Anti-Calvinism and the Ayrshire Enlightenment

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This essay locates Burns in the context of the intense and combative ecclesiastical politics of Ayrshire during the second half of the eighteenth century, a period when the county saw not only a culture of robust pamphleteering on theological matters but also a couple of high-profile heresy trials. Whereas the Scottish Enlightenment as a whole was, the issue of lay patronage apart, a relatively sedate affair which—surprisingly—witnessed no major theological controversies over subscription to the Calvinist doctrines enshrined in the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), Ayrshire was a disputatious outlier from those consensual norms. There was a marked theological gulf in Burns’s Ayrshire between hardline Calvinist ‘auld lichts’ and theologically liberal anti-Calvinist ‘new lichts’, including the Reverend William McGill of Ayr, who was tried for heresy, and the polymathic layman John Goudie of Kilmarnock, who published a direct attack on the doctrine of original sin which Burns celebrated in verse. Burns’s ecclesiastical satires emerged in a local environment of vigorous, vicious and personalized theological debate, much of it focused on the core doctrines of Calvinism.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Oxford Handbook of Robert Burns
EditorsGerard Carruthers
PublisherOxford University Press
ISBN (Electronic)9780191995590
ISBN (Print)9780198846246
Publication statusPublished - 2024


  • Calvinism
  • Anti-Calvinism
  • Ecclesiastical
  • Subscription
  • Doctrine
  • Heresy


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