Part prayer… part reminder we’re not in control.
One of the more popular rote prayers is “the serenity prayer.” It’s prayed by Christians and pagans alike, ’cause it’s the official prayer of Alcoholics Anonymous. Other 12-step programs use it as well.
- God grant me the serenity
- to accept the things I cannot change,
- courage to change the things I can,
- and the wisdom to know the difference.
- 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.
Credit for the prayer is usually given to American theologian and philosopher Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971), although the original version looks a bit different. Its first publication was in the March 1933 edition of The Woman’s Press, in Winnifred Crane Wygal’s article “On the Edge of Tomorrow.”
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.
Wygal was a grad student at Union Theological Seminary, Neibuhr’s school. In her 1940 book We Plan Our Own Worship Services, she indicated she got the prayer from him. Neibuhr’s daughter Elisabeth Sifton claimed her father wrote it for a Sunday service in 1943. As you notice, she was a bit off on the date—which caused some confusion, and controversy, when Fred R. Shapiro of Yale Law School published a New York Times article in 2008 stating he’d found the prayer published eight times before 1943. At the time, he questioned whether Niebuhr had even authored it. He doesn’t now.
Alcoholics Anonymous founder William Griffith Wilson (a.k.a. “Bill W.”) came across the prayer in early 1942. A member of his New York group found it in a New York Herald Tribune obituary and shared it. The group immediately adopted it, and included a copy of it in every outgoing letter.
Niebuhr admitted the idea behind the prayer had been “spooking around” for centuries. You can even find it expressed in Cicero’s Six Mistakes of Man: “The tendency to worry about things that cannot be changed or corrected.”