Beliefnet
Beliefnet News

The Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star, Norfolk, VA – July 11, 2008
By Laurie Goodstein
The New York Times

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 most towering figures. Niebuhr, who died in 1971, said he was quite sure he had written it, and his wife, Ursula, also a theologian, dated its composition to the early 1940s.
His daughter Elisabeth Sifton 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 Heath, Mass., where the Niebuhr family spent their 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 quotes are from civic leaders all over the United States.
Some of them refer to the prayer as if it were a proverb, while others appear to claim it as their own poetry. None of them 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. It will be followed by a rebuttal from Sifton.
Shapiro said: “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.”
Sifton faults Shapiro’s approach as computer-driven and deprived of historical and theological context. She said her father traveled widely in the 1930s, preaching in college chapels and to church groups – especially YMCAs and YWCAs – and could have used the prayer then.
Sifton said the newly unearthed quotes were merely evidence that her father’s preaching had a broad impact.
A Niebuhr biographer, Charles C. Brown, said that perhaps Sifton’s theory was correct and that the newspaper quotations were from people who heard Niebuhr speak the prayer years before he wrote it down.
who wrote it?
For years it was thought that the Serenity Prayer was written by Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in the early 1940s.
(C) 2008 The Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star, Norfolk, VA. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus