The attitude of Robert Burns towards Calvinism

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2011

18 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Index of Contents:

1. Introduction: Robert Burns

2. Calvinism

3. The Calvinistic Doctrine

4. The importance of the Kirk in the 18th century

5. The attitude of Robert Burns towards Calvinism

6. The Kirk satires

7. Conclusion - Robert Burns and his set of beliefs

8. List of Literature

Robert Burns and Calvinism

1. Introduction: Robert Burns

Robert Burns, the celebrated Scottish poet, was “a very poor man`s son.”1 He was born on the 25th of January in 1759, the first of seven children of a lowland tennant farmer near Alloway in Ayrshire. Being the son of a farmer, Robert Burns was used to hard manial work from childhood on, but his father, William Burns, saw to it that his son got as good an education as was possible under the circumstances. Despite his talent as a poet and his efforts as a farmer, Robert Burns stayed a poor man all his life. Allen Cunningham states, in the biographical notes of the 1855 edition of the complete works of Robert Burns, that due to his being a poet Burns was never able to make a living out of his farm, as writing poetry did not agree with this kind of work. This stands to doubt, as writing poetry cannot bring on adverse weather conditions, or cause fields to be stony, pastures to be wet, and rents to rise. And Robert Burns surely put a lot of effort in farming. He tried to be well informed by reading about new and better farming methods,2 and he enjoyed rural life, as can be seen in many of his poems and songs, where he lovingly portraits the contry-side and its inhabitants - humans as well as animals. But he was certainly no “Heav’n-taught ploughman”3, as his Edinburgh editor Henry Mackenzie described him in 1786. The upper classes in 18th century Scotland liked the idea of an untaught peasant poet.4 Burns, however, was much more than that. For a tennant farmer`s son, he had a very good education, extending to Latin and French, and he was well aquainted with literature.5 Robert Burns was an intelligent man with an independent mind, who had strong political and humanitarian opinions. He wrote and rhymed about the world as he saw and experienced it, criticising what he thought was wrong. His interest in Scottish culture was immense; besides writing hundreds of poems; songs; ballads; and epistles, he collected and wrote down over 200 of old Scottish songs, thus saving them from obliteration.6

The great majority of Burns`s poetical works is written in Scotch, thus giving a voice to the poor struggling country population, describing their problems and pleasures and taking their side against the authorities. His popularity was a boost to the Scottish language. Reading was encouraged by the Calvinist church, but this refered to the Bible and other religious literature.

The bible, however, was written in English, a Scottish version was never printed.7 When Robert Burns published his first volume of poetry under the title “Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect”8, he offered his readers literature in the language they themselves used every day of their lives. The tenor of his poetry, too, differs from the literature the godly were supposed to read: In “The Jolly Beggars. A Cantata” he lets the chorus sing:

“A fig for those by law potected!

Liberty`s a glorious feast!

Courts for cowards were erected,

Churches build to please the priest.”9

Those words were written in 1785. At this time the Scottish church, simply called the Kirk, was Calvinistic.

2. Calvinism:

The leading figure of the Scottish Reformation was John Knox. He had met John Calvin while in exile in Switzerland; when he returned to Scotland in 1559, he brought back Calvinistic doctrine and propagated it. His declaration of Protestant faith, known as The Scots Confession, was accepted by the Scottish Parliament in 1560.10

It cannot be denied that Calvinism had its merits. The structure of the Kirk was presbytarian and basically democratic. The congregation elected out of their ranks their own elders and ministers who formed the Kirk Session, a kind of court or council. This was responsible for the discipline of its members, education, and the welfare of the poor. The presbitarian churches have a distinct stucture: A number of local kirk sessions are supervised by a presbytary. The hierarchy continues with the synods and the Genaral Assembly as the highest board.11 Calvinist Reformation is based on the Bible as the only source of God`s word, accessible for everybody. Therefore literacy was seen as very important. From the beginning of the Kirk in 1560, every church had to supply a schoolmaster, able to teach English grammar and Latin.12 Thus even the poor were able to get some education for their children.13

A disadvantage of the Calvinist confession was that salvation was not for all believers, but only for the “chosen.” The great majority of men were destined to suffer eternal punishment, regardless of their good or bad deeds. As no one knew for certain to which group he belonged, this led to fear and hypocrisy.14

3. The Calvinistic Doctrine:

Calvinistic Doctrine mainly consists of five points, known by the acronym T.U.L.I.P.:

1. Total Depravity: This point is also known as Total Inability. Due to Adam´s original sin everybody is evil and unable to lead a life without sin.
2. Unconditional Election or Predestination: From the beginning of creation God has chosen the ones whom he will save and whom he will destroy. Nothing can be done to change this as salvation cannot be won by anything humans do.
3. Limited or Particular Atonement: Jesus Christ died only for the chosen ones. The sins of the chosen are atoned by the death of Christ. The others will suffer damnation for their sins.
4. Irresistible Grace: The ones chosen by God are drawn to salvation by the Holy Spirit and cannot reject it.
5. Perseverance of the Saints: Once saved, always saved. The chosen ones are saved, even when they are sinners.15

This doctrine was not accepted by all Protestants. Predestination - often called double predestination as God had chosen both groups of humans even before they were born- seemed to contradict the idea of a benevolent God. This led to protest against the official beliefs laid down 1643 in the Westminster Confession. The orthodox discipline, too, was disputed. The dissenters left the church and formed their own congregations. In 18th century Scotland, the “Marrow-men” criticised the Unconditional Election, and the Seceders opposed the alliance between Kirk and secular power.16 A moderate form of Calvinism emerged. It was called the “New Light” - in Scots “New Licht”- in contrast to the “Old Light” or “Auld Licht” of orthodox congregations. In the times of Burns, both types of congregations existed side by side.17

