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Who Wrote the Serenity Prayer?
The inspiring text—long attributed to an eminent theologian—may have deeper roots than we thought.
At the beginning of this millennium, the editors of the World Almanac selected what they thought to be “the most memorable quotes by Americans in the last 100 years.” One of their ten most memorable quotes was the following:
God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
At least in the English- and German-speaking worlds, this is undoubtedly the most famous prayer originated in modern times, probably the only prayer ever to rival the Lord’s Prayer in popularity. Billy Pilgrim hung it on his office wall in Slaughterhouse-Five; Bill Clinton '73JD invoked it repeatedly when he campaigned for the presidency. It has given inspiration and solace to millions of people and has been very prominently employed by Alcoholics Anonymous.
Niebuhr opposed Nazism when most in his church backed US neutrality.
Reinhold Niebuhr '14BDiv, '15MA, who died in 1971, was a theologian of towering importance who deeply influenced the political life of his time and courageously opposed Nazism in a period when most in his church backed U.S. neutrality. He was an extraordinary and prolific writer and thinker whose ideas continue to shape liberal Protestantism today. Hans J. Morgenthau called him “the greatest living political philosopher of America,” and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. once said, “Reinhold Niebuhr was the greatest man I knew.” Yet he is perhaps best known to the general public because of the “Serenity Prayer.”
The prayer has long been the target of doubts about its authorship, though many of those doubts were ill-founded. Niebuhr himself, when questioned about the prayer, was unassuming—he modestly conceded the possibility that he had assimilated its concept from some earlier, forgotten source—but made clear that he believed he had originated it.
Now, new evidence from historical newspaper databases has changed our understanding of its history. The formula of the Serenity Prayer, it is now clear, was circulating before 1936, or at least five years before Niebuhr’s family has said he composed it and used it. This evidence is by no means conclusive. It is entirely possible that Niebuhr composed the prayer much earlier than he himself later remembered. But it also appears possible, indeed plausible, that the great theologian was unconsciously inspired by an idea from elsewhere.
Niebuhr apparently did not publish the Serenity Prayer himself until 1951, in one of his magazine columns. It had first appeared under his name in 1944, after a friend and neighbor—Howard Chandler Robbins, who had heard Niebuhr use it in a church service—asked permission to include it in a Federal Council of Churches book for army chaplains and servicemen. The USO distributed the booklet to hundreds of thousands of servicemen, according to Niebuhr biographer Richard Wightman Fox '67GRD.
The prayer gained fame when, during World War II or soon after, Alcoholics Anonymous ran across it and adopted it as a keystone of the 12-step program. The wording of AA’s prayer, still used today, is as follows:
God grant me the serenity to accept
the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can
and wisdom to know the difference.
(Niebuhr’s preferred version, according to his daughter, was the one that appears at the beginning of this article. But he used different versions. The one in Robbins’s 1944 book, based on the text that Niebuhr himself handed to Robbins, is closer to the AA version.) At first, AA did not know of Niebuhr’s connection with the prayer and did not attribute it to anyone. In its literature over the years, AA has given detailed but conflicting accounts of how the organization first found the Serenity Prayer—stating that the prayer was spotted in an obituary in the New York Times or New York Herald Tribune, in 1939 or 1940 or 1941 or 1942. But in careful searches of the online Times and the microfilmed Herald Tribune, I have been unable to verify any of these claims.
Whatever the means of transmission were, AA picked up the prayer in a big way. Founder Bill W. wrote in his book, Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age: “Never had we seen so much AA in so few words.” To this day the prayer remains a mainstay of AA meetings, and it is as a celebrated part of the culture and language of recovery that the Serenity Prayer probably exerts its greatest influence and inspiration.
In 1962, Hallmark began using the Serenity Prayer in its graduation cards.
In 1962, Hallmark began using the prayer in its graduation cards. Hallmark credited Niebuhr, but by this time a virtual cottage industry of Serenity Prayer prints and knickknacks had sprung up, and many of these reproductions gave no attribution at all. Today it is possible to buy jewelry, candles, and many kinds of embroidery kits that feature the prayer—even Zippo lighters.
