“One of Burns’s most scathing, and certainly his most famous attack on religious hypocrisy is the satire ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’. Written in 1785, the poem was inspired by William Fisher, an elder of Mauchline Kirk. As such, Burns’s ‘Holy Willie’ considers himself to be one of the religious ‘elect’; one who is preordained for heaven.
Burns uses biblical language to convey the obvious irony present in the idea that Holy Willie is a ‘chosen sample’. The notion of the corrupt Willie as ‘a pillar o’ thy temple’ insinuates the instability of a Kirk and community directed by hypocrites.
The idea of Willie as ‘a guide, a buckler an’ example/To a’ thy flock’ not only serves to stress the subject’s delusion, but to reinforce his ordinariness as a human being subject to natural physicality, something that Burns exploits to the utmost in this sustained derision of religious fanaticism and hypocrisy. Willie is in fact human and as such, he is necessarily subject to physical desires.
Burns further exposes Holy Willie’s hypocrisy by elaborating upon the contradictory nature of his address. Willie confesses that he has indeed had a sexual encounter, but vows ‘ne’er to lift a lawless leg/ Again upon her’ if God forgives him and so, Willie admits that he himself has broken one of the laws of religion that he claims to uphold. Burns immediately follows this with another confession, ‘wi’ Leezie’s lass three times I trow’, indicating not only a lack of sincerity on the part of this famous hypocrite, but a lack of fear of God.
And so, in this poem Burns clearly attacks the misguided complacency of those who consider themselves to be ‘elect’, whilst reinforcing the idea of the physical as an unavoidable reality of human nature, to expose his subject’s hypocrisy.”
Pauline Gray from the BBC website