In 2008 I made the front page of The New York Times by asserting that the greatest American theologian of the 20th century, who was also perhaps the greatest American political philosopher of the 20th century, probably did not originate the most famous and beloved prayer of the 20th century. The theologian-philosopher was Reinhold Niebuhr. The prayer was the Serenity Prayer, commonly quoted as follows: "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." Its adoption by Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs has propelled it to worldwide renown.
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 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.
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.
My work on the Serenity Prayer spun off from research conducted for my book The Yale Book of Quotations (Yale University Press). I have long been a contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary, which for more than a century relied on citations of word use, taken from reading of precisely dated publications, as the basis for its definitions and etymologies. Now the OED has to a large extent shifted from random reading to focused searches of digital text collections.
In the Yale quote compilation that I edited, I applied the same computer-assisted techniques to tracing the provenance of famous quotations and proverbs. When, in the course of that work, I came to one of the most celebrated of all sayings, the Serenity Prayer, I found examples of its use back to 1936 by searching ProQuest Historical Newspapers and Google Books as well as NewspaperArchive.
After articles in The New York Times and Yale Alumni Magazine and resulting media coverage launched the Serenity Prayer origin controversy, I enhanced my repertoire of electronic resources with additional newspaper archives. By searching GenealogyBank, I found two 1933 articles (March 21 and March 25) in the Richmond Times-Dispatch recording the prayer’s use by two women speaking respectively to a local Young Women’s Christian Association board meeting and an annual meeting of the Family Service Society.
A slightly earlier occurrence of the prayer was yielded by a search of Newspapers.com. 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 on Page 122 and was partially repeated in the body of the article, 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. Her diaries at the Schlesinger Library explored Niebuhr’s ideas, and Ronald Stone’s book Professor Reinhold Niebuhr: A Mentor to the Twentieth Century listed Niebuhr and Wygal first among "central supporters" of the Fellowship of Socialist Christians and its journal Radical Religion.
Wygal did make 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 October 31, 1932. Wygal wrote there: "R.N. says that ‘moral will plus imagination are the two elements of which faith is compounded.’ ‘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. The earliest documented uses are Wygal’s—she seems to have been a disciple of Niebuhr, and she credited him twice. Many of the early occurrences of the prayer were in YWCA contexts; Wygal, a longtime YWCA official, is a highly plausible disseminator for those YWCA usages. Beginning in 1937, other commentators ascribed the origination to Niebuhr, including an attribution in a booklet titled Prayers for a Busy Day, published by the YWCA in 1938, and there were no competing claims of authorship until some years later.
John Maynard Keynes is said to have made a wonderful comment when he was accused of inconsistency of opinions over time: "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" My opinion on the birth of the Serenity Prayer was initially shaped by the discrepancy between what I took to be the facts of Niebuhr’s first use, in 1943, and the incontrovertible facts of prior occurrences. When the Niebuhr family’s story of the prayer’s creation in Heath proved to be apocryphal, while the pre-Heath documentation turned out to have Niebuhr’s footprints all over it, I changed my mind.
What are the lessons to be drawn from this saga of historiographical twists and turns? One is that the billions (trillions?) of words of searchable old texts we now have at our disposal create a double-edged sword. In the 21st century, the factual researcher lives by the database, but also dies by the database. Such a plethora of periodicals, books, and legal documents have been digitized that it is tempting to draw negative inferences from a lack of search hits. If so many publications before 1943 cite a prayer without any mention of Reinhold Niebuhr, the reasoning may go, then he must not have been involved.
But new materials are continually being scanned, and the same methods that build a compelling historical argument one year may undo the argument the next because of new fodder for the keyword searches. In some cases, the answers to historians’ questions may lie forever out of reach, because they were printed in very minor publications that will never be captured by Google or ProQuest; or printed in sources now lost, like the newspapers in the British Museum destroyed by a German bomb in World War II; or discussed orally without ever being printed anywhere; or printed and digitized but expressed in discourse whose semantics cannot be matched by Boolean searching of words and phrases.
Although computer-assisted research has its limitations, the drawbacks of making suppositions about factual matters that are not grounded in documentation are even greater. Elisabeth Sifton, in her book, set forth a preferred wording of the Serenity Prayer, but it is not clear that she had looked at the actual wording of early documented versions. For example, she wrote that her father favored "God, give us grace to accept with serenity …" as the prayer’s beginning, and she seems to have assumed that this was what he had preached at Heath. Yet A Book of Prayers and Services for the Armed Forces (1944), whose printing of the Serenity Prayer is, according to the canonical Niebuhr family account, taken directly from the Heath text, did not include the "grace" language, and I have been unable to find that language recorded anywhere before 1951.
Sifton criticized Alcoholics Anonymous for not including "the spiritually correct but difficult idea" of praying for grace in its version, as well as for other simplifications. AA learned of the Serenity Prayer in 1941, but Sifton’s book called its formulation a "dumbing down of the prayer." In reality, the AA wording is extremely close to that in the copy said by Sifton to have been given by Niebuhr to Howard Chandler Robbins after the service in Heath and used by Robbins when he compiled A Book of Prayers and Services.
The 1933 Serenity Prayer that is the oldest known full-fledged appearance, and the 1937 text that is the earliest complete one accompanied by an attribution to Reinhold Niebuhr, may lack the idea of "grace," but they possess another virtue. They ask for courage before serenity, which seems fitting for a theologian whose life embodied great courage on many levels. And perhaps now we can be serene knowing that the longstanding dispute over who wrote this beloved prayer has at last itself attained serenity.
Fred R. Shapiro is an associate director of the law library and lecturer in legal research at Yale Law School.