David Ross was born in Scotland on 24 May 1831. He obtained university degrees in teaching and theology, also studying some medicine and law in the course of his training. After further study in Holland, he immigrated to South Africa. In 1863 became the dominee of the newly established Dutch Reformed Church in Lady Grey, serving a widespread rural community and travelling vast distances on horseback.
The 68-year-old Ross had been serving the Lady Grey community for some 36 years when the Anglo-Boer War broke out in 1899. He looked askance on the imperialistic ambitions of Rhodes and others, and his sympathies lay with the Boers. His son was a headmaster in Pretoria who fought for the Boers.
As Lady Grey was part of the Cape Colony, Ross was acutely aware of the implications for members of his congregation of taking up arms in favour of the Boers, and he counselled them not to do so unless they had no option (Lady Grey having at one stage been occupied by Boer commandos for about four months). This advice was not always heeded, and when the British regained control of Lady Grey in March 1900, martial law was declared. The arrest of one of his elders directly after a Sunday morning church service resulted in Ross taking strong exception and remonstrating with a British colonel. This led to Ross’s own house being surrounded and searched; he was accused of having helped recruit Cape Rebels and of hiding weapons in his house; and this culminated in his arrest and trial for treason.
Ross represented himself during his trial. He was acquitted, and won admiration – even from his enemies – for his skilful cross-examination of those who testified against him. He was freed, but restrictions were imposed: he could only travel when in possession of a pass, and his horse was seized. Ross complained in a letter to Lord Roberts, which resulted in the restrictions being suspended, but he was then subpoenaed to testify at the trial of a member of his congregation in Aliwal North. As his horse had not been returned to him, he walked the 26 miles (42 kilometres) to Aliwal North, gave his evidence, and returned on foot to Lady Grey, assisted along the way by members of his congregation.
On his return to Lady Grey, Ross resolved never again to conduct church services in English. And never again did he do so.