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DICKSON, WILLIAM STEEL, D.D. (1744–1824), United Irishman, eldest son of John Dickson, tenant farmer of Ballycraigy, parish of Carnmoney, co. Antrim, was born on 25 Dec. 1744, and baptised on 30 Dec. by the name of William. Jane Steel was his mother's maiden name, and on the death (13 May 1747) of his uncle, William Steel, family usage gave the addition to Dickson's name (improperly spelled Steele). In his boyhood Dickson went through the ‘almost useless routine of Irish country schools,’ but was grounded in scholarship and ‘taught to think’ by Robert White, presbyterian minister of Templepatrick. He entered Glasgow College in November 1761, and owns his great obligations to Moorhead, professor of Latin, Adam Smith, John Millar, professor of law, and Principal Leechman. From Leechman he derived his theological, and from Millar his political principles. On leaving college he seems to have been employed for a time in teaching; his adoption of the ministry as a profession was due to the advice of White. In March 1767 he was licensed, but got no call till 1771, in which year he was ordained to the charge of Ballyhalbert (now Glastry), co. Down, by Killeleagh presbytery, on 6 March. His social qualities had ingratiated him during his probationary years with several of the leading county families, and it was probably to the influence of Alexander Stewart, father of the first Lord Londonderry, that he owed his settlement at Ballyhalbert. Till the outbreak of the American war of independence he occupied himself mainly in parochial and domestic duties, having become ‘an husband and a farmer.’ A sermon against cock-fighting (circulated in manuscript) had an appreciable effect in checking that pastime in his neighbourhood. His political career began in 1776, when he spoke and preached against the ‘unnatural, impolitic and unprincipled’ war with the American colonies, denouncing it as a ‘mad crusade.’ On two government fast-days his sermons—on ‘the advantages of national repentance’ (13 Dec. 1776), and on ‘the ruinous effects of civil war’ (27 Feb. 1778)—created considerable excitement when published, and Dickson was reproached as a traitor. Political differences were probably at the root of a secession from his congregation in 1777. The seceders formed a new congregation at Kirkcubbin, in defiance of the authority of the general synod.

Dickson entered with zest into the volunteer movement of 1778, being warmly in favour of the admission of Roman catholics to the ranks. This was resisted ‘through the greater part of Ulster, if not the whole.’ In a sermon to the Echlinville volunteers (28 March 1779) Dickson advocated the enrolment of catholics, and though induced to modify his language in printing the discourse, he offended ‘all the protestant and presbyterian bigots in the country.’ He was accused of being a papist at heart, ‘for the very substantial reason, among others, that the maiden name of the parish priest's mother was Dickson.’

On 1 Feb. 1780 Dickson resigned the charge of Ballyhalbert, having a call to the neighbouring congregation of Portaferry in succession to James Armstrong (1710–1779), whose funeral sermon he had preached. He was installed at Portaferry in March, on a stipend of 100l., supplemented by some 9l. (afterwards increased to 30l.) from the regium donum. He realised another 100l. a year by keeping a boarding-school, and was not without private means. On 27 June 1780 he was elected moderator of the general synod of Ulster at Dungannon, co. Tyrone. Though the contrary has been stated, Dickson was not a member of the volunteer conventions at Dungannon in 1782 and 1783. He threw himself heart and soul into the famous election for county Down in August 1783, when the houses of Hill and Stewart, representing the court and country parties, first came into collision. Dickson, with his forty mounted freeholders, failed to secure the re-election of Robert Stewart, who eventually took refuge ‘under the shade of a peerage.’ But in 1790 he successfully exerted himself for the return of Stewart's son (also Robert), better known as Lord Castlereagh. Castlereagh proved his gratitude by referring at a later date to Dickson's popularity in 1790, as proof that he was ‘a very dangerous person to leave at liberty.’ In 1788 Dickson was a candidate for the agency of the regium donum, but the post was conferred on Robert Black [q. v.]

