The Serenity Prayer is an invocation by the petitioner for wisdom to understand the difference between circumstances ("things") that can and cannot be changed, asking courage to take action in the case of the former, and serenity to accept in the case of the latter.

A version of the Serenity prayer appearing on an Alcoholics Anonymous medallion (date unknown).

The prayer has achieved very wide distribution, spreading through the YWCA and other groups in the 1930s, and in Alcoholics Anonymous and related organizational materials since at least 1941. Since at least the early 1960s, commercial enterprises such as Hallmark Cards have used the prayer in its greeting cards and gift items. The prayer has also made its way into popular culture, including in works by Bill Watterson, Neil Young, Bryan Lee O'Malley and Sinéad O'Connor, and programming including True Detective.

History edit

The prayer was originally composed by Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in the early 1930s. Initially popularized by one of his colleagues, the prayer began to spread widely without reference to the original author.

Around 1932, Niebuhr is reported to have first used the prayer as the last part of a longer prayer.[1] In an October 31, 1932 diary entry by American YWCA official Winnifred Crane Wygal [Wikidata], she quotes Niebuhr (a colleague):

The victorious man in the day of crisis is the man who has the serenity to accept what he cannot help and the courage to change what must be altered.[2]

Drawing on this, Wygal published a prayer in the March 1933 edition of YWCA periodical The Woman's Press,[3] which was soon shared with a broader audience on the front page of the Santa Cruz Sentinel of March 15, 1933.[4][2][5][6] It read:

Oh, God, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what can not be helped, and insight to know the one from the other.[4]

The prayer was also quoted in the Richmond Times-Dispatch later that month.[7] Substantial quotes from the prayer were also printed in two Atlanta newspapers that month.[8][9]

The prayer appeared a few additional times in American and Canadian newspapers in the 1930s, associated with the YWCA or with individual women. In 1937, the prayer was published in a Christian student newsletter, attributing it to Niebuhr.[10]

Wygal published the prayer again in her 1940 book We Plan Our Own Worship Services, and attributed it to Niebuhr.[6] It took this form:

O God, give us the serenity to accept what cannot be changed, the courage to change what can be changed, and the wisdom to know the one from the other.[11]

The prayer became published in English language newspapers much more from 1940, but never attributed to Wygal or Neibuhr.

In June 1941, the prayer was published in an obituary in the New York Herald Tribune, and from here became known by the first Alcoholics Anonymous group. The organisation embraced it and spread it widely.[1] It was initially known within the group as "The AA prayer", but by the late 1940s, was known as "the serenity prayer."[1][12]

Niebuhr presented it in a 1943 sermon at Heath Evangelical Union Church in Heath, Massachusetts.[13][6] Niebuhr's wife and daughter would later say this was when they understood the prayer was first written and used.[14] It then also appeared in a sermon of Niebuhr's in the 1944 A Book of Prayers and Services for the Armed Forces,[6] and was printed on cards for American soldiers in WWII.[15][16] From January 1944, Niebuhr began being cited as the source of the prayer in newspaper articles.

Niebuhr also published it in a magazine column in 1951.[6][17]


By this stage, the prayer had become commonly quoted as:

God, grant 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.[6]

In 1962, Hallmark began using the prayer in its graduation cards, crediting Niebuhr,[17] and in the 1970s they also produced a wall plaque.[citation needed] Posters and household ornaments were produced by others without attribution.[citation needed]

William FitzGerald believes Wygal wrote the prayer, arguing sexism as the reason for misattribution,[18] while Fred Shapiro, with greater nuance, has alternated in his conclusions, but presents both the messages that the "[o]rigin is debated" and Wygal as author in materials relating to The New Yale Book of Quotations, published in 2021.[5][6][19]

Versions edit

The prayer has appeared in many versions.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed] The best-known form is a late version,[according to whom?] as it includes a reference to grace not found before 1951:[citation needed]

God, give me 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.[This quote needs a citation]

The following clauses were added in the AA Origin of the Serenity Prayer: A Historic Paper[20] but were not part of the tripartite original. Niebuhr's daughter in her book The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Time of Peace and War said: "... their message and their tone are not in any way Niebuhrian."[21]: 293 

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as He did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that He will make all things right,
If I surrender to His will,
That I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with Him forever in the next.

Amen.

