Serenity Prayer

The Serenity Prayer is a prayer written by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr[1][2] (1892–1971). It is commonly quoted as:

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.[1]

Niebuhr's prayer originally asked for courage first, and specifically for changing things that must be changed, not things that simply can be changed:

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.[3]

Niebuhr composed the prayer in 1932–33.[1] The prayer spread rapidly, often without attribution to Niebuhr, through church groups in the 1930s and 1940s and was adopted and popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step programs. Niebuhr used it in a 1943 sermon at Heath Evangelical Union Church in Heath, Massachusetts. It also appeared in a sermon of Niebuhr's in the 1944 Book of Prayers and Services for the Armed Forces,[1] while Niebuhr first published it in 1951 in a magazine column.[1][4]

Early versions of the prayer are given no title, but by 1955, it was being called the Serenity Prayer in publications of Alcoholics Anonymous.[5]


The prayer has appeared in many versions. 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 most well-known form is a late version, as it includes a reference to grace not found before 1951:[1]

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.

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.


A version (apparently quoted from memory) appeared in the "Queries and Answers" column in The New York Times Book Review, July 2, 1950, p. 23, asking for the author of the quotation. A reply in the same column in the issue for August 13, 1950, p. 19, attributed the prayer to Niebuhr, 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.

Serenity prayer on an AA medallion

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.[6]

Early historyEdit

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.[1] Several versions of the prayer then appeared in newspaper articles in the early 1930s written by, or reporting on talks given by, Wygal.[1] In 1940, Wygal included the following form of the prayer in a book on worship, attributing it to Niebuhr:[7]

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.

Wygal was a longtime YWCA official and all early recorded usages were from women involved in volunteer or educational activities connected to the YWCA.[1][4]: 3 

The earliest 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. 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.

Various other authors also cited Niebuhr as the source of the prayer from 1937 on.[1] 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.[8][9] 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."[10][11] He confirmed this in 1967.[9] His daughter, Elisabeth Sifton, thought that Niebuhr had first written it in 1943,[12]: 277  while Niebuhr's wife Ursula believed it had been written in 1941 or '42, adding that it may have been used in prayers as early as 1934.[1]

The Serenity Prayer will be listed under Niebuhr’s name in the next edition of the Yale Book of Quotations, whose author Fred R. Shapiro had first raised doubts about, but was later instrumental in confirming Niebuhr's authorship.[13]

Mistaken datingEdit

Though Niebuhr's daughter was once quoted suggesting that Niebuhr first wrote the prayer for the 1943 sermon at the Heath Evangelical Union Church,[8] there is convincing documentary evidence that he had used it much earlier.[4][1]


Numerous statements of more or less similar sentiments by other authors have been identified and it is likely that more will be found. The prayer has also been falsely attributed to a variety of other authors.

Genuine precursorsEdit

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."[14]

The 8th-century Indian Buddhist scholar Shantideva of the ancient Nalanda University suggested:[15]

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?

The 11th-century Jewish philosopher Solomon ibn Gabirol wrote:[16]

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.

The philosopher W.W. Bartley juxtaposes without comment Niebuhr's prayer with a Mother Goose rhyme (1695) expressing a similar sentiment:[17]

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.

Friedrich Schiller advocated the first part in 1801: "Blessed is he, who has learned to bear what he cannot change, and to give up with dignity, what he cannot save."[18]

Spurious attributionsEdit

The prayer has been variously attributed (without evidence) to Thomas Aquinas, Cicero, Augustine, Boethius, Marcus Aurelius,[19] Francis of Assisi,[20][better source needed] and Thomas More[citation needed], among others.

Theodor Wilhelm, a professor of education at the University of Kiel, published a German version of the prayer under the pseudonym "Friedrich Oetinger".[21] Wilhelm's plagiarized version of the prayer became popular in West Germany, where it was widely but falsely attributed to the 18th-century philosopher Friedrich Christoph Oetinger.[12]: 343 

Use by twelve-step recovery programsEdit

The prayer became more widely known after being brought to the attention of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1941 by an early member,[22] who came upon it in a caption in a "routine New York Herald Tribune obituary".[23] AA's co-founder William Griffith Wilson 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 Wilson.[23] In its January 1950 edition, Grapevine, The International Journal of Alcoholics Anonymous, identified Niebuhr as the author (pp. 6–7), as does the AA web site.[11]

The original text for this adapted prayer was:

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.

A slightly different version of the prayer has been widely adopted by twelve-step groups:

God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change,
the courage to change the things we can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.[24]

Adaptations by other authorsEdit

In Bill Watterson's humor 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.[25]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Shapiro, Fred R. (April 28, 2014). "Who Wrote the Serenity Prayer?". The Chronicle of Higher Education.
  2. ^ Kaplan, Justin, ed. (2002). "Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971)". Bartlett's Familiar Quotations (17th ed.). p. 735. (attributing the prayer to Niebuhr in 1943)
  3. ^ "You can quote them".
  4. ^ a b c Shapiro, Fred R. (July–August 2008). "Who Wrote the Serenity Prayer?". Yale Alumni Magazine.
  5. ^ A.A. Grapevine 12 (1955), p. 28
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ Wygel, We Plan Our Own Worship Services: Business girls practice the act and the art of group worship, New York, The Woman's Press: 1940
  8. ^ a b Zaleski, Philip; Zaleski, Carol (2005). Prayer: A History. Houghton Mifflin. p. 127. ISBN 9780618152889.
  9. ^ a b Niebuhr, Reinhold (September 10, 1987). Brown, Robert McAfee (ed.). The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Addresses (New ed.). Yale University Press. p. 251.
  10. ^ "The Serenity Prayer". The Grapevine, The International Journal of Alcoholics Anonymous. January 1950.
  11. ^ a b "The Origin of our Serenity Prayer". Retrieved July 14, 2008.
  12. ^ a b Sifton, Elisabeth (January 30, 2005). The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War. W. W. Norton & Company.
  13. ^ Shapiro, Fred R. (January–February 2010). "You Can Quote Them". Yale Alumni Magazine.
  14. ^ Epictetus (1983), Handbook. Trans. Nicholas White. Indianapolis: Hackett. Section 1.1
  15. ^ Shantideva, Padmakara Translation Group, "The Way of the Bodhisattva", p. 130, Ch. 6, verse 10, Shambhala Publications, (October 14, 2008)
  16. ^ 'Choice of Pearls' (Chapter 17 'Consciousness' 2nd verse)
  17. ^ Bartley, W. W. (April 1990). The Retreat to Commitment (New; first 1962 ed.). Open Court Publishing Company. p. 35.
  18. ^ 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.
  19. ^ Zaleski, Philip; Zaleski, Carol (2006). Prayer: A History. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. pp. 126–127. ISBN 0618773606.
  20. ^ "Alexander Dubcek – Introduzione". (in Italian). Archived from the original on 2004-09-13. Retrieved 2013-03-14.
  21. ^ Oetinger, Friedrich (1951). "The Full Serenity Prayer & Its Meaning". Wendepunkt der poltitischen Erziehung – via
  22. ^ "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. p. 167. ISBN 1-56838-064-X.
  23. ^ a b "The Elusive Origins of the Serenity Prayer". Box 459. 38 (4). August–September 1992.
  24. ^ NA White Booklet, Narcotics Anonymous, 1976
  25. ^ Watterson, Bill (1992-08-28). "Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson for August 28, 1992 |". GoComics. Retrieved 2021-10-09.

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