As early as December 1791, Dickson, who was now a D.D. of Glasgow, took the test as a member of the first society of United Irishmen, organised in October at Belfast by Theobald Wolfe Tone. He labours to prove that he attended no further meetings of this body, devoting himself to spreading its principles among the volunteer associations, in opposition to the ‘demi-patriotic’ views of the whig clubs. At a great volunteer meeting in Belfast on 14 July 1792 he opposed a resolution for the gradual removal of catholic disabilities, and assisted in obtaining a unanimous pledge in favour of total and immediate emancipation. Parish and county meetings were held throughout Ulster, culminating in a provincial convention at Dungannon on 15 Feb. 1793. Dickson had been a leading spirit at many of the preliminary meetings, and, as a delegate from the barony of Ards, he had a chief hand in the preparation of the Dungannon resolutions. Their avowed object was to strengthen the throne and give vitality to the constitution by ‘a complete and radical reform.’ Dickson was nominated on a committee of thirty to summon a national convention. Before he left Dungannon he was called upon for a sermon to the times, and had an immense audience, the established and catholic clergy being present. The Irish parliament went no further in the direction of emancipation than the Relief Act (33 Geo. III, c. 21), which received the royal assent on 9 April, and remained unextended till 1829; while the passing of Lord Clare's Convention Act (33 Geo. III, c. 29), still in force, made illegal all future assemblies of delegates ‘purporting to represent the people, or any description of the people.’

The Convention Act put an end to the existence of the volunteers as a political party; those who were disinclined to accept the situation became more and more identified with the illegal operations of the United Irishmen. Dickson got up political meetings and preached political sermons, which were considered ‘fraught with phlogistick principles’ (Musgrave). He maintains that he exerted himself to prevent outbreak, and that ‘reform alone was sought for.’ In October 1796 several members of his congregation were arrested, and a reward of 1,000l. was offered to one Carr, a weaver, for evidence which would secure Dickson's conviction The suspects were liberated without trial at the summer assize in Downpatrick, 1797; and Dickson, though a watch was kept on his movements, would have been safe but for his own folly. In March and April 1798 he was in Scotland arranging family affairs. During his absence the plan of the northern insurrection was digested, and Dickson soon after his return agreed to take the place of Thomas Russell as ‘adjutant-general of the United Irish forces for county Down.’ This appointment he does not deny, though with great ingenuity he disposes of the insufficient evidence brought forward in proof of it: ‘I may have been a general for aught that appears to the contrary; and I may not have been a general, though people said I was.’ A few days before the projected insurrection he was arrested at Ballynahinch. The date of the arrest has been variously stated, but his own very circumstantial narrative fixes it on Tuesday evening, 5 June. He was conveyed to Belfast, and lodged in the ‘black hole’ and other prisons, till on 12 Aug. he was removed to the prison ship, and detained there amid considerable discomfort till 25 March 1799. From Ireland he was transferred to Fort George, Inverness-shire, arriving there on 9 April. Here, with his fellow-prisoners, he was exceedingly well treated. His liberty was offered him on condition of emigration, but he demanded a trial, which was never granted. At length, on 30 Dec. 1801, he was brought back from Fort George, and given his freedom in Belfast on 13 Jan. 1802.