The Niebuhr family’s most extensive discussion of the prayer appears in a 2003 book by Elisabeth Sifton, Niebuhr’s daughter, entitled The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War. The book is not a history of the prayer, but Sifton refers to it often, as a touchstone of her father’s thought. She states in her book and has reiterated in interviews that the Serenity Prayer was “composed in wartime.” Although it has been adopted by “our self-help culture,” she writes, “it also addresses the inconsolable pain, loss, and guilt that war inflicts on the communities that wage it; it goes … to the heart of the possibilities for peace.”
Sifton writes that it was in the summer of 1943 that her father “composed the Serenity Prayer,” in Heath, Massachusetts, where his family regularly vacationed. “It was in an ordinary Sunday morning service at the Heath Union Church in the summer of 1943 that my father first used his new prayer.”
When I found that versions of the prayer had been printed in newspapers before 1943, I contacted Ms. Sifton. She e-mailed me commenting that “prayers evolve, are borrowed, are transmuted, are revised—by their original writers, by others, and by still more ‘others,’” and that Niebuhr prayed and preached in many different churches around the country. (For an article by Ms. Sifton responding to this one, please see below.) Indeed, in her book she describes Niebuhr’s method of preaching without notes and quotes listeners who found him mesmerizing. But his opportunities to preach were limited, for she also states that beyond “the handful of college chapels where he preached for thirty years … only two or three churches in America invited him to preach.”
Niebuhr’s wife, Ursula, who died in 1997, has also commented on the creation of the Serenity Prayer. In an undated memorandum in the Reinhold Niebuhr papers at the Library of Congress, she wrote:
My husband wrote that prayer in [the] early 1940s during the war. He wrote it and used it for service when he was preaching in the Congregational Church of Heath. … There is also a little problem about the date. My husband and I were never quite sure whether it was 1941 or 1942.
She adds, “My husband may have used it in his prayers by that time , but it certainly was not then in circulation.”
The earliest attribution I have found to Niebuhr comes from 1942. A reader asked in the New York Times Book Review “Queries and Answers” page of July 12 for the origin of a version of the prayer:
M.L. requests the origin of the following quotation: “Give me the patience to accept those things which I cannot change, the courage to change those things which can be changed and the wisdom to know the difference.”
On August 2, the Book Review printed these responses:
William D. Clapp, Rochester, N.Y.: I think the passage M.L. wanted in your issue of July 12 is the following, which is complete as printed here clipped from a publication the name of which is not recalled. The author is also unknown to this correspondent. …
Mrs. Ward M. Canaday, Toledo, Ohio, thinks this passage may be from Thomas Moore’s “Lalla Rookh.” We could not find it there (Editor). Mrs. J. C. McClure, Mobile, Ala., associated it with the works of Reinhold Niebuhr, associate professor of philosophy at Union Theological Seminary, N.Y., for many years. No further identification given by this correspondent about the passage.
The Alcoholics Anonymous Grapevine of January 1950 states that the prayer “was actually written by Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr, of the Union Theological Seminary, New York City, in about 1932 as the ending to a longer prayer. In 1934 the doctor’s friend and neighbor, Dr. Howard Robbins, asked permission to use that part of the longer prayer in a compilation he was making at the time. It was published in that year in Dr. Robbins' book of prayers.” A number of other sources and Niebuhr biographers over the years have put forth an (undocumented) 1934 dating for Niebuhr’s writing of the prayer.
The prayer has been credited to anonymous sources going back to the ancient Egyptians.
However, the Grapevine account, like much of the voluminous literature on the prayer’s history, falls apart when closely examined. Robbins’s only prayer book from the period, Way of Light (1933), contains nothing resembling the Serenity Prayer. Elisabeth Sifton e-mailed me that “RN and Robbins were not neighbors in 1934 (we hadn’t moved to Heath yet), they hadn’t yet become friends.” In her book she states:
Countless booklets and plaques and Websites tell us that Pa … wrote it in 1932 (a mistake that may derive from a typographical error in June Bingham’s otherwise fairly accurate biography of my father, which gave 1934 instead of 1943 as the date of composition), and so forth. Bartlett’s Quotations says it was written in 1934.
Over the years, many wild guesses have been made about the provenance of the Serenity Prayer. Those to whom the prayer has been credited include—to name only the more common attributions—Aristotle, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, Augustine, Boethius, Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas, Baruch Spinoza, Oliver J. Hart, various World War II military leaders, and anonymous sources going back to the ancient Egyptians.
Another often-cited creation theory ascribes the prayer to an eighteenth-century German theologian, Friedrich Oetinger. This claim has been shown to be a double misunderstanding. In the 1950s, a professor at the University of Kiel, Theodor Wilhelm, used the prayer in a book of his. He published the book under the pseudonym Friedrich Oetinger—causing the confusion with the earlier Oetinger.
In his biography of Niebuhr, Richard Fox relates that in 1970 Elson Ruff asked the Niebuhrs about the Oetinger attribution:
His and Ursula’s response to Ruff’s question suggested that he was beginning to second-guess his own authorship. “Subconscious or even unconscious traces, of course, always play their part in all forms of art—in music as well as literature—and J. S. Bach, T. S. Eliot, Shakespeare (and Jesus, for that matter) often echoed material from the past.” He must have wondered if he had subconsciously recorded a prayer used by his father or one that he had read somewhere years before.
The extensive pre-1943 documentation I have found, none of which refers to Reinhold Niebuhr, is subject to two interpretations. One is that Niebuhr wrote the Serenity Prayer in the early or mid-1930s, it quickly disseminated through religious and other circles with the author’s identification largely forgotten, and the database occurrences are traces of that dissemination. The 1950 Grapevine article quotes Niebuhr himself as saying: “Of course, it may have been spooking around for years, even centuries, but I don’t think so. I honestly do believe that I wrote it myself.” He asserted authorship many times over many years.
The prayer was “spooking around for years.”
I would not rule out the scenario that Niebuhr introduced the prayer by the mid-1930s in an unpublished or private setting. For this to have been the case, though, this prehistory would have had to have inspired nationwide usage, left no record, and, both at the time and later, escaped the notice of his family—including his wife, who worked closely with him for 40 years, yet said that his Serenity Prayer “certainly was not then in circulation.” It must also be asked why Reinhold Niebuhr himself, in all the decades of being asked about the authorship of this much-scrutinized text, never suggested that he had used it in the 1930s.
I think the second interpretation is more likely: that the prayer was indeed “spooking around for years” and that Niebuhr unconsciously adapted the Serenity Prayer in the early 1940s from already-circulating formulations of unknown origin.
The formula of the Serenity Prayer is not intellectually sophisticated, but it has clearly been profound in its influence on the lives of many. Testaments to its power are legion. A friend of mine, when she became aware that I was writing this article, e-mailed me: “From the time I was about 10 years old, I have suffered from a mysterious ailment that only recently has been tentatively diagnosed. Over the years the pain gradually increased in strength and frequently escalated to completely unbearable. … There was one thing that kept me going and kept me alive and that was the Serenity Prayer.”
Folklorists regard variant versions of a text as evidence of a descent that has not been fixed by writing and print. Sayings with this kind of variation may be proverbial, the circumstances of their coinage often unknowable. The Serenity Prayer is probably too long to function as a true proverb, but the considerable variations in wording and ordering of phrases in the newspaper versions suggest a deep, traditional ancestry, perhaps long predating both the women in the 1930s who now provide the oldest attestations and the courageous and wise Reinhold Niebuhr.
It Takes a Master to Make a Masterpiece
Reinhold Niebuhr’s daughter responds
Fred Shapiro’s researches into the pre-1943 citations of something like the Serenity Prayer are governed, he acknowledges, by the power of search engines. But this technology can’t be used alone and won’t alone resolve the issues. To decide on a text’s authorship, one needs to understand its meaning and its historical context, and I am not sure Mr. Shapiro does. To me, his new discoveries simply suggest that in the years before World War II, Reinhold Niebuhr’s voice reached many more American churches and organizations than we previously realized—the voice not of “a theologian of towering importance who deeply influenced the political life of his time,” which he certainly was, but of a minister who joined in daily worship with his fellow Christians.
