Dickson, Alexander (c.1819–1892)

By Milton Hook

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Milton Hook, Ed.D. (Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, the United States). Hook retired in 1997 as a minister in the Greater Sydney Conference, Australia. An Australian by birth Hook has served the Church as a teacher at the elementary, academy and college levels, a missionary in Papua New Guinea, and as a local church pastor. In retirement he is a conjoint senior lecturer at Avondale College of Higher Education. He has authored Flames Over Battle Creek, Avondale: Experiment on the Dora, Desmond Ford: Reformist Theologian, Gospel Revivalist, the Seventh-day Adventist Heritage Series, and many magazine articles. He is married to Noeleen and has two sons and three grandchildren.

First Published: January 29, 2020

Traditionally, Dickson is considered to be the first Australian to observe the Saturday Sabbath, although this claim is difficult to thoroughly test. He undoubtedly observed Saturday during some of his stay in Liberia but according to Haskell he renounced it after unsuccessfully trying to convert others to his view.1

Early Years

Alexander Dickson was born about 1819, likely in Kirkcudbrightshire County, Scotland. As a young man, he was employed in 1841 as one of five servants for John Brown, owner of the Boreland of Borgue estate, Kirkcudbright.2

According to Dickson’s obituary he migrated to Australia from Edinburgh, Scotland3 and settled in West Maitland, New South Wales. There were several Dickson families in the Maitland area, all members of the local Free Presbyterian Church. In the 1840s, when their church was built, Maitland was the cradle of Presbyterianism for the region. They were an austere group who used no musical instruments in their worship services and sang no hymns. The church community was adamant that no businesses should open on Sundays.4 They carried no sympathies for Roman Catholics, their minister on one occasion advertising a lecture titled “The Heathenism of Popery.” Approximately one thousand Catholics were waiting outside the church prior to the start of the lecture and attacked the minister as he alighted from his carriage, tore down the church paling fence, and smashed the church windows. The riot was so chaotic that the inquest, held later, could find no one guilty because the witnesses offered so much conflicting testimony.5 Dickson found himself in the midst of this religious acrimony.

Alexander first worked with merchants David and James Dickson and Company.6 These men also came from Kirkcudbright and were probably Alexander's brothers or cousins.7 They were the first to ship goods from Liverpool and navigate the Hunter River as far as Morpeth, upstream from Newcastle, avoiding the hauling of merchandise by horse and wagon for many miles from the coast over rough inland tracks.8

In 1854 Alexander entered into a business partnership with another Scotsman, James Walker. They specialized in ironmongery, cutlery, and fancy goods imported from England.9

During these years Alexander was active in the local School of Arts, serving at times as vice-president or president.10 These institutions were widespread throughout Australia, where seniors attended topical lectures and used the library of current newspapers and non-fictional books. On one occasion Alexander read an essay of his own composition titled “Spiritual Agency,” suggesting a philosophical approach to religion.11

In mid-1861 Alexander announced he was ceasing his business partnership12 in order to sail to Liberia “on an errand of Christian philanthropy.” He left in August and sailed via Melbourne, the Cape of Good Hope, and on to London in order to connect with a ship scheduled for Liberia. His associates described him as an “upright business man, a useful citizen and a sincere Christian.”13 Even though he had considerable resources of his own the local people established a financial support base for him called “The Friends of the Mission in Liberia.”14

Mission Experience

Dickson recounted how he sailed from London with the Reverend Hoffman who was in charge of the mission station at Cape Palmas in Liberia, West Africa. On arrival he rented a room in the Orphan Asylum, a building that housed twenty “colored girls,” another missionary couple, and an “American lady who acts as teacher.”15 The latter was no doubt Miss Hannah More.

The mission station at Cape Palmas, Liberia, was established by the Maryland State Colonization Society as a settlement for freed American slaves. It was basically a self-supporting agricultural community at the mouth of the Hoffman River. Today it approximates the city of Harper.16

Hannah More had been given Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) literature while on furlough in America. By the time she returned to Africa she had accepted the Saturday Sabbath. She shared the literature with Alexander Dickson who, in turn, began observing Saturday.17 Apparently neither More nor Dickson accepted all the tenets of the SDA denomination, but both believed in the Second Advent and the sanctity of Saturday. Dickson wrote of a lecture about the Second Coming that he gave to an audience of three hundred people at the mission.18 Dickson returned to Australia in the latter half of 1864.19 More returned to America and in 1868 passed away in the home of George Thompson, a non-SDA fellow missionary to Africa who was then living in Leland, northern Michigan.20

Back in Australia

Stephen Haskell mistakenly wrote that Dickson was "a missionary from Melbourne" and readers are left with the impression that Dickson returned to Melbourne where he, with others, aroused an interest in Saturday keeping.21 This important fact cannot be verified. The Melbourne Post Office Directories list an Alexander Dickson, a carpenter, from 1866 to 1874.22 These dates and his occupation are not consistent with the Alexander Dickson who returned from Liberia. Missionary Dickson returned to his friends and business partners in West Maitland. Their business closed in 186923 and the following year Alexander left Australia permanently. He sailed from Sydney on the “Wonga Wonga” to Honolulu24 and from there to San Francisco on the “Idaho,” arriving on May 5, 1870.25 During the window of five years between his return from Liberia and his departure for America there was no mention in the local Maitland newspaper of Dickson initiating a Saturday-keeping group, something that would have agitated the ardent Presbyterians and caused a vigorous public debate. Haskell's account seems to be a conflation of Dickson's return to Australia and early responses to literature mailed to Melbourne by Haskell's group in California.

