Serenity Prayer

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The Serenity Prayer is the common name for an originally untitled prayer, most commonly attributed to the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.[1] The prayer has been adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step programs. Yale Book of Quotations editor Fred R. Shapiro in 2008 published evidence that a version of the prayer was in existence no later than 1936. Shapiro believes that this casts doubt on Niebuhr's authorship of the prayer.[2]

The best-known form is:

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.


[edit] History

[edit] Reinhold Niebuhr

According to the most common attribution, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote the prayer for use in a sermon, perhaps as early as 1934. He is quoted in the January, 1950 Grapevine[3] as saying the prayer "may have been spooking around for years, even centuries, but I don't think so. I honestly do believe that I wrote it myself."[4]

The prayer is cited by Niebuhr in his book: The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Addresses,[5] and by Niebuhr's daughter, Elisabeth Sifton, in her book The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War:[6] Sifton thought that he had first written it in 1943; his wife wrote in an unpublished memorandum that it had been written in 1941 or 1942, adding that it may have been used in prayers as early as 1934, although it was not then in circulation.

In his book Niebuhr recalls that his prayer was circulated by the Federal Council of Churches and later by the United States armed forces.[7] Reinhold Niebuhr's versions of the prayer were always printed as a single prose sentence; printings that set out the prayer as three lines of verse modify the author's original version.

An approximate version (apparently quoted from memory) appears in the "Queries and Answers" column in The New York Times Book Review, July 2, 1950, p. 23, which asks for the author of the quotation; and a reply in the same column in the issue for August 13, 1950, p. 19, where the quotation is attributed to Niebuhr and an unidentified printed text is quoted as follows:

O God and Heavenly Father,
Grant to us the serenity of mind to accept that which cannot be changed;courage to change that which can be changed, and wisdom to know the one from the other, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

The prayer became widely known when it was adopted in modified form by Alcoholics Anonymous; Grapevine, The International Journal of Alcoholics Anonymous, identified Niebuhr as the author (January 1950, pp. 6-7), and the AA web site continues to identify Niebuhr as the author.[4] Niebuhr himself did not publish the Serenity Prayer until 1951, in one of his magazine columns, although it had previously appeared under his name in 1944, when it was included in a Federal Council of Churches book for army chaplains and servicemen.[2]

In 2008, Yale Book of Quotations editor Fred R. Shapiro published evidence showing that versions of the Serenity Prayer[8] were in use as early as 1936, years before it was first attributed to Niebuhr in 1943.[2] Curiously, all of these early examples were from women, typically women involved in volunteer or educational activities and none of them with apparent church affiliations.[9]

The earliest printed version of the prayer appeared on January 16, 1936. Mildred Pinkerton, executive secretary of the Syracuse (New York) YWCA, quoted the prayer: "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."[10] Pinkerton had served as a YWCA/YMCA secretary in Detroit, Michigan from 1914 until her move to Syracuse around 1925.[11] Reinhold Niebuhr was a pastor in Detroit from 1915 to 1928. He was also a popular speaker and writer within the collegiate religious movement, and particularly the YMCA, during the interwar years.[12]

In 1939 Edyth Thomas Wallace, a parent educator and newspaper columnist in Oklahoma City, used a version of the prayer essentially identical to the present version.[13] The prayer appeared in newspaper articles and lectures in Massachusetts, Texas and Pennsylvania in 1940 and 1941. Two of the speakers were home economists, at least one with a YWCA background. [14]

Shapiro suggests that Niebuhr most likely unconsciously adapted the prayer from existing formulations of unknown origin, although he acknowledges the possibility that Niebuhr introduced the prayer by the mid-1930s in an unpublished or private setting.[2] Sifton, in a response published with Shapiro's article, argues that the prayer must have come from one of the tradition's most gifted practitioners, which she believes could only be her father.[15]

[edit] Other claims

The philosopher W.W. Bartley juxtaposes Niebuhr's prayer with a Mother Goose rhyme (1695) expressing a similar sentiment, but without comment:[16]

For every ailment under the sun
There is a remedy, or there is none;
If there be one, try to find it;
If there be none, never mind it.

