Blog Excerpts

A Quotation Hunter Finds Serenity

Six years ago, Fred Shapiro, editor of the Yale Book of Quotations, stirred up some controversy over the origins of the famous Serenity Prayer: "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." Shapiro cast doubt on the popular attribution of the saying to the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. But now Shapiro has gained some serenity of his own by concluding that Niebuhr really did originate the prayer.

In 2008, Shapiro's skeptical research was featured on the front page of The New York Times. Since then, he has humbly changed his tune, as evidence has grown demonstrating that Niebuhr should get credit after all. He has laid out his new findings with admirable detail in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Shapiro first explains how he arrived at his original conclusion and the less-than-serene response it engendered:

My assertion engendered considerable controversy, and was strongly contested by Niebuhr’s daughter, the eminent publisher Elisabeth Sifton. Sifton’s 2003 book The Serenity Prayer featured a specific account of her father’s writing the prayer for a Sunday service in Heath, Mass., in 1943. In no less than 13 places in the book, she characterized Heath in 1943 as the place and time of composition. It is because I relied on the Heath story as the authoritative dating of the theologian’s first use of the prayer that, when I discovered eight instances of the prayer’s being printed in newspapers and books between January 1936 and April 1942—none of which mentioned Niebuhr—I concluded that he appeared to have drawn unconsciously on earlier versions of unknown authorship.

The following year, when some new evidence came to light of a 1937 attribution of the prayer to Niebuhr, The New York Times once again featured the story prominently, under the headline "Serenity Prayer Skeptic Now Credits Niebuhr." Since then, Shapiro has amassed what he feels is incontrovertible proof that all credit should go to Niebuhr.

During the past five years, I have continued to research the genesis of the Serenity Prayer using the same kind of powerful databases of historical newspapers and books that I used to collect my initial eight pre-1943 occurrences. The list of eight has grown to several times that number. I have recently found five versions of the prayer from 1932 and 1933, the earliest of which I believe establishes to a high degree of confidence that Reinhold Niebuhr did originate the Serenity Prayer.

You can read all about Shapiro's fascinating detective work (and its satisfying conclusion) here.


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