(1821-1876) [q. v.] In 1853 he graduated M.A. at the London University, taking the gold medal in philosophy.
From the autumn of 1852 he had relieved Angell James by preaching once a month at Carr's Lane chapel ; from August 1853 he had been engaged as assistant minister ; on 10 July 1854 he was chosen co-pastor, began his duties on 6 Aug., and was ordained on 22 Nov. Local controversy was provoked by his lecture on 'The Pilgrim Fathers,' and transient doubts of his orthodoxy were raised by his treatment of the doctrines of natural depravity and justification. Angell James, with great courage, insisted that 'the young man must have his fling.' A call in 1857 to Cavendish Street chapel, Manchester (with a much higher stipend), was declined on James's advice. In 1858 he succeeded Rogers as lecturer on literature, philosophy, and homiletics at Spring Hill. On his colleague's death (1 Oct. 1859) he became sole pastor at Carr's Lane. His 'Life' of Angell James (1861) criticised the theology of the 'Anxious Enquirer,' and drew a defensive pamphlet from Thomas Smith James [see under James, John Angell] ; in the fifth edition (1862) Dale omitted the passages impugned.
Very early in his lifelong pastorate at Carr's Lane Dale had realised the need of church extension ; new congregations were planted out at Edgbaston, Moseley, Yardley, and Acock's Green. As a public man he first made his mark in connection with the bicentennial (1862) of the Uniformity Act, by his vivid reply to John Gale Miller [q. v.] An invitation, in the same year, to a Melbourne pastorate caused his congregation to rally to him with renewed attachment. His Birmingham ministry steadily grew in power ; and the place he took in the life of the town was one of exceptional prominence, placing him practically at the head of its educational policy, both in the school board and in the grammar school, and making him a large factor in the guidance of its political aspirations. In the development of the municipal life of Birmingham he cooperated heartily with Mr. Joseph Chamberlain. He has admirably described the ideals which he shared, and did much to promote, in a valuable contribution to Armstrong's 'Life' (1895) of Henry William Crosskey (1826-1893). He served on the royal commission of 1885 on elementary education.
In his own denomination he was chairman of the Congregational Union (1869), and supported (1878) the declaration of faith intended to maintain its evangelical character ; he withdrew from the union in 1888 to avoid a split on the Irish question ; he presided (1891) over the international council of congregational churches. He was strongly attached to the congregational idea of the church, which was to him much more than a mere spiritual democracy. He declined (1888) the principalship and theological chair in New College, South Hampstead. After some hesitation he threw himself into the scheme for removing Spring Hill College to Mansfield College, Oxford (opened October 1889) ; he obtained some modification of the doctrinal clauses of the original trust, and the abolition of the doctrinal declaration formerly required of students and members of committee. From 1874 he had publicly separated himself from the current eschatology of his denomination by advocating the position that eternal life is a gift to believers in Christ, with the consequent annihilation of the impenitent.
In 1863 he had spent some time at Heidelberg for the study of German; he visited Egypt and Palestine in 1873; America in 1877, when he delivered the Yale Lecture on preaching ; Australia in 1887. Yale University gave him the diploma of D.D., but he never used it, having a strong objection to divinity degrees, and having discarded (before 1869) even the title of 'reverend.' In March 1883 he was capped as LL.D. at Glasgow University, in company with John Bright ; and from this time, 'though "Mr." is more after my manner, I shall yield to my friends and be Dr. R. W. Dale.' As a theologian Dale exercised a wide influence beyond the borders of his denomination. His volume on the atonement, his expositions of the Pauline epistles, and his treatment of sacramental doctrine, commended his writings to Anglican readers in no sympathy with his views on church and state. Matthew Arnold described him as 'a brilliant pugilist,' an expression true to a side of his character which made itself felt in his platform work, his public controversies, and sometimes in his private manner. In his theology the polemical element was completely subordinate to the constructive, but he was always more remarkable for warmth of heart than for serenity of judgment.
He had lived a strenuous life of perpetual engagements, and in May 1891 an attack of influenza left his health permanently impaired. In 1892 George Barber became his assistant at Carr's Lane. He preached for the last time on 10 Feb. 1895, and died at his residence, Winsterslow House, Bristol Road, Birmingham, on 13 March 1895. He was buried at Key Hill cemetery on 18 March.