No one denies that the Serenity Prayer is wise.
The Serenity Prayer, its popularity notwithstanding, strikingly diverges from the usual pieties, the prevailing self-congratulatory cheeriness, of twentieth-century American Protestantism. Mr. Shapiro does not acknowledge this, and seems to believe that just about anybody might have written it—he condescends to opine that its “formula” is “not intellectually sophisticated.” But any theologian could instruct Mr. Shapiro, as my book evidently failed to, on the prayer’s theological profundity—and no one denies that it’s wise. So we must ask where the idea for its austere, demanding, tripartite entreaty came from. Who, if not Niebuhr, might have introduced it? Who was praying along these lines in 1936, 1938, 1939, when local newspapers tell us that women around the country, mostly connected to teaching institutions or the YWCA, quoted a version of it? Mr. Shapiro doesn’t address these questions, and he hasn’t yet delved into the enormous sea of documentation on which floats the history of churches, their affiliates, and dependent institutions, so he is unacquainted with the sloshing, watery sound of most American clergy in the 1930s. He offers only a flimsy chain of misconstrued circumstantial evidence to support his hunch that the prayer’s author is likely not Niebuhr.
Mr. Shapiro’s working premise for his research on the Serenity Prayer seems to be that we must find out just who first spoke or wrote it in the public record, because that person is more likely to be—or to be near—its true author. But, as I’ve said to him before, this is not necessarily the right way to go about looking for prayer authors. Prayers are presented orally, circulate orally, and become famous orally long before they are put on paper. Pastors and congregants use them in worship, recall and even misremember them, think about them for years before they are printed. That is why common, i.e., shared, use is one criterion for establishing a text, no matter who may have originated it—though that still matters. This spiritual tradition differs from the legal tradition with which Mr. Shapiro is more familiar; I’m glad if he’s now taking it into account.
Yet the great masterpiece prayers don’t materialize in some random, bubble-up way, either: their power comes from a distillation of complex spiritual truths, and for this we need authors, we need the tradition’s most gifted practitioners. In my book, I quoted prayers from various sources that my father knew well and whose cadences and theology feed into the Serenity Prayer’s concise wisdoms, because I wanted to suggest how the rich texture of worship as experienced by generations of believers nourishes the creation of new prayers. To throw light on this long, often anonymous process was one purpose of my book, the thesis of which still seems to elude Mr. Shapiro.
Let me correct Mr. Shapiro’s sense of the chronology.
Another purpose was to reflect on issues of faith and politics in times of peace and war. Let me correct Mr. Shapiro’s sense of the chronology here. For my father and his allies—a tiny minority of American clergy, people working on behalf of basic principles of social justice who thought that churches should help to eliminate the economic conflicts and other woes that had led to the carnage of 1914–18—the 1930s was already a decade darkened by war. Their efforts to awaken America to the dangers ahead began long before Pearl Harbor. The Nazi regime had already subverted Christian principles, compromised German churches, and made clear its plans for armed international aggression; in 1936 another kind of fascist war began in Spain—not to mention what was happening in Italy and North Africa, or Japan and Manchuria, or the civil strife at home. I tried to show the accelerated crescendo of bellicose crises in those years—and then I placed the prayer’s final composition in 1943 because my parents had done so, and it was, as I explained in an e-mail some years ago to Mr. Shapiro, the “year that [Niebuhr] composed this version of it, which he then authorized for publication, as he had not previously done.” But now I wish I’d known about those early appearances of a nascent Serenity Prayer. They bolster my sense of Niebuhr’s work at the time, and of course I’d have altered my reference to the prayer’s “first use.”
