“Faith of His Father, Living Still”
From the moment of his birth in a modest house in Jeffersonville, Georgia on May 11, 1864, James E. Dickey was prepared and groomed to preach the Gospel. His father, the Reverend James Madison Dickey, was an itinerant Methodist Minister of the North Georgia Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church South. Though he spent most of life in North Georgia, Rev. Dickey did serve churches in Dublin in 1852 and in Jeffersonville in 1864, the last dark year of the Civil War.
James attended schools in Atlanta, Gainesville, Elberton and Calhoun as his father annually moved around serving new churches. His summers were usually spent on the Richmond County farm of family of his mother, the former Miss Ann Elizabeth Thomas. When Rev. Dickey’s health failed, the family moved to the solace of the farm. James left school and worked on the farm.
Dickey’s life changed forever in 1878, when the elder Dickey died. James took his father’s lifeless hand and asked his grandmother Thomas if his father was dead. When she responded in the affirmative, James knelt down and asked God, whom he considered to be his only father, to grant him the ability and the resources to achieve his goal of attaining an education and making the most of his life.
For nine years, James Dickey worked as a store clerk and bookkeeper. He never lost sight of his goal. He studied at night and when he could took some courses in hopes of qualifying for entrance into a college. His logical choice was Emory College in Atlanta. So, on the opening day of classes in the 1887, James Dickey stepped through the doors of college. At the age of twenty three and older than those who had just graduated, James Dickey was determined to graduate. And that he did. In the spring of 1891, the man who never graduated from high school, walked across the stage as the salutatorian of his class.
So impressed were the president and faculty of Emory College with Dickey’s intellectual ability, they asked him to remain at the college as a professor. Dickey readily accepted and with a secure position in hand, took the hand of Miss Jessie Munroe in marriage as classes were about to begin.
As Professor of Mental and Moral Science, James Dickey taught Christianity, economics and history until he felt the calling to follow in the footsteps of his father. After being licensed to preach, Rev. James Dickey was assigned to Grace Methodist Church in Atlanta, where he served from 1899 to 1902.
Although Rev. Dickey only served a church for three years, his destiny to serve the Methodist Church was permanently determined when he was named President of Emory College. As the head of his alma mater, Dickey faced the daunting task of turning the falter college , which despite its support by the Methodist Church, had woefully fallen on hard times. Dickey would not accept the status quo. He designed and built new and modern facilities. More and more students enrolled. More and more money began to flow into the school’s endowment fund. President Dickey saw the need to improve the law school at Emory, currently ranked as the twenty-second best in the nation. He did so. And, he thought that a Methodist supported college should have a School of Theology, so he created one in 1914. Named in honor of Rev. Warren Akin Candler, Chancellor of the College and Bishop of the Methodist Church, the Candler School of Theology was created in 1914 and is today one of thirteen seminaries of the world wide church. At the time, the school was the only Methodist seminary east of the Mississippi River.
Dickey was known across the state as an effective fund raiser. In the spring of 1909 Dickey preached a sermon at the Methodist Church in Dublin. He left the pulpit with $2500.00 in cash and pledges to further the growth of Emory.
During his tenure at Emory, Rev. Dickey tried to resign twice to further his career. In 1910, he yearned to leave the college to become the Secretary of the Board of Education of the Methodist Episcopal Church South. The college’s trustee refused to accept his resignation and convinced him to remain at Emory. Five years later, Dickey tendered his resignation once again citing the fact that he could never be promoted as long as Bishop Candler was Chancellor of the College. This time the trustees accepted his offer, but requested that he remain as a trustee of newly chartered Emory University in its new campus in Dekalb County. Rev. Dickey was further honored by the bestowing upon him of an honorary Doctor of Laws Degree.
After leaving Emory, Rev. Dickey returned to preach, first at the First Methodist Church in Atlanta from 1915 to 1920 and at North Georgia College until 1921.
As early as 1906, the Methodist hierarchy saw special qualities in James Dickey. His name was often mentioned as a possible bishop at the General Conferences which he attended in 1910, 1914 and 1918.
At the General Conference in 1922 in Hot Springs, Arkansas, the delegates elected Dickey to serve as a Bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church South. He was assigned to a district which encompassed Texas and New Mexico. After four years in the Southwest, Dickey was transferred to Louisville, Kentucky, where he supervised Methodist churches in Illinois, Kentucky and West Virginia.
Bishop Dickey appropriately preached his last sermon on Easter Sunday in 1928. He woke up the next morning in great pain. His appendix had ruptured. Surgeons attempted to repair the damage, but the failing minister lingered for one painful week before he died just before midnight on April 17, 1928 with his family beside his bed.
And so ended the life of a man, whose faith carried him through a life of service of others before himself. His abiding faith in himself and more importantly in God, became a driving force in the resurrection of one of Georgia’s most important institution of higher learning.