Serenity Prayer faces challenge on authorship

By Laurie Goodstein Published: July 11, 2008

Generations of recovering alcoholics, soldiers, weary parents, exploited workers and just about anybody feeling beaten down by life have found solace in a short prayer that begins: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change."

Now the Serenity Prayer is about to endure a controversy over its authorship that is likely to be anything but serene.

For more than 70 years, the composer was thought to be the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, one of modern Christianity's most towering figures. Niebuhr, who died in 1971, said he was quite sure he had written it, and his wife, Ursula, also a prominent theologian, dated its composition to the early 1940s.

His daughter Elisabeth Sifton, a book editor and publisher, wrote a book about the prayer in 2003 in which she described her father first using it in 1943 in an "ordinary Sunday service" at a church in the Massachusetts town of Heath.

Now, a law librarian at Yale, using new databases of archival documents, has found newspaper clippings and a book from as far back as 1936 that quote close versions of the prayer. The quotes are from civic leaders all over the United States and are always, interestingly, by women.

Some refer to the prayer as if it were a proverb, while others appear to claim it as their own poetry. None of them attribute the prayer to a particular source. And they never mention Niebuhr.

An article about the mystery of the prayer, by Fred Shapiro, associate library director and lecturer at Yale Law School, who edited "The Yale Book of Quotations," will be published next week in the Yale Alumni Magazine, an independent bimonthly publication. It will be followed by a rebuttal from Sifton.

Shapiro said in an interview: "Reinhold Niebuhr was a very honest person who was very forthright and modest about his role in the Serenity Prayer. My interpretation would be that he probably unconsciously adapted it from something that he had heard or read."

But Sifton faults Shapiro's approach as computer-driven and deprived of historical and theological context. In an interview, she said her father traveled widely in the 1930s, preaching in college chapels and to church groups and could have used the prayer then. She said she fixed the date of its composition to 1943 in her book, "The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War," because she had relied on her parents' recollections.

Sifton said the newly unearthed quotes were merely evidence that her father's preaching had a broad impact.

And she took greatest umbrage at Shapiro's notion that the prayer was so simple that it could have been written by almost anyone in any era.

"There is a kind of austerity and humility about this prayer," Sifton said, "that is very characteristic of him and was in striking contrast to the conventional sound of the American pastorate in the 1930s, who were by and large optimistic, affirmative, hopeful."

The precise origins of the Serenity Prayer have always been wrapped in a fog. Even in Niebuhr's lifetime, his authorship was challenged.

His response was typically modest. He was quoted in a magazine article in 1950 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."

The version of events most often cited in biographies of Niebuhr is that after he used the prayer in a sermon in rural Massachusetts, an Episcopal priest asked for permission to print it in a booklet for the armed forces in 1944.

Alcoholics Anonymous then embraced it, simplified some wording, changed the pronouns and circulated it as a motto for its 12-step program.

Bartlett's Familiar Quotations attributed it to Niebuhr but gave the date as 1934, perhaps citing an erroneous reference in an article in the magazine of Alcoholics Anonymous, Shapiro said. But Ursula Niebuhr, who died in 1997, wrote in a memorandum (which an assistant for Shapiro saw in the Library of Congress) that her husband "may have used it in his prayers" by 1934, but "it certainly was not then in circulation."

A Niebuhr biographer, Charles Brown, was surprised to hear of the early references. He said, "It is now well established beyond the shadow of any doubt among knowledgeable and fair-minded people that Niebuhr did compose it, probably in 1941 or '43."

Brown said that perhaps Sifton's theory was correct and that the newspaper quotations were from people who heard Niebuhr speak the prayer years before he wrote it down.

But, Shapiro argued, knowing that Niebuhr was so famous, why did none of the people who cited the prayer in the clippings also cite the theologian?


The artifacts that Shapiro unearthed dismayed the Reverend Gary Dorrien, the Reinhold Niebuhr professor of social ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York, which was Niebuhr's scholarly home for many years.

Dorrien said, "What has the ring of truth to me is that some of the phrases in it, the gist of it, he heard or came into contact with in some way that he wouldn't have remembered, since he's not a scholarly, bookwormish person with habits of scholarly exactitude anyway."

International Herald Tribune


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