Residence in America

Dickson settled in San Francisco. In a letter to a friend in Australia he commented that he had previously crossed the equator seven times on the Atlantic but his recent trip was the first time he had done so on the Pacific. He noted that businesses in San Francisco were open on Sundays and he wrote of the fact that he had become a "book agent," earning one to seven dollars a day, apparently on a commission basis.26

George Amadon, the Review and Herald printer at Battle Creek, records in his 1875 diary, May 28 and 29, that a man from Australia was visiting the SDA community. In all likelihood that man was Alexander Dickson. Haskell preached at the Battle Creek Tabernacle that same Sabbath, May 29.27 By that time Dickson had abandoned the observance of Saturday and disappeared from SDA circles.

Dickson never married. He died of paralysis on November 15, 1892, in his home at 2811 Pine Street, San Francisco, just south of where the Golden Gate Bridge was later built. The news account mentioned his former business association with Maitland's D[avid] and J[ames] Dickson & Company and paid tribute to him as "a highly respected citizen and merchant."28

Sources

Byington-Amadon Diaries (collection 12). Adventist Heritage Center, James White Library, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan. Box: 2. Envelope: 33. “George Washington Amadon Diary, 1875.”

Empire (Sydney, New South Wales), 1864.

Haskell, Stephen. “The Australian Mission.” In Historical Sketches of the Foreign Missions of Seventh-day Adventists. Basle, Switzerland: Imprimerie Polyglotte, 1886.

“Maryland State Colonization Society.” Teaching American History in Maryland. Retrieved from http://teaching.msa.maryland.gov/000001/000000/000106/html/t106.html.

Melbourne and Suburban Directories. Collins Street, Melbourne: Sands and McDougall, 1862-1874.

More, H[annah]. “Letter From Africa.” ARH, October 11, 1864.

More, Hannah. “The Sabbath in Africa.” ARH, March 29, 1864.

Scotland. Kirkcudbrightshire County. 1841 United Kingdom Census. Retrieved from www.scotlandpeople.gov.uk/

The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser (Maitland, New South Wales), 1854-1895.

Thompson, George. “Death of Sister Hannah More.” ARH, March 24, 1868.

Walsh, G. P. "Dickson, James (1813-1863)." Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 4. Melbourne, Victoria: Melbourne University Press, 1972.

Notes

  1. Stephen Haskell, "The Australian Mission," Historical Sketches of the Foreign Missions of Seventh-day Adventists (Basle, Switzerland: Imprimerie Polyglotte, 1886), 94.

  2. 1841 United Kingdom census, Kirkcudbrightshire County, Scotland, Parish Borgue, parish number 858, "Dickson, Alexander," accessed June 7, 2017, www.scotlandpeople.gov.uk/

  3. "Family Notices," The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, January 7, 1893, 1.

  4. "Observance of the Sabbath – Public Meeting," The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, October 9, 1856, 2.

  5. "Reminiscences of Maitland and the District: No. 53 - 1860," The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, August 3, 1895, 6.

  6. "Change of Firm, and Removal to Larger Premises," The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, November 4, 1854, 3.

  7. G.P. Walsh, "Dickson, James (1813-1863)," Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 4 (Melbourne, Victoria: Melbourne University Press, 1972), 39-40.

  8. "Reminiscences of Maitland and the District: No. 22 – 1854," The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, July 30, 1894, 11.

  9. "Change of Firm, and Removal to Larger Premises," The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, November 4, 1854, 3.

  10. E.g., "Maitland School of Arts," The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, October 11, 1856, 2.

  11. "Maitland School of Arts," The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, April 9, 1859, 2.

  12. "Notices," The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, July 6, 1861, 3.

  13. "Departure of Mr. A. Dickson," The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, August 31, 1861, 3.

  14. "To the Friends of Missions," The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, September 12, 1863, 1.

  15. "Mr. A. Dickson in Liberia," Empire, April 20, 1864, 6.l.

  16. "Maryland State Colonization Society," Teaching American History in Maryland, accessed June 1, 2017, http://teaching.msa.maryland.gov/000001/000000/000106/html.

  17. Hannah More, "The Sabbath in Africa," ARH, March 29, 1864, 142.

  18. "Mr. A. Dickson in Liberia," Empire, April 20, 1864, 6.

  19. H[annah] More, "Letter From Africa," ARH, October 11, 1864, 155.

  20. George Thompson, "Death of Sister Hannah More," ARH, March 24, 1868, 236.

  21. Stephen Haskell, "The Australian Mission," Historical Sketches of the Foreign Missions of Seventh-day Adventists (Basle, Switzerland: Imprimerie Polyglotte, 1886), 94.

  22. "Alphabetical," Melbourne and Suburban Directories (Collins Street, Melbourne, Sands and McDougall, 1862-1874).

  23. E.g., "Business Premises to Let," The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, June 1, 1869, 1.

  24. "Newcastle [News]," The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, May 21, 1870, 2.

  25. "Australians in San Francisco," The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, August 2, 1870, 4.

  26. Ibid.

  27. Byington-Amadon Diaries (collection 12), Adventist Heritage Center, James White Library, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan. Box: 2, Envelope: 33. "George Washington Amadon Diary, May 28-29, 1875."

  28. "Family Notices," The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, January 7, 1893, 1; "Local News: The Death of Mr. Alexander Dickson," The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, January 7, 1893, 4.

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Hook, Milton. "Dickson, Alexander (c.1819–1892)." Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. January 29, 2020. Accessed June 13, 2024. https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=C7VC.

Hook, Milton. "Dickson, Alexander (c.1819–1892)." Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. January 29, 2020. Date of access June 13, 2024, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=C7VC.

Hook, Milton (2020, January 29). Dickson, Alexander (c.1819–1892). Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. Retrieved June 13, 2024, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=C7VC.