at Kilbirnie, were appointed to represent the presbytery at Irvine, and "to propone, reason, vote, and conclude according to the word of God, and confession approved by sundry general assemblies." Mr Dickson and a few others were objected to by the king’s party, as being under the censure of the high commission, but they proved the injustice of the proceedings against them, and were therefore admitted members. He seems to have borne a zealous and useful part in this great ecclesiastical council: his speech, when the commissioner threatened to leave them, is mentioned by Wodrow with much approbation; but the historian has not inserted it in his memoir, as it was too long, and yet too important and nervous to be abridged. A discourse upon Arminianism, delivered at their eleventh session, is also noticed, of which, principal Baillie says, that he "refuted all those errors in a new way of his own, as some years ago he had conceived it in a number of Sermons on the new Covenant. Mr David’s discourse was much as all his things, extempore; so he could give no double of it, and his labour went away with his speech." [Baillie’s printed Letters and Journals, i. 125.] An effort was made at this period by John Bell, one of the ministers of Glasgow, to obtain Mr Dickson for an assistant, but the opposition of lord Eglinton and that of Mr Baillie in behalf of the presbytery of Irvine, were sufficient to delay, though not to prevent, the appointment.

In the short campaign of 1639, a regiment of 1200 men, of which the earl of Loudon was appointed coroner (or colonel), and Mr Dickson, chaplain, was raised in Ayrshire. The unsatisfactory pacification at Berwick, however, required that the Scots should disband their army, and leave the adjustment of civil and ecclesiastical differences to a parliament and assembly. Of the latter court, Mr Dickson was, by a large majority, chosen moderator; a situation which he filled with great judgment and moderation. In the tenth session, a call was presented to him from the town of Glasgow, but the vigorous interference of lord Eglinton, and of his own parishioners, contributed still to delay his removal. His speech at the conclusion of the assembly, as given by Stevenson, displays much mildness, and forms a striking contrast to the deep laid plan formed by the king’s party, to deceive and ensnare the Scottish clergy.

Soon afterwards (1640), Mr Dickson received an appointment of a much more public and important nature than any he had yet held. A commission for visiting the university of Glasgow had been appointed by the assembly of 1638, to the members of which, the principal had made himself obnoxious, by a strong leaning towards episcopacy. It was renewed in subsequent years, and introduced several important changes. Among these was the institution of a separate professorship of divinity, to which, a competent lodging and a salary of 800 Scots was attached. This situation had been long destined for Mr Dickson, and when he entered upon the duties of it, he did not disappoint the expectations of the nation. Not only did he interpret the scriptures, teach casuistical divinity, and hear the discourses of his students, but Wodrow informs us, that he preached every Sunday forenoon in the high church.

We find Mr Dickson taking an active part in the assembly of 1643. Some complaints had been made of the continuance of episcopal ceremonies, such as, repeating the doxology, and kneeling, and Alexander Henderson the moderator, David Calderwood, and Mr Dickson, were appointed to prepare the draught of a directory for public worship. It had, we are informed, the effect of quieting the spirits of the discontented. This is the only public transaction in which we find him employed while he remained at Glasgow.

The remaining events in Mr Dickson’s life may be soon enumerated. In 1650, he was appointed professor of divinity in the university of Edinburgh, where he dictated in Latin to his students, what has since been published in English, under the title of "Truth’s victory over Error." Mr Wodrow mentions, that the greater part of the ministers in the west, south, and east of Scotland, had been educated under him, either at Glasgow or Edinburgh. There Mr Dickson continued till the Restoration, when he was ejected for refusing to take the oath of supremacy. The great change which took place so rapidly in the ecclesiastical establishment of the country, preyed upon him, and undermined his constitution.

