It was in this poem of 1785 that Burns began to explore ways in which he could satirise bigoted religion through the adoption of a persona - a poetic method he would employ with gusto in Holy Willie's Prayer.
In the Epistle he employs the model of personification, as Robert Fergusson did before him, such as 'Sour Bigotry on his last legs / Girns and looks back' or 'Poor gapin', glowrin' Superstition!' which he couples with the motif of illness which he would later employ in 'Address to the Unco Guid'.
His quack doctor is 'Black Jock' or the Reverend John Russell of Kilmarnock, a frequently recurring persona, is one of the staunchest bigoted ministers. Jock's dignity is stripped from him as he is pictured examining the urine of superstition. The mock persona blames Dr Taylor of Norwich and John Goldie, the subject of the Epistle, both of whom are moderate 'New Lights'.
John Goldie or Goudie (1717-1809) was a miller's son from Craigmill, Galston. He was a virtuoso cabinet-maker and wine merchant in Kilmarnock who dabbled in speculating in coal-mining, canals and also was an amateur mathematician, astronomer and theologian.
Having published his own Essays on various Important Subjects Moral and Divine or 'Goudie's Bible' in 1780, he was able to act as financial guarantor to Burns during the publication of the Kilmarnock edition.
He was especially critical of the Auld Lichts or 'whigs' for their literal interpretation of the Bible and denying any symbolic value of the Scriptures. His ideas of original sin were progressive and appealed to Burns, who was taking an vocal interest in 'polemical divinity'.
Burns begins this humorous epistle by describing Goldie as 'terror of the whigs, / dread o' black coats and reverend wigs!' The term 'whig', after its application to the Covenanters in 1648 and the Exclusionists in 1679, became political in England but in Scotland it survives in application to the Presbyterians.
The darker side to these disputes is once again brought out by focusing on th eimgae of an empty tar barrel with two red peats, an image that would immediately call into mind the spectre of witch trials and martyrdom at the stake in Scotland's not-so-distant past.
It is possible to see Burns's own voice emerging from the mock Calvinist persona in the second half of the poem and some critics see this as less effective than his previous persona.