A version, apparently quoted from memory and asking for the author of the quotation, appeared in the "Queries and Answers" column in The New York Times Book Review in July 1950,[22][full citation needed] and received a reply in the same column in August 1950, attributing the prayer to Niebuhr, and quoting it 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.[23][full citation needed]

Some twelve-step recovery programs use a slightly different version:

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.[24]

Early history edit

The earliest recorded reference to the prayer is a diary entry from 1932 by Winnifred Crane Wygal [Wikidata], a pupil and collaborator of Reinhold Niebuhr, quoting the prayer and attributing it to Niebuhr:

R.N. says that ... "The victorious man in the day of crisis is the man who has the serenity to accept what he cannot help and the courage to change what must be altered."[6]

Several versions of the prayer then appeared in newspaper articles in the early 1930s written by, or reporting on talks given by, Wygal.[6] In 1940, Wygal included the following form of the prayer in a book on worship, attributing it to Niebuhr:

O God, give us the serenity to accept what cannot be changed, the courage to change what can be changed, and the wisdom to know the one from the other.[25]

Wygal was a longtime YWCA official and all early recorded usages were from women involved in volunteer or educational activities connected to the YWCA.[6][17]: 3 

An early printed reference, 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, without mentioning its authorship.[This quote needs a citation] A 1937 Christian student publication attributed the prayer to Niebuhr in the following form, which matches the other earliest published forms in requesting "courage to change" before petitioning for serenity:

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.[citation needed]

Various other authors also cited Niebuhr as the source of the prayer onward from 1937.[6] The Federal Council of Churches (NCC) included the prayer in a book for army chaplains and servicemen in 1944, and the USO circulated the prayer (with Niebuhr's permission) to soldiers on printed cards during World War II.[15][16] In 1950, in response to questions about the already quite widely known prayer's provenance, Niebuhr wrote that 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."[12][26] He confirmed this in 1967.[16] His daughter, Elisabeth Sifton, thought that Niebuhr had first written it in 1943,[21]: 277  while Niebuhr's wife Ursula believed it had been written in 1941 or 1942, adding that it may have been used in prayers as early as 1934.[citation needed]

The Serenity Prayer was listed under Niebuhr in the Yale Book of Quotations (2006). Editor Fred R. Shapiro first raised doubts about Niebuhr's authorship in 2008,[17] but after further research confirmed him in 2010.[10]William FitzGerald of Rutgers University-Camden argued in 2017 that credit should be given to Winnifred Wygal, a YWCA official and student of Neibuhr's at Union Theological Seminary. FitzGerald noted, "this is certainly not the first time a woman's voice has been silenced by a man's voice."[18][non-primary source needed] Wygal is listed as the author of the Serenity Prayer in the 2021 edition of The New Yale Book of Quotations;[5][19] Shapiro includes a discussion of the origin of The Serenity Prayer in the introduction.[27]

Mistaken dating and attribution edit

Though Niebuhr's daughter was once quoted suggesting that Niebuhr first wrote the prayer for the 1943 sermon at the Heath Evangelical Union Church,[15] there is convincing documentary evidence that he had used it much earlier.[17][6] The prayer has also been falsely attributed to a variety of other authors.[citation needed]

Precursors edit

Numerous statements of more or less similar sentiments by other authors have been identified.[citation needed] These include:[citation needed]

Epictetus wrote:

Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens. Some things are up to us [eph' hêmin] and some things are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions—in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our own doing."[28][non-primary source needed]

The 8th-century Indian Buddhist scholar Shantideva of the ancient Nalanda Mahavihara suggested:

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?[29][non-primary source needed]

The 11th-century Jewish philosopher Solomon ibn Gabirol wrote:

And they said: At the head of all understanding – is distinguishing between what is and what cannot be, and the consoling of what is not in our power to change.[30][full citation needed][non-primary source needed]

Expressing a sentiment similar to that of Niebuhr,[citation needed] the philosopher W.W. Bartley juxtaposes without comment Niebuhr's prayer with a Mother Goose rhyme (1695):

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.[31]

Friedrich Schiller presents what some have said[who?] are sentiments similar to the first part of Niebuhr's prayer, in 1801:

Blessed is he, who has learned to bear what he cannot change, and to give up with dignity, what he cannot save."[32][non-primary source needed]

Spurious attributions edit

The prayer has been variously attributed (without evidence) to Thomas Aquinas, Cicero, Augustine, Boethius, Marcus Aurelius,[33] and Francis of Assisi,[34][better source needed] among others.[citation needed]

