Reinhold Niebuhr and the Serenity Prayer

Heath Union Church, Heath MA

In May of 1943 Reinhold Niebuhr completed teaching his classes at Union Theological Seminary and left for a two-month series of meetings, conferences and lectures in England and Scotland. The German Axis forces in North Africa surrendered on May 12, 1943. Four days later, German troops crushed the last resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, killing thousands of Jews. The rest were sent to Treblinka. Soon after Niebuhr returned to his family in Heath Massachusetts, Allied troops landed in Sicily on July 10th. On July 24th, the Allies began bombing the German city of Hamburg. By July 25th, Mussolini was overthrown and the new Italian government began peace talks. Somewhere in the midst of these earth-shaking events, Niebuhr preached a sermon at the Heath Union Church and uttered what would become known as the Serenity Prayer for the first time.

The above-described origins of the Serenity Prayer were given by Elisabeth Sifton, the daughter of Reinhold Niebuhr, in her book: The Serenity Prayer. Sifton deftly placed its origins in the midst of the work and ministry of her father during WW II. She said at some point in late 1943 or early 1944, a friend of her father’s, Howard Robbins suggested this little prayer about “grace, courage and wisdom” would be appropriate for inclusion in material he was preparing for army chaplains in the field. Niebuhr gave Robbins a copy of the prayer, and in 1944 it was included in the Book of Prayers and Services for the Armed Forces.

This was its first publication in any form and in any language, and its because of this little booklet that eventually it became famous. . . . A short while later Alcoholics Anonymous, then a fledgling small organization scarcely a decade old, with my father’s permission, also started to use the prayer in their regular meetings.

Sifton said she doesn’t know when or how AA simplified the text of her father’s original version of the Serenity Prayer. And although he let it happen “and didn’t fuss when the wordings were altered,” he did mind the changes. But Niebuhr never copyrighted his prayer. Sifton said it was inconceivable to him to construe prayers as a source of revenue. So he could not and did not control its misquotation, misattribution or embellishment.  The original text for Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer is followed by the shortened AA version, and one of the longer versions.

Niebuhr’s 1943 version: “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.”

The AA version appears in the Third Step essay of the AA book, The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

One version of the so-called “Complete” Serenity Prayer is in the linked article below by Nell Wing, an A.A. archivist. It is as follows:

God, grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change; Courage to change the things I can, and the Wisdom to know the difference. 

Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardship 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; that I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with Him forever in the next. Amen. 

Elisabeth Sifton said she has no idea where the additional clauses of the “complete” version came from. But their message and tone were not in any way “Niebuhrian.” She noted how the A.A. version simplified the opening and framed the prayer in the first person singular, rather than the first person plural of her father’s original text. It also omitted the spiritually correct, but difficult idea of praying for “grace to accept with serenity that which we cannot change.” Instead, it focused on the simpler idea of obtaining “serenity to accept what cannot be changed.”

Nell Wing, an A.A. Archivist, wrote a paper in 1981: “Origin of the Serenity Prayer.” There she described several different purported “origins” for the Serenity Prayer that A.A. was told over the years. Bill W. and A.A. have attributed their initial discovery of the Serenity Prayer to Niebuhr, but still seem to repeat information about it that conflicts with Sifton’s above-described version—which she was told to her by her parents. For example, A.A. attributes their initial discovery of the (then) anonymous prayer to an obituary found by an early A.A. member in a New York paper in June of 1941. The connection to Dr. Niebuhr didn’t come to A.A.’s attention in the late 1940s.

Wing said an A.A. member reported seeing the prayer in Reinhold Niebuhr’s writings, “as if it were original to him.” She also quoted from a 1951 letter by an A.A.  member to Bill W. The man who had been in contact with Dr. Niebuhr, who confirmed that he did write the prayer and that it had been distributed to soldiers during WWII. Bill W. responded by saying that it was probable the Serenity Prayer existed in some form or other before Dr. Niebuhr. “Now it is pretty certain that Dr. Niebuhr did write the prayer in its present form and we also have on file a letter from him to that effect.” Bill then referenced a September 1950 article by Jack Alexander, which Wing quoted:

 Originally thought in Alcoholics Anonymous to have been written by St. Francis of Assisi, it turned out on recent research to have been the work of another eminent nonalcoholic, Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr, of Union Theological Seminary. Dr.Niebuhr was amused on being told of the use to which his prayer was being put. Asked if it was original with him, he said he thought it was, but added, “Of course, it may have been spooking around for centuries.”Alcoholics Anonymous seized upon it in 1940 [actually1941], after it has been used as a quotation in the New York Herald Tribune. The fellowship was late in catching up with it; and it will probably spook around a good deal longer before the rest of the world catches up with it.”

Wing also referred to several other “origins” of the payer that have been sent to A.A. at one time or another. There was even the reprint of a letter written by Ursula Niebuhr, Reinhold’s wife, which briefly reviewed the background to the Serenity Prayer given above by her daughter.

In the January 1950 issue of the AA Grapevine, there appeared an article entitled: “The Serenity Prayer,” that attributed the prayer to Niebuhr, and even gave what they said his original text. The prayer attributed to Niebuhr in the Grapevine article was not the version quoted above as the Niebuhrian 1943 version. The A.A. article also dated the origin of the Serenity Prayer to 1932. Howard Robbins is said to have received permission to place it in a compilation of prayers he then published in 1934. An A.A. member saw the prayer in an obituary in 1939, and brought it to the attention of Bill W. and others in A.A. The history described here seems to contradict that given above by Sifton. For more on the A.A. understanding of the origins of the Serenity Prayer, see: “The Serenity Prayer and A.A.”

