Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Dick, John

DICK, JOHN, D.D. (1764–1833), theological writer, was born on 10 Oct. 1764 at Aberdeen, where his father was minister of the associate congregation of seceders. His mother's name was Helen Tolmie, daughter of Captain Tolmie of Aberdeen, a woman of well cultivated intellect and deep piety, who exercised a strong influence over her son. Educated at the grammar school and King's College, Aberdeen, he studied for the ministry of the Secession church, under John Brown of Haddington. In 1785, immediately after being licensed as a probationer, he was called by the congregation of Slateford, near Edinburgh, and ordained to the ministry there. His love of nature and natural objects was intense, and at Slateford he had the opportunity of gratifying it abundantly. A few years after his settlement he married Jane, daughter of the Rev. G. Coventry, Stitchell, Roxburghshire, and sister of Dr. Andrew Coventry of Shanwell, professor of agriculture in the university of Edinburgh.

At Slateford, Dick was a laborious student and a diligent pastor, and he began early to take an active share in the business of his church. In 1788, when Dr. M'Gill of Ayr alarmed the religious community of Scotland by an essay on the death of Christ, of unitarian tendencies, Dick published a sermon in opposition entitled ‘The Conduct and Doom of False Teachers.’ In 1796, when objection had been taken by several ministers in his church to the teaching of the confession of faith on the duty of the civil magistrate to the church, he preached and published a sermon entitled ‘Confessions of Faith shown to be necessary, and the duty of churches with respect to them explained.’ He vindicated the use of confessions, but inculcated the duty of the church to be tolerant of minor disagreements. In 1799 this controversy was ended by the synod enacting a preamble to the confession, declaring that the church required no assent to anything which favoured the principle of compulsory measures in religion. A minority dissented from this finding, and, withdrawing from their brethren, formed a new body entitled ‘The Original Associate Synod.’

In 1800 he published an ‘Essay on the Inspiration of the Scriptures,’ which gave him considerable standing as a theological writer. The occasion of this publication was, that in a dispute in the Secession church regarding the descending obligation of the Scottish covenants, it had been affirmed that those who were not impressed by arguments in its favour from the Old Testament, could not believe in the inspiration of the Old Testament books. Dick wrote his book to rebut this argument. The position assumed in it is thus stated by his biographer: ‘He held the doctrine of plenary inspiration; i.e. that all parts of scripture were written by persons, moved, directed and assisted by the Holy Spirit, his assistance extending to the words as well as to the ideas. But under the term ‘inspiration’ he included several kinds or degrees of supernatural influence, holding that sometimes a larger and sometimes a smaller degree of inspiration was necessary to the composition of the books, according to the previous state of the minds of the writers and the matter of their writings.’

In 1801 he became minister of an important and prominent congregation in Glasgow, now called Greyfriars, in which charge he continued up to the time of his death. In 1815 he received the degree of D.D. from Princeton College, New Jersey, one of the oldest colleges of America. In 1819 the death of Dr. Lawson of Selkirk left vacant the office of theological professor to the associate synod, which had been filled for a long time by him in a distinguished manner, and in 1820 Dr. Dick was chosen to succeed him. In this charge he was eminently successful, enjoying at once the approval of the church and the confidence and admiration of his students. He was now one of the leading men in his church. Regarding his theological standpoint, his son says: ‘He was distinguished from many theologians by the honour in which he held the scriptures, and by the strictness with which he adhered to the great protestant rule of making the Bible, in its plain meaning, the source of his religious creed, and the basis of his theological system. His distrust of reason as a guide in religion was deeply sincere, and never wavered; and so was his confidence in revelation. Both were the result of inquiry; and the perfect reasonableness of his faith was in nothing more evident than in the limits which he set to it; for he had taken pains to ascertain the bounds of revelation, and while within these he was teachable as a child, to everything beyond our own resources no man could apply the test of reason with more uncompromising boldness.’

In politics Dick sympathised with the reforming party, and he objected to church establishments. He combined the offices of professor of divinity and minister of Greyfriars Church up to the time of his death, which occurred rather suddenly on 25 Jan. 1833.

Besides the sermons already noticed, and his ‘Essay on the Inspiration of the Scriptures,’ Dick published during his lifetime ‘Lectures on some Passages of the Acts of the Apostles;’ and, in 1833, after his death, his theological lectures were published in 4 vols. 8vo, a second edition being published in 1838. [Memoir of Dr. Dick, by his son, Andrew Coventry Dick, prefixed to Lectures in Theology; McKerrow's Hist. of the Secession Church; Funeral Sermons by Rev. Andrew Marshall and Rev. Professor Mitchell, D.D.; Memoir by Rev. W. Peddie, United Secession Mag. May 1833.]

W. G. B.