Serenity Prayer Stirs Up Doubt: Who Wrote It? Niebuhr?





Generations of recovering alcoholics, soldiers, weary parents, exploited workers and just about anybody feeling beaten down by life have found solace in a short prayer that begins, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.”

Now the Serenity Prayer is about to endure a controversy over its authorship that is likely to be anything but serene.

For more than 70 years, the composer of the prayer was thought to be the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, one of modern Christianity’s towering figures. Niebuhr, who died in 1971, said he was quite sure he had written it, and his wife, Ursula, also a prominent theologian, dated its composition to the early 1940s.

His daughter Elisabeth Sifton, a book editor and publisher, wrote a book about the prayer in 2003 in which she described her father first using it in 1943 in an “ordinary Sunday service” at a church in the bucolic Massachusetts town of Heath, where the Niebuhr family spent summers.

Now, a law librarian at Yale, using new databases of archival documents, has found newspaper clippings and a book from as far back as 1936 that quote close versions of the prayer.


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