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The Serenity Prayer is the common name for an originally untitled prayer by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971). It has been adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step programs.
The best-known form is:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,And wisdom to know the difference.
Though clearly circulating in oral form earlier, the earliest established date for a written form of the prayer is Niebuhr's inclusion of it in a sermon in 1943, followed closely by its inclusion in a Federal Council of Churches (FCC) book for army chaplains and servicemen in 1944. Niebuhr himself did not publish the Serenity Prayer until 1951, in one of his magazine columns, although it had previously appeared under his name. The prayer is cited both by Niebuhr and by Niebuhr's daughter, Elisabeth Sifton. Sifton thought that he had first written it in 1943, although Niebuhr's wife wrote in an unpublished memorandum that it had been written in 1941 or '42, adding that it may have been used in prayers as early as 1934. Niebuhr himself was quoted in the January 1950 Grapevine as saying 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." In his book Niebuhr recalls that his prayer was circulated by the FCC and later by the United States armed forces. 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 original, attributed to Niebuhr, is:
An approximate version (apparently quoted from memory) appears in the "Queries and Answers" column in The New York Times Book Review, July 2, 1950, p. 23, which asks for the author of the quotation; and a reply in the same column in the issue for August 13, 1950, p. 19, where the quotation is attributed to Niebuhr and an unidentified printed text is quoted as follows:
The prayer became more widely known after being brought to the attention of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1941 by an early member. The co-founder, William Griffith Wilson, and the staff liked the prayer and had it printed out 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. Grapevine, The International Journal of Alcoholics Anonymous, identified Niebuhr as the author (January 1950, pp. 6–7), and the AA web site continues to identify Niebuhr as the author.
In 2008, Yale Book of Quotations editor Fred R. Shapiro published evidence showing that versions of the Serenity Prayer were in use as early as 1936, years before the first known attribution to Niebuhr. Shapiro also mentions that all early recorded usages, in its various forms of circulation and improvisation, were from women typically involved in volunteer or educational activities. In 2009, however, Duke researcher Stephen Goranson found a variant attributed to Niebuhr in a 1937 Christian student publication:
"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."
This form, requesting 'courage to change' before petitioning for serenity, matches the other earliest published forms found to date. The earliest, 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. The 1938 version contains the same order, albeit in a flowing, slightly improvised fashion. Shapiro does not regard the new discovery as conclusively settling the question, but will list the Serenity Prayer under Niebuhr’s name in the next edition of the Yale Book of Quotations.
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."
The 11th century Jewish philosopher Solomon ibn Gabirol wrote "And they said: At the head of all understanding – is realizing what is and what cannot be, and the consoling of what is not in our power to change."
Friedrich Schiller advocated the first part in 1801:
The prayer has been variously but incorrectly attributed to, among others, Thomas Aquinas, Cicero, Augustine, Boethius, Marcus Aurelius, Francis of Assisi, Thomas More,and Friedrich Christoph Oetinger (1702–1782).
The attribution to Friedrich Christoph Oetinger comes from a plagiarism of the prayer by Theodor Wilhelm, a professor of education at the University of Kiