Who wrote the Prayer for Serenity?

We wrote several books on the history and development ancient Jewish prayer. The more we worked carefully and seriously on the textual evidence, the less certain we were of the conventional history of our religious texts and rituals.

A while ago we read about a ritual and a text, not from 2000 or 3000 years ago. The so-called Serenity Prayer was first uttered less than 100 years ago.

And the short of it is, according to this story below from the Times, that the more we study the less we are sure who actually wrote this recent modern prayer. How much more difficult is it to say with certainty anything about the origins of ancient prayers! As we say in our recent book, God's Favorite Prayers, "A real crucial characteristic of any prayer is to make it appear to you to be a timeless tradition, with no beginnings."

Here is what the Times reported.
Serenity Prayer Stirs Up Doubt: Who Wrote It?

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 of the prayer was thought to be the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, one of modern Christianity’s 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 bucolic Massachusetts town of Heath, where the Niebuhr family spent summers.

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 quotations are from civic leaders all over the United States — a Y.W.C.A. leader in Syracuse, a public school counselor in Oklahoma City — 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 attribute the prayer to a particular source. And they never mention Reinhold Niebuhr.

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

Mr. Shapiro, who edited “The Yale Book of Quotations,” 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.”

In his quotation avocation, Mr. Shapiro says he has debunked claims about the provenance of other famous sayings, including Murphy’s Law (“Anything that can go wrong will”) and P. T. Barnum’s (“There’s a sucker born every minute”).

Ms. Sifton faults Mr. 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 — especially Y.M.C.A.’s and Y.W.C.A.’s — 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” (W. W. Norton, 2003), because she had relied on her parents’ recollections.

Ms. Sifton said the newly unearthed quotations were merely evidence that her father’s spellbinding preaching had had a broad impact. And she said she took greatest umbrage at Mr. 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,” Ms. 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 the theologian is that after Niebuhr used the prayer in a sermon in rural Massachusetts, a neighbor who was an Episcopal priest asked for permission to print it in a booklet for the armed forces in 1944. The U.S.O. distributed it widely.

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

The prayer is now ubiquitous, on mugs and greeting cards and embroidered pillows, sometimes with Niebuhr’s name attached. But it is possible to find attributions ranging from Aristotle to St. Augustine to Francis of Assisi.

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, Mr. Shapiro said. But Ursula Niebuhr, who died in 1997, wrote in a memorandum (which an assistant for Mr. 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 C. Brown, said he was surprised to hear of the early references. “It is now well established beyond the shadow of any doubt among knowledgeable and fair-minded people,” Mr. Brown said, “that Niebuhr did compose it, probably in 1941 or ’43.”

Mr. Brown said that perhaps Ms. Sifton’s theory was right, that the newspaper quotations were from people who heard Niebuhr speak the prayer years before he wrote it down.

“His name was very much before the more theologically literate public” by the early 1930s, said Mr. Brown, author of “Niebuhr and His Age: Reinhold Niebuhr’s Prophetic Role and Legacy” (Trinity Press International, 1992).

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

The artifacts that Mr. Shapiro unearthed dismayed the Rev. Gary Dorrien, the Reinhold Niebuhr professor of social ethics at Union Theological Seminary, which was Niebuhr’s scholarly home for many years.

Professor 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.”

“He is a preacher. He is coming into contact with things and blending them,” Professor Dorrien said, adding that for preachers, “it’s an occupational hazard.”

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