Authorship of Serenity Prayer Questioned

The origins of the famed Serenity Prayer that has become a staple in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and office décor is being challenged.

It was long believed that U.S. Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr authored the prayer, which 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." His family has dated the prayer back to 1943.

But Fred R. Shapiro, a librarian at Yale Law School, said he has found earlier usage of the prayer and suggested that the prayer could have been written by someone other than Niebuhr.

The earliest citation of the prayer Shapiro uncovered came from a 1936 newspaper clipping in which a YWCA women's organization in Syracuse quoted the prayer. Another pre-1943 usage of the prayer came from a public school counselor in Oklahoma City.

He said he found these references by using a historical database to do research for a new book he is editing called Yale Book of Quotations.

Shapiro writes about his doubts to the prayer's origin in the July/Aug 2008 issue of "Yale Alumni Magazine."

In the article, Shapiro brings attention to a quote in which Niebuhr admits the possibility of an earlier existence of the prayer.

"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," Neibuhr said in the 1950 "Grapevine" magazine, published by Alcoholics Anonymous.

Shapiro offers two interpretations of his findings: (1) Niebuhr wrote the Serenity Prayer in the early or mid-1930s but his name from the prayer was dropped as it "quickly disseminated" in various circles or (2) Niebuhr "unconsciously adapted the Serenity Prayer in the early 1940s from already-circulating formulations of unknown origin."

He eventually goes with the latter interpretation.

"Reinhold Niebuhr was a very honest person and he was modest," Shapiro said, according to Reuters. "He didn't appear to claim anything that wasn't truthful, so I believe that he probably unconsciously picked the Serenity Prayer, he heard it, or read it somewhere and forgot that he had seen it or read it somewhere."

But in a rebuttal article also featured in "Yale Alumni Magazine," Niebuhr's daughter, Elisabeth Sifton, defended her father's work.

"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," she wrote.

Sifton, who wrote The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War in 2005, discussed her father's influence, noting that throughout the 1920s and 1930s he was preaching and praying at churches, college chapels and in the YMCA/YWCA network.

She also took issue with Shapiro's description of the prayer as "not intellectually sophisticated."

The prayer "strikingly diverges from the usual pieties, the prevailing self-congratulatory cheeriness, of twentieth-century American Protestantism," argued Sifton in the article. "But any theologian could instruct Mr. Shapiro, as my book evidently failed to, on the prayer's theological profundity."

She said that Shapiro's method of searching through databases is also not the best way to trace the prayer, since "prayers are presented orally, circulate orally, and become famous orally long before they are put on paper."

"He offers only a flimsy chain of misconstrued circumstantial evidence to support his hunch that the prayer's author is likely not Niebuhr," contended Sifton.

Niebuhr was a professor of Applied Christianity at Union Theological Seminary in New York City for most of his professional career until his retirement. He was an important intellectual figure and theologian for his work in applied Christian ethics to contemporary political and social problems. He advocated a line of thought called "Christian Realism" and spoke against Nazism, U.S. neutrality in World War II, and Soviet communism.

One version of the full Serenity Prayer, as attributed to Niebuhr, 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.

Living one day at a time; Enjoying one moment at a time; Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will; That I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him Forever in the next. Amen."