“Holy Willie’s Prayer,” written in 1785, was printed in 1789 and reprinted in 1799. It was one of the poet’s favorite verses, and he sent a copy to his friend, the convivial preacher John M’Math, who had requested it, along with a dedicatory poem titled “Epistle to the Rev. John M’Math” (published in 1808). To M’Math he sent his “Argument” as background information:Holy Willie was a rather oldish bachelor elder, in the parish of Mauchline, and much and justly famed for that polemical chattering which ends in tippling orthodoxy, and for that spiritualized bawdry which refines to liquorish devotion.
The real-life “Willie” whom Burns had in mind was William Fisher, a strict Presbyterian elder of the Mauchline church.
In his satire on religious fanaticism, Burns cleverly allows Willie to witness against himself. Willie’s prayer, addressed to the deity of Calvinist doctrine, is really a self-serving plea to be forgiven for his own sins of sexual promiscuity (with Meg). Willie’s God—more cruel than righteous—punishes sinners according to the doctrine of predestination of saints: Only a small number of “elect” souls, chosen before their births, will enter Heaven; the others, no matter their goodness, piety, or deeds, are condemned (predestined) to Hell. Willie exults in thoughts of revenge toward the miserable souls who are doomed to such eternal torment. The victims over whom he gloats are, from the reader’s point of view, far less deserving of hellfire than Willie, a hypocrite, lecher, and demon of wrath.
In the “Epistle to the Rev. John M’Math,” Burns defends his own simple creed as one superior to self-styled “holy” Willie’s: “God knows, I’m no the thing I should be,/ Nor am I even the thing I could be,/ But twenty times I rather would be/ An atheist clean/ Than under gospel colors hid be,/ Just for a screen.” His argument, he avers, is not against a benign doctrine of Christianity with its reach of forgiveness for sincerely repented sins, but against the hypocrites and scoundrels “even wi’ holy robes,/ But hellish spirit!”