This is written in lowland Scots dialect, so it’s a bit of a struggle to get at the meaning, especially if you’re not a Scot. It is well worth the effort, though. It was written around 1785, but it captures elegantly the bigotry and hypocrisy exhibited by the religious “holier-than-thou” down the ages. It applies just as much today as it did 230 years ago when it was penned. It reveals that one’s exasperation with religious bigotry and oppression is not just a feature of our modern age. Even in times when Christianity in our western world was near universal, and expressing dissent was a dangerous thing, there were brave people like Robert Burns prepared to ridicule.
The poem attacks the bigoted and hypocritical attitude of members of the church (or “Kirk”) by recounting a fictional self-justifying prayer of an actual person whom Burns knew, an elder of the Kirk, Holy Willie. In the prayer, Holy Willie displays breath-taking hypocrisy, with a complete absence of irony, by justifying his own misdeeds and asking God’s forbearance and support, while at the same time asking God to judge harshly and punish mercilessly his fellow transgressors. Where have we seen that before? But Burns is making a wider point than merely the hypocrisy of sanctimonious individuals; in effect the poem is a broadside against the hypocritical Calvinist theology upon which the Kirk was based (and still is today).
You’ll even find an allusion to “young earth creationism” in verse 3 (“Six thousand years ‘ere my creation”).
Here we go – enjoy!
Holy Willie’s Prayer
O Thou, that in the heavens does dwell, As it pleases best Thysel', Sends aen to Heaven an' ten to Hell, For Thy glory, And no for onie guid or ill They've done afore Thee!
I bless and praise Thy matchless might, When thousands Thou hast left in night, That I am here afore Thy sight, For gifts an' grace A burning and a shining light To a' this place.
What was I, or my generation, That I should get sic exaltation? I wha deserv'd most just damnation For broken laws, Six thousand years 'ere my creation, Thro' Adam's cause.
When from my mither's womb I fell, Thou might hae plung'd me deep in hell, To gnash my gums, and weep and wail, In burnin lakes, Where damned devils roar and yell, Chain'd to their stakes.
Yet I am here a chosen sample, To show thy grace is great and ample; I'm here a pillar o' Thy temple, Strong as a rock, A guide, a buckler, and example, To a' Thy flock.
O Lord, Thou kens what zeal I bear, When drinkers drink, an' swearers swear, An' singing here, an' dancin there, Wi' great and sma'; For I am keepit by Thy fear Free frae them a'.
But yet, O Lord! confess I must, At times I'm fash'd wi' fleshly lust: An' sometimes, too, in worldly trust, Vile self gets in; But Thou remembers we are dust, Defil'd wi' sin.
O Lord! yestreen, Thou kens, wi' Meg Thy pardon I sincerely beg; O may't ne'er be a livin' plague To my dishonour, An' I'll ne'er lift a lawless leg Again upon her.
Besides, I farther maun avow, Wi' Leezie's lass, three times I trow - But Lord, that Friday I was fou, When I cam near her; Or else, Thou kens, Thy servant true Wad never steer her.
Maybe Thou lets this fleshly thorn Buffet Thy servant e'en and morn, Lest he owre proud and high shou'd turn, That he's sae gifted: If sae, Thy han' maun e'en be borne, Until Thou lift it.
Lord, bless Thy chosen in this place, For here Thou has a chosen race! But God confound there stuborn face, An' blast their name, Wha brings Thy elders to disgrace An' open shame.
Lord, mind Gaw'n Hamilton's deserts; He drinks, an' swears, an' plays at cartes, Yet has sae mony takin arts, Wi' great an' sma', Frae God's ain priest the people's hearts He steals awa'.
And when we chasten'd him therefore, Thou kens how he bred sic a splore, And set the world in a roar O' laughing at us; Curse Thou his basket and his store, Kail an' potatoes.
Lord, hear my earnest cry and pray'r, Against that Presbyt'ry o' Ayr; Thy strong right hand, Lord mak it bare Upo' their heads; Lord visit them, an' dinna spare, For their misdeeds.
O Lord my God! that glib-tongu'd Aitken, My vera heart an' flesh are quakin, To think how we stood sweatin, shakin, An' pish'd wi' dread, While he, wi' hingin lip an' snakin, Held up his head.
Lord, in Thy day o' vengeance try him, Lord, visit them wha did employ him, And pass not in Thy mercy by them, Nor hear their pray'r, But for Thy people's sake destroy them, An' dinna spare.
But, Lord, remember me an' mine Wi' mercies temporal and divine, That I for grace an' gear may shine, Excell'd by nane, And a' the glory shall be Thine, Amen, Amen!