His last illness is thus noticed by Wodrow. "In Decemuber, 1662, he felt extremely weak. Mr John Livingston, now suffering for the same cause with him, and under a sentence of banishment for refusing the foresaid oath, came to visit Mr Dickson on his death-bed. They had been intimate friends near fifty years, and now rejoiced together, as fellow confessors. When Mr Livingston asked the professor how he found himself, his answer was, ‘I have taken all my good deeds and all my bad deeds, and cast them through each other in a heap before the Lord, and fled from both, and betaken myself to the Lord Jesus Christ, and in him I have sweet peace.’ Mr Dickson’s youngest son gave my informer, a worthy minister yet alive, this account of his father’s death. Having been very weak and low for some days, he called all his family together, and spoke in particular to each of them, and when he had gone through them all, he pronounced the words of apostolical blessing, 2 Cor. xiii. 14, with much gravity and solemnity, and then put up his hand, and closed his own eyes, and without any struggle or apparent pain immediately expired in the arms of his son, my brother’s informer, [Wodrow’s Memoir of Dickson, p. xiii.] in the year 1663." This period has been noticed by some of our historians as particularly calamitous. In the course of a few years, when the church most required their support, the deaths of Dickson, Durham, Baillie, Ramsay, Rutherford, and many others are recorded. [Law’s Memorialls, p. 13.]

Of Mr. Dickson’s works the indefatigable Wodrow has given a minute account. By these he is best known, and it is perhaps the best eulogium that could be pronounced upon them, that they have stood the test of nearly two hundred years, and are still highly valued.

His Commentaries on the Psalms, on the Gospel of St Matthew, on the Epistles, and on that to the Hebrews, which was printed separately, were the results of a plan formed among some of the most eminent ministers of the Scottish church of publishing "short, plain, and practical expositions of the whole Bible." To the same source we are indebted for some of the works of Durham, Ferguson, Hutchison, &c., but the plan was never fully carried into effect, and several of the expositions in Wodrow’s time still remained in manuscript. Mr Dickson’s Treatise on the Promises, published at Dublin in 1630, 12mo, is the only other work printed during his life, with the exception of some ephemeral productions, arising out of the controversy with the doctors of Aberdeen, and the disputes between the resolutioners and protesters. A few poems on religious subjects are mentioned by Wodrow, but they are long since quite forgotten.

Mr Dickson’s "Therapeutica Sacra, or cases of conscience resolved," has been printed both in Latin and English. On the 25th of July, 1661, he applied to the privy council for liberty to publish the English version, and Fairfoul, afterwards archbishop of Glasgow, was appointed to examine and report upon it. "Now, indeed," says Wodrow, sarcastically, "the world was changed in Scotland, when Mr Fairfoul is pitched upon to revise Mr David Dickson, professor of divinity, his books." What was the result of this application is not known; it is only certain that no farther progress was made in the attainment of this object till 1663, after the author’s death. On the 23d of March that year, his son, Mr Alexander Dickson, professor of Hebrew at the university of Edinburgh, again applied to the lords of the council, who in October granted license to print it without restriction. [History of the suff. of the church of Scotland, ed. 1828.] It was accordingly published in 1664.

The last work which we have to notice is "Truth’s victory over Error," which was translated by the eccentric George Sinclair, and published as his own in 1684. What his object in doing so was, Wodrow does not determine, but only remarks that if (and we think there is no doubt in the matter) it was "with the poor view of a little glory to himself, it happened to him as it generally does to self-seeking and private spirited persons even in this present state." In accordance with the prevailing custom of the times, many of Mr Dickson’s students had copied his Dictates, and Sinclair’s trick was soon and easily detected. One of them inserted in the running title the lines,

"No errors in this book I see,
But G.S. where D.D. should be."

The first edition, with the author’s name, was printed at Glasgow, in 1725, and has prefixed to it a memoir of the author, by Wodrow, to which we have already alluded, and to which we are indebted for many of the facts mentioned in this article. [Wodrow, in his Analecta, MS. Advocates’ Library, sets down the following characteristic anecdote of Mr Dickson: "I heard that when Mr David Dickson came in to see the lady Eglintoune, who at the time had with her the lady Wigon, Culross, &c., and they all caressed him very much, he said, ‘Ladies, if all this kindness be to me as Mr David Dickson, I cun (render) you noe thanks, but if it be to me as a servant of my master, and for his sake, I take it all weel.’"]


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