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‘He Showed Me All My Heart’: The Tender Ministry of David Dickson

Author
Category Book Excerpts
Date August 8, 2023

The following excerpt, which witnesses to the pastoral ministry of David Dickson (1583–1663), is taken from Samuel Rutherford and His Friends, by Faith Cook.

‘FROM Irvine, being on my journey to Christ’s Palace in Aberdeen, August 4th 1636.’ So runs the inscription on a letter written by Samuel Rutherford to Robert Cunningham, another servant of Christ called upon to suffer for the sake of the truth. The ecclesiastical court that had met in Edinburgh in July of that year had passed an order of banishment on Rutherford, stipulating that he should report in Aberdeen by August 20. So with some days to spare, he had first journeyed west to Irvine to spend time with his friend, David Dickson.

Since entering the ministry in 1618, David Dickson had preached at Irvine with the exception of a short period when he too had been banished to the north of Scotland for his refusal to compromise his principles over the Articles of Perth, ratified by law in 1621 and intended to re-introduce pre-Reformation forms into church worship. Here was a kindred spirit indeed and we can only guess at the warmth of fellowship those two men shared in the time allowed to them. Doubtless Dickson, who was seventeen years the senior, would have encouraged Rutherford with his own testimony of God’s goodness in time of trial and assured him that Christ would sweeten his sufferings with comforts of grace. Perhaps he told his friend of that day when God came to him and filled his soul with ‘such joy and approbation. . . that he scarcely ever had the like in all his life.’ [1] This was God’s answer of approval when Dickson had steadfastly withstood the pressure brought upon him even by Christian friends to swerve from his fearless stand over the Articles of Perth for which he had been exiled. Maybe they talked together of the glorious end of sorrow for the children of God and urged each other on in the sure anticipation of the ultimate triumph of the cause of Christ.

The letter that Rutherford wrote from Irvine takes pride of place as Letter 1 in M‘Ward’s first edition of Mr Rutherford’s Letters, setting the tone for the whole. It retains this position in most subsequent editions, including one as late as 1875, edited by Dr Thomas Smith. Its themes may well reflect the topics covered by Dickson and Rutherford as they spoke together. Certainly Rutherford was sometimes cast down as he faced the prospect of banishment: ‘I am a faint, deadhearted, cowardly man, oft borne down, and hungry in waiting for the marriage supper of the Lamb.’ But the hope of glory sustained his spirit: ‘When I look over beyond the line, and beyond death, to the laughing side of the world, I triumph, and ride upon the high places of Jacob.’ [2] Rutherford and Dickson were men of like mind. Dickson, born in 1583, was also an excellent scholar, preacher and pastor. Both had a poetic strain in their natures and Dickson had written several well-loved poems. ‘O mother dear, Jerusalem’ was the title of one of his best known. John Livingstone in his Memoirs includes delightful pen sketches of ‘ministers in the Church of Scotland eminent for grace and gifts, for faithfulness and success’ [3] and as David Dickson was a close friend of Livingstone’s, he recounts interesting details of Dickson’s life.

Livingstone tells us that Dickson ‘was a man singularly gifted with an edifying way of preaching’, [4] and able to follow up such preaching with a penetrating understanding of the human heart. Men and women in spiritual need and perplexity would travel from many miles around to seek counsel from the pastor of Irvine. Little wonder then that the English merchant who heard Rutherford and Blair preach at St Andrews about the year 1650 also comments that in Irvine he heard ‘a well-favoured proper old man with a long beard and that man showed me all my heart.’ [5]

A brazen act of literary piracy has secured for posterity a choice little account of the life and ministry of David Dickson. A man by the name of George Sinclair translated a Latin treatise of Dickson’s and published it under the title Truth’s Victory Over Error, with his own name affixed. Any kudos was short-lived because Robert Wodrow, whose own fame rests on his monumental work, The History of the Sufferings of the Church of Scotland published in 1722, promptly republished the treatise in 1684 with its rightful author’s name and added a biographical sketch. This sketch supplements much of our information about Dickson’s ministry at Irvine. His early years there had proved to be an era of God’s manifest power as revivals spread through all the west of Scotland. Stewarton, only eight miles from Irvine, witnessed moving scenes as God displayed His grace and many were convicted and converted. David Dickson would often travel across and with sensitivity and wisdom counsel the people, dealing tenderly with wounded consciences. Scarcely a week passed during these days but that some were effectively converted through the power of God.