Theodor Wilhelm, a professor of education at the University of Kiel, published a German version of the prayer under the pseudonym "Friedrich Oetinger" in 1951.[35] Wilhelm's version of the prayer became popular in West Germany, where it was widely but falsely attributed to the 18th-century philosopher Friedrich Christoph Oetinger. Elisabeth Sifton described Wilhelm's account of the history of the prayer as "dishonest".[21]: 343 

Use by twelve-step recovery programs edit

The prayer became more widely known after being brought to the attention of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1941 by an early member,[36] who came upon it in a caption in a "routine New York Herald Tribune obituary".[37] The original clipping appeared in the May 28, 1941, public notices section: "Mother--God grant me the serenity to accept things I cannot change, courage to change things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. Goodby."[38] AA's co-founder Bill W. and the staff liked the prayer and had it printed 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. "Never had we seen so much A.A. in so few words," noted Bill W.[39] The January 1950 edition of the Grapevine (The International Journal of Alcoholics Anonymous) identifies Niebuhr as the author,[12] as does the AA web site.[26]

Adaptations by other authors edit

In Bill Watterson's comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, Calvin says:

Know what I pray for? The strength to change what I can, the inability to accept what I can't, and the incapacity to tell the difference.[40]

In Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, the Serenity Prayer appears in Chapter 3: it is displayed in Billy Pilgrim's optometry office; and though it reassures Pilgrim's patients, the Serenity Prayer underscores the irony of Pilgrim's fatalism.

A 1978 newspaper cartoon turned the phrase on its head: "If I'm not home accepting what I can't change, I'm probably out changing what I can't accept";[41] and a variant has become a popular slogan: "I'm no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I'm changing the things I cannot accept". This form is often, but incorrectly, attributed to the American activist Angela Davis.[42]

Neil Young cites a Latin translation of the Serenity Prayer on the back cover of his 1981 album Re•ac•tor.[43]

Sinéad O'Connor cites the prayer in the intro of the song "Feel So Different", from her 1990 album I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got.[44]

The prayer features in season 3 of True Detective.[45]

Rap group Goodie Mob cited the prayer in their skit titled after the prayer, from their 1995 album Soul Food

