The man behind the Serenity Prayer — or not

For a prayer that asks for serenity, the past three months have been anything but serene.

“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,” reads the well-known supplication.

The Serenity Prayer — perhaps the most famous prayer to originate in modern times — has long been ascribed to noted theologian Reinhold Niebuhr ’14 GRD ’15. For over 60 years, the prayer has served as the cornerstone of 12-step recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. Countless people have testified to its power to inspire and console.

But recent research by associate Yale Law School librarian Fred Shapiro has cast Niebuhr’s authorship into question.

When The New York Times published an article about Shapiro’s findings in July, it drew the ire of numerous critics, chief among them Elisabeth Sifton, Niebuhr’s daughter and the author of “The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War.” Although Shapiro stressed that he does not think Niebuhr would deliberately plagiarized the prayer, articles by both Shapiro and Sifton in the July-August issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine have only further divided opinion within academic and theological circles.

An influential theologian

Niebuhr, who died in 1971, deeply influenced Christian thought in the latter half of the 20th century. Although he was a prominent figure in liberal politics, Niebuhr broke with the left on the issue of World War II. Despite his German roots, Niebuhr called for action against Hitler and Nazi Germany and later spoke out against communism.

Preaching in Detroit in the 1920s, Niebuhr advocated strongly for the rights of automobile workers. Although he left Detroit in 1928 to teach at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Niebuhr remained highly involved in issues of social justice throughout his career.

But the domestic strife and international turmoil of the 1930s compelled the theologian to step up his criticism of the “benign optimism” of mainstream Christian thought. Once World War II erupted in 1939, Niebuhr soon became a proponent of action against Germany, alienating many of his former peers in the process.

In the midst of the turmoil of the war, Niebuhr composed a short prayer for a church service in Heath, Mass., where he preached during the summer of 1943.

Over the past six decades, the prayer’s popularity has grown exponentially. The United Service Organizations had distributed the prayer to hundreds of thousands of servicemen by the end of World War II. After years of using the prayer, Alcoholics Anonymous finally credited it to Niebuhr in 1950. By the time Hallmark first featured the prayer in its graduation cards in 1962, it was well on its way toward commercial ubiquity.

Prior to Shapiro’s article over the summer, people had attributed the prayer to sources as diverse as the ancient Greeks and obscure 18th-century theologian Friedrich Oetinger, yet no one had ever seriously challenged Niebuhr’s authorship.

The controversy

When Shapiro, the editor of “The Yale Book of Quotations,” found variants of the Serenity Prayer circulating in newspapers from Massachusetts to Texas as early as 1936 — seven years before Niebuhr wrote it down — the news landed on the front page of The New York Times.

“Sometimes [people] used it as if it was already well known; sometimes they [didn’t] even treat it as a prayer,” Shapiro told the News. “But people used it without referring to Niebuhr.”

Shapiro said almost all of the early references he found were from women, many of them teachers and social workers. He theorized the Serenity Prayer originated in social and church groups staffed mainly by women, in an oral process akin to the evolution of folklore.

The conflicting Alcoholics Anonymous accounts of the origin of the prayer also offered little help.

“Originally, they said that one of their members found it in an obituary in 1939 or 1940, or 1941, or 1942,” Shapiro said. “Later, when they heard that Niebuhr wrote it, they were very generous and attributed it to him.”

In addition, Shapiro said, Niebuhr’s failure to publish the prayer until 1951 casts doubt on authorship.

“It’s mysterious,” Shapiro said. “It almost seems that other people attributed it to him, and he said, ‘Yes, I did write it,’ but this was some years after.”

Sifton, senior vice president of publishing house Farrar, Straus & Giroux, vehemently contested Shapiro’s claims.

“I can start by [saying] that there isn’t much controversy except that stirred up by Mr. Shapiro,” Sifton said. “It’s ludicrous for me to find myself in a position to defend [Niebuhr’s] authorship.”

She denounced Shapiro’s research, which relies on Internet search engines such as JSTOR and LexisNexis. As editor of “The Yale Book of Quotations,” Shapiro sifts through the databases to find the first written record of famous quotes.

“I’m a working publisher. I work with writers and authors all the time,” Sifton said. “The issue of authorship is a great deal more complex and intricate than that.”

Sifton dismissed Shapiro’s claim that the prayer originated in women’s social circles, even though she said she was not at all surprised that the first citations found were from women, given her father’s advocacy for social justice. She said Niebuhr frequently attended YWCA meetings, where he worked with women to address issues of social change.

Sifton said she saw the sentiments expressed in the prayer “reflected in every day of [Niebuhr’s] life.” She argues that Shapiro’s lack of familiarity with the prayer’s spiritual context makes his quest to find the origins of the prayer suspect.

“Mr. Shapiro does not know anything about theology,” Sifton said. “[He] calls it not intellectually sophisticated. Well, it’s very sophisticated if you are acquainted with spiritual literature.”

The wider debate

Several prominent academics and theologians across the country interviewed by the News said that while the prayer was consistent with Niebuhr’s theology, the oral nature of a prayer makes it difficult to ascertain authorship.

Niebuhr himself expressed some doubts about his authorship. Late in life he told a magazine in 1950, “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.”

Sifton attributed the “resigned sadness” of that quotation to Niebuhr’s modesty and declining health at the time.

“He was suffering from deep depression after a stroke when he first got a whole lot of mail about [his] authorship,” Sifton said.

The Rev. Gary Dorrien, Reinhold Niebuhr professor of social ethics at Union Theological Seminary, said even if Niebuhr unconsciously adapted the prayer, the final product bore the theologian’s unmistakable signature.

“Niebuhr would not have asserted something that he knew was not true,” Dorrien said. “Its emphasis on humility, on realistic limits — it certainly sounds like Niebuhr to me.”

Thomas Ogletree, Frederick Marquand professor of ethics and religious studies at Yale Divinity School, said he was skeptical of Shapiro’s research, although he also acknowledged that similar prayers often have arisen out of “the interactions and relationships of diverse faith communities.”

“I would not readily concede any suggestions that he deliberately plagiarized this prayer, claiming credit for something that was not his own,” Ogletree wrote in an e-mail.

Shapiro emphasized his findings do not disprove Niebuhr’s claim to the Serenity Prayer but merely demonstrate the power of current research tools and “cast doubt” on the theologian’s authorship.

Whoever might be the author of the 33-word prayer, both Shapiro and Sifton testified to its unique resonance.

“It’s probably the most important prayer after the Lord’s Prayer,” Shapiro said. “I’ve received numerous messages from people that said that the Serenity Prayer saved their lives, that it’s absolutely crucial to their lives.”

Sifton said she appreciated Shapiro’s gesture, but posed one final question to the librarian.

“I’m glad that he thinks that it’s important, but I’m puzzled, as were many of the correspondents that wrote to me, by his eagerness to establish that my father didn’t write it,” she said.

“Who does he think wrote it, then?”

Comments

  • M.Div 80

    Dickens in A Christmas Carol has Scrooge say "Hence, horrible shadow, hence!" in attempting to banish the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. These are the echoes of Shakespeare two centuries before Dickens. Are we to keep words hermetically sealed to prevent their interplay with culture and history and writers'needs? Shakespeare him/herself is an author whose sources are always in play. Authorship, Smauthorship!:"Hence, horrible shadow!
    Unreal mockery, hence!"
    - William Shakespeare, Macbeth, 3.4

  • Jas. McH.

    RE: S.P.

    --Don't analyse, utilize!--