Memoir of the late John Dickinson Esq. of Birmingham
If in our biographical department it does not devolve on us to hand down to posterity the illustrious deeds of senators and warriors, yet we have the more refined gratification of embalming the memory of the just. Mr Dickinson, the subject of the following memoir, was born at Chester July 21 1762. His father, who was a respectable tradesman in that city, died when he was very young, and left him under the care of his uncle, Mr T Jones. At the age of fifteen he removed to Birmingham, and was apprenticed to Mr Samuel Hammond, who carried on the trade of a button-maker. During the time of his servitude he conducted himself with so much propriety, and acquired such an ascendancy in the esteem and confidence of his master, that when it expired he was admitted into partnership with him, in connection with another gentleman. On the 14th June 1792, he married Mrs Rebecca Adams; a lady of exemplary piety, distinguished not more by her suavity of manners than by her active benevolence; and who still survives him. This union was productive of a larger measure of domestic happiness than usually falls to the lot of man; and was uniformly regarded by him as the choicest gift ever bestowed on him by the hand of Providence.
He remained in business until the year 1816, when he retired to enjoy the fruit of his labours. As a tradesman, he was diligent, punctual, obliging and conscientious. He did not waste his hours in slothful inactivity, as though the fervour of his devotional feeling exonerated him from diligence in his civil avocation; but gave to his business the energy of his mind, while he gave to God the ardour of his affections. In his engagements he was punctual; and it was to this habit he ascribed the facility with which he was accustomed to get through his multifarious duties. In his manners he was so obliging that he rarely gave offence; and so conscientious that he endeavoured to do unto others as he wished others to do unto him.
But his conscientiousness was not confined to the equitable claims of man, but was extended to those of God. Hence he did not, like too many, spend the hours of the Sabbath in the counting-house or the manufactory, but in the house of the Lord, where he found relief from the distractions of this world amidst the sublime anticipations of a better. For many years he travelled to different part of the Kingdom; but he was the same conscientious Christian when sojourning amongst strangers as when under the scrutinizing eye of his neighbours. He was not grave with the grave, and frivolous with the gay; - the man of piety with the pious, and the man of the world with the profane; zealous in the cause of the Redeemer at home; and inactive abroad; but uniformly the same – in all places and in every company. The gentleman, with whom he was in partnership for twenty eight years, says that he never knew him guilty of a dishonourable action; and such was the degree of confidence he reposed in his integrity, that he never examined his accounts under the apprehension of detecting the slightest species of fraud.
As a master, he was kind to his servants; treated them with affection, assisted them when in distress, reproved them when necessary, and laboured to promote their spiritual welfare. He had them called into an apartment in the manufactory every morning, when a portion of the Scripture was read; and, with others in rotation, he prayed with them and for them. Nor was the moral tendency of this religious exercise counteracted by a hasty or morose spirit towards them; for the law of kindness dwelt on his lips, and he was never known to reprove in a passion.
Though he had received a religious education, and had been trained up in the fear of the Lord, yet it was not till after his settlement in Birmingham that he began to feel the power of Truth. At this time he attended the ministry of the late amiable, candid and zealous Mr Riland, who preached at St Mary’s chapel, and it was under his ministry that the truth enlightened his understanding, and became the means of effecting that moral transformation which the Redeemer emphatically denominates ‘being born again’. Of the fact of this change he felt conscious: and he lived to demonstrate, that it is not the fanciful conception of fanaticism, as is too often asserted, but the production of a supernatural power, in which all mental purity originates. Having passed from a state of spiritual death to spiritual life, from that hour he devoted himself to the service of God through the mediation of Jesus Christ; and having the virtues of the Christian character engrafted on a disposition naturally amiable, they shone with peculiar lustre.
He continued a regular attendant at St Mary’s chapel till 1792, when he left, and joined the church of Christ which worshipped at Carr’s Lane Meeting, and which was then under the pastoral charge of The Rev Dr Williams. In retiring from communion with the Established Church he was not governed by caprice, but impelled by conviction; and while he would often speak in high terms of commendation of some parts of her excellent liturgy, yet he thought her alliance with the state was anti-scriptural and derogatory to her honour.
He remained at Carr’s Lane for some time without exciting much attention, till it was proposed to pull down the old meeting and erect a larger one; when he stepped forward and became a strenuous supporter of the measure. A circumstance now took place which divided the congregation; when he left Carr’s Lane and followed his esteemed friend and pastor, the Rev J Brewer, to Livery Street[i]. Soon after the settlement of the church at Livery Street, he was unanimously chosen as one of its deacons; and in the discharge of his official duties he conducted himself so holily and justly, and unblameably, that he was counted worthy of double honour. The pride of office was a passion which never gained an entrance into his breast; he felt no disposition to govern, to irritate or neglect his pastor; and he would treat the poorest member of the church with as much affectionate respect as the most opulent. In reply to a person who had asserted that a deacon is the head of the church he says, in a letter still extant:-
“Permit me to remark, that your observation respecting the office of a Deacon, appears to me unscriptural. I apprehend a Deacon is no more the head of a church than the poorest member that belongs to it. It is true that he is an officer in the church, chosen by his brethren, and his office is to take care of the tables:- the Lord’s table, the table of the minister and that of the poor. Independent of this, he is no more than any other individual member. Whatever distinctions God is pleased to make in his providential dispensations is one thing; but so soon as we enter the church all distinctions cease, all are then equal – one in Jesus Christ.”
Nor did he take the deacon’s office as a mere office of distinction, leaving its duties neglected, or to be discharged by others; but devoted a large portion of his time to them; and by the promptness with which he acted, and the mildness of disposition which eh uniformly displayed, he won the esteem of his pastor, and gained the confidence and universal attachment of his brethren.
He was favoured with an almost uninterrupted share of health for many years; and though all knew that he was mortal, yet no-one calculated on his death till the fact of his decease was announced. On Wednesday September 12th 1821, he took the chair at the public meeting of business connected with the Missionary Society, of the United Counties of Warwick, Worcester and Stafford, which was held in Ebenezer Chapel; and though he had often charmed an audience with his chaste eloquence, yet never did he plead the cause of Missions in a more lucid, striking and impressive manner, or with more effect, than at this time. On the following Friday evening he left a Committee, which he generally attended, and returned home in perfect health; but about four o’clock on Saturday morning he felt indisposed. Medical assistance was called in, and it was not till Monday afternoon that anyone was apprehensive of danger. His pastor, who was then with him, said ‘This, sir, is a severe and painful affliction; but it is sent by your father.’ ‘Yes sir,’ he replied, ‘and sent in mercy.’ Soon after this he said ‘Pray.’ ‘What shall I pray for?’ ‘Pray for faith, for patience and for resignation; and, if it be the will of God, that I may live a short season longer.’ A few hours before his decease his pastor asked him how he felt in his mind, to which question he returned the following reply: ‘I have many things to lament, but I am a sinner at the cross, expecting to be saved by Grace.’ After a short pause he added ‘All is well, all is well.’ He lingered on, in a dosing state, till near seven o’clock, till near seven o’clock, when he fell asleep in Jesus, without a struggle, without a groan, without a sigh; unconscious of the great change awaiting him, till the glories of the invisible world burst upon his redeemed spirit. On Tuesday September 25th his mortal remains were removed from his late mansion to the Ebenezer Chapel, followed by an immense train of mourners; when, after the ceremonies of death were performed, they were deposited in a vault behind the pulpit, just beneath the monument of his friend and pastor Mr Brewer.
As a Christian, he was distinguished by his orthodox views of divine truth. He admitted the universal guilt and depravity of man; the necessity of atonement to expiate guilt; and also of a supernatural influence to renovate the heart; the supreme divinity of Jesus Christ, and the personality of the Holy Spirit; the doctrine of justification by the imputed righteousness of the Redeemer; and the progressive sanctification of the soul by the agency of the Eternal Spirit. These truths he embraced, not because they are sanctioned by men of learning and piety but because he found them in the scriptures; and such was his immense conviction of their immense importance that he would most often fervently pray that those who reject them might be brought to feel their moral influence. These truths he often proclaimed from the pulpit, where he usually appeared to great advantage: and there are many in different parts of the kingdom who have listened with delight and profit while he has been showing their adaptation to the peculiar state of man.
