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 Trochridge, the worthy Mr. Blair, and other pious members of that society, his pains were singularly blessed in reviving decayed 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 seen in all the branches of useful learning. Accordingly Mr. 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 the king and the prelates. Mr. Dickson at first had no great scruple against episcopacy, as he had not studied those questions much, till the articles were imposed by this meeting, and then he closely examined them; and 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 views of death and eternity, he gave open testimony of the sinfulness of them.
But when this came to take air, Mr. James Law, arch-bishop of Glasgow, summoned him to appear before the high-commission court Jan.29, 1622. Mr. Dickson, at his entrance to the ministry at Irvine, preached upon 2 Cor. v.11. The first part, 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 text, but we are made manifest unto God: extraordinary power and singular movings of the affections accompanied that parting sermon.
Mr. Dickson appeared before the commission, where after the summons being read, and some other 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. Spotswood, arch bishop of St. Andrews, asked if he would subscribe it. He professed himself ready. The clerk, at the bishop's desire, began to read it, but had scarce read three lines, till the bishop 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, &c. 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, &c. grant me the benefit of the law, and of a subject, and I crave no more." But the bishop 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 his authority that we have, to as many sutors and taylors in Edinburgh, to sit and see whether ye be doing your duty or not? Mr. David said, My declinature answers 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, a 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 Mr. 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, you 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 the sentence in these words, "We deprive you of your ministry at Irvine, and ordain you to enter in Turref 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 with 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. But the earl of Eglinton prevailed with the bishop 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 but two months; for the bishop sent him another charge, and he went to the place of his confinement.
While in Turref, he was daily employed to preach, by Mr. Thomas Mitchel minister there. But he found far greater difficulty both in studying and preaching there, than formerly. Some time after, his friends prevailed with the bishop 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, and 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 bishop's castle, and either lift the paper, or suffer his friend to take it off the hall-table, without seeing the bishop 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 scarce a mile out of town, till his soul was filled with such joy and approbation from God, that he seldom had the like.
But some time after, by the continual intercession of the earl of Eglinton and the town of Irvine with the bishop, the earl got a licence 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, Mr. Dickson's ministry was singularly countenanced of God, and multitudes were convinced and converted, and 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; and the most eminent christians, from all corners of the church, came and joined with him at the communion, which were then 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 the drop of 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. Here he commonly had his week-days 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 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, 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, as on the Lord's day. By these week-day sermons, the famous Stuarton sickness (as it was called) was begun about the year 1630, and spread from house to house for many miles in the valley, where Stuarton 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 Scots ministers, Messrs. Livingston, 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. But 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 1637, Mr. Dickson employed Messrs. Blair, Livingston 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, both as to his usefulness in answering perplexing cases of conscience, and to students who had their eye to the ministry. While he was at Irvine, his prudent directions, cautions and encouragements given them were extremely useful and beneficial, as also some examples might be given of his usefulness to his very enemies; but there is little room here to insist on these things.
It was Mr. 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 supplications, from different quarters, met at the council-house-door, to their mutual surprize and encouragement; which were the small beginnings of that happy turn of affairs, that next year ensued: In which 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 covenant; this brought him to bear a great part in the debates with the learned doctors Forbes, Barrow, Sibbald, &c. at Aberdeen; which, being in print, needs no further notice at present.
And when the king was prevailed with to allow a free general assembly at Glasgow, Nov.1638, Mr. Dickson and Mr. Bailey, from the presbytery, made no small figure there in all the important matters before that grave assembly. Here Mr. Dickson signalized himself in a most seasonable and prudent speech he had, when his majesty's commissioner threatened to leave the assembly; as also in the 11th session Dec.5th, he had another most learned discourse against Arminianism.
By this time the Lord's eminent countenancing of Mr. Dickson's ministry at Irvine, not only 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 of Glasgow, so that he was almost unanimously chosen moderator to the next general assembly at Edinburgh in Aug.1639, in the 10th session whereof 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 transported to be professor 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.
Anno 1643, the church laid a very great work upon him, together with Mr. Calderwood and Mr. Henderson to form a draught of a directory for a 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 the professor to the presbytery and magistrates of Glasgow. A very strict friendship subsisted between those two great lights of the church, and, among other effects of their religious conversation, we have the sum of saving knowledge, which hath been so often 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, by Messrs. Dickson and Durham, dictated to a reverend minister about the year 1650, and though never judicially approven by this church, yet it deserves to be much more read and practised than what it at present is.
About this time he was transported from the profession of divinity at Glasgow, to the same work at Edinburgh. At which time he published his prelectiones in confessionem fidei (now published in English), which he dictated in latin to his scholars. There he continued his laborious care of students in divinity, the growing hopes of a 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; and from the forementioned 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 protestors, he was in his opinions for the public resolutioners: and most of the papers on that side were wrote by him, Mr. Bailey and Mr. Douglas; as those on the other side were wrote by Mr. James Guthrie, Mr. Patrick Gillespie, and a few others.
Mr. Dickson continued at Edinburgh, discharging his trust with great diligence and faithfulness, until the melancholy turn by 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 had married Margaret Robertson daughter to Archibald Robertson of Stone-hall, a younger brother of the house of Ernock, in the shire of Lanerk; 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 afterward in the parish of Irvine.
On December 1662, he fell extremely sick, at which time worthy Mr. Livingston, 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 near forty years, and now rejoiced as fellow-confessors together. When Mr. Livingston 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, 1 Cor. xiii.13, 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 his son's arms, and with Jacob of old, was gathered to his people in a good old age, being now 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 a-kin to the style of godly Mr. Rutherford; and it is said, That scarce any minister of that time came so near Mr. Dickson's style or method of preaching, as the reverend Mr. William Guthrie, minister at Finwick, who equalled, if not exceeded him.
His works are, a commentary on the epistle to the Hebrews in 8vo; on Matthew's gospel in 4to; on the psalms of David in 8vo; on the epistles, Latin and English, in 4to; and his prelectiones in confessionem fidei, or truth's victory over error, &c. in folio; his therapeutica sacra, or cases of conscience resolved, in Latin 4to, in English 8vo; a treatise of the promises 12mo printed at Dublin in 1630. And beside these he wrote a great part of the answers to the demands, and duplies to the replies of the doctors of Aberdeen in 4to; and some of the pamphlets in defence of the public resolutioners, as has been already observed; and 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 tyronis concionaturi, supposed to be dictated to his scholars at Glasgow; summarium libri Jesaiae: 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. i.5. and his precepts for a daily direction of a Christian, &c. by way of catechism, for his congregation at Irvine; with a compend of his sermons upon Jeremiah and the Lamentations, and the first nine chapters to the Romans.