Born at Cramond, near Edinburgh, Scotland, on 20 June 1824, David Bruce was the son of a carpenter, also named David Bruce, and his wife, Margaret Robertson. The family moved to Perthshire, where David attended parish schools and Mr Davidson's Classical Academy in Perth. In 1847 he graduated MA from the University of Edinburgh, and then studied theology at New College, Edinburgh. Licensed by the Free Church of Scotland Presbytery of Edinburgh in 1851, he became an assistant minister in Aberdeen in 1852. He was offered posts in Boston and Montreal, but chose to accept an appointment to Auckland, New Zealand, and was ordained on 4 January 1853 by the Presbytery of Aberdeen.
David Bruce arrived in Auckland on 10 June 1853 on the Simlah and set about healing divisions in his congregation at the church in Waterloo Quadrant, and reducing its substantial debt, as well as founding new charges and establishing Presbyterian government. He was a founder of the Presbytery of Auckland in 1856, and played a key role in the formation of the northern Presbyterian Church of New Zealand in 1862. Bruce became convener of its Home Mission Committee, a position he was to hold for 20 years.
On 18 October 1859 in Auckland David Bruce had married Mary Alexander Sinclair. They were to have four daughters and three sons. He was released from his parish, now called St Andrew's, in 1863, to travel throughout New Zealand and report on the establishment of new congregations. He raised money through his correspondence with the churches in Scotland and Ireland and recruited many able ministers, as well as educating local candidates and working for higher education. (He later served on the senate of the University of New Zealand and the Auckland University College council.) In 1866 Bruce was moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand, also serving on key committees and helping to set up procedures to deal with church property and finance.
Bruce had great physical stamina and covered astonishing distances in his church extension work, but by 1870 he was near exhaustion and took leave in Britain. Mary Bruce died there in 1870. Bruce wrote and spoke extensively in Scotland and recruited 12 more ministers for New Zealand, returning to Auckland in 1872. He was clerk of assembly until 1882 and was the assembly's full-time general agent from 1877 to 1881. The assembly's financial difficulties led to his resignation and a struggle to claim the arrears owed him. Although in title he remained senior minister of St Andrew's until 1892, he had effectively retired from the parish in 1877. He had no active duties in the parish and after 1881 devoted most of his energies to journalism in Auckland and Wellington, writing leaders for the New Zealand Herald and editing the New Zealand Times. He was also involved with the New Zealand Observer. He had long been a prolific writer, who had helped to found the New Zealand Presbyterian Magazine (forerunner of the Outlook ) in 1872 and took a keen interest in political and ethical issues. Bruce was an untiring worker for the union of the two Presbyterian churches in New Zealand. He took a liberal position on temperance and family law reform and was an enthusiastic supporter of international Presbyterian co-operation.
In 1889 Bruce went to New South Wales. He received a DD from the University of St Andrews, Scotland, in 1891, and was inducted into the parish of North St Leonards, Sydney in 1893. He continued to be active in church administration, education and extension. In 1897 he was moderator of the New South Wales General Assembly and from 1903 to 1905 moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Australia, and remains the only person to have held such office on both sides of the Tasman. He died at Killara, New South Wales, on 15 December 1911.