Why Different Christians Recite the Lord’s Prayer Differently

Thomas Cranmer, 16th century Archbishop of Canterbury, who guided King Henry VIII’s efforts to standardize an English version of the Lord’s Prayer.

Have you ever been a little confused when it comes to saying the Lord’s Prayer in a church service?

I remember when I first visited an evangelical church, that did not have a fixed, liturgical tradition. When it came to reciting the Lord’s Prayer, one group was still saying, “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us….,” while the other group had finished their, “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors…,” several seconds earlier. The “debtors” waited patiently until “trespassers,” like me, had finished, before continuing together.

So, why the cacophony of voices among Christians?

Protestant Christians have been known for having multiple methods of saying the so-called, “Lord’s Prayer,” what many Catholics call the “Our Father,” based on the first two words of the prayer. My Catholic friends often tease me for the endless varieties of worship among English-speaking Protestants.

But it really was not meant to be that way. Much of the story goes back to the period of the Reformation, in 16th and 17th century England.

In Search of a Standardized Version of the Lord’s Prayer

King Henry VIII, the boisterous regent of England, had broken away from the Pope, regarding the dispute over what Henry considered to be his unlawful marriage. The Catholic leader refused to grant Henry an annulment, so Henry declared himself to be the supreme head of the Church of England. But what would this breakaway church from Rome look like?

What Henry wanted to do was to standardize on a form of Christian instruction and congregational worship in the language of the people, English, and not in Latin, that formed the backbone of the Roman Mass. A standardized form of the Lord’s Prayer in English was part of Henry’s plans, and he enlisted Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to execute those plans.

The “Lord’s Prayer” is the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples as recorded in Matthew 6:9-13. The version that I first learned, was a modernized version of what Henry originally envisioned, as enshrined in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer:

Our Father who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us,
and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.

King Henry VIII’s first stab at a standardized version sounded a lot like this. In an odd twist of history, Henry looked to the work of William Tyndale, whom Henry had originally despised as being insubordinate, a brilliant scholar who had printed an unauthorized translation of the Bible into English. Tyndale’s 1526 translation of this passage from Matthew’s Gospel employed spelling that is relatively foreign to most English readers today, but you can get the sense of this:

O oure father which arte in heve halowed be thy name. 
Let thy kyngdome come.
Thy wyll be fulfilled as well in erth as it ys in heven. 
Geve vs this daye oure dayly breede. 
And forgeve vs oure treaspases eve as we forgeve oure trespacers. 
And leade vs not into teptacion: but delyver vs fro evell.
For thyne is ye kyngedome and ye power and ye glorye for ever. Amen.

Henry followed Tyndale’s version closely, except that Henry VIII’s 1545 version changedthy wyll be fulfilled” to eventually the more familiar “thy will be done.” Henry also proposed “Suffer not us to be led into temptation,” but his Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, objected, saying that the King really should not alter the words of Scripture. By 1549, Thomas Cranmer arrived at the more well known, “Lead us not into temptation.”  Aside from these changes, we more or less get the Lord’s Prayer as many (older) people know it today, preserved in the Anglican or Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, put together mostly by Thomas Cranmer.

Tyndale’s “Trespasses” Versus King James’ “Debts”

The story takes an interesting turn from there, during the early 17th century reign of King James. King James agreed upon having a formal revision of the English Bible, what became the so-called “Authorized” King James Version (KJV), in 1611. Here is Matthew 6:9-13 in the KJV:

Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil:
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.

Notice the subtle change that the King James translators did by substituting “debts” for “trespasses,” etc.  Compare this also to a rendering of the Lord’s Prayer as found in the Gospel of Luke 11:2-4:

Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, as in heaven, so in earth.
Give us day by day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins; for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil.

So, why did the King James translators change Tyndale’s “trespasses” in Matthew to “debts,” and leave us all befuddled in reciting the Lord’s Prayer for centuries? The King James translators chose the word “debts,” because it was a more literal reading of the original Greek. But Tyndale chose “trespasses,” presumably because it was more consistent with a literal reading of the following verses, Matthew 6:14-15:

…For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you:But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses

Still, the meanings of the terms, “trespasses,” “debts,” and “sins,” between Matthew and Luke, are all very close. But the variations in translations helps to explain why different Christians say the Lord’s Prayer so differently. The meaning is basically the same, despite the minor translation differences. We humbly come before the Lord to have our sins forgiven, who is always willing and able to do so, just as we are asked to forgive those who sin against us.

How Do You End the Lord’s Prayer?

There is one more variation of the Lord’s Prayer, for which we can take note. Luke omits this, while the Tyndale/HenryVIII/Cranmer and King James versions, based on Matthew, retains this short doxology in the last line:

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. 

William Tyndale was following Greek sources behind the venerable Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible that had this phrase in their texts, though there were some doubts as to its authenticity. But as the scholarship of the Reformation progressed, Bible scholars eventually concluded that this doxology was not included in the oldest Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. At the time the original King James Version translators did their work, they were not all entirely agreed upon or aware of this Greek manuscript evidence. Centuries later, nearly all modern English translations have subsequently omitted this phrase, while possibly preserving the additional reading in a footnote.

A surviving Oxhyrhynchus Didache fragment, from the 4th century, a possible source for the doxology at the end of the familiar “Lord’s Prayer.”.  See Brice C. Jones’ website for more information.

What makes this closing doxology to the Lord’s Prayer so interesting, is that early Christian practice made a point of including this phrase at the end of the prayer, as part of regular Christian devotion. A very early church manual, the Didache, that most scholars date back to the 2nd century, or as early as the end of the 1st century, A.D., includes a variation of the doxology, when reciting the Lord’s Prayer, urging believers to pray this prayer three times a day:

…for Yours is the power and the glory for ever..

Most scholars are confident that some medieval scribe along the way inserted the doxology into a copy of the Bible, because he believed that it belonged there. Due to the long standing practice of its usage, Queen Elizabeth in the 17th century mandated that the ending doxology be permanently added to the recitation of the Lords’ Prayer in corporate worship, which was preserved in the Book of Common Prayer, contrary to what most Bible translations today have in their rendering of Matthew 6.

The cacophony when reciting the Lord’s Prayer in a church service can be bothersome at times. But it also serves as a reminder that prayer is not about rote memorization of some formula. Instead, the Lord’s Prayer is a model for our own, individual prayers, as we as the people of God, approach the presence of God.

So, the next time you are in a church service, involving Christians from different backgrounds, and you hear a jumble of variations to the Lord’s Prayer (not to mention, a few archaic “thy’s” and “thine’s,” tossed in there, for good measure), you can have an appreciation for the colorful history of the Lord’s Prayer in Christian worship.

Notes:

You can find more online resources regarding the textual history of the Lord’s Prayer, from an article by Father William Saunders at the Catholic EWTN, a Christianity Today article by evangelical historian, Mark Noll, an informative blog post at Knox (Harrington) Presbyterian Church, and a commentary from William Tyndale on the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer, found at the Christian History Institute. The work of Nicholas Ayo, The Lord’s Prayer: A Survey Theological and Literary, and Diarmaid MacCulloch, All Things Made New, were also consulted for the research in this blog post.

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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