The prayer's origin is often attributed to Friedrich Christoph Oetinger (1702-1782), but this attribution may be the result of a misunderstanding of a plagiarism of the prayer by Theodor Wilhelm, an ex-Nazi professor at the University of Kiel. Wilhelm printed a German version of the prayer as his own work in his book, Wendepunkt der poltitischen Erziehung; he published the book under the pseudonym "Friedrich Oetinger" (the book did not pretend to be the work of the 18th-century Oetinger; the name was merely a pseudonym, apparently chosen because the author's wife was descended from pastors who shared the theology of the 18th-century Oetinger). Theodor Wilhelm was apparently unaware that the US Army and the USO had been distributing the prayer in Germany since the end of World War II, and later writers who were unaware that "Friedrich Oetinger" was a pseudonym (even though the book was clearly written by a 20th-century author) confused this name with the eighteenth-century Oetinger. Wilhelm apparently chose to publish under a pseudonym because his Nazi past was widely known in Germany at the time.

On a website called Our Special Net, is in an article purportedly reprinted with the permission of a Dr. John Sasser,[17] photographs are shown, said to be of a tavern, built in 1849 in Bergen-Enkheim, Germany. The words of the Serenity Prayer are shown written in German above three windows of the first floor.[18] Close examination of the photographs shows distinctive "watermark" type markings around all the texts and also an additional line of text, unaccounted for in the article, which has been obscured; the lettering, with its sharp outlines, seems to have been painted recently, although the article reports a resident remembering the text being there between 1920 and 1930 when she memorised it as an 11 year old. The essay repeats the confused report that the prayer was written by Friedrich Christoph Oetinger, based on the similar pseudonym used by a twentieth-century author who claimed to have written the prayer (see above).

Other spurious claims for the authorship of the prayer include one that the prayer was written by the Christian philosopher and theologian Boethius just before his execution in the year 524 or 525.

In the movie Billy Jack, authorship of the prayer is mistakenly given to St. Francis of Assisi.

[edit] Adaptations and expansions

The prayer was brought to the attention of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1941 by an early member.[19] The prayer was liked by Bill W (William Griffith Wilson), co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous and the staff. It was printed out, handed around and has been part of Alcoholics Anonymous ever since. It has also been used in Narcotics Anonymous and other Twelve-step programs.

Niebuhr's original text, from in Elisabeth Sifton's book The Serenity Prayer appears near the top of this page. The slightly edited Alcoholics Anonymous version below omits the word "grace" from the first line, shortens some of the remainder, and sets out the prayer in the form of verses:

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.

From the AA book Twelve and Twelve, Step Three.

This is the entire prayer:

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;
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life
And supremely happy with Him
Forever and ever in the next.

