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Robert Burns Lives!
Volume 1 Chapter 27

Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Atlanta, GA,

Stuart Leyden has held pastorates in Rumson, New Jersey, Easton, Maryland, and Waukesha, Wisconsin. For the last ten years, before retiring in 1989, Dr. Leyden did interim work throughout America. His last church ministry was at the Roseville Presbyterian Church, a 2,000 member church in Roseville, California. He is a former adjunct instructor at the University of South Carolina at Beaufort, where he taught “Introduction to the Bible as Literature and Comparative Religion”. He currently serves as part-time pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church near the border of Cherokee and Forsyth counties in Georgia.  He and his wife Donna have ten grandchildren with another on the way.

Dr. Leyden earned the above degrees respectively from Wheaton College, Edinburgh University, Princeton Theological Seminary, and Temple University.

Rev. Leyden says, “I have two cousins in Glasgow, and more distant cousins on the Isle of Skye where the MacDonalds live in peace with the MacLeods. But I do have a great grandmother who was a Campbell. I attribute all the peculiarities of my personality to that MacDonald-Campbell union!”

Our readers should find his article interesting and thought provoking. The Church of Scotland’s Life and Work asks, “Was the free-loving, hard-drinking Robert Burns a moral reprobate with no interest in his immortal soul, or a man for whom Christianity was a powerful influence?” Our guest writer, as you will see, is quite capable of drawing his own conclusions.

By Stuart T. Leyden, B.A., B.D., M.Th., Ph.D.

Stuart T. Leyden, B.A., B.D., M.Th., Ph.D.

            When it comes to examining Robert Burn's Christian commitment, opinion is hotly divided.  Some contend that he was a sceptic, a hostile critic of Christianity, and at best a "wistful agnostic", [1] but not a believing Christian. The other side embraces him within the faith once delivered to the saints in the Calvinist expression of the Scottish Kirk.  Perhaps I should not proceed any further without warning the reader that the evaluators often find in Burns whatever suits their prejudice.  My case is made as a first-generation American of Scottish ancestry, and as a Presbyterian clergyman.

The case against Robert Burns as a sincere Christian believer is made on several grounds.  Firstly, Burns seems much more interested in Satan or Beelzebub than God. In his 'Address of Beelzebub' he takes the part of the devil in advising the privileged to deal harshly with the poor and disadvantaged:

            The young dogs, swinge them to the labour,
            Let WARK an' HUNGER mak them sober! [2]

And in his 'Address to the Deil' he reminds us of the devil's appearance in the Garden of Eden incognito (as a serpent) and of Satan's power over Job. [3]

            An' how ye gat him i' your thrall,
            An' brak him out o' hous an' hal'

Secondly, Burns is held to be a critic of church life rather than a supporter. One of his most famous and delightful poems, 'Holy Willie's Prayer', is a scathing criticism of one of the tenets of the hyper-Calvinism of his era, namely, the doctrine of double predestination whereby the Al(FRS: 3-20-07)mighty with considerable delight consigns some to heaven and some to hell.  This theology is placed in the imaginary prayer of a consummate hypocrite.

            O thou that in the heavens does dwell!
            What, as it pleases best thysel,
            Sends ane to heaven an' ten to hell,
            A' for thy glory              

          O Lord--yestreen--Thou kens-wi' Meg--
            Thy pardon I sincerely beg! [4]

          In one shot Burns blasts the despotic fatalism of the ultra-Calvinistic wing of the Kirk and exposes the sexual exploits of hypocritical Willie.

Thirdly, Burns is a self-confessed sceptic in matters of religion.  He lived in the era of the continental Enlightenment in which Voltaire in France, Tom Paine in America and David Hume in Scotland raked Christianity over the hot coals of rationalism-empiricism.  In a letter to Cunningham he says, "I hate a man who wishes to be a Deist, but I fear, every fair, unprejudiced Enquirer must in some degree by a Sceptic." [5]

Lastly, his lifestyle was that of a self-confessed rake who gloried in his sexual promiscuity without regard for the consequences, namely, bastard offspring.  To be fair, he and his wife Jean did take one of them into their home.  While flagrant sexual laxity is not proof of disbelief, it does seem inconsistent with a Christian lifestyle. In addition his interest in baudy sex found expression in his collection of ribald songs in The Scots Musical Museum.

At this point I am reminded of Harry Truman's comment that he only wanted to talk to one-handed economists.  Economists, he said, always hedged their advice by saying, "On the other hand…"   As you would suspect there is another way to interpret Burns' relationship to the Christian faith.

