History of Hymns: “Forgive Our Sins as We Forgive”

by C. Michael Hawn

"Forgive Our Sins as We Forgive"
Rosamond E. Herklots
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 390

"Forgive our sins as we forgive,"
you taught us, Lord, to pray;
but you alone can grant us grace
to live the words we say
*

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, "Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude." Accepting and giving forgiveness may be one of the most important aspects of living. I believe that the Assurance of Pardon is one of the most significant parts of Christian worship: "In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!" These words may offer healing and hope for many in worship, even beyond anything else said or sung. Forgiveness is not only a personal way of living, but also an attribute of societies. How many times do we observe centuries of hate and hurt that, because of the inability to forgive, continue to fester and cause suffering, death, and destruction?

Portions of the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) have been cited in many hymns. For example, the militant missionary hymn, "We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations" (United Methodist Hymnal, 569) echoes "Thy kingdom come on earth" in the refrain: "And Christ’s great kingdom shall come on earth." Presbyterian hymnologist Louis Benson concludes his Communion hymn "For the Bread which You Have Broken" (United Methodist Hymnal, 614, 615) with the first petition, "let your kingdom come, O Lord." Forgiveness has received less attention, however.

With "Forgive Our Sins as We Forgive" by Rosamond Herklots (1905-1987), we receive a full treatment of Matthew 6:12: "And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors." (KJV) Luke 11:4 states: "And forgive us our sins; for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us." "Trespasses" first appeared in William Tyndale’s translation in 1526 and was retained for use in the first Book of Common Prayer in English in 1549. The English Language Liturgical Consultation (1988), a group of ecumenical liturgists in the English-speaking world, proposed "and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us." A companion Scripture is Colossians 3:13, "bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive" (ESV).**

The Companion to Hymns and Psalms (1988), the companion to the 1983 Methodist hymnal used in England, provides the origins of this hymn:

This hymn was written in June 1966 and printed soon afterward in the parish magazine of St. Mary’s Church, Bromley, Kent. The idea of the hymn had occurred to Miss Herklots when she was digging out weeds in her nephew’s garden; she reasoned that their deep roots, obstructing the growth of the flowers near them, resembled the bitterness and resentment that can become entrenched and hinder the Christian’s growth in grace.

Herklots' language is potent in describing the blessings we miss when our "heart . . . broods on wrongs and will not let old bitterness depart" (stanza two) In stanza three, she contrasts the "trivial debts [that] are owed to us" with "our great debt to [Christ]!"

The final stanza is a prayer of petition "cleanse . . . our souls" and "bid resentment cease." Forgiveness leads to establishing "bonds of love" so that "our lives will spread [Christ’s] peace."

Rosamund Eleanor Herklots was born in Masuri, India, in 1905 to missionary parents. She was educated at Leeds Girls' High School and the University of Leeds in England. Working as a teacher and secretary, she began writing hymns in the early 1940s. She submitted hymns for the "Hymns for Britain" competition, two of which were selected to be sung on television. Her total corpus of hymns numbered more than seventy. Herklots died in Greenwich, London, in 1987.

British hymnologist J. R. Watson noted changes in the original text: "At some point after 1978, when an unauthorized inclusive language version was published in the USA, the author modified the third and fourth verses: 'How small the debts men owe to us' became 'What trivial debts are owed to us,' while 'Then, reconciled to God and man' was altered to 'Then, bound to all in bonds of love.'" This is the version that appears in The United Methodist Hymnal.

I was in South Africa in 1998 during the presidency of Nelson Mandela. Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu presented President Mandela with the bound volumes containing the results of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I was sitting among a group of black and white Methodist ministers watching this historic occasion on television as Tutu referenced one of the many important revelations that took place during the process that the Commission hoped would lead to healing and hope for South Africa. At one point, Tutu recalled a black woman who asked him, "Who murdered my husband?" Tutu responded, "We do not know." She was insistent, however, and continued, "I must know who killed my husband." Again, the patient Tutu responded, "I’m sorry, but we may never know who killed your husband." Still her question persisted. Finally, Tutu asked, "My dear lady, why must you know who killed your husband?" She responded simply and quietly, "So I can forgive him."

 

*© 1969, 1983 Rosamund Herklots, Oxford University Press. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

**English Standard Version (ESV). The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.

Dr. Hawn is distinguished professor of church music at Perkins School of Theology. He is also director of the seminary's sacred music program.

Categories: History of Hymns

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