The serenity prayer feels timeless. Just 25 words long, the humble and sincere prayer is a plea for comfort, strength and wisdom in a turbulent world:
To accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can, and
Wisdom to know the difference.
Within Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), the original 12-step recovery program, the serenity prayer is nothing short of scripture. It's printed in every AA handbook, embossed on plaques in meeting halls, and recited daily by individuals struggling with addiction or at group meetings.
But who wrote the serenity prayer? Early attempts by AA to identify its origins generated a long list of potential authors, including St. Francis of Assisi, Aristotle, Sophocles and ancient sages from Egypt to India.
The true author of the serenity prayer isn't a household name like St. Francis or Aristotle, and he didn't write his famous verses in some ancient tongue. He was a German-American theologian and Christian ethicist named Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), and he penned the original words of what became the serenity prayer in 1932. Then he promptly forgot them.
'An American Conscience'
"Reinhold Niebuhr is the most influential person you've never heard of," says Jeremy Sabella, a religion professor at Dartmouth University and author of "An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story." "He was a combination of preacher, journalist, ethicist, politician, an insanely prolific author of more than 1,400 articles — cram all those things into one person and you have Reinhold."
The historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. called Niebuhr "the most influential American theologian of the 20th century" and Martin Luther King, Jr. said Niebuhr was a man of "great prophetic vision" with "unswerving devotion to the ideals of freedom and justice." Barack Obama cited Niebuhr as "one of my favorite philosophers."
In 1932, the same year that he conjured up the words of the serenity prayer as part of an otherwise forgotten sermon, Niebuhr wrote his landmark book, "Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics." The thesis of the book was that people are generally good on an individual level, but that we often discard our morals and principles when acting as larger groups. Sabella believes that both the book and the prayer were Niebuhr's response to "a low point in history" that included the Great Depression and the rise of fascism in Europe.
"He could feel all of this conflict rumbling underneath the surface of the time," says Sabella. "People are starving, they can't find work, the entire international order is on the verge of crumbling."
The Original Serenity Prayer
The version of the serenity prayer copied above is the one popularized by AA, which first found the prayer in 1941 in a newspaper obituary and had no knowledge of its author. But the original text written by Niebuhr in 1932 was slightly different:
courage to change the things that should be changed,
and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
Sabella believes that even small differences are significant. For one, Niebuhr's original asks for "grace," not serenity, to accept the things that cannot be changed. In Christian theology, God's grace is shown through His unconditional love for a sinful humankind. And in Niebuhr's original version, the grace being sought is the acceptance that some things can't be changed, not the serenity itself.
"In a single sentence, he's compacting grace, serenity, courage, wisdom and connecting it to one of the central conundrums of life: What can we shape and what can't we? When do we push ahead and when do we just accept where we're at?" says Sabella.
Also significant is that Niebuhr's original version asks for the courage to change the things that "should" be changed, not the things that "can" be changed. Niebuhr's daughter, the literary editor and publisher Elisabeth Sifton, wrote a book about her father's prayer and believed that the original version went beyond asking what the individual "can" do to address what society as a whole must do in the name of justice.
"There are certain things in life that are moral imperatives and even if we can't change them in our moment, we're still called to work for those changes," says Sabella. "What we see in the AA formulation is the individualized version of the prayer for when we're dealing with stuff personally. Part of what we're seeing in Niebuhr's original version of the prayer is, what are we doing as a group? He was very concerned with what human groups could accomplish."
Controversy Over Authorship
When Niebuhr wrote the serenity prayer, he was a professor at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City and was also a mainstay on the university speaking circuit. Sabella says that Niebuhr traveled every weekend for decades to give sermons in different college chapels, and that he would often "hammer out" a prayer on the way to the gig.
"The serenity prayer, from what we can gather, was just one out of probably hundreds of prayers that Niebuhr wrote to start out his sermons," says Sabella. "There's nothing to indicate that Niebuhr himself saw it as anything particularly special."
In fact, the serenity prayer may have been lost to history if not for a woman named Winnifred Crane Wygal, a YWCA leader who studied under Niebuhr at the Union Theological Seminary.
The earliest reference to the serenity prayer appears in Wygal's personal diary. On Oct. 31, 1932, she wrote: "R.N. says that 'moral will plus imagination are the two elements of which faith is compounded.' 'The victorious man in the day of crisis is the man who has the serenity to accept what he cannot help and the courage to change what must be altered.'"
While the quote isn't an exact match for the three-part structure of the prayer, the sentiment is the same and it's attributed to "R.N." for Reinhold Niebuhr. Throughout the 1930s, Wygal included longer versions of Niebuhr's original prayer in her YWCA talks and articles. As a result, most of the earliest printed versions of the serenity prayer were also from YWCA, like this 1936 version quoted by Mildred Pinkerton of the Syracuse YWCA:
serenity to accept what cannot be helped,
and insight to know the one from the other.
By the early 1940s, versions of the serenity prayer were beloved enough to be included in printed obituaries, which is where the AA first found it in the New York Herald Tribune. "Never had we seen so much A.A. in so few words," Bill W. the co-founder of AA said about the prayer. In 1941, some AA members decided to have it printed up on cards that fellow members could carry in their wallets.
The prayer was also shipped overseas during World War II and used in devotionals for American servicemen. By 1950, the serenity prayer had become so well-known that people went searching for its author.
Niebuhr was fairly certain that he had written it, but was foggy on the details. He and his wife guessed that it was written in 1942 or 1943, and Niebuhr admitted that he couldn't remember the genesis of the ideas in the prayer.
A 1950 issue of the AA publication "Grapevine" quotes Niebuhr as saying, "Of course, [the prayer] may have been spooking around for years, even centuries, but I don't think so. I honestly do believe that I wrote it myself."
Fred Shapiro, a librarian at the Yale Law School, stirred up controversy in 2008 when he presented evidence that versions of the serenity prayer were in circulation years before Niebuhr claimed to have authored it in 1942. Shapiro is the editor of the authoritative "Yale Book of Quotations" and has debunked other famous attributions including P.T. Barnum's "There's a sucker born every minute."
In 2014, however, Shapiro confirmed Niebuhr's true authorship after tracking down Wygal's diary entry and discovering that Niebuhr had actually written the prayer in 1932, not 1942. The controversy is over and Niebuhr's humble prayer still resonates.
"For a very long time in AA, I clung to the first line of the prayer 'with all the fervour with which the drowning seize life preservers.' It wasn't hard for me to pray for serenity, because serenity was what I had been looking for from a bottle and a glass, a pill, or whatever else seemed to offer me a momentary escape from my own often tormented head," wrote Tony on an AA UK website. "As I experienced some serenity in my life, being an alcoholic I naturally wanted more. So in times of stress, which were many, I prayed for it. I prayed for enough serenity to get me through each day, without a drink and without succumbing completely to anxiety. And guess what? It worked, it really did."
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