Justice for the Serenity Prayer’s Author

“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.

5 thoughts on “Justice for the Serenity Prayer’s Author

  1. Niebuhr also authored my favorite theme for political ethics: ‘The temper of and integrity with which the political fight is waged is more important for the health of our society than the outcome of any issue or campaign.” This was the guiding ethic of ex-Congressman James Leach (R-IA), who is the exemplar of an ethical politician in “The Ethics Challenge.”

  2. Grantland Rice didn’t originate that saying, though he may well have helped popularise it in foreign parts. It has been around for ages in Britain in the present tense form, “it isn’t whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game”. I cannot tell who originated it or when, but it’s certainly associated with the nineteenth century Public School ethos.

    And, of course, there’s also the parodic politician’s variant, “it isn’t whether you win or lose, it’s how you place the blame”.

    • I’ll see your proof on that…please.A quotations authority that does not give credit for that quote to Rice. Obviously the sentiment and idea is ancient. Nobody has ever suggested that it is an original thought…Neither is “Give me liberty or give me death!” The writer or speaker who makes a thought stick in the public consciousness gets the credit, and properly so.

      • I can only raise the matter and pass it on from background knowledge at this stage, in and of itself (but see below about the parody). If, as I suspect, the saying was in ordinary circulation as oral tradition the way I received it, it could well have no known originator and might even not have been recorded in print until the twentieth century, so it is quite possible that that only happened once Grantland Rice incorporated it in his poem – just as it is quite possible that it can be found in print earlier, if we only knew where to look. It would be hard to track down one way or the other. On the balance of probabilities: it isn’t very likely that Grantland Rice would have influenced British Public School traditions even indirectly, at least forty plus years ago when I was at a British Public School, though it is quite possible that someone as well educated and unparochial as him could have encountered those traditions.

        Over and above all that, there is indirect support for an earlier, British origin for the saying: a google search easily ascribes the parodic variant, “it isn’t whether you win or lose, it’s how you place the blame”, to a much earlier epigram of Oscar Wilde’s, which strongly suggests that the saying being parodied was already current in Britain then.

        Regardless of the facts of the matter, by your standards Grantland Rice still would not get the credit – because I never heard of him until I followed a link to this post. It may be a case of “but he’s world famous back home in Ohio!”, as in the story of a tourist marvelling that Europeans had never heard of her husband.

        • I think your reasoning and research are flawed. First of all, the first person who places oral tradition into print or recorded words rightfully get the credit. Second, IF your Wilde quote were authentic, it wouldn’t prove your position. The gag in the quip is clear whether it is a parody of not. It would be just as likely that Rice was inspired by Wilde’s quip to come up with his wording.

          Third, I checked with one of the researchers on the Yale Book of Quotations (which gives Rice as the one and only source of the line in question), and he says that there is insufficient evidence that Wilde ever made your epigram. He says that Wilde leads the world, along with Mark Twain, in fake quotes attributed to him, and that this one sounds like a post-Rice line put in Wilde’s mouth post mortem.

          There is also a famous British poem with a similar meter to Rice’s that speaks about “the game” in a sports and military context, and Rice may have been inspired by it. But it doesn’t include the line in question, or anything close to it.

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