References edit

  1. ^ a b c https://www.aa.org/sites/default/files/literature/assets/smf-129_en.pdf
  2. ^ a b Shapiro, Fred. "COMMENTARY: How I discovered I was wrong about the origin of the Serenity Prayer". U.S. Catholic. Retrieved 2023-09-10.
  3. ^ Wyatt, Christopher Scott; DeVoss, Dànielle Nicole (2017-09-01). Type Matters: The Rhetoricity of Letterforms. Parlor Press LLC. ISBN 978-1-60235-978-9.
  4. ^ a b "Santa Cruz Sentinel 15 Mar 1933, page Page 1". Retrieved 2023-09-10 – via Newspapers.com.
  5. ^ a b c Shapiro, Fred R. (August 23, 2021). Yale Campus (channel): The New Yale Book of Quotations. Event occurs at 3:14-4:47. Retrieved May 12, 2023. The Serenity Prayer (Origin is debated)... This is the famous "Serenity Prayer", and it has a very complex and rich origin story. It's usually attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr... I've done a lot of research on this prayer, and almost 20 years have been studying this. If you search newspaper indexes... it was used as far back as 1933. The earliest record we have of someone using it was a woman named Winifred Wygal, an official of the YWCA, wrote the Serenity Prayer, we believe... And this is actually a pattern that I found in preparing my book, that there are many famous quotes by obscure women that are attributed to famous men... and this I think is the most interesting example of that...
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Shapiro, Fred R. (15 May 2014). "Commentary: How I discovered I was wrong about the origin of the Serenity Prayer". USCatholic.org. Retrieved 12 May 2023 – via Religion News Service. 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 year after the Times story, Stephen Goranson of the Duke University Library posted a message on the American Dialect Society's Internet discussion list stating that he had found an occurrence of the Serenity Prayer in a 1937 Christian student newsletter, which referred to 'the prayer attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr.' / I quickly contacted the Times editors and alerted them that, in my view, Goranson's discovery had significantly increased the likelihood that Niebuhr was, indeed, the original author. The Times then published a second front-page story reporting my reaction to the new information. / By searching Newspapers.com, I found that the Santa Cruz Sentinel of March 15, 1933, quoted Winnifred Crane Wygal: 'Oh, God, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and insight to know the one from the other.' / The newspaper gave as its source an article by Wygal in The Woman's Press, a publication of the National Board of the YWCA. I was able to verify that article, 'On the Edge of Tomorrow,' in The Woman's Press of March 1933. The wording there was the same as in the Sentinel: It appeared as an epigraph and Reinhold Niebuhr was discussed, but no connection was made between the prayer and Niebuhr. / Although she did not link up prayer and theologian in her article, Wygal was clearly associated with Niebuhr. A biographical note about her from the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women at Harvard states that Wygal did postgraduate work at Union Theological Seminary, studying there with Niebuhr and Paul Tillich. / Wygal [made] the crucial connection in her 1940 book, 'We Plan Our Own Worship Services.' On Page 25 she wrote, '"O God, give us the serenity to accept what cannot be changed, the courage to change what can be changed, and the wisdom to know the one from the other." (Reinhold Niebuhr).' / That attribution by Wygal might in and of itself be viewed as the final confirmation of Niebuhr's coinage. There is an even stronger confirmation, however, located at the Schlesinger Library in its 14 volumes of Wygal's diaries, which, at my request, the library generously assigned a staff member to skim, looking for references to the Serenity Prayer. / Schlesinger's staffer, Sarah Guzy, struck gold when she read Wygal's diary entry for Oct. 31, 1932. / Wygal wrote there: 'R.N. says that "moral will plus imagination are the two elements of which faith is compounded." [and] "The victorious man in the day of crisis is the man who has the serenity to accept what he cannot help and the courage to change what must be altered."' / The second of those Niebuhr quotations does not fully match the components of the tripartite Serenity Prayer, lacking the 'wisdom' or 'insight' element, but definitely does include the elements involving 'serenity' and 'courage.' / The 1932 partial Serenity Prayer is the data point that clinches the argument for 'R.N.' (Reinhold Niebuhr) as Wygal's source for the prayer and as its originator. / ... Fred Shapiro is an associate library director and lecturer in legal research at Yale Law School and editor of 'The Yale Book of Quotations' from Yale University Press. This is an abridged version of an article that appeared in the April 28 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education.
  7. ^ "Richmond Times-Dispatch 21 Mar 1933, page 2". Retrieved 2023-09-10 – via Newspapers.com.
  8. ^ "The Atlanta Constitution 09 Mar 1933, page 6". Retrieved 2023-09-10 – via Newspapers.com.
  9. ^ "The Atlanta Journal 12 Mar 1933, page 19". Retrieved 2023-09-10 – via Newspapers.com.
  10. ^ a b Shapiro, Fred R. (January–February 2010). "You Can Quote Them". Yale Alumni Magazine.
  11. ^ Wygal, Winnifred (c. 1940). We plan our own worship services [microform] ; business girls practice the act and the art of group worship. New York, N.Y.: The Womans Press – via Internet Archive.
  12. ^ a b c "The Serenity Prayer... it's[sic] origin is traced...". Grapevine. January 1950.
  13. ^ Kaplan, Justin, ed. (2002). "Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971)". Bartlett's Familiar Quotations (17th ed.). p. 735.
