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DICK, ROBERT, Baptist minister, journalist, reformer, and inventor; b. 12 Jan. 1814 in Bathgate (Lothian), Scotland, ninth child and fourth son of James Dick and Janet Brown; m. 11 Jan. 1838 Mary Muir, and they had five children; d. 9 Dec. 1890 in Buffalo, N.Y.

Robert Dick’s family immigrated to Upper Canada in 1821 with several hundred other Lowland Scots through the Trongate Society of Lanarkshire for whom land had been reserved in Johnstown District. Both parents died on the journey, but the children took possession of lot 13 in the 9th concession, Lanark Township, and Robert helped in the felling, fencing, farming, and potash-making.

Although from a Presbyterian background, four of the five boys became ministers in the Free Will Baptist Church, so named because it rejected the doctrine of predestination. Robert may have been licensed by the church to preach as early as his 17th year, and soon after began to study classics and mathematics for college entrance. In 1836 he and his sombre brother, William (1812–53), entered the Hamilton Literary and Theological Institution (later Colgate University) in Hamilton, N.Y. They were among the first Free Will Baptist preachers to attend college after half a century of their sect’s existence. Asked to leave in their first year because they organized an anti-slavery society amongst the students, they transferred to Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. William graduated in 1841 but Robert apparently left without graduating (an honorary am was conferred by the college in 1875), perhaps because he had married in 1838. In 1839 Robert was ordained in Ames, Montgomery County, N.Y., serving there and in Middleville, Herkimer County, N.Y., until 1843.

In the “Burned-over District” of upper New York State Dick’s zest for controversy was fanned into a blaze. He wrote a pamphlet on behalf of the Clinton quarterly meeting of Free Will Baptists in 1842, Close communion, the offspring of arrogance, in which he argued that the communion table should be open to all evangelical believers, whether Baptist or not. He campaigned against slavery and for total abstinence. He was corresponding secretary of the New York Education Society, under which grandiose title the Clinton quarterly meeting set up the evangelical and abolitionist Clinton Seminary in 1841 (later Whitestown Seminary), thus helping to shift the emphasis from inspiration to education in the formation of Free Will Baptist preachers. Dick returned to Canada and between 1843 and 1847 he ministered to his home church in Lanark village, preached as an itinerant in nearby areas, taught to earn income, and helped William to establish the Baptist cause in Bytown (Ottawa). From 1847 to 1849 Robert and William ran a school in Brockville. There, in June 1848, the brothers founded the first Canadian lodge of the Sons of Temperance, an American benefit society based on principles of total abstinence; its grand division for Canada West convened in Brockville in April 1849. There, too, Robert began publishing the Unfettered Canadian in 1849, representing the Canadian Eclectic Medicine Society, a body following a system of medical treatment developed by the American physician Samuel Thomson. The journal sought the defeat of legislation which would have given graduates of conventional medical schools sole right to practise in Canada; it hoped to secure “to every man who claims it the untrammelled right of choice to ‘the philosophy and means of health.’”

As Toronto was temporarily the provincial capital, Robert moved there with the Unfettered Canadian in 1849. His brother Alexander (1817–1901) came at about the same time. Within two years Robert had founded about 60 lodges of the Sons of Temperance in and near Toronto. But he and Alexander soon lost leadership in the order because they unsuccessfully advocated separation from American lodges which excluded blacks from membership, and because Robert insisted on receiving 15sto cover the expenses for each lodge he opened. After 1851 he supported himself as a colporteur selling books and tracts, some of which he published himself, as a lecturer on temperance, and as a preacher in the countryside around Toronto, dropping in as an unannounced evangelist on picnics and funerals alike. In the summer of 1855 the Canada Baptist Union, which had collapsed in 1848, was reorganized, partly at his instigation, chiefly for evangelical Baptists. Dick became, appropriately, its superintendent of colportage.

To further a complex of issues Dick published monthly in Toronto, between 1854 and 1858, the Gospel Tribune, for Alliance and Intercommunion throughout Evangelical Christendom, later subtitled the Christian Communionist. It advocated church union of all evangelicals, total abstinence, and ostracism of all churches and other organizations which excluded blacks and Indians. Although he claimed almost 7,000 subscribers in 1856, 1,500 subscriptions were unpaid in 1858, the depression year in which the journal ceased publication. It was in wrestling with the recalcitrant subscription list that Dick hit on the inventions that made his fortune. Frustrated by the time required to write addresses on wrappers and to check the currency of subscriptions, he devised ways of speeding both processes. He invented an addressing machine which could fix thousands of prepared labels in an hour and act as a ledger and running record at the same time. In later years he refined the patents for the “Union Mailer” with its ancillary processes and added patents for locking type in printers’ forms. By 1868 he claimed that over 300 papers and journals in North America used his system under patent; the 12 in Canada included the Toronto Globe and Leader.

