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definition - serenity prayer

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Serenity Prayer


The Serenity Prayer is the common name for an originally untitled prayer by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.[1] The prayer has been adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step programs.

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.


  History and attributions

  Reinhold Niebuhr

Though clearly circulating in oral form earlier, the earliest established date for a written form of the prayer is Reinhold Niebuhr's inclusion of it in a sermon in 1943, followed closely by its inclusion in a Federal Council of Churches book for army chaplains and servicemen in 1944. Niebuhr himself did not publish the Serenity Prayer until 1951, in one of his magazine columns, although it had previously appeared under his name.[2] The prayer is cited both by Niebuhr[3] and by Niebuhr's daughter, Elisabeth Sifton.[4] Sifton thought that he had first written it in 1943, although Niebuhr's wife wrote in an unpublished memorandum that it had been written in 1941 or 1942, adding that it may have been used in prayers as early as 1934. Niebuhr himself was quoted in the January, 1950 Grapevine[5] as saying 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."[6] In his book Niebuhr recalls that his prayer was circulated by the Federal Council of Churches and later by the United States armed forces.[7] 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 original that is attributed to Niebuhr translated into English is:

God, give us 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.

An approximate version (apparently quoted from memory) appears in the "Queries and Answers" column in The New York Times Book Review, July 2, 1950, p. 23, which asks for the author of the quotation; and a reply in the same column in the issue for August 13, 1950, p. 19, where the quotation is attributed to Niebuhr and an unidentified printed text is quoted 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.

The prayer became more widely known after being brought to the attention of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1941 by an early member.[8] The co-founder, William Griffith Wilson, and the staff liked the prayer and had it printed out 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. 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.[6]

In 2008, Yale Book of Quotations editor Fred R. Shapiro published evidence showing that versions of the Serenity Prayer[9] were in use as early as 1936, years before the first known attribution to Niebuhr.[2] Shapiro also mentions that all early recorded usages, in its various forms of circulation and improvisation, were from women typically involved in volunteer or educational activities.[10] In 2009, however, Duke researcher Stephen Goranson found a variant attributed to Niebuhr in a 1937 Christian student publication:

"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."

This form, requesting 'courage to change' before petitioning for serenity, matches the other earliest published forms found to date. The earliest, 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. The 1938 version contains the same order, albeit in a flowing, slightly improvised fashion.[10] Shapiro does not regard the new discovery as conclusively settling the question, but will list the Serenity Prayer under Niebuhr’s name in the next edition of the Yale Book of Quotations.[11]


The philosopher W.W. Bartley juxtaposes without comment Niebuhr's prayer with a Mother Goose rhyme (1695) expressing a similar sentiment:[12]

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.

The 8th-century Indian Buddhist scholar Shantideva of Nalanda University expressed a similar sentiment:[13]

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?

  Spurious claims

The prayer has been variously but incorrectly attributed to Thomas Aquinas, Cicero, Augustine, Boethius, Marcus Aurelius,[14] Francis of Assisi.[15]

The prayer has sometimes been attributed to Friedrich Christoph Oetinger (1702–1782), but this appears to stem from a misunderstood plagiarism of the prayer by Theodor Wilhelm, an ex-Nazi professor at the University of Kiel. Wilhelm printed a German version of the prayer as his own work in his book, Wendepunkt der poltitischen Erziehung, published under the pseudonym "Friedrich Oetinger" (the book did not pretend to be the work of the 18th-century Oetinger; the name was merely a pseudonym, apparently chosen because the author's wife was descended from pastors who shared the theology of the 18th-century Oetinger). Theodor Wilhelm was apparently unaware that the U.S. Army and the USO had been distributing the prayer in Germany since the end of World War II, and later writers who were unaware that "Friedrich Oetinger" was a pseudonym (even though the book was clearly written by a 20th-century author) confused this name with the eighteenth-century Oetinger. Wilhelm apparently chose to publish under a pseudonym because his Nazi past was widely known in Germany at the time.

  Cultural use

The text has been set to music by James MacMillan and Stratovarius . The prayer also appears in Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five".


  1. ^ See, e.g., Justin Kaplan, ed., Bartlett's Familiar Quotations 735 (17th ed. 2002) (attributing the prayer to Niebuhr in 1943).
  2. ^ a b Fred R. Shapiro, Who Wrote the Serenity Prayer, Yale Alumni Magazine (July/August 2008).
  3. ^ The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Addresses, Reinhold Niebuhr, edited by Robert McAfee Brown, page 251, Yale University Press; New Ed edition (September 10, 1987)
  4. ^ The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War, Elisabeth Sifton, page 277, W. W. Norton & Company (January 30, 2005)
  5. ^ The Grapevine. "The Serenity Prayer", The International Journal of Alcoholics Anonymous, January 1950.
  6. ^ a b The Origin of our Serenity Prayer, AA History & Trivia (visited July 14, 2008).
  7. ^ [1]
  8. ^ "Stalking the Wild Serenity Prayer", Appendix B in: Wing, Nell. Grateful to Have Been There: My 42 Years with Bill and Lois, and the Evolution of Alcoholics Anonymous. p. 167. ISBN 1-56838-064-X. 
  9. ^ The Serenity Meme, Language Log (visited July 14, 2008) (contrasting various early versions of the Serenity Prayer).
  10. ^ a b Fred R. Shapiro, New Evidence, Yale Alumni Magazine (July/August 2008).
  11. ^ Fred R. Shapiro, You Can Quote Them, Yale Alumni Magazine (January/February 2010).
  12. ^ W.W. Bartley, The Retreat to Commitment, p. 35, Open Court Publishing Company; New Ed edition (April 1990) (first edition 1962)
  13. ^ Shantideva, Padmakara Translation Group, "The Way of the Bodhisattva", p. 130, Shambhala Publications, (Oct 14, 2008)
  14. ^ Zaleski, Philip and Carol Zaleski, Prayer: A History, p. 127, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006
  15. ^ http://www.almapress.unibo.it/dubcek/intro/intro.htm

  Further reading

"Transcending and Transforming the World," in Niebuhr, Reinhold (1927). Does Civilization Need Religion? A Study in the Social Resources and Limitations of Religion in Modern Life.  See especially pages 179-81. http://www.archive.org/details/MN40125ucmf_6

  External links



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