Dickson returned to liberty and misfortune. His wife had long been a helpless invalid, his eldest son was dead, his prospects were ruined. With fierce humour he reckons his losses at 3,618l., and sets down his compensation as 0,000l. His congregation at Portaferry had been declared vacant on 28 Nov. 1799. William Moreland, who had been ordained as his successor on 16 June 1800, at once offered to resign, but Dickson would not hear of this. He had thoughts of emigration, but decided to stand his ground. Overtures from the congregation of Donegore were frustrated by hints of the withdrawal of the regium donum. At length he was chosen by a seceding minority from the congregation of Keady, co. Armagh, and installed minister of Second Keady on 4 March 1803, on a stipend of 50l., without regium donum. He soon became involved in synodical disputes with Black, the leader of synod, and on the publication of his ‘Narrative’ (1812) he narrowly escaped suspension ab officio. His political career closed with his attendance on 9 Sept. 1811 at a catholic meeting in Armagh, on returning from which he was cruelly beaten by Orangemen. In 1815 he resigned his charge in broken health, and henceforth subsisted on charity. Joseph Wright, an episcopalian lawyer, gave him a cottage rent free in the suburbs of Belfast, and some of his old friends made him a weekly allowance. He lived to exult in Black's fall from power. At the synod in 1816 William Neilson, D.D., of Dundalk, proposed Dickson as a fit person to fill the divinity chair which was about to be erected, but the suggestion was not entertained. He acted on the committee for examining theological students till April 1824. His last appearance in the pulpit was early in 1824. Robert Acheson of Donegall Street, Belfast (d. 21 Feb. 1824), failed to meet his congregation; Dickson, who was present, gave out a psalm and prayed, but did not preach. He died on 27 Dec. 1824, having just passed his eightieth year, and was buried ‘in a pauper's grave’ at Clifton Street cemetery, Belfast. He married in 1771 Isabella Gamble, who died at Smylodge, Mourne, co. Down, on 15 July 1819; she appears to have had some means, which died with her. Dickson's eldest son, a surgeon in the navy, died in 1798; his second son was in business; of other two sons, one was an apothecary; Dickson had also two daughters, but seems to have survived all his children. A grandson was a struggling physician in Belfast.

Dickson was a man of genius, a wit, and a demagogue; his writings give the impression that he would have shone at the bar; as a clergyman he was strongly anticalvinistic in doctrine, assiduous in pastoral duties, and of stainless character.

He published: 1. ‘A Sermon … before the Echlinville Volunteers,’ &c., Belfast, 1779, 4to. 2. ‘Funeral Sermon for Armstrong,’ Belfast, 1780, 4to. 3. ‘Sermons,’ Belfast [1780], 12mo (two fast sermons and two others). 4. ‘Psalmody,’ Belfast, 1792, 12mo (an address to Ulster presbyterians, issued with the approbation of nine presbyteries). 5. ‘Three Sermons on the subject of Scripture Politics,’ Belfast, 1793, 4to (reprinted as an appendix to No. 6). 6. ‘A Narrative of the Confinement and Exile,’ &c., Dublin, 1812, 4to; 2nd edition same year (both editions were published by subscription; the second was of two thousand copies at a guinea, but it fell flat, and is exceedingly scarce). 7. ‘Speech at the Catholic Dinner, 9 May,’ Dublin, 1811, 8vo. 8. ‘Retractations,’ &c., Belfast, 1813, 4to (a defence of No. 6 against Dr. Black). 9. ‘Sermons,’ Belfast, 1817, 4to.

[For Dickson's life the main authority is his own Narrative, amended on some minor points in his Retractations, but bearing evident marks of genuineness and truth. A short biography is given in Witherow's Hist. and Lit. Mem. of Presb. in Ireland, 2nd ser. 1880, p. 226 sq.; Classon Porter, in Irish Presb. Biog. Sketches, 1883, p. 10 sq., is fuller, but often inaccurate. Northern Star, 14 July 1792, 16 and 20 Feb. 1793; Report from the Committee of Secrecy, 1798, App. pp. cxxv, cxxix; Musgrave's Mem. of the different Rebellions in Ireland, 2nd ed. 1801, pp. 123 sq., 183; Northern Whig, 30 July 1819; Teeling's Personal Narrative of the Irish Rebellion, 1828, p. 226 sq.; Montgomery's Outlines of the Hist. of Presb. in Ireland, in Irish Unit. Mag. 1847, p. 333 sq.; Madden's United Irishmen, 2nd ser. ii. 431; Reid's Hist. Presb. Church in Ireland (Killen), 1867, iii. 396 sq.; Killen's Hist. Congr. Presb. Church in Ireland, 1886, pp. 148, 163, 215 sq.; Minutes of Gen. Synod; information from Rev. C. J. M'Alester, Holywood, and Mr. A. Hill, Ballyearl, Carnmoney.]

A. G.