4. The importance of the Kirk in the 18th century:

In the 18th century, the Kirk was a most important social institution that took care of the needs of every day life like health; education and welfare, not only of spiritual life and salvation.18 It constituted an authority of great power that affected every day life and economic well-being. It could either obstruct or help personal aspirations. The latter was the case with the poet`s father. William Burns had been suspected to belong to the rebells of 1745, when Prince Charles, the “Young Pretender”, had tried to lead a Scottish army against the English and establish an independent Scotland. The Kirk had to vouchsafe for his integrity before he was able to lease a few acres of land to start farming.19

The Kirk’s discipline was drastic, and had remained that way in the times of Robert Burns. Most frequent offences were the breach of the Sabbath laws and fornication. Punishment for offences ranged from being exposed in front of the congregation to excommunication20 or, in accordance with the landlords, the confiscation of the lease.21

Robert Burns himself had to experience the Kirk’s discipline at least twice: When he had an illicite daughter by a servant girl,22 and a second time when his relation to Jean Armour, his later wife, became public. He had to stand in front of the congregation for three consecutive Sundays to be rebuked and do penance. Burns complied, and was pronounced a free bachelor.23

As the congregation believed that man existed only for the glory of God, their lifes had to be led according to strict morality. The Calvinistic lifestyle was puritan; the aim was to “purify” the creed as well as the society and to change everyday life to the standards set by the Bible. Hard work was propagated, and prosperity was regarded as a sign of salvation.24 Secular entertainment, as for example dancing, was seen as detrimental to Christian behaviour.25 Writing poetry, if not religious, was vain and therefore frowned upon. Literature often consisted of jeremiads, a term taken from the Bible and the Book of Jeremia, where the prophet laments the wrongdoings of the Israelites and the punishments of God that were consequently to be expected. The Puritain jeremiads follow this example and lament the evil, sinful ways of society and announce God’s horrible punishment.26

Burns did in fact write a poem titeled “A Jeremiad”, where he laments his life as a “man of strife” who is hated, reviled, and scorned, and, in addition, poor. But he concludes his verses on a humoristic note, stating that in spite of all his problems he is blackguarded “day and night by lad and lass.”27 As the word “yet” puts the last two lines of the poem in contrast to the lament, blackguarded in this context means that he is being teased, something he obviously enjoys.28

5. The attitude of Robert Burns towards Calvinism:

The Calvinistic doctrine of the Kirk often led to bigotry and hypocrisy, especially among orthodox church elders who believed they belonged to the chosen ones and saw themselves as saints. Robert Burns who valued honesty as the most important of all virtues,29 recognised hypocrisy and malice when he met them, even in the diguise of rightiousness. Burns wrote several poems and epistles expressing his feelings towards the orthodox dogma of the Old Light Kirk and criticising the bigotry and hypocrisy of ministers and church elders. In “Address to the Unco Guid, or the Rigidly Righteous” he accuses the bigots as follows:

“O ye wha are sae guid yourself.

Sae pious and sae holy,

Ye`ve nought to do but mark and tell

Your neighbor`s fauts and folly!”30

Reminding them, in the first two lines of the last stanza, of their limited knowledge and the omniscience of God:


1 Bold, Robert Burns, P. 2.

2 Cf. Cunningham, The Complete Works of Robert Burns, Pos. 1934.

3 Bold, Robert Burns, P. 11.

4 Cf. Burke, Collected Poems of Robert Burns, P. VII, VIII.

5 Cf. Ibid. P. VI.

6 Cf. Crawford/ Imlah, The Penguin Book of Scottish Verse, P. 532. 1

7 Cf. Donaldson / Morpeth, A Dictionary of Scottish History, P. 20.

8 Bold, Robert Burns, P. 9.

9 Crawford/ Imlah, The Penguin Book of Scottish Verse, P. 287.

10 Cf. Donaldson / Morpeth, A Dictionary of Scottish History, P. 45.

11 Cf. Ibid., P. 175.

12 Cf. Lang, John Knox and Reformation, Pos. 2042.

13 Cf. Mitchell, Robert Burns, P. 8.

14 Cf. Daiches, The new companion to Scottish culture, P. 38.

15 Cf. (14.09.2011).

16 Cf. Daiches, The new companion to Scottish culture, P. 39. 3

17 Cf. Bold, Robert Burns, P. 8.

18 Cf. Lang, John Knox and Reformation, Pos. 2099.

19 Cf. Cunningham, The Complete Works of Robert Burns, Pos. 1838.

20 Cf. Lang, John Knox and Reformation, Pos. 2079.

21 Cf. Mitchell, Robert Burns, P.13.

22 Cf. Ibid., P. 11.

23 Cf. Bold, Robert Burns, P. 9.

24 Cf. (19.08.2011).

25 Cf. (19.08.2011).

26 Cf. (12.09.2011).

27 Cf. A Jeremiad, In: Wordsworth Poetry Library, Collected Poems of Robert Burns, P. 282.

28 Cf. (15.09.2011).

29 Cf. Bold, Robert Burns, P. 216.

30 Address to the Uncu Guid, In: Wordsworth Poetry Library, Collected Poems of Robert Burns, P. 84f. 5

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The attitude of Robert Burns towards Calvinism
University of Vechta  (Institut für Anglistik)
AN-2: Scottish Poetry from Burns to the Present
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Laura Endrizzi (Author), 2011, The attitude of Robert Burns towards Calvinism, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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