“God, grant me the serenity to accept what I can not change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
This is the Serenity Prayer. Few combinations of twenty-six words have altered more lives for the better: it is the credo of Alcoholics Anonymous, and the foundation of the famed “Twelve Steps” developed by Bill Wilson to arm the victims of alcoholism for a lifetime battle for sobriety. Thanks to an academic controversy, the author of the prayer may finally get the credit he deserved all along.
The Serenity Prayer is so ubiquitous and so associated with AA that its originator seldom gets mentioned. Most members of AA think that Wilson was the author. The true author was theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, a prolific writer, thinker and educator who is widely regarded as the 20th Century’s most influential theologian. His many accomplishments have not resulted in lasting fame, however; his prayer is far more famous than he is. This isn’t the way it is supposed to work. Well-phrased, vividly worded sentences that make wisdom widely accessible and easy to remember are gifts to posterity, and it is only fair that posterity return the favor. Grantland Rice was a famous sportswriter in his day, but it is doubtful that anyone would remember him today if he hadn’t given words to the famous ethical principle, “It ‘s not whether you won or lost, but how you played the game.” (Even though that’s not exactly what he wrote!) He did leave us that wisdom, however, and we owe him some measure of immortality for the treasure he left to us. Neibuhr’s prayer, however, has yet to give him his just reward. Before Thanksgiving, for example, San Francisco’s “Thanksgiving Guide” was published in the Washington D.C. Examiner, with the Serenity Prayer in a prominent place: Number 6 in its “Six Simple Ways to Give Thanks” was “Recite the Serenity Prayer, a time-honored catalyst for emotional catharsis.” Time-honored, perhaps, but no honor from the article’s author for the man who devised it.
Fairness and justice can arrive in ironic packages. Fred Shapiro, the editor of the Yale Book of Quotations, had enraged Neibuhr’s family last year by expressing doubts that the theologian really was the author of the prayer. Now a researcher has uncovered one of the earliest references to the Serenity Prayer, crediting Niebuhr. Shapiro has relented, saying this is good enough for him.
One injustice averted, and perhaps another one rectified. Brilliant thinkers can forge words into powerful tools—the Sermon on the Mount, the Gettysburg Address, the Declaration of Independence and many more perfectly chosen words have shaped the world. We remember and honor the originators of those words, and the Serenity Prayer, like them, direct, profound, universal and inspiring, has shown that it belongs in their company. Now that a brief controversy has reminded us that Reinhold Niebuhr gave us the wise, life-altering Serenity Prayer, let us not forget him.
He earned the right to be remembered.