The fact that he wrote so much about the Devil testifies to his knowledge of the Bible where that unholy figure appears in the Garden of Eden and in the life of Job to tempt and to test.  One wonders if such a prominent symbol in his poetry might suggest some inward struggles with temptation in Burns' own life.  Certainly, he was familiar with the teaching of the Bible on Adam's Fall and the reality of evil in the world.  Burns had fun with the Devil in more ways than one, and he would not be the only believer who was more conscious of evil than of grace.  Moreover his compassion for the poor, and insistence on human dignity ('A man's a man for a' that') may reflect not only his own humble origins, or Enlightenment independence, but a grasp of the Biblical teaching that humanity is made in the image of God.

Burn's criticism of Holy Willie, the Unco Guid and all forms of religious self-righteousness put him comfortably in the company of all the great prophets of the Bible and especially in the camp of Jesus, who blasted the hypocrites over and over again in the Gospels.

That he was a sceptic should not surprise anyone.  All sincere enquirers are bound to be sceptics, doubters of God's goodness in a world where the innocent suffer.  His letters often fluctuate between belief and unbelief. He struggled. Late in his brief life he wrote to a friend, Mrs. Dunlop, about his son Francis Wallace and her godson: "I am so convinced that an unshaken faith in the doctrines of Christianity is not only necessary by making us better men, but by making us happier men, that I shall take every care that your little godson, & every little creature that shall call me Father, shall be firmly persuaded that 'God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing unto men their trespasses'." [6]

A cynic might say that Burns was simply trying to reassure a good Christian friend - telling Mrs. Dunlop what she wanted to hear.  But there are at least two reasons why I think that kind of cynicism is unfair.  When it was discovered that Jean Armour was pregnant by Robert Burns, the Kirk Session disciplined them both, and Burns appeared before the congregation.  As far as I can discover he was not coerced.  In spite of that humiliation, he continued to attend worship in his Kirk all his life: I assume repentant and forgiven.

Furthermore, Burns was brought up on the Bible in his home and wrote two paraphrases of the Bible, one on the first Psalm and another on 'Jeremiah 15th Ch. 10V'.  But familiarity with the Bible does not necessarily prove belief in its teaching.  There is one poem of Burns' that reveals profound Christian belief.  It is 'The Cotter's Saturday Night'.  While it is true that you cannot find anything else quite like it in any of his other poems, we must not confuse quantity with quality.  This poem has the quality of faith.

It is commonly assumed that Burns is to some extent recreating a scene in his boyhood home where his father, as priest in his own household, leads the family in worship.  In this poem Burns includes the sacred history of Abraham, Moses, alludes to David on the lyre, Job's suffering, Isaiah's prophetic fire, the atonement of Jesus' blood for the guilty, the triumph of God over Babylon in the book of Revelation, the joy of family worship in the cottage and divine grace in their hearts.  If you find that this poem soars with the Spirit both Christian and patriotic, perhaps it is because the author had a Christian spirit as well as a love for his native soil.  Listen to it:

            The priest-like Father reads the sacred page…
            Perhaps the Christian Volume is the theme,
                        How guiltless blood for guilty man was shed;
            How He, who bore in heaven the second name,
                        Had not on Earth whereon to lay his head:
                        How his first followers and servants sped;


            Then kneeling down to Heaven's Eternal King
                        The Saint, the Father, and the Husband prays
                        Hope 'springs exulting on triumphant wing' [7]

Perhaps in a more profound way than many of his ecclesiastical contemporaries, Robert Burns understood human failing and Christian redemption. If his self-confessed doubt eliminates him from the Christian fold, who then can claim "Grace divine"?  (FRS: 3-20-2007)

[1] Maurice Lindsay, Religion, Burns and,'
  The Burns Encyclopedia {article online},

[2] Quoted by Susan Manning, 'Burns and God,' Robert BURNS/tka and Cultural Authority, edema.  Robert Crawford (Iowa City: University of Iowa Pressure, 1977), 115.

[3] Robert BURNS/tka, 'Address to the Deil', Poems of Robert BURNS/tka, eds Henry Meikle and William Beattie (Mebourne, London, Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1953) 37.

[4] Ibid., 126.

[5] Susan, Manning, operation.comes in today. (Letters II,16), 125.

[6] The Letters of Robert Burns, Vol. II, ed. G Ross Roy (Oxford: Clarendon, 1985), 144.

[7] Meikle and Beattie, eds, op.cit., 68-70.

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