  14. ^ "Who wrote the Serenity Prayer?". yalealumnimagazine.org. Retrieved 2023-09-10.
  15. ^ a b c Zaleski, Philip; Zaleski, Carol (2005). Prayer: A History. Houghton Mifflin. p. 127. ISBN 9780618152889.
  16. ^ a b c Niebuhr, Reinhold (September 10, 1987). Brown, Robert McAfee (ed.). The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Addresses (New ed.). Yale University Press. p. 251.
  17. ^ a b c d e Shapiro, Fred R. (July–August 2008). "Who Wrote the Serenity Prayer?". Yale Alumni Magazine. Retrieved May 12, 2023.
  18. ^ a b William Trollinger (October 9, 2017). "Religion at the Feminisms and Rhetorics Conference". Righting America., reviewing a conference session by William FitzGerald (Rutgers University-Camden) titled "Erasure and Authority: Recovering a Feminist History of the Serenity Prayer".[non-primary source needed]
  19. ^ a b Shapiro, Fred R. (2021). The New Yale Book of Quotations. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press. p. xviii-xix, 907f. ISBN 9780300205978. Retrieved May 12, 2023.[verification needed]
  20. ^ Wing, Nell (1981). "Origin of the Serenity Prayer: A Historic Paper Service Material F-129 Rev 7/30/09" (PDF). Retrieved December 5, 2022.
  21. ^ a b c Sifton, Elisabeth (2003). The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 978-0393057461.
  22. ^ "Queries and Answers...". The New York Times Book Review. July 2, 1950. p. 23.[full citation needed]
  23. ^ "Queries and Answers...". The New York Times Book Review. August 13, 1950. p. 19.[full citation needed]
  24. ^ Littleton, Jeanett Gardner; Bell, James Stuart (2008). Living the Serenity Prayer: True Stories of Acceptance, Courage, and Wisdom. Avon, Massachusetts: Adams Media. p. 14. ISBN 978-1-59869-116-0.
  25. ^ Wygal, Winnifred (1940). "We Plan Our Own Worship Services: Business Girls Practice the Act and the Art of Group Worship". Archive.org. New York: The Woman's Press. p. 25.
  26. ^ a b "The Origin of our Serenity Prayer". AAHistory.com. Retrieved July 14, 2008.
  27. ^ Gonzalez, Susan; Shapiro, Fred R. (August 18, 2021). "You Can Quote Us: The New Yale Book of Quotations Is On Its Way". News.Yale.edu. New Haven, CT: Yale University. Retrieved November 3, 2022. There is also a quotation that is not new—it was in the first edition but receives an entirely revamped treatment in the second edition. It's the 'Serenity Prayer,' which is usually quoted as follows: 'God grant 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.' It's a very compelling quote, and there are countless people who love it and even feel that it's saved their lives. It has generated a large number of origin stories, and, together with Professor William FitzGerald of Rutgers University [at Camden], I have researched it more thoroughly than anyone has ever researched any quote. / The Serenity Prayer is usually attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr, the great theologian and political philosopher. In 2003, his daughter [Elisabeth Sifton] wrote a book called 'The Serenity Prayer' in which she describes how her father allegedly composed the prayer in 1943. Since 2003 I have been researching the origins of the prayer, ultimately discovering that its earliest findable use was actually by an obscure woman named Winnifred Wygal, a Y.W.C.A. official who was an associate of Niebuhr's, with her usage dating as far back as 1933. This new evidence is included in my second edition.
  28. ^ Epictetus (1983), Handbook. Trans. Nicholas White. Indianapolis: Hackett. Section 1.1
  29. ^ Shantideva, Padmakara Translation Group, "The Way of the Bodhisattva", p. 130, Ch. 6, verse 10, Shambhala Publications, (October 14, 2008)
  30. ^ 'Choice of Pearls' (Chapter 17 'Consciousness' 2nd verse)[full citation needed]
  31. ^ Bartley, W. W. (April 1990). The Retreat to Commitment (New; first 1962 ed.). Open Court Publishing Company. p. 35.
  32. ^ Schiller, Friedrich. Über das Erhabene (in German). Wohl dem Menschen, wenn er gelernt hat, zu ertragen, was er nicht ändern kann, und preiszugeben mit Würde, was er nicht retten kann.
  33. ^ Zaleski, Philip; Zaleski, Carol (2006). Prayer: A History. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. pp. 126–127. ISBN 0618773606.
  34. ^ "Alexander Dubcek – Introduzione". Almapress.unibo.it (in Italian). Archived from the original on 2004-09-13. Retrieved 2013-03-14.
  35. ^ Oetinger, Friedrich (1951). "The Full Serenity Prayer & Its Meaning". Wendepunkt der poltitischen Erziehung – via SubstanceAbuseCounselor.us.
  36. ^ "Stalking the Wild Serenity Prayer", Appendix B in: Wing, Nell (1998). Grateful to Have Been There: My 42 Years with Bill and Lois, and the Evolution of Alcoholics Anonymous. Hazelden. p. 167-187. ISBN 1-56838-064-X.
  37. ^ "The Elusive Origins of the Serenity Prayer". Box 459. 38 (4). August–September 1992.
  38. ^ "Archives - Serenity Clipping". District 48 Greater Williamsport Area Alcoholics Anonymous. Retrieved October 25, 2022.
  39. ^ Bill W. (June 1957). Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age : A Brief History of A. A. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. p. 196. ISBN 9780916856021.
  40. ^ Watterson, Bill (1992-08-28). "Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson for August 28, 1992". GoComics. Retrieved 2021-10-09.
  41. ^ Popik, Barry. "Barry Popik". barrypopik.com. Retrieved 2022-06-21.
  42. ^ McConnell, Andrew (July 9, 2020). "Accept The Things You Cannot Change, Or Change The Things You Cannot Accept?". Forbes. Retrieved 2022-06-21.
  43. ^ "Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Reactor". Discogs. Retrieved 2023-04-19.
  44. ^ Sinéad O'Connor – Feels So Different, retrieved 2023-08-05
  45. ^ "True Detective Season 3 Episode 6 'Hunters in the Dark' Watchthrough". Polygon.

External links edit