Throughout the war-shadowed 1920s and war-torn 1930s Niebuhr was crisscrossing the country, preaching and praying not only in churches and college chapels but in the YMCA/YWCA network (into which he was well-plugged) and with many church organizations and student groups whose meetings regularly began and ended in prayer. To say that his “opportunities to preach were limited” is, alas, to show ignorance of a well-known public career; dozens of clergymen had positions of greater power and authority then, but none was listened to more than Niebuhr. True, he was invited to preach at only a few churches outside New York—which amazes people who rightly think of him as a national figure but wrongly presume he was welcome everywhere. No: he was too controversial for that. Still, his pithy, aphoristic eloquence was familiar to thousands of people, who heard him at dozens of university and college chapels (he preached several times a year at Yale for decades) and who appreciated his efforts on behalf of the inter-denominational and ecumenical organizations in which he was so active. Niebuhr did this extracurricular work on weekends, when he left Union Seminary and his family to zoom around the country, so my mother might easily have been unacquainted with the earlier circulation of a prayer she knew well by 1941–42.
People copied his lectures, sermons, and prayers all the time.
During the week there was his teaching and ministry at Union, which every spring sent out into the world newly fledged clergy who had been his students, had taken notes in his classes, had attended the daily services where he prayed with them or the Sunday ones where he preached, had asked him to preside at their weddings and at baptisms of their children, and had tried to emulate the essence of his work in their own efforts. They always sat up and took notice when Niebuhr was around; he surprised, even shocked them with his austere, benign, but tragic view of human frailty, with his memorable calls to action and pleas for humility. Nobody else sounded like him.
Naturally enough, people copied his lectures, sermons, and prayers all the time. (My mother told of hearing a sermon one Sunday in a New York church—my father was off ministering in another city—that was lifted pretty much word for word from the just-published Moral Man and Immoral Society.) They did this because they valued his welcome challenge to the mushy pieties of the day; they wanted to expand and perpetuate his unusual ministry. This is a key factor in the dissemination of the Serenity Prayer, and it’s why Mr. Shapiro’s discoveries don’t puzzle or surprise me. Nor would they surprise the countless divinity-school graduates, teachers, church workers, librarians, scholars, missionaries, YWCA secretaries, and just plain people whose paths crossed with Niebuhr's.
Even when my father drafted his prayers rapidly or composed them right on the spot, he reworded them many times before deeming them in final form—standard operating procedure for clergymen. And while he didn’t much publish them, he let other people do so if the prayers were part of a public event whose proceedings were printed up, which happened often enough. Most of the prayers Niebuhr wrote which I cited in my book weren’t published until after his death, but by then generations of students and worshipers had known them well and used them for decades. The Serenity Prayer was unusual in his oeuvre, then, only in the odd circumstance of its wartime publication and subsequent diffusion.
The Niebuhrs I knew
Mr. Shapiro’s research into the history of the Serenity Prayer raises doubts about the widely held view that Reinhold Niebuhr was its author. While I have no new evidence to contribute, I do have several of what I believe are well-based opinions that are relevant to the current debate.
The Reinhold I knew would be totally incapable of making any false claim.
I was a student in Niebuhr’s classes at the Union Theological Seminary in the 1940s, and I became thoroughly familiar with his writings over the next decades. His wife Ursula and I, moreover, were colleagues at Barnard College from 1946 until 1952, during which time we taught a course together. Then and in years to come, Reinhold asked me to read and comment on several of his books in manuscript form, acknowledging the fact in the published version. Against this personal background, I must say, first, that the Reinhold I knew would be totally incapable of making any false claim to being the author of that prayer, and second, that the Ursula I knew had above all a remarkably accurate memory about all of her husband’s lectures, book deadlines, travel schedules, and precisely the sort of thing noted in her memo (now in the Library of Congress) in which she said that her husband wrote the prayer in the early 1940s. That is not something about which she would have been mistaken.
