Serenity Prayer’s Authorship Disputed

Reinhold Neibuhr has long been attributed as the author of the famous Serenity 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.

Neibuhr was one of the most important liberal theologians of the 20th century (his stream of theology was actually called Neo-Orthodoxy, but he was nonetheless very much a liberal, as Gary Dorrien demonstrates).  And his Serenity Prayer is one of the most widely recognized prayers in modern Christianity.  Thus it is significant news when evidence appears to dispute Neibuhr’s authorship.

The New York Times today has an article that summarizes the dispute.  A researcher has turned up very close approximations of the used by women prayer going back as much as a decade earlier than when Neibuhr was supposed to have written it.

There are a number of possibilities here.  One is that Neibuhr heard the prayer from one of these women, slightly adapted it for his own uses, and took credit for it–and was given credit for it by the public.  This sort of thing has happened many times in the past, when a woman wrote or otherwise created something that she did not receive personal credit for, only to have a man later on receive credit and fame/fortune from patriarchal society.  This can happen through actual malice on the part of the man, stealing a woman’s ideas with the confidence that people will believe him over her should dispute arise; it can also happen because women were encouraged to be humble and keep themselves out of the public eye, and thus tended to hide their light even when allowing something they’d created to creep out on to the public scene.  Both are results of sexism endemic in a society.

This may be what happened here.  There is also reason to take other interpretations: Neibuhr was by many accounts a deeply humble man, uninterested in taking credit or profiting from the Serenity Prayer, and likely to give a woman credit if he knew her to be the actual author.  Also, while he said that he genuinely believed that he wrote the Serenity Prayer, he didn’t insist on it, and did not seem bothered by alternate explanations that arose even in his own lifetime.  Ultimately, the decision to accept or reject the nastiest interpretation rests on one’s level of generosity toward Neibuhr as a person.

Another possibility is that Neibuhr, who traveled and spoke widely more than a decade before he officially composed the Serenity Prayer, was already saying words similar to it in his prayers and lectures before audiences, and that some of those audience members then used his words in their own works.  This is plausible–preachers may work on prayers for years before they get produced in some final, official form–but is undermined by the failure of any of the early writers to attribute the prayer Neibuhr or associate it with him in some way.  For historians of such things, that’s a definite red flag, especially given Neibuhr’s prominence.

The most likely explanation–at this point–is something that combines elements of all of the above, and while too messy to pin down definitively from a historian’s standpoint, is true to real life.  A sort of proto-Serenity Prayer was probably already present in pre-1940s American Protestant culture, circulating under the radar as a sentiment rather than a fully-formed prayer with static wording.  Given the humility and self-effacing nature of the prayer, it was probably circulated most often among women, and may have had its genesis with a single, unknown woman author.  Men’s prayers were still often very much in the “muscular Christianity” mode during this period, whereas women’s experiences of Protestant Christianity were often distinctively less assertive.

In his many travels, Neibuhr was probably exposed to this proto-Serenity Prayer, and, without being particularly conscious of it, absorbed its meaning and some of its phrasing.  Neibuhr was a man, but a very particular man, whose “Christian realism” was much closer in some important ways to the perspectives of women than men (as a class) of his day.  Words close to the Serenity Prayer would have resonated with him, whether or not he produced or merely encountered them.  He then may have begun to use something similar to them on occasion in his speaking, and thus a few of the pre-Serenity Prayer writings by other people may be the result of hearing him preach.  Then, at a yet later date, Neibuhr felt compelled to sit down and compose a fully conscious, intentional Serenity Prayer to express his feelings.  This Serenity Prayer was preached before others and an Episcopalian priest (perhaps significantly, a man) then publicized the prayer widely.  Thus Neibuhr became known as its author.

This interpretation takes into account the facts of the case, an important gender critique, and the apparent genuineness of Neibuhr’s sentiments and piety–something that historians are not well equipped to judge, yet must not dismiss out of hand, as it too is a historical datum.  A woman/women in a sexist religious culture produced prayers of moving humility, which they shared without taking personal credit for; a man of deep thought and sensitivity encountered them and was affected, perhaps subconsciously; this man, allowed to be a public figure, spread the germ of the prayer further and eventually solidified it into an official form; male theologians took up their fellow male theologian’s composition and publicized it widely, resulting in his attribution as its originator.

Neibuhr therefore may not be the originator of the prayer’s sentiment, nor even many of its words, but could justly be called the author of the Serenity Prayer ™, and/or credited as the popularizer of the prayer, with Anonymous as its root author.

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3 Comments

Filed under Liberal Religious History

3 responses to “Serenity Prayer’s Authorship Disputed

  1. This reminds me of an attempt I made a few years ago to track down the popular construction, often used in U.U. sermons, “It is the job of the preacher to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I found it attributed, in various forms, to literally dozens of individuals over a time span of more than fifty years. The exact wording changed slightly. And sometimes the profession mentioned was not the ministry but journalism or the law. Later usages clearly were adoptions—or outright appropriations—of earlier versions. But it was virtually impossible to determine an originator. Like the Serenity Prayer, it may also have been circulating in oral versions, passed from person to person, for years before it made its way into print. This is the folkloric process, a messy one which infuriates those who demand absolute proof of authorship and delights those who think they can make a name for themselves by proving that this or that luminary “stole” phraseology that had been in the zeitgeist.

  2. I’m the editor of the Yale Alumni Magazine. The two stories the Times article is based on, by Fred R. Shapiro and Elisabeth Sifton, are up on our website at http://www.yalealumnimagazine.com.

  3. His daughter tells us this,

    A colleague in attendance at the sermon and deeply moved by the prayer asked him the origins of the words and where he might find them. Niebuhr said they were his and responded to this request by simply handing his friend his notes with the prayer written down on them. Eventually the prayer made its way to a (then) fledgling group called Alcoholics Anonymous. AA asked Niebuhr’s permission to use his words as a staple of their spiritual “fellowship.” Not believing anyone can “own” the words of a prayer anymore than one can own the sea or the air, the great theologian said yes again; and the rest is, as we say, “history”.

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