The Serenity Prayer and how it really came to be…..

WoW with bradyEvery person who claims connection with AA, NA, and other related organizations knows, and usually appreciates the serenity prayer.  It is used daily by countless substance abusers, as well as many other folks, as part of their daily prayers and healing. Most of us don’t much care about how it came to be, rather about how it helps us keep our priorities straight.

For those who want an accurate history of how it came to be, which has been argued for decades, here is the best and latest research on that subject.

Fr. Orthohippo

RNS) In 2008 I made the front page of The New York Times by asserting that the greatest American theologian of the 20th century probably did not originate the most famous and beloved prayer of the 20th century.

(Date unknown) Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr, then dean emeritus of New York's Union Theological Seminary. Religion News Service file photo

The theologian was Reinhold Niebuhr. The prayer was the Serenity Prayer, commonly quoted as: “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.”

Its adoption by Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs has propelled it to worldwide renown. I now am able to report that I have uncovered new evidence establishing to a high degree of confidence that Niebuhr did originate the Serenity Prayer.

My initial assertion questioning Reinhold Niebuhr’s priority engendered considerable controversy and was strongly contested by Niebuhr’s daughter, the eminent publisher Elisabeth Sifton.

Sifton’s 2003 book “The Serenity Prayer” featured a specific account of her father’s writing the prayer for a Sunday service in Heath, Mass., in 1943. In no less than 13 places, she characterized Heath as the place and time of composition.

It is because I relied on her story that, when I discovered eight instances of the prayer’s being printed in newspapers and books between January 1936 and April 1942 — none of which mentioned Niebuhr — I concluded that he appeared to have drawn unconsciously on earlier versions of unknown authorship.

The year after the Times story, Stephen Goranson of the Duke University Library posted a message on the American Dialect Society’s Internet discussion list stating that he had found an occurrence of the Serenity Prayer in a 1937 Christian student newsletter, which referred to “the prayer attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr.”

I quickly contacted the Times editors and alerted them that, in my view, Goranson’s discovery had significantly increased the likelihood that Niebuhr was, indeed, the original author. The Times then published a second front-page story reporting my reaction to the new information.

In “The Yale Book of Quotations” I edited, I had applied techniques of computer-assisted research to trace the provenance of famous quotations and proverbs. When, in the course of that work, I came to one of the most celebrated of all sayings, the Serenity Prayer, I found examples of its use back to 1936 by searching ProQuest Historical Newspapers, NewspaperArchive and Google Books.

After the articles in The New York Times and Yale Alumni Magazine, I enhanced my repertoire of electronic resources with additional newspaper archives.

By searching, I found that the Santa Cruz Sentinel of March 15, 1933, quoted Winnifred Crane Wygal: “Oh, God, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and insight to know the one from the other.”

The newspaper gave as its source an article by Wygal in The Woman’s Press …………. rest of article below

COMMENTARY: How I discovered I was wrong about the origin of the Serenity Prayer



About Fr. Orthohippo

The blog of a retired Anglican priest (MSJ), his musings, journey, humor, wonderment, and comments on today's scene.
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