Mystery of the Serenity Prayer Authorship

I was cleaning out files again—seems as if the job is never-ending—when I found a small poster that I'd forgotten about.

It's 7.25" wide and 10.5" high, and it's the Serenity Prayer with decorated iconography on the words Lord, Serenity, Courage, and Wisdom as you can see from the scan at left.

This little poster holds words that once helped me get through some tough times. I guess I no longer needed those words of wisdom since I haven't missed it in years.

Many years ago when we moved, the glass of the frame this had been mounted in broke. I removed the poster, with the intention of replacing the broken glass.

I guess getting settled in a new house and the business of life itself banished the poster from my thoughts.

A Mystery

When I found it, I set it by my computer, thinking I'd blog about it. The first thing I wanted to do though was find out who had composed these words that have guided so many troubled people through life. For instance, these words are held dear by those in Alcoholics Anonymous.

I turned to Google and discovered there's quite a mystery surrounding the authorship of the Serenity Prayer. A 2008 New York Times article by Laurie Goldstein related the myth and mystery of the prayer that generations of recovering alcoholics, indeed, of anyone trying to overcome big challenges, have used to help them hold on for one more day.

The Serenity Prayer

Lord, grand me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the Courage to change the things I can; and the Wisdom to know the difference.

Simple words attributed for more than 80 years to Reinhold Niebuhr, a Protestant theologian who died in 1971.

Before his death, he was asked if he'd composed it, and he said he was quite sure he had. Ursula, his wife who also a  prominent theologian, concurred, saying it had been composed in the early 1940s.

Elisabeth Sifton, a book editor and publisher and Niebuhr's daughter, wrote a book about the prayer in 2003. She said her father had used it in 1943 in a Sunday service in Heath, Massachusetts, where the family spent their summers.

Beg To Differ

A Yale law librarian using new databases of archival documents disagrees. Newspaper clippings and a book from as far back as 1936 quote close versions of the prayer. with those quotations coming from civic leaders all over the U.S., a Y.W.C.A. leader in Syracuse, New York, a public school counselor in Oklahoma City, among others. 

All of those quoted were women. I wonder if that's because it speaks to the woman who is trying to do it all and hold everything together?

Fred R. Shapiro, then associate library director and lecturer at Yale Law School, entered the debate and published an article in the Yale Alumni Magazine debunking Ms. Sifton's claim. He believes Niebuhr was honest but may have unconsciously adapted the prayer from something he'd read or heard during his lifetime. Naturally, Ms. Sifton disagrees with that assessment.

Others have claimed to be the author, but no one can conclusively prove authorship or disprove Mr. Niebuhr's casual claim to it.

Does It Really Matter?

I cringe as I ask, "Does it really matter?" because authorship should be recognized and honored.

Sometimes, that's simply not possible to do though so the important thing becomes the power those words hold. They offer hope to someone struggling to get through 1 day without giving in to their personal demons or just plain exhaustion. Those words give hope and the underlying blunt message to the person reciting them is simply, "Hold on."

Takeaway Truth

Hold on. Hold fast. Hold tight to hope. As long as there is breath in your body, you can endure and get through this day.

Lord, grand me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change;

the Courage to change the things I can;

and the Wisdom to know the difference.

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  1. My mom was a world champion worrier. We gave her several versions of the Serenity Prayer. When we cleared out her things, I saved a cross with the prayer on it and have it in my kitchen. I've heard people refer to it as the Alcoholics Anonymous prayer, not realizing it's been around for quite a while and is meaningful for everyone.

    1. I think it's one of those things that everyone has seen or heard of at least once. I think I'm going to frame the one I have again and hang it next to my desk. I could use the reminder.