Dick moved permanently from Toronto to Buffalo, N.Y., in 1859, probably so that he could establish his patent in the United States. Although his inventions made him wealthy he continued to proselytize in laneways and chapels until age and affluence drew him into the more exalted Congregationalist connection in the 1880s. He formed the Buffalo Law and Order Society which fought the Sunday opening of saloons but he refused to join the Prohibitionist party as he thought abstinence should be voluntary. His politics were Republican; his two sons had joined the United States Army during the American Civil War, the eldest dying in uniform.

Dick died of pneumonia in 1890, survived by his wife and a widowed daughter. His patents passed to his brother and business partner, Alexander, who had moved with him to Buffalo; Alexander himself made improvements to the “Matchless Mailer,” as Robert’s invention was now known, and was a patentee in his own right of the “Fairy Nest Cradle,” a suspended basket for babies which was rocked by means of a foot treadle.

Robert Dick was an unequivocating, declamatory man, riding through the countryside and striding through the towns with satchels full of improving literature, much of which was written, or published, by himself. His evangelism was grounded on a belief in free will, which he logically extended to advocate open communion for all believers, total abstinence but not legislative prohibition, free choice and simplicity in medical care, and demolition of barriers based on race. His thoroughness, however, made him a difficult and isolated man, despite his penchant for inaugurating institutions and attending meetings. But among the fruits of his impatience and reforming zeal were the inventions which brought him wealth.

Barrie Dyster

[Robert Dick was the author of Close communion, the offspring of arrogance: answer of the Clinton quarterly meeting to the circular letter of the Onondaga Association . . . (Utica, N.Y., 1842) and publisher of the Unfettered Canadian (Brockville, [Ont.], and Toronto), 1849–50 (?), the Gospel Tribune . . . (Toronto), 1854–58, and the quarterly Dick’s Patent Expositor (Buffalo, N.Y., and Fort Erie, Ont.); a copy of the latter for November 1868 has survived at the Burke Library, Hamilton and Kirkland Colleges (Clinton, N.Y.), as an enclosure to a letter from Dick to Edward North, 19 Jan. 1869.  b.d.]

General Register Office (Edinburgh), Register of births and baptisms for the parish of Bathgate, 1814. PAC, RG 1, L3, 295, L20/32; 296, L21/61; 297a, L2/54; 299, L4/18. Anti-Slavery Soc. of Can., Annual report (Toronto), 1857. Canada Baptist Union, Annual report . . . (Montreal), 1844–46. The Canadian Baptist Register (Toronto), 1856–60. Hamilton College, Letter of the half century annalist for the year 1891 . . . (n.p., [1891]). A memorial of the semi-centennial celebration of the founding of Hamilton College, Clinton, N.Y. (Utica, 1862). Sons of Temperance, Grand Division of Canada West, Proc. (Brockville and Hamilton, [Ont.]), 1850–52. Globe, 27 Aug., 14 Sept., 28 Nov. 1850. Watchman (Toronto), 9 Sept., 11 Nov. 1850. Free Baptist cyclopædia, ed. G. A. Burgess and J. T. Ward (Chicago, 1889). The Free Baptist register and year book . . . , 1842–1902. Hamilton College, Complete alumni register, 1812–1922 (Clinton, 1922). Morgan, Bibliotheca Canadensis, 106. W. R. Cross, The Burned-over District; the social and intellectual history of enthusiastic religion in western New York, 1800–1850 (Ithaca, N.Y., 1950). Andrew Wilson, A history of old Bytown and vicinity, now the city of Ottawa (Ottawa, 1876).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Barrie Dyster, “DICK, ROBERT,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed October 2, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/dick_robert_11E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/dick_robert_11E.html
Author of Article:   Barrie Dyster
Title of Article:   DICK, ROBERT
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1982
Year of revision:   1982
Access Date:   October 2, 2023