The origins of the Serenity Prayer, which usually begins with the words, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change …, ” has been called into question by the alumni magazine at Yale University.
Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the most prominent Protestant theologians of the 20th century and a Yale alumnus, has long been considered the author, though there has been speculation about other writers.
“It is entirely possible that Niebuhr composed the prayer much earlier than he himself later remembered,” writes Fred R. Shapiro, editor of “The Yale Book of Quotations,” in an article in the July/August issue of Yale Alumni Magazine.
“But it also appears possible, indeed plausible, that the great theologian was unconsciously inspired by an idea from elsewhere.”
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The debate resembles a legal battle over a popular religious poem, “Footprints in the Sand.” In May, a New York man whose mother claimed to have written the poem sued two other people who also claimed authorship.
Shapiro said Niebuhr's daughter believes her father wrote the poem in 1943 and his preferred version was “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.”
The prayer was popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous, whose version of it reads: “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.”
Shapiro combed databases of historical newspapers and found references to versions of the prayer dating as far back as the 1930s by speakers such as a YWCA executive secretary and a children's home superintendent, with no reference to Niebuhr.
In a response also published by the Yale Alumni Magazine, Elisabeth Sifton, Niebuhr's daughter, said Shapiro's research via “the power of search engines” is not sufficient for prayers, which are often first presented orally and are sometimes shared and recalled for years before being printed.
“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,” responded Sifton, author of “The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War.” Adelle M. Banks