Controversy continues to surround 'Serenity Prayer' authorship

Controversy continues to surround 'Serenity Prayer' authorship

September 30, 2008
Written by Daniel Hazard

Did Niebuhr write it?

A few years ago, it was determined that "Amazing Grace" is America's best-loved hymn. If a similar poll were taken to find out what is America's best-loved prayer, the Serenity Prayer would easily top the list.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

As the story goes, the Serenity Prayer, in slightly different form, was delivered at a church service in Heath, Mass., in 1943, by Reinhold Niebuhr — a prominent theologian and political philosopher who taught for many years at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and who had a summer place near Heath. After the service someone asked Niebuhr for a copy of the prayer. Niebuhr handed the original to him and almost overnight, the prayer was everywhere. It was published in many newspapers, widely distributed in VA hospitals, and eventually, it became the official prayer of Alcoholics Anonymous.

And now for a second time in its history, questions about who wrote it and when have resurfaced. The first time Niebuhr's authorship was questioned was in the 1960s.  Someone said that the prayer was hundreds of years old and had been written by a German theologian named Friedrich Oetinger, a charge that was later refuted.

Yale University Librarian Fred Shapiro, using computer databases of old newspapers, has recently found examples of similar prayers that date back to the mid-1930s, leading him to question Niebuhr's authorship.  Niebuhr's daughter, Elisabeth Sifton, countered, saying that the attributions located by Shapiro come from college and YWCA sources — the very places that Niebuhr did so much speaking and lecturing in the 1930s. 

As Sifton writes, "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?"

Part of the difficulty in determining with certainty whether or not  Niebuhr wrote the Serenity Prayer, rests with Niebuhr's brilliance. He rarely wrote out the talks, sermons or prayers he delivered. Usually, he worked with just brief notes; these were all he needed to prime his gifted mind.  So with few of his 1930s talks and lectures written out, it's hard to know for sure if he is the author of the Serenity Prayer.  Or is it?

Change, the theme of the Serenity Prayer, was very much on Niebuhr's mind.  In fact, in 1928, at the national convention of a church young men's organization, Niebuhr said, "We want to change things, we want to live up to our ideals.  And then, as we begin to grow older we begin to adapt ourselves and to accept what we once opposed … you always have in youth a fresh idealism, a conscience reacting against old vices, which is the re-making of the world.  On the other hand we find ourselves revolting against some of the good things handed down to us by the cautious experience of the past generations."
Particularly when talking to audiences in his own denomination,

Niebuhr explored the idea of change. A German-American communion, The Evangelical Synod of North America (a predecessor body of the UCC), struggled in the years following the First World War.

Change was very much on the minds of young people in the Evangelical Synod. And Niebuhr was at the forefront of efforts to bring the denomination into the American religious mainstream and the twentieth century.

Niebuhr was certain that a blend of old and new was best for the "new day." But the process of keeping and discarding required careful understanding and thought and an insight, often quoted by Niebuhr, from Goethe. "What you inherit from your parents you must win in order to possess it." 

The themes addressed by Niebuhr in the 1920s and early 30s foreshadow America's favorite prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

When it comes to knowing who wrote the Serenity Prayer, one can only hope that we, too, have "the wisdom to know the difference." 

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