[edit] Allusions to the Prayer

  • The back cover of the Neil Young album Re-ac-tor has the prayer in Latin: 'Deus, dona mihi serenitatem accipere res quae non possum mutare, fortitudinem mutare res quae possum, atque sapientiam differentiam cognoscere.'
  • On the back cover of Whitney Houston's self-titled debut album.
  • In the song, "Higher Power", by Boston.
  • In the song, "Feel so different" (1990), by Sinéad O'Connor.
  • In the song, "Gotta Make It To Heaven," by 50 Cent.
  • In the song, "What I Cannot Change," by LeAnn Rimes, from her album, Family.
  • In the intro, "Loving" of India Arie's third album "Testimony Vol 1 - Life And Relationship."
  • As a track on Goodie MOb's debut album Soul Food.
  • In the book, "Angels & Demons," by Dan Brown, quoted by the Camerlengo (although credited to St. Francis).
  • In the book, Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut.
  • AA's book, "Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions", has the prayer: '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. Thy will, not mine, be done.'
  • In the game World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade, one of the Blood Elves' speech recordings has one elf reciting the prayer. He breaks down half way through, overcome with a craving for magic, which Blood Elves are addicted to.
  • The Israeli Rapper Subliminal adapts the prayer into his song "Tikvah" (Hope) about the Israeli wars and terrorism.
  • The hardcore punk band Blood for Blood has an album named after the prayer, and the first and last tracks of the album are the serenity prayer being recited by the band's lead singer.
  • Olivia Newton-John's CD Stronger than Before includes a setting of the prayer, titled "Serenity".
  • In Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Season 6, episode 22 entitled "Renewal" first aired Monday, May 21, 2007. It was recited during a prayer group.
  • In the film Billy Jack, the lead female character, Jean Roberts, recites the prayer.
  • In the King of the Hill episode How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Alamo, Principal Moss says 'Are you familiar with the serenity prayer Hank? Cuz this is one of those things I can't change.'
  • In the episode of the TV show Summerland titled "The Wisdom to Know the Difference," Eva teaches the prayer to her nephew Derrick to console him.
  • In the novel, ’Salem's Lot, by Stephen King
  • In the movie: Changing Lanes, Samuel L. Jackson, in the character of Doyle Gipson, recites the first section - with possible reference to the fact that he is an active member of Alcoholics Anonymous. Another movie in which Samuel L. Jackson recites it is Kevin Reynolds' 187.
  • Recited by the character Ted Schmidt in the Queer as Folk episode 405, then quoted by character Melanie Marcus.
  • When they are on tour, Robbie Williams and his band recite the prayer together before every gig, replacing "God" with "Elvis".
  • In the book, Rama Revealed by Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee, when Richard Wakefield and Nicole Desjardins are back together in New York.
  • Recited by the character Owen Harper in the Torchwood episode Adrift.
  • It can be heard in the Weeds episode "Dead In The Nethers", during the MA meeting scene.
  • It can be heard in the Dexter episode "An Inconvenient Lie", at the end of the NA meeting scene.
  • It can be heard in an episode of Brothers & Sisters at a support group scene.
  • The comic strip Calvin and Hobbes made a reference to this prayer: "Know what I pray for? The strength to change what I can, the inability to accept what I can't and the incapacity to tell the difference."
  • In the 2007 movie "Mr. Brooks", the character Mr Brooks (played by Kevin Costner) recites the Serenity prayer to himself throughout the movie- alluding to his 'addiction', albeit not to the conventional addictions of alcohol or drugs, despite the ties this prayer has with both AA and NA.

[edit] References

  1. ^ See, e.g., Justin Kaplan, ed., Bartlett's Familiar Quotations 735 (17th ed. 2002) (attributing the prayer to Niebuhr in 1943).
  2. ^ a b c d Fred R. Shapiro, Who Wrote the Serenity Prayer, Yale Alumni Magazine (July/August 2008).
  3. ^ The Grapevine. "The Serenity Prayer", The International Journal of Alcoholics Anonymous, January 1950.
  4. ^ a b The Origin of our Serenity Prayer, AA History & Trivia (visited July 14, 2008).
  5. ^ The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Addresses, Reinhold Niebuhr, edited by Robert McAfee Brown, page 251, Yale University Press; New Ed edition (September 10, 1987)
  6. ^ The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War, Elisabeth Sifton, page 277, W. W. Norton & Company (January 30, 2005)
  7. ^ [1]
  8. ^ The Serenity Meme, Language Log (visited July 14, 2008) (contrasting various early versions of the Serenity Prayer).
  9. ^ Fred R. Shapiro, New Evidence, Yale Alumni Magazine (July/August 2008).
  10. ^ Syracuse Herald, January 16, 1936
  11. ^ census records, and Syracuse Post-Standard articles
  12. ^ Setran, David. The College "Y": Student Religion in the Era of Secularization. p. 191. ISBN 1-4039-6125-5. 
  13. ^ Ada Evening news, February 19, 1939
  14. ^ Lowell Sun, April 16, 1940; Valley Star-Monitor Herald, August 17, 1941; Indiana Evening Gazette, December 5, 1941
  15. ^ Elisabeth Sifton, It Takes a Master To Make a Masterpiece, Yale Alumni Magazine (July/August 2008).
  16. ^ W.W. Bartley, The Retreat to Commitment, p. 35, Open Court Publishing Company; New Ed edition (April 1990)
  17. ^ Dr. John Estep Sasser [2][3]
  19. ^ "Stalking the Wild Serenity Prayer", Appendix B in: Wing, Nell. Grateful to Have Been There: My 42 Years with Bill and Lois, and the Evolution of Alcoholics Anonymous. p. 167. ISBN 1-56838-064-X. 

[edit] Further reading

"Transcending and Transforming the World," in Niebuhr, Reinhold (1927). Does Civilization Need Religion? A Study in the Social Resources and Limitations of Religion in Modern Life.  See especially pages 179-81.

[edit] External links

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