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Words and Sayings

Debts or Trespasses?
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

I once attended a Thanskgiving service in Wichita, Kansas. One line of the program read: "Lord's Prayer (Debts)." You probably recognize that this means we say the words "and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors," rather than " forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us."

Do you know the reason for the different forms of the Lord's Prayer? These two common variations of the "Lord's Prayer" are from two different English translations of Matthew's version of the prayer (Matt. 6:12).

The "debts" form is from the first English translation of the Bible, by John Wycliffe in 1395 (Wycliffe spelling "dettis")! The "trespasses" version is from the 1526 translation by William Tyndale (Tyndale spelling "treaspases").

In 1549 the first Book of Common Prayer in English used a version of the prayer with "trespasses." This became the "official" version used in the Anglican congregations.

The Wycliffe version had seen modest popular use for about 130 years before Tyndale translated the Bible in the modern language. The Presbyterian and other Reformed churches tended to follow the earlier wording of Wycliffe. When King James IV of Scotland and I of England ordered a new Union translation (published 1611), the King James translators followed Wycliffe's wording of "debts" on that line, though they preferred Tyndale's wording on other lines of the prayer.

I learned the "debts" version as a child, and it seems to be the form most popularly used in much of America, even though many catechisms and orders of service prefer to follow the Tyndale "trespasses" form.


Original version published in Focus on Communication Effectiveness, July 1994
Revised 31 December 2003
Last edited 06 January 2005

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD

Copyright © Orville Boyd Jenkins 1994, 2003
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