I believe that Elisabeth Sifton, Niebuhr’s daughter, is quite right in her response to insist on the importance of the religious and theological context for determining the authorship of the prayer. As she rightly says, the prayer “diverges from … the prevailing self-congratulatory cheeriness of twentieth-century American Protestantism” and expresses instead Niebuhr’s realistic, dialectical outlook and especially his acute awareness of the ambiguity that attends every moral situation. In my view, the prayer speaks the same language as does Niebuhr’s profound justification of democracy. “Man’s capacity for justice,” he wrote, “makes democracy possible; his capacity for injustice makes democracy necessary.”
Niebuhr deserves credit anyway
This article is interesting. It is also disturbing. It is also characteristic of an academic approach to history.
It is intriguing to try to establish who did something first. Doing something first, such as publishing a paper, can represent an act of importance. For Yale College, to have been the first American college to accept a student of African extraction was an important first. It set a precedent. It was a courageous action.
Many “firsts” are incorrectly attributed.
But many “firsts” are merely chance, or of little importance, or incorrectly attributed, because the person or persons who actually was first do not get proper credit for any of variety of reasons: the journal in which the work was published was discontinued; the book was lost and is out of print and someone else latched onto the idea and popularized it, etc.
I recall a rumor that was going around Yale when I was a student that one of the professors in the chemistry department was as unpleasant as he was because he was the first one to synthesize a chemical of importance, perhaps morphine, but was cautious in publishing his results and somebody else beat him to the punch. Unfortunately, granting agencies pay a lot of attention to that, and not getting there first often makes it hard to get grant support.
The disturbing part of Shapiro’s article is that throughout the piece it sounds as though he is struggling to legitimize a reason for saying that Niebuhr really shouldn’t be given any credit for the Serenity Prayer, and that all that he did was “unconsciously” adapt “already circulating formulations of unknown origin.” However, assuming that Shapiro is right in that contention, is that not a cause for celebration in itself? Synthesizing previous material into a new form, especially one which becomes widely accepted and has a major impact, can be a first of enormous importance, and to denigrate its value seems petty, ungracious and excessively academic.
An earlier (partial) appearance
The prayer appears to be a case of mixed oral and written transmission. I found a 1934 publication with one part of the eventually-named Serenity Prayer—the courage passage may have come first, originally. This 1934 wording is identical to the 1936 (and a 1941) wording in Shapiro’s examples, and it is placed within quotation marks. It was written by a U.S. woman quite involved in social work, continuing the trend that it may have been disseminated first in those circles, though church social work is not excluded.
It’s in Sewanee Review 42.4, Oct.–Dec. 1934, page 398 in “Why Go South? A Prescription for Patriotism” by June Purcell Guild, a Northener who moved to Virginia. Guild wrote:
It must be added, many Southerners appear to have done little to erase the awful memories of the Civil War. North or South, not all have “serenity to accept what cannot be helped.” It may be too much to expect a whole people to be as great in defeat as their great leader [Robert E. Lee] who said: “Recollect that we form one country now. Abandon all these local animosities and make your sons Americans.”
Whoever wrote it, it works
Thanks for the provocative pieces exploring the origin of the Serenity Prayer. Having sobered up in 1968 (none too soon; alcohol figured heavily in my failure to get beyond sophomore year at Yale), I’ve said the prayer many thousands of times. God’s grace has been unfailing. Whoever first composed the Serenity Prayer surely was inspired by its true Author.
Niebuhr’s “eloquence and authority”
On the question “Who wrote the Serenity Prayer?” Reinhold Niebuhr’s daughter, Elisabeth Sifton, has the better of the theological argument. The famous prayer succinctly captures the tension at the heart of his ethics, which to the consternation of his critics of both the left and the right combined a realistic view of human nature (“serenity to accept the things that cannot be changed”) with an idealistic commitment to social justice (“courage to change the things that should be changed”) in a situation of profound moral ambiguity requiring humility and discernment (“the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other”). This ethical framework underlies his classic work Moral Man and Immoral Society, published in 1932, the book that first brought him to national attention. No one in America was espousing such a theological perspective at that time, certainly not with the eloquence and authority that he did. It is not surprising that the prayer might have gone through many variations of wording before it found its definitive formulation or that persons hearing the prayer following one of his powerful talks or sermons might have been moved to share it with others.