In Robert Burns’ autobiographical poem, “My Father Was A Farmer,” Burns describes his upbringing as “carefully bred” in “decency and order.” This reference cites both Scottish worship practices as well as Paul’s Corinthian exhortation (I Corinthians 14:40). In “The Cotter’s Saturday Night,” another autobiographical, albeit more idealistic, family portrait, Burns relates how family worship occurred in those evening hours before the Christian Sabbath Day, where the “priest-like father reads the sacred page. . . how guiltless blood for guilty man was shed; How He, who bore in Heaven the second name, Had not on earth wheron to lay His head.” Yet Burns’ life depicts a less than saintly series of choices. Blatant promiscuity (Burns fathered some seventeen children with at least four different women) undergirds many of his more romantic poems. His multiple unrequited loves counter biblical commands of fidelity. So also does Burns’ celebrating the overindulgence of the water of life suggest an unhealthy attitude for moderation, decorum, and conforming to the image of Christ. However, rather than just trying primarily to draw out the deep waters of Burn’s soul and his eternal destination, this paper also explores the soul of Scottish ministry in the late eighteen-century. How effective were ministers and elders in preaching the gospel and promoting gospel living? Were people shepherded well or were they simply sheep left Monday through Saturday to their goatlike inclinations? Was Burns living in an environment where he actually heard the gospel (Romans 10:14-18a)?
Interweaving Burns’ caustic poetry about failing ministers and their inability to bridge high-minded theology with down-to-earth feeding and caring for the flock with published sermons and theological treatises addressing grace, gospel, and sanctification in eighteenth-century Scotland, can enrich the ground-up approaches to social theological history. Greater understanding of the divisions within the Church of Scotland during this time, including the formation of the Associate Presbytery in 1733 and the Relief Church in 1761, may also speak to divisions among Presbyterians in the twenty-first century. Burns’ own insight into the advancing New Light theology among ministers serving in the kirk is a critique too fascinated to neglect. And yes, the question lingers, did Burns’ Sunday mornings sitting on the repentance stool move the pastor’s message not only to his mind but to enter into his heart (Romans 10:18b)?