It takes a master to make a masterpiece

Reinhold Niebuhr's daughter responds

Elisabeth Sifton, senior vice president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, is the author of The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War.

Fred Shapiro’s researches into the pre-1943 citations of something like the Serenity Prayer are governed, he acknowledges, by the power of search engines. But this technology can’t be used alone and won’t alone resolve the issues. To decide on a text’s authorship, one needs to understand its meaning and its historical context, and I am not sure Mr. Shapiro does. To me, his new discoveries simply suggest that in the years before World War II, Reinhold Niebuhr’s voice reached many more American churches and organizations than we previously realized—the voice not of "a theologian of towering importance who deeply influenced the political life of his time," which he certainly was, but of a minister who joined in daily worship with his fellow Christians.

The Serenity Prayer, its popularity notwithstanding, strikingly diverges from the usual pieties, the prevailing self-congratulatory cheeriness, of twentieth-century American Protestantism. Mr. Shapiro does not acknowledge this, and seems to believe that just about anybody might have written it—he condescends to opine that its "formula" is "not intellectually sophisticated." But any theologian could instruct Mr. Shapiro, as my book evidently failed to, on the prayer’s theological profundity—and no one denies that it’s wise. So we must ask where the idea for its austere, demanding, tripartite entreaty came from. Who, if not Niebuhr, might have introduced it? Who was praying along these lines in 1936, 1938, 1939, when local newspapers tell us that women around the country, mostly connected to teaching institutions or the YWCA, quoted a version of it? Mr. Shapiro doesn’t address these questions, and he hasn’t yet delved into the enormous sea of documentation on which floats the history of churches, their affiliates, and dependent institutions, so he is unacquainted with the sloshing, watery sound of most American clergy in the 1930s. He offers only a flimsy chain of misconstrued circumstantial evidence to support his hunch that the prayer’s author is likely not Niebuhr.

Mr. Shapiro’s working premise for his research on the Serenity Prayer seems to be that we must find out just who first spoke or wrote it in the public record, because that person is more likely to be—or to be near—its true author. But, as I’ve said to him before, this is not necessarily the right way to go about looking for prayer authors. Prayers are presented orally, circulate orally, and become famous orally long before they are put on paper. Pastors and congregants use them in worship, recall and even misremember them, think about them for years before they are printed. That is why common, i.e., shared, use is one criterion for establishing a text, no matter who may have originated it—though that still matters. This spiritual tradition differs from the legal tradition with which Mr. Shapiro is more familiar; I'm glad if he’s now taking it into account.

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 needauthors, 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, the thesis of which still seems to elude Mr. Shapiro.


Another purpose was to reflect on issues of faith and politics in times of peace and war. Let me correct Mr. Shapiro’s sense of the chronology here. For my father and his allies—a tiny minority of American clergy, people working on behalf of basic principles of social justice who thought that churches should help to eliminate the economic conflicts and other woes that had led to the carnage of 1914–18—the 1930s was already a decade darkened by war. Their efforts to awaken America to the dangers ahead began long before Pearl Harbor. The Nazi regime had already subverted Christian principles, compromised German churches, and made clear its plans for armed international aggression; in 1936 another kind of fascist war began in Spain—not to mention what was happening in Italy and North Africa, or Japan and Manchuria, or the civil strife at home. I tried to show the accelerated crescendo of bellicose crises in those years—and then I placed the prayer’s final composition in 1943 because my parents had done so, and it was, as I explained in an e-mail some years ago to Mr. Shapiro, the "year that [Niebuhr] composed this version of it, which he then authorized for publication, as he had not previously done." But now I wish I’d known about those early appearances of a nascent Serenity Prayer. They bolster my sense of Niebuhr’s work at the time, and of course I’d have altered my reference to the prayer’s "first use.”

Throughout the war-shadowed 1920s and war-torn 1930s Niebuhr was crisscrossing the country, preaching and praying not only in churches and college chapels but in the YMCA/YWCA network (into which he was well-plugged) and with many church organizations and student groups whose meetings regularly began and ended in prayer. To say that his "opportunities to preach were limited" is, alas, to show ignorance of a well-known public career; dozens of clergymen had positions of greater power and authority then, but none was listened to more than Niebuhr. True, he was invited to preach at only a few churches outside New York—which amazes people who rightly think of him as a national figure but wrongly presume he was welcome everywhere. No: he was too controversial for that. Still, his pithy, aphoristic eloquence was familiar to thousands of people, who heard him at dozens of university and college chapels (he preached several times a year at Yale for decades) and who appreciated his efforts on behalf of the inter-denominational and ecumenical organizations in which he was so active. Niebuhr did this extracurricular work on weekends, when he left Union Seminary and his family to zoom around the country, so my mother might easily have been unacquainted with the earlier circulation of a prayer she knew well by 1941–42.

During the week there was his teaching and ministry at Union, which every spring sent out into the world newly fledged clergy who had been his students, had taken notes in his classes, had attended the daily services where he prayed with them or the Sunday ones where he preached, had asked him to preside at their weddings and at baptisms of their children, and had tried to emulate the essence of his work in their own efforts. They always sat up and took notice when Niebuhr was around; he surprised, even shocked them with his austere, benign, but tragic view of human frailty, with his memorable calls to action and pleas for humility. Nobody else sounded like him.

Naturally enough, people copied his lectures, sermons, and prayers all the time. (My mother told of hearing a sermon one Sunday in a New York church—my father was off ministering in another city—that was lifted pretty much word for word from the just-published Moral Man and Immoral Society.) They did this because they valued his welcome challenge to the mushy pieties of the day; they wanted to expand and perpetuate his unusual ministry. This is a key factor in the dissemination of the Serenity Prayer, and it’s why Mr. Shapiro’s discoveries don’t puzzle or surprise me. Nor would they surprise the countless divinity-school graduates, teachers, church workers, librarians, scholars, missionaries, YWCA secretaries, and just plain people whose paths crossed with Niebuhr's.

Even when my father drafted his prayers rapidly or composed them right on the spot, he reworded them many times before deeming them in final form—standard operating procedure for clergymen. And while he didn’t much publish them, he let other people do so if the prayers were part of a public event whose proceedings were printed up, which happened often enough. Most of the prayers Niebuhr wrote which I cited in my book weren’t published until after his death, but by then generations of students and worshipers had known them well and used them for decades. The Serenity Prayer was unusual in his oeuvre, then, only in the odd circumstance of its wartime publication and subsequent diffusion.

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