From Wodrow’s sketch we learn interesting details of Dickson’s style of preaching—details that John Howie later incorporated into his chapter on Dickson in The Scots Worthies, first published in 1775. ‘I have some of Mr Dickson’s sermons at Irvine, taken from his mouth. They are full of solid substantial matter, very spiritual, and in a very familiar style, not low, but extremely strong, plain and affecting. It is somewhat akin to Mr Rutherford’s in his admirable Letters.’ [6] We are not surprised then that Rutherford and Dickson should have had so much in common. David Dickson is chiefly remembered today by his writings. A plan had been inaugurated amongst several ministers of that day to write short commentaries on many of the books of the Bible, aiming above all to help ordinary Christians to love and understand the Word of God. From a reference in one of Rutherford’s letters it is clear that Dickson’s work on the Epistle to the Hebrews, published in 1635, was already in demand. [7] His later contributions on the other epistles and on Matthew’s Gospel and the Psalms were also popular. These works are still read and valued even today, though more than three hundred years have elapsed since
they were first published. [8]

Rutherford planned to write a commentary on Hosea, but this he never achieved. His main contribution to the scheme, however, was a commentary on Isaiah. He gave himself to this work with unrelenting diligence during the last years of life, fearful lest he should die leaving the task unfinished. It was to be his literary magnum opus and Robert M‘Ward tells us ‘His heart travailed more in the birth of this piece than ever I knew him of any.’ He was willing to have ‘his heaven suspended for a season’, [9] M’Ward adds, if only he might finish the work. This was the manuscript that was lost when many of Rutherford’s papers were confiscated and taken to London at the Restoration.

So it was that, after a few days with David Dickson, Rutherford continued on his way to Aberdeen. Four letters found their way to the manse at Irvine from his period of lonely exile. Heart speaks to heart and these letters demonstrate the depths of friendship and trust that the two men shared. Rutherford is able to confide his sorrows: ‘I am often laid in the dust with challenges and apprehensions of His anger and then, if a mountain of iron were laid upon me, I cannot be heavier.’ But sweeter far were the revelations of Christ’s love that he was favoured to experience: ‘My life is joy; and such joy through His comforts, as I have been afraid lest I should shame myself and cry out, for I can scarce bear what I get. Had I known what He was keeping for me, I should never have been so faint-hearted.’ [10]

It was wrong to seek to live on experiences and Rutherford acknowledges this to Dickson: ‘I would fain learn not to idolize comfort, sense, joy, and sweet felt presence. . . the Bridegroom Himself is better than all the ornaments that are about Him.’ [11] And it is also to Dickson that Rutherford confides that some of his highest experiences of Christ’s conscious presence were only fleeting in nature: ‘Sometimes, while I have Christ in my arms, I fall asleep in the sweetness of His presence, and He, in my sleep, stealeth away out of my arms; and when I awake, I miss Him.’ [12] Sorrows overwhelmed Rutherford at times. Wistfully he thought of the joys of worship in Anwoth and could even envy the ‘sparrows and swallows that build their nests in the Kirk of Anwoth, blessed birds.’ [13] But he turns his sad thoughts to good purpose in a stimulating letter to David Dickson: ‘I pray God that ye never have the woeful and dreary experience of a closed mouth; for then ye shall judge the sparrows that may sing on the church of Irvine, blessed birds. O man of God, go on, go on. . . I dare write, that Christ will be glorified in David Dickson, howbeit Scotland be not gathered.’ [14]

Without doubt God had further purposes for Dickson, for he played a strategic role in the events leading up to the historic signing of the National Covenant. During the remainder of that unforgettable year Dickson’s wisdom and learning were used under God’s hand and most particularly at the crucial General Assembly that was held in Glasgow in November 1638. In August 1639 he was chosen almost unanimously as the Moderator of the next General Assembly to be held in Edinburgh, so demonstrating the esteem in which he was held. In 1648 there came from his pen a work entitled Therapeutica Sacra or Cases of Conscience Resolved. In this way he passed on to posterity the gathered fruits of his years of pastoral counselling. This book was considered by his contemporaries to be his most important. Happily, the same wisdom and understanding of the human heart shines through in his commentaries and so is not lost to us today.

