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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Religion, Burns and

Burns's letters and poems have been quoted in support of nearly every variant of religious belief practised in this country since the eighteenth century. He has also been accused of perpetrating fearful sins, notably by the Reverend Dr William Peebles of Newton-on-Ayr — Burns called him 'Peebles frae the water-fitt' in 'The Holy Fair' — in a work called Burnomania published in 1811 Peebles alleged that in Burns's life and in his poetry, 'sinfulness, gross immoralities and irreligion' were 'celebrated, extenuated, vindicated: the worst of passions indulged and gratified: the sacred truths of religion treated with levity, and made the song of the drunkard and the abandoned profligate'.

Authority, however intolerant and absurd its behaviour, does not like to be flouted or ridiculed. Peebles, who fancied himself something of a poet, had in 1788, written verses on the Centenary of the Revolution, containing the line: 'And bound in Liberty's endearing chain'. So, in 'The Kirk's Alarm, Burns castigated him:

"Poet Willie. Poet Willie, gie the Doctor a volley,
Wi' your 'liberty's chain' and your wit;
O'er Pegasus' side ye ne'er laid a stride,
Ye only stood by where he sh -
Poet Willie; Ye only stood by where he sh-."

The feelings behind Dr Peebles's revengeful nonsense can thus easily be understood. Later claimants on Burns's religious allegiance are scarcely less disingenuous. Thus J. R. Campbell, in Burns the Democrat (1945), states that 'on one thing Burns never wavered — the existence of a good, benevolent God', while A. B. Jamieson, in Burns and Religion (1931), makes the extraordinary claim that Burns was more of a Calvinist than he knew, and that 'Holy Willie's Prayer' was, in fact, 'the ridicule of his own sincerest feelings and profoundest experiences'.

In an age when Christian beliefs no longer hold sway over the majority, it becomes easier to assess what Burns's attitude may have been from his own writings, the only source of evidence that is of any value.

True, William Burnes was a Calvinist of sorts, but one tinged with the new liberalism which was then in the air. This is reflected in the work to which the young Burns was exposed, the Manual of Religious Belief in the Form of a Dialogue between Father and Son, compiled, in all probability, by Burnes himself or by Burns's teacher Murdoch at Burnes's behest.

According to the autobiographical letter to Dr Moore, Burns was a deeply religious boy, for he described his beliefs at this time as 'enthusiastic, idiot piety'.

Quite early on, Burns seems seriously to have begun to question the very foundations of religious belief, for on 21st March 1787, he told his boyhood friend James Candlish: 'I likewise, since you and I were first acquainted, in the pride of despising old women's stories, ventured in 'the daring path Spinzoa trod' — a quotation from John Brown's Essay on Satire — 'but experience of the weakness, not the strength, of human powers, made me glad to grasp at revealed religion.'

From this, and from other letters, it seems clear that at this time Burns had doubts about religion but wanted to believe in it, though not necessarily in any of the forms purveyed in his day; a point made again in a letter to Clarinda dated 8th January 1788: 'A mind pervaded, actuated, and governed by purity, truth and charity, though it does not merit heaven, yet is an absolutely necessary prerequisite, without which heaven can neither be obtained nor enjoyed; and, by Divine promise, such a mind shall never fail of attaining 'everlasting life:' hence the impure, the deceiving, and the uncharitable exclude themselves from eternal bliss, by their unfitness for enjoying it.... [Christ] will bring us all, through various ways, and by various means, to bliss at last.' Burns added, more specifically: 'My creed is pretty nearly expressed in the last clause of Jamie Deans's grace, an honest weaver in Ayrshire: 'Lord, grant that we may lead a gude life; for a gude life makes a gude end; at least, it helps weel!' '

How totally he rejected Calvinism is made plain in his letter to Mrs Dunlop of 2nd August 1788:

'I am in perpetual warfare with that doctrine of our Reverend Priesthood, that 'we are born into this world bond slaves of iniquity and heirs of perdition; wholly inclined to that which is evil and wholly disinclined to that which is good untill by a kind of Spiritual Filtration or rectifying process Called effectual Calling & etc.-' The whole business is reversed, and our connections above and below completely change place. I believe in my conscience that the case is just quite contrary. We came into this world with a heart and disposition to do good for it, untill by dashing a large mixture of base Alloy called Prudence alias Selfishness, the too precious Metal of the Soul is brought down to the blackguard Sterling of ordinary currency...'

That Burns at times doubted the existence of an after-life, without which Christianity becomes simply an ethical code, is demonstrated in a stoical letter to Robert Muir, dated 7th March 1788:

'The Close of life indeed, to a reasoning eye is, 'dark as was chaos, ere the infant sun
"Was roll'd together, or had try'd his beams
Athwart the gloom profound..."

But the honest man has nothing to fear. If we he down in the grave, the whole man a piece of broke machinery, to moulder with the clods of the valley — so be it; at least there is an end of pain, care, woes and wants: if that part of us called Mind, does survive the apparent destruction of the man — away with old-wife prejudices and tales! Every age and every nation has had a different set of stories: and as the many are always weak, of consequence they have often, perhaps always been deceived: a man, conscious of having acted an honest part among his fellow creatures; even granting that he may have been the sport, at times, of passions and instincts; he goes to a great unknown Being who could have no other end in giving him existence but to make him happy; who gave him those passions and instincts, and well knows their force.

'These, my worthy friend, are my ideas... It becomes a man of sense to think for himself; particularly in a case where all men are equally interested, and where, indeed, all men are equally in the dark.'

How deep was his doubting is shown by a passage in a letter to Mrs Dunlop, dated 13th December 1789:

'Jesus Christ, thou amiablest of characters. I trust thou art no Imposter, and that thy revelation of blissful scenes of existence beyond death and the grave, is not one of the many impositions which time after time have been palmed off on a credulous mankind.'

Burns's poetic references are no more assured -

"Courts for cowards were erected,
Churches built to please the priest." -

Being there to offset

"An atheist-laugh's a poor exchange
For Deity offended!"

The later references to religion in Burns's letters reveal the same process of questioning still going on. On 21st August 1792, writing to Mrs Dunlop, he declared that 'still the damned dogmas of reasoning Philosophy throw in their doubt'.

His last recorded thoughts on this subject, again set out in a letter to Mrs Dunlop dated 20th and 29th December 1794, eighteen months before his death, do not show him in an orthodox light:

`What a transient business is life! Very lately I was a boy; but t'other day I was a young man; and I already begin to feel the rigid fibre and stiffening joints of Old Age coming fast o'er my frame. With all my follies of youth, and I fear, a few vices of manhood, still I congratulate myself on having had in early days religion strongly impressed on my mind. I have nothing to say to any body, as, to which Sect they belong, or what Creed they believe; but I look on the Man who is firmly persuaded of Infinite Wisdom and Goodness superintending and directing every circumstance that can happen in his lot - I felicitate such a man as having a solid foundation for his mental enjoyment; a firm prop and sure stay, in the hour of difficulty, trouble and distress: and a never-failing anchor of hope, when he looks beyond the grave.'

'Hope', be it noted: not faith. That, as Thomas Crawford has remarked, is not 'either orthodox or atheistic'.

The only fair conclusion to be reached from studying all Burns's references to religion is surely that his position lay somewhere between these two extremes: that he was, in fact, as C.E.M. Joad once described himself 'a wistful agnostic'.

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