Elisabeth Sifton, her mother and father all seem to have a similar sense of the Niebuhrian version of the Serenity Prayer coming from a sermon that he preached at Heath during WWII. Nell Wing reviewed several other possibilities, some of which were shown to be false. Yet the consensus from A.A. seems to believe the 1943 Niebuhrian version wasn’t the first. Writing for the Yale Alumni Magazine in 2008, Fred Shapiro wrote of his own investigations into the origins of the Serenity Prayer, “Who Wrote the Serenity Prayer?”

Shapiro noted that Niebuhr’s version of the Serenity Prayer was selected by the editor’s of the World Almanac as one of the ten most memorable quotes of the last 100 years. In English and German-speaking countries, he thought it was probably the only prayer to rival the Lord’s Prayer in popularity. Shapiro said Niebuhr himself said it was possible he assimilated its concept from some earlier, forgotten source. Nevertheless, Niebuhr made it clear that he believed the prayer originated with him.

Shapiro’s research found versions of the Serenity Prayer in newspaper databases before 1943. He stated how the evidence was by no means, conclusive; and it is entirely possible Niebuhr composed the prayer much earlier than he himself remembered. When he found at least eight versions of the prayer in newspapers before 1943, he contacted Elisabeth Sifton with his evidence. In response, Sifton commented that prayers evolve, are borrowed, transmuted and revised—by their original writers and others.

Sifton herself noted in her own book where the ideas expressed in the Serenity Prayer existed in previous works by her father. She noted how the tone of the Serenity Prayer radiated throughout Niebuhr’s classic work, The Nature and Destiny of Man. Niebuhr gave a series lectures with the same name at the Gifford Lectures between 1938 and 1940 at the University of Edinburgh. She pointed out where the second volume ended with a consideration of the ideas he was to express in his little prayer just a year or so later:

Wisdom about our destiny is dependent upon a humble recognition of the limits of our knowledge and our power. Our most reliable understanding in the fruit of “grace,” in which faith completes our ignorance without pretending to possess its certainties as knowledge, and in which contrition mitigates our pride without destroying our hope.

The following are two examples of what Shapiro found. Follow the above link to his full article for more.

In the January 16, 1936 edition of the Syracuse Herald, the executive secretary for the Syracuse Y.W.C.A. quoted the following prayer in her annual report:

O 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.

In the February 19, 1939 edition of the Ada (Oklahoma) Herald the home counselor for Oklahoma City’s public schools prayer said the prayer for both parents should be:

Oh God, give me serenity to accept that which cannot be changed, give me courage to change that which can be changed and wisdom to tell the one from the other.

Shapiro said it was possible that Niebuhr introduced the prayer by the mid-1930s in an unpublished or private setting. It was then quickly disseminated with his identification largely forgotten. But he said it must be asked why Niebuhr himself never suggested he had used the prayer in the 1930s. However, he believes a second alternative is more likely. The prayer really was “spooking around for years” and Niebuhr unconsciously adapted it from some already-existing formulation.

Sifton responded to Shapiro’s conclusions in “It Takes A Master to Make A Masterpiece.” You can find her response at the end of the link for Shapiro’s article, “Who Wrote the Serenity Prayer?” She still affirmed her father as the essential author of the Serenity Prayer. Shapiro merely demonstrated that her father’s voice reached far more American churches and organizations than they had previously realized. Prayers are presented orally and become famous orally long before they are put on paper.

Yet the great masterpiece prayers don’t materialize in some random, bubble-up way, either: their power comes from a distillation of complex spiritual truths, and for this we need authors, we need the tradition’s most gifted practitioners. In my book, I quoted prayers from various sources that my father knew well and whose cadences and theology feed into the Serenity Prayer’s concise wisdoms, because I wanted to suggest how the rich texture of worship as experienced by generations of believers nourishes the creation of new prayers. To throw light on this long, often anonymous process was one purpose of my book.

Sifton commented that since the Serenity Prayer has become so associated with the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, most people think of it as expressing what we must work on within our “personal self-improvement projects.” Yet it was composed in wartime. It addresses “the inconsolable pain, loss, and guilt that war inflicts on the communities that wage it.”

She said her father drafted his prayers rapidly, or composed them right on the spot, rewording them many times before he felt they were in final form. Most of the prayers she cited in her book were not published until after his death in 1971. But by then generations of student and worshipers had known them well and used them for decades. “The Serenity Prayer was unusual in his oeuvre [body of work], then, only in the odd circumstance of its wartime publication and subsequent diffusion.”

The Niebuhrian version of the Serenity Prayer seems to have clearly come from Reinhold Niebuhr’s 1943 sermon. It also seems likely that the concepts within the prayer had been part of his teaching, thinking and writing in the years prior to that fateful sermon. And yet, religious believers and philosophers for thousands of years have struggled to be at peace or in harmony with the things in life that cannot be changed; to find courage to change the things they can; and to know the one from the other. The dilemma of the Serenity Prayer strikes at the heart of all religious and philosophical quests to know the will of God. Lord, by your grace grant us the serenity, courage and wisdom to know and do your will.


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