St. Stephen’s Pro-Cathedral, Wilkes-Barre
Wilt thou forgive that sin, where I begun
Hymn 140, The Hymnal 1982
“Wilt thou forgive that sin, where I begun,” was conceived by its author, John Donne (1573 – 1631), not as a hymn, but as a poem, entitled “A Hymn to God the Father.” Donne is generally regarded as perhaps the greatest of what Samuel Johnson referred to as the “metaphysical poets,” a group of lyrical poets of the seventeenth century in England. Donne’s religious poems, like his other works, are noted for their use of colorful and creative language. Despite his considerable education and enormous talent, Donne lived in poverty for much of his life. He squandered much of a large inheritance in his early adulthood. In 1601 he secretly married Anne More, with whom he had twelve children. He was ordained an Anglican priest in 1615, and in 1621 he was appointed Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, where he is buried. “A Hymn to God the Father” was probably written in 1623 after Donne had recovered from a serious bout with “spotted fever,” which gripped London in an epidemic that year.
There are many fascinating things about this extraordinary text, but perhaps the most amazing thing is the way in which Donne uses his own name and his wife’s maiden name in puns which personalize his struggle with sin. The first two verses end with the line, “When thou hast done, thou hast not done, for I have more.”
This hymn appears in The Hymnal 1982 at #140 and #141 with two different tunes. The tune Donne at #140 was composed by John Hilton (1599 – 1657), an English composer and organist who served at St. Margaret’s Parish Church in Westminster, which sits adjacent to the Houses of Parliament (it is the official parish church of the House of Commons) and Westminster Abbey in London. It is known that John Donne commissioned a musical setting of the present text, and it is possible that Hilton’s work is the result of that commission. The tune at Hymn #141, So giebst du nun, is by Johann Sebastian Bach. Both tunes are beautiful, but the Hilton tune is more likely the one first associated with this amazing text.
There are many who wonder if churches and Christians are too fixated on guilt and an obsession with sin. To be sure, a lot of damage has been done to people who have had guilt and shame heaped upon them without balancing the call to repentance with the promise of God’s grace. As a reaction to this, some have suggested that we dispense altogether with the Confession of Sin in our liturgy. I for one feel this would be a mistake. I believe we risk a great deal when we deny our human nature and the natural tendencies we have to make mistakes. If we deny our brokenness, what purpose is there in acknowledging and accepting God’s amazing grace? Donne understood this, and his great hymn is a clear testimony to that strong belief.
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