Who wrote the Serenity Prayer?

The Niebuhr family's most extensive discussion of the prayer appears in a 2003 book by Elisabeth Sifton, Niebuhr's daughter, entitled The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War. The book is not a history of the prayer, but Sifton refers to it often, as a touchstone of her father's thought. She states in her book and has reiterated in interviews that the Serenity Prayer was "composed in wartime." Although it has been adopted by "our self-help culture," she writes, "it also addresses the inconsolable pain, loss, and guilt that war inflicts on the communities that wage it; it goes . . . to the heart of the possibilities for peace."

Sifton writes that it was in the summer of 1943 that her father "composed the Serenity Prayer," in Heath, Massachusetts, where his family regularly vacationed. "It was in an ordinary Sunday morning service at the Heath Union Church in the summer of 1943 that my father first used his new prayer."

When I found that versions of the prayer had been printed in newspapers before 1943, I contacted Ms. Sifton. She e-mailed me commenting that "prayers evolve, are borrowed, are transmuted, are revised -- by their original writers, by others, and by still more 'others,'" and that Niebuhr prayed and preached in many different churches around the country. (For an article by Ms. Sifton responding to this one, please see "It takes a master to make a masterpiece.") Indeed, in her book she describes Niebuhr's method of preaching without notes and quotes listeners who found him mesmerizing. But his opportunities to preach were limited, for she also states that beyond "the handful of college chapels where he preached for thirty years . . . only two or three churches in America invited him to preach."

Niebuhr's wife, Ursula, who died in 1997, has also commented on the creation of the Serenity Prayer. In an undated memorandum in the Reinhold Niebuhr papers at the Library of Congress, she wrote:


  • My husband wrote that prayer in [the] early 1940s during the war. He wrote it and used it for service when he was preaching in the Congregational Church of Heath. … There is also a little problem about the date. My husband and I were never quite sure whether it was 1941 or 1942.


She adds, "My husband may have used it in his prayers by that time [1934], but it certainly was not then in circulation."

The earliest attribution I have found to Niebuhr comes from 1942. A reader asked in the New York Times Book Review "Queries and Answers" page of July 12 for the origin of a version of the prayer:


  • M.L. requests the origin of the following quotation: "Give me the patience to accept those things which I cannot change, the courage to change those things which can be changed and the wisdom to know the difference.”


On August 2, the Book Review printed these responses:

  • William D. Clapp, Rochester, N.Y.: I think the passage M.L. wanted in your issue of July 12 is the following, which is complete as printed here clipped from a publication the name of which is not recalled. The author is also unknown to this correspondent. …

  • Mrs. Ward M. Canaday, Toledo, Ohio, thinks this passage may be from Thomas Moore’s "Lalla Rookh." We could not find it there (Editor). Mrs. J. C. McClure, Mobile, Ala., associated it with the works of Reinhold Niebuhr, associate professor of philosophy at Union Theological Seminary, N.Y., for many years. No further identification given by this correspondent about the passage.



The Alcoholics Anonymous Grapevine of January 1950 states that the prayer "was actually written by Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr, of the Union Theological Seminary, New York City, in about 1932 as the ending to a longer prayer. In 1934 the doctor's friend and neighbor, Dr. Howard Robbins, asked permission to use that part of the longer prayer in a compilation he was making at the time. It was published in that year in Dr. Robbins' book of prayers." A number of other sources and Niebuhr biographers over the years have put forth an (undocumented) 1934 dating for Niebuhr's writing of the prayer.

However, the Grapevine account, like much of the voluminous literature on the prayer's history, falls apart when closely examined. Robbins's only prayer book from the period, Way of Light (1933), contains nothing resembling the Serenity Prayer. Elisabeth Sifton e-mailed me that "RN and Robbins were not neighbors in 1934 (we hadn't moved to Heath yet), they hadn't yet become friends." In her book she states:


  • Countless booklets and plaques and Websites tell us that Pa … wrote it in 1932 (a mistake that may derive from a typographical error in June Bingham’s otherwise fairly accurate biography of my father, which gave 1934 instead of 1943 as the date of composition), and so forth. Bartlett’s Quotations says it was written in 1934.

Over the years, many wild guesses have been made about the provenance of the Serenity Prayer. Those to whom the prayer has been credited include -- to name only the more common attributions -- Aristotle, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, Augustine, Boethius, Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas, Baruch Spinoza, Oliver J. Hart, various World War II military leaders, and anonymous sources going back to the ancient Egyptians.

Another often-cited creation theory ascribes the prayer to an eighteenth-century German theologian, Friedrich Oetinger. This claim has been shown to be a double misunderstanding. In the 1950s, a professor at the University of Kiel, Theodor Wilhelm, used the prayer in a book of his. He published the book under the pseudonym Friedrich Oetinger -- causing the confusion with the earlier Oetinger.

In his biography of Niebuhr, Richard Fox relates that in 1970 Elson Ruff asked the Niebuhrs about the Oetinger attribution:


  • His and Ursula’s response to Ruff’s question suggested that he was beginning to second-guess his own authorship. "Subconscious or even unconscious traces, of course, always play their part in all forms of art—in music as well as literature—and J. S. Bach, T. S. Eliot, Shakespeare (and Jesus, for that matter) often echoed material from the past." He must have wondered if he had subconsciously recorded a prayer used by his father or one that he had read somewhere years before.

The extensive pre-1943 documentation I have found, none of which refers to Reinhold Niebuhr, is subject to two interpretations. One is that Niebuhr wrote the Serenity Prayer in the early or mid-1930s, it quickly disseminated through religious and other circles with the author's identification largely forgotten, and the database occurrences are traces of that dissemination. The 1950 Grapevine article quotes Niebuhr himself as saying: "Of course, it 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 asserted authorship many times over many years.

I would not rule out the scenario that Niebuhr introduced the prayer by the mid-1930s in an unpublished or private setting. For this to have been the case, though, this prehistory would have had to have inspired nationwide usage, left no record, and, both at the time and later, escaped the notice of his family -- including his wife, who worked closely with him for 40 years, yet said that his Serenity Prayer "certainly was not then in circulation." It must also be asked why Reinhold Niebuhr himself, in all the decades of being asked about the authorship of this much-scrutinized text, never suggested that he had used it in the 1930s.

I think the second interpretation is more likely: that the prayer was indeed "spooking around for years" and that Niebuhr unconsciously adapted the Serenity Prayer in the early 1940s from already-circulating formulations of unknown origin.

The formula of the Serenity Prayer is not intellectually sophisticated, but it has clearly been profound in its influence on the lives of many. Testaments to its power are legion. A friend of mine, when she became aware that I was writing this article, e-mailed me: "From the time I was about 10 years old, I have suffered from a mysterious ailment that only recently has been tentatively diagnosed. Over the years the pain gradually increased in strength and frequently escalated to completely unbearable. . . . There was one thing that kept me going and kept me alive and that was the Serenity Prayer."

Folklorists regard variant versions of a text as evidence of a descent that has not been fixed by writing and print. Sayings with this kind of variation may be proverbial, the circumstances of their coinage often unknowable. The Serenity Prayer is probably too long to function as a true proverb, but the considerable variations in wording and ordering of phrases in the newspaper versions suggest a deep, traditional ancestry, perhaps long predating both the women in the 1930s who now provide the oldest attestations and the courageous and wise Reinhold Niebuhr.