The Serenity Prayer is the common name for a prayer written by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971). 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.
Niebuhr, who first wrote the prayer for a sermon at Heath Evangelical Union Church in Heath, Massachusetts, used it widely in sermons as early as 1934 and first published it in 1951 in a magazine column. The prayer spread through Niebuhr’s sermons and church groups in the 1930s and 1940s and was adopted and popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step programs.
A Brief History of the Serenity Prayer
There is no shortage of theories as to who wrote the Serenity Prayer. Records from Alcoholics Anonymous show that Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr, of the Union Theological Seminary, NYC, composed it in 1932 as the ending to a longer prayer. In 1934, Dr. Howard Robbins, the doctor’s friend & neighbor, requested permission to use that portion of the longer prayer in a compilation he was building at the time. It was published that year in Dr. Robbins’ book of prayers.
In 1939, it came to the attention of an early A.A. member who liked it so much, he brought it to Bill W., the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. Bill & the staff read the prayer & felt that it particularly suited the needs of AA. Cards were printed & passed around. Thus the simple little prayer became an integral part of the AA movement.
Another popular theory states that Reinhold Niebuhr actually accredited Friedrich Oetinger, an 18th century theologian, for writing the Serenity Prayer. This theory suggests that in 1947, Niebuhr read the prayer in an obituary notice in the New York Tribune & was so taken by it that he shared it with Bill Wilson.
The prayer has appeared in many versions. 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. The most well-known form is a late version, as it includes a reference to grace not found before 1951:
God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
A version (apparently quoted from memory) appeared in the “Queries and Answers” column in The New York Times Book Review, July 2, 1950, p. 23, asking for the author of the quotation. A reply in the same column in the issue for August 13, 1950, p. 19, attributed the prayer to Niebuhr, quoting it 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.
Some twelve-step recovery programs use a slightly different version:
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.
The earliest recorded reference to the prayer is a diary entry from 1932 by Winnifred Crane Wygal, a pupil and collaborator of Reinhold Niebuhr, quoting the prayer and attributing it to Niebuhr. Several versions of the prayer then appeared in newspaper articles in the early 1930s written by, or reporting on talks given by, Wygal. In 1940, Wygal included the following form of the prayer in a book on worship, attributing it to Niebuhr:
O God, give us the serenity to accept what cannot be changed, the courage to change what can be changed, and the wisdom to know the one from the other.
Wygal was a longtime YWCA official and all early recorded usages were from women involved in volunteer or educational activities connected to the YWCA.
The earliest printed reference, in 1936, mentions that during a speech, a Miss Mildred Pinkerton “quotes the prayer,” as if to indicate it was already in a circulation known to the reporter, or that Pinkerton relayed it as a quote, without mentioning its authorship. A 1937 Christian student publication attributed the prayer to Niebuhr in the following form, which matches the other earliest published forms in requesting “courage to change” before petitioning for serenity:
Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.
Various other authors also cited Niebuhr as the source of the prayer from 1937 on. The Federal Council of Churches (NCC) included the prayer in a book for army chaplains and servicemen in 1944 and the USO circulated the prayer (with Niebuhr’s permission) to soldiers on printed cards during World War II. In 1950, in response to questions about the already quite widely known prayer’s provenance, Niebuhr wrote that 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.” He confirmed this in 1967. His daughter, Elisabeth Sifton, thought that Niebuhr had first written it in 1943, while Niebuhr’s wife Ursula believed it had been written in 1941 or ’42, adding that it may have been used in prayers as early as 1934.
The Serenity Prayer will be listed under Niebuhr’s name in the next edition of the Yale Book of Quotations, whose author Fred R. Shapiro had first raised doubts about, but was later instrumental in confirming Niebuhr’s authorship.
Numerous statements of more or less similar sentiments by other authors have been identified and it is likely that more will be found. The prayer has also been falsely attributed to a variety of other authors.
Epictetus wrote: “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens. Some things are up to us [eph’ hêmin] and some things are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions—in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our own doing.”
The 8th-century Indian Buddhist scholar Shantideva of the ancient Nalanda University suggested:
If there’s a remedy when trouble strikes,
What reason is there for dejection?
And if there is no help for it,
What use is there in being glum?
The 11th-century Jewish philosopher Solomon ibn Gabirol wrote:
And they said: At the head of all understanding – is realizing what is and what cannot be, and the consoling of what is not in our power to change.
The philosopher W.W. Bartley juxtaposes without comment Niebuhr’s prayer with a Mother Goose rhyme (1695) expressing a similar sentiment:
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.
Friedrich Schiller advocated the first part in 1801: “Blessed is he, who has learned to bear what he cannot change, and to give up with dignity, what he cannot save.”
The prayer has been variously attributed (without evidence) to Thomas Aquinas, Cicero, Augustine, Boethius, Marcus Aurelius, Francis of Assisi, and Thomas More, among others.
Theodor Wilhelm, a professor of education at the University of Kiel, published a German version of the prayer under the pseudonym “Friedrich Oetinger”. Wilhelm’s plagiarized version of the prayer became popular in West Germany, where it was widely but falsely attributed to the 18th-century philosopher Friedrich Christoph Oetinger.
Use by twelve-step recovery programs
The prayer became more widely known after being brought to the attention of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1941 by an early member, who came upon it in a caption in a “routine New York Herald Tribune obituary”. AA’s co-founder and staff liked the prayer and had it printed in modified form and handed around. It has been part of Alcoholics Anonymous ever since, and has also been used in other twelve-step programs. “Never had we seen so much A.A. in so few words,” noted founder Bill Wilson. 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.
The original text for this adapted prayer was:
Father, give us courage to change what must be altered,
serenity to accept what cannot be helped,
and the insight to know the one from the other.
A slightly different version of the prayer has been widely adopted by twelve-step groups:
God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change,
the courage to change the things we 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.
— By Reinhold Niebuhr
Native American “Serenity Prayer”
Make my hands respect the things you have made
my ears sharp to hear your voice
Make me wise, so that I may know
the things you have taught my People
the lesson you have hidden in every leaf and rock
I seek strength, not to be superior to my brothers
but to be able to fight my greatest enemy, myself
Make me ever ready to come to you
with clean hands and straight eyes,
so when life fades as a fading sunset
My Spirit may come to you without shame.
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