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 the youth; 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 corrupt time, a little after the imposition of Episcopacy on the Church. Here, by a recommendation of the General Assembly not long after the Reformation, the regents were only to continue eight years in their position; after which, such as were found qualified were licensed, and, upon a call, after a trial, were admitted to the ministry: by which constitution, the Church came to be filled with ministers well qualified in all the branches of learning. Accordingly, David Dickson was, in 1618, ordained minister to the town of Irvine, where he worked for about twenty-three years.
That same year, the corrupt Assembly at Perth agreed to the five articles imposed upon the Church by James VI and the prelates. David Dickson at first had no great scruple against Episcopacy, as he had not studied those questions much, until 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 later he was brought close to death and eternity through illness, he spoke out severely against them. But when his opinion became known, James Law, archbishop of Glasgow, summoned him to appear before the High Commission Court, January 29, 1622. Dickson, at the beginning of his ministry at Irvine, had preached upon 2 Cor 5:11, ‘Knowing the terrors of the Lord, we persuade men;’ and when he realised that he was going to be away from the parish for a time, on the Sunday before his appearance at the Commission, he chose the next words of that verse, ‘But we are made manifest unto God.’ Extraordinary power and singular movings of the emotions accompanied that parting sermon. David Dickson appeared before the Commission, where, after the summons was read, and after some discussion 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 to it. He said that he was ready. The clerk, at the archbishop’s request, began to read it; but had scarcely read three lines, when the archbishop burst out 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 suitors 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 discussion between 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.”’
Dickson continued preaching until the twenty days had expired and then began his journey. The Earl of Eglinton persuaded the archbishop of Glasgow that he might come to Eglinton and preach there. However, people from all quarters came to hear him speak in Eglinton’s hall and courtyard, so he enjoyed that freedom for only two months; for the archbishop then sent him another charge, this time to Turriff.
While in Turriff he was daily employed to preach by the minister, Thomas Mitchell, but he found it more difficult to study or preach than in the past. Sometime after, his friends persuaded the archbishop of Glasgow to release him upon condition that he would take back his declinature; and for that purpose he wrote to Dickson to come to Glasgow. He came as requested; but though many wise and gracious people urged him to give in, he could not be persuaded. At last it was granted to him, that if he, or any friend he pleased, would go to the archbishop’s castle, and either remove the paper, or get one of his friend to take it off the hall table, without seeing the archbishop at all, he would be allowed to return to Irvine. However, he considered this idea to be unacceptable, so he decided to return to his confinement. Accordingly, he began his journey, and was hardly a mile out of town, when his soul was filled with such joy and approbation from God, in a way that he had seldom experienced before.
Sometime later, through the continued intercession 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 until the king challenged him. He therefore returned to his flock without any condition on his part, at the end of July 1623.
While at Irvine, Dickson’s ministry was singularly countenanced of God, and multitudes were convinced and converted. This was the time of a great revival, which may have begun as early as when he returned from exile, but most people say it started in 1625. Few who lived in his day were more successful in this work than he was; so that people, under exercise and soul-concern, came from every quarter around Irvine, and attended his sermons. The most eminent Christians, from all corners of the Church, came and joined with him at the Communion services, which were indeed times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord. Indeed 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. On Sunday evenings many people under soul-distress used to resort to his house after the sermon, when usually he spent an hour or two in answering their questions, and directing and comforting those who were despondent. 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 around the town, who came into the market, completely filled the church, on the Mondays, more 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 (This is not accurate, it was 1625 or before), 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 during the sermon and with their families. But the Lord enabled Dickson, and other ministers who dealt with them, to be extremely careful, so that Satan’s design was much disappointed; and solid, serious, practical religion flourished mightily in the west of Scotland at this time, when the Church was under the hardships of Episcopacy.
About the years 1630 and 1631, some gifted Scottish ministers, Messrs Livingstone, Blair (Blair went earlier), and others, went to minister among the Scots in the North of Ireland, where there was a revival about the Six-Mile Water. The Irish bishops, at the instigation of the Scots bishops, got them removed for a while. Around 1631 they were silenced, and came back to Scotland, where 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, so he soon got rid of that trouble.
Several other instances might be given concerning Dickson’s usefulness in answering perplexing cases of conscience, and in counselling students who were interested in going into the ministry. While he was at Irvine, the prudent directions, cautions, and encouragements given to them, were extremely useful and beneficial. Some examples might also be given of his usefulness to his very enemies. 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 happened the following year. In that great revolution, 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.
When Charles I was prevailed upon to allow a free General Assembly at Glasgow, November 1638, Dickson and Baillie, from the Presbytery of Irvine, played an important part regarding the issues that were considered before that grave Assembly. Dickson marked himself out, 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 made another most learned discourse against Arminianism.
By this time, not only the Lord’s eminent blessing of 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 to minister there; but, partly because of his own aversion and the vigorous appearance of Eglinton, and his loving people, and mostly for the remarkable usefulness of his ministry in that area, the General Assembly re-appointed him to 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 ministry; and yet, despite his workload, he preached in the morning of every Sunday, in the High Church there; where for some time he had the learned Patrick Gillespie for his colleague.