In David Dickson’s family circumstances he experienced much trial, as a number of his children died in the early years of life. A last letter from Rutherford to Dickson, written in 1640, has survived the centuries and is an example of the great letter-writer’s ability to console the bereaved. One secret of his effectiveness lay in a sensitivity of spirit that felt the griefs of others as if they had been his own. On hearing of his friend’s bereavement, Rutherford is said to have called for pen and ink declaring: ‘When one arm is broken off and bleeds, it makes the other bleed with it.’ [15] Only a meek acquiescence in the sovereign will of God can calm the heart, Rutherford maintained in this letter to David Dickson. This sorrow was ‘lustred with mercy’, he assures his friend, and his affection shines out clearly in the final exhortation:

‘Dearest brother, go on, and faint not. Something of yours is in heaven, beside the flesh of your exalted Saviour; and ye go on after your own.’ [16]

‘I am made of extremes’, [17] Rutherford once confessed to Dickson and this was demonstrated most painfully in the experience of these two men during the 1650s. As already noted, they were found on opposing sides of the controversy between the Resolutioners and the Protesters that rent the Scottish Church throughout that decade. Dickson, who was by then Professor of Divinity at Edinburgh University, espoused the Resolutionist position and his influence can be traced behind many of the pamphlets that poured off the presses urging its case. Rutherford, on the other hand, supported the Protesters’ cause but he was sadly guilty of bitter invective in propagating his views. Dr A. B. Grosart speaks of Rutherford’s attitudes in grieved astonishment, maintaining that they demonstrate ‘such assumption of personal infallibility. . . such unmeasured vituperation. . . and such suspicion of all who differed from him as is alike wonderful and sorrowful.’ [18]

It would seem that the Resolutioners’ views were coloured by the critical need for the unity of the nation in an hour of crisis. However, without any doubt the Protesters stood firm on the principles that lay at the heart of the National Covenant, and even Dickson is said to have admitted this on his death-bed in 1662. ‘I must confess, madam,’ he said to a lady who came to visit him, ‘that the Protesters have been much truer prophets than we were.’ [19] Samuel Rutherford, though many years younger, ended his pilgrimage before his friend. After a long and useful life, David Dickson was also to experience something of the malicious treachery of Charles II, who dismissed him from his position as Professor of Divinity in Edinburgh. But Dickson had his eyes set on an eternal kingdom and was able to say to John Livingstone, a fellow-sufferer for Christ’s sake, just days before he died: ‘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 have betaken me to Jesus Christ and in Him I have full and sweet peace.’ [20]

 

Footnotes:

1 ‘Memorable Characteristics’, in Scottish Puritans: Select Biographies (Wodrow Society, 1845, repr. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2008), vol. 1, p. 318.

2 Letters of Samuel Rutherford [henceforth LSR] 63, p. 142.

3 ‘Memorable Characteristics’, in Scottish Puritans, p. 295.

4 ‘Memorable Characteristics’, p. 316.

5 Wodrow’s MSS, Advocate’s Library, Edinburgh. Quoted by Thomas McCrie, The Story of the Scottish Church (Free Presbyterian Publications, 1988), p. 242.

6 Robert Wodrow, ‘Life of David Dickson’, in Scottish Puritans (Wodrow Society, 1847, repr. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2008), vol. 2, p. 9.

7 LSR 110, p. 226.

8 Republished by The Banner of Truth Trust, 1959, 1978, 1981.

9 A. Bonar, Introduction to LSR, p. 19.

10 LSR 119, p. 241.

11 LSR 168, p. 316.

12 LSR 259, p. 508.

13 LSR 167, p. 314.

14 LSR 168, pp. 315-6.

15 Bonar’s Introduction to LSR 298, p. 602.

16 LSR 298, p. 602.

17 LSR 168, p. 315

18 A. B. Grosart, Representative Non-Conformists (1879), p. 202.

 

Illustration: ‘People Repairing to David Dickson’s Lecture’, from Witnesses for the Truth in the Church of Scotland (Edinburgh: 1843).

 

 

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