David Dickson

David Dickson (1583-1662)

Revivalist, Minister, Teacher

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 the owner 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 forgotten, until a bad sickness on their son brought them to remember their promise; so David 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 as a professor of philosophy in that college, where he was very useful in training the youth.Along 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 that time, such as were found qualified were licensed and, admitted to the ministry. By this 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. The more closely he looked into them, the more aversion he found to them. Sometime later, when 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 on January 29, 1622. Dickson, at the beginning of his ministry at Irvine, had preached upon 2Cor5:11, ‘Knowing the terrors of the Lord, we persuade men.’ 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 emotions accompanied that parting sermon.

David Dickson appeared before the Commission, where, after the summons was read and some discussion among the bishops, he gave in his declinature; upon which. Some of the bishops, whispering in his ear as if they favoured him by 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. 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 Dickson might come to Eglinton and preach there. However, people from all quarters came to hear him speak in Eglinton’s hall and court-yard, 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 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, considering this idea to be unacceptable, he decided to return to his confinement. Accordingly, beginning his journey and hardly a mile out of town, his soul 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, with multitudes 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 to attend 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. At that time he usually spent an hour or two 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 round the town who came into the market, completely filled the church on 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. Around 1631 the Irish bishops, at the instigation of the Scottish bishops, had them removed for a while, and they returned to Scotland, where Dickson employed Messrs Blair, Livingstone, and Cunningham at his communion. He was called before the High Commission; but the prelates’ power was on the decline, so he was soon free from that problem.

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. These were the small beginnings of the happy turn of affairs that occurred the following year. In that great revolution Dickson had no small share. He was sent by the Covenanters to Aberdeen, with Messrs Henderson and Cant, 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.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. As a result he was almost unanimously chosen moderator to the next General Assembly at Edinburgh in August 1639. The city of Glasgow presented a call to him to minister there. Partly because of his own aversion, the vigorous appearance of Eglinton, his loving people, but 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. 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.

In the year 1643 the Church gave him an important job, together with Calderwood and Henderson, to form a draft of a directory for public worship, as appears by an Act of the General Assembly.

When the plague was raging in Glasgow in 1647, the masters and students, upon Dickson’s suggestion, moved to Irvine. There it was that the learned Durham passed his trials and was earnestly recommended by David Dickson to the Presbytery and Magistrates of Glasgow. A very strict friendship existed between these two great lights of the Church; and among other examples of their religious conversation, we have ‘The Sum of Saving Knowledge,’ which has been printed with the Confession of Faith and Catechisms. This, after several conversations on the subject, and the manner of handling it, was dictated by Dickson and Durham to a reverend minister about the year 1650; and though never judicially approved by the Church, yet it deserves to be much more read and practised than what it is at present.

About this time he was transferred from being professor of divinity at Glasgow to the same position at Edinburgh; at which time he published his “Lectures on the Confession of Faith”, which he dictated in Latin to his scholars. There he continued his caring for the students of divinity, the growing hopes of the Church. Taking Glasgow and Edinburgh together, most of the Presbyterian ministers, at least in the west, south, and east parts of Scotland, from 1640 were under his care. He educated them in the form of sound words and grounded them in the excellent standards of doctrine agreed to by the once famous Church of Scotland. Happy would their successors have been had they preserved and handed down to posterity the scriptural doctrines, pure and entire, as they were delivered by our first reformers to Dickson and his contemporaries.

All this time, viz, in 1650 and 1651, Dickson had a great share in the printed pamphlets upon the unhappy debates between the Resolutioners (who wanted Charles II as king whatever the cost) and the Protesters (who only wanted him if he subscribed to the Covenant). He was in favour of the 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 Lanarkshire. 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 Livingstone, now suffering for the same cause, though he had only 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, he said, ‘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 (2Cor13:13,14) 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 hardly any minister of that time came so near 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. 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 MrGillespie and Mr James Guthrie; his Non-separation from the Well-affected in the army; as also, some sermons at Irvine, upon 1Tim1:5; 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, which, in turn, is virtually a copy of a work by Rev Robert Wodrow published in 1684. I have changed a number of words to make it a little more up to date.