In separate parts of his character it would not be difficult to find some who excelled him; but in that rare union of excellence which met in him he stands, if not without an equal, yet without a superior. He was often called, by way of distinction, “The Peace Maker”, and such was his anxiety to keep the bonds of peace from being broken; such his solicitude to heal the breach when made, that he would stoop to nay act but that of meanness,- make any sacrifice but that of principle,- and endure any more of treatment, not excepting even insult and reproach. From the high estimate in which his character was held, he was often called upon to act as umpire in cases of arbitration but it was rarely, if ever, that the equity of his decisions was impeached. On one occasion, two men were disputing in a public house about the result of an arbitration, when a third said, “Had John Dickinson anything to do with it?” “Yes;” was the reply. “Then it is all right, I am sure:” and in this opinion the whole party concurred and the disputation ceased.
A stranger could not be with him long without admiring the candour of his spirit. Though a firm Dissenter, yet he lived in the terms of sweetest fellowship with many who are the ornaments and advocates of an episcopal establishment. Though an orthodox Dissenter, yet he would speak with pleasure of the moral virtues which adorn the character of some whose views of truth were diametrically opposite to his own; and while he could not but regret their departure from the Christian faith, yet he most willingly co-operated with them in plans of general usefulness. Though a Calvinistic dissenter, and a decided paedobaptist, yet the Methodist, the Baptist, the Friend, severally forgot the peculiarities of their faith when engaged with him in spiritual conversation; feeling a superior charm in those truths in which they agreed, than in those on which they differed.
His benevolence knew no bounds but the limits of his fortune; which, being ample, admitted of a fine scope for its exercise. He did not wait until he became rich before he became liberal, but commenced his career of liberality when he commenced business; nor did he stop until he ascended up on high, and even then he distributed the gifts of his bounty with a munificent hand. When in business he regularly devoted a tenth of his income to the cause of the Redeemer: when he retired from business, he lived in the most economical style, and devoted the whole surplus of his income to the same cause; and, in the final disposition of his property, he bequeathed £4,000 to charitable purposes.
To the poor he was a cheerful giver: he was in the habit of assisting persons with money when they commenced business; and afterwards, if they were frugal and industrious; he subscribed to every local institution in the town which tended to ameliorate the distresses of the people; but his benevolence was most princely when co-operating with others in advancing the spiritual and eternal felicity of man. Hence all the evangelical Societies which adorn the age and country in which he lived, found in him a generous benefactor, and an able advocate: and if ever he felt an emotion of pleasure when looking at his wealth, it was when he was parting with it for the benefit of others.
But though he was emphatically a religious man, and devoted a large share of his time to discharge the peculiar duties which devolved on him in this capacity, yet he was not indifferent to the claims which society at large presented on the exercise of his rare talents and virtues. It is impossible to say what individual circumstance placed him on the vantage ground of public opinion; but it is certain that he stood there for many years with a character unimpeached by any party. He was as the rallying point where they gathered on the discussion of a great local question; and if he did not always harmonise and unite their discordant opinions, he invariably excited their admiration and won their esteem. And having, without any designed efforts on his own part, gained the respect and confidence of the public, he laboured with the most conscientious diligence to promote its welfare.
He had almost an entire ascendancy over every person with whom he associated; and it may not be improper if an attempt be made to account for it. It originated in the perfect consistency of his conduct. By religion we govern ourselves,– by an uniform consistency of character we control others. How many men may be found in society who possess some very imposing talents, and yet when they bring down these talents to bear on the attainment of any specific object, they appear amongst us like Samson when shorn of his strength, in a state of perfect inefficiency. This fact, which as often struck us, has also often perplexed us; nor have we been able to account for it till we have recollected, that, thought wise in counsel, yet they are not mighty in operation; that thought their plans have been bold and comprehensive, yet their perseverance has been a question of doubtful disputation; and though by the power of their eloquence they could convince, yet the charm of persuasion has been wanting. And even when there is a union of decision with wisdom and energy with comprehension of mind, yet if there be a deficiency of integrity and prudence, an enlightened public withholds its confidence and support; having resolved that the distinguished honour of promoting the best interests of men shall be conferred only upon those who are eminently good. The descriptive language which an eloquent writer has applied to a deceased friend of his own, may with equal propriety be applied to Mr Dickinson. “He was eminently distinguished by a steady uniformity of conduct; while he appeared to multiply himself by the extent and variety of his exertions, the principles upon which they were conducted, the objects they were destined to promote were invariably the same. He was not active at intervals, and at other times torpid and inert; he did not appear the public man at one time, and at another absorbed in selfish pursuits; his efforts to do good in season and out of season were constant, and his course knew no other variety that that of the shining light, which shineth more and more unto the perfect day. His goodness, founded on principle, and corroborated by habit, operated with the steadiness of a law of nature, the beneficial results of which can never be sufficiently appreciated until they are suspended.”
This powerful ascendancy which he had acquired was preserved by his moderation, and the attention which he uniformly paid to the opinion of others. He never proposed a measure till after the most mature deliberation; and when he brought it forward it was submitted to the consideration of the interested parties with so much candour, that opposition was very seldom provoked. And if, in the discharge of his public duties, he felt obliged to oppose others, yet he did it with so much kindness, and with such an entire absence of a dogmatic spirit, that they felt as much respect and esteem as though he had advocated their cause.
But all his virtues as a member of civil society, were eclipsed by his superior virtues as a Christian; and though it would be too much to say that he had gained a state of sinless perfection; yet those who knew him loved him most, and those who examined his character most minutely, discovered the most exquisite symmetry, proportion, and beauty. He was an ornament to the town; but a greater ornament to the religious society which, under the Divine blessing, owes its existence and its prosperity more to this active agency than to any other cause; and the testimony of respect which was shown to his memory at the time of his interment, and subsequently, unequivocally testifies how much he was beloved.
With such a witness in favour of the moral tendency of evangelical views of revealed truth, we may easily repel the insidious charges of our opponents, and challenge them to produce from amongst all their number such a near approximation to the character of this departed saint.
May a double portion of this spirit rest upon all who love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity! Then the charges of infidelity and prejudice will be refuted, not by the parade of logical argumentation, but the subduing eloquence of a holy life.
 This new meeting was erected in 1802, for the Rev J Brewer, who was now pastor of the church, Dr Williams having resigned.
 The concourse that attended his funeral exceeded in number, and equalled in respectability, any funeral which ever took place in the town; and had a stranger been passing through when his corpse was advancing to the place of sepulture, he would have imagined that the common father of the people had just been taken from them.
 Perhaps few men, since the days of Whitfield, have been more successful in the work of the Christian ministry than Jehoida Brewer. With natural talents which would have raised him to distinction in any profession, and which did raise him to a high distinction in his own, he united an energy and boldness of manner which, under the blessing of God, rendered his preaching “not the letter that killeth but the spirit that giveth life.” With a soul as generous as it was free, and as ardent as it was sincere, he pressed to the warm bosom of his affection his disinterested friend; and said, not long before his death, to a gentleman who is still living, “What a man is John Dickinson” I wish every minister had such a friend.”
 We are indebted for the greater part of this Memoir to the Funeral Sermon which was published by The Rev T East on the occasion.
 The following extract from the Overseers’ Minutes, which has been sent to Mrs Dickinson, (along with many others from public bodies) will convey to the Reader some conception of the high estimate in which his services were held.
Extract from the Overseers’ Minutes
Sept 25 1821
Mr Benjamin Barns, chairman
That the Overseers of this Parish feel it both a duty and a melancholy gratification to record up on their minutes their real sorrow at the loss they have sustained in the loss of their deeply lamented friend, the late John Dickinson Esq.; and while they thus cannot express their feelings, they cannot allow to pass unnoticed the valuable services which that gentleman has rendered to the parish of Birmingham.
For twenty years a Guardian of the Poor, his unremitting attention to the duties of that office has always made him conspicuous in all plans that contemplated its benefit; and in pursuing these through so long a period, no perplexities embarrassed, no difficulties deterred, no opposition dismayed him. Under his auspices the Asylum rose to its present eminence, and its infant Institution was fostered by his paternal care. From this gentleman the present overseers derived their greatest support at the late Vestry meeting in which originated the appointment of the Assistant Overseers,- an appointment from which the parish has received incalculable benefit,- and from his assistance in the regulation of the important duties attached to their new situations, the present advantageous system was arranged.
But the Overseers lament that his various acts of public usefulness cannot be enumerated in the limits of a minute, and they only intend this as a very imperfect record of that peculiar merit which rendered him the object of their grateful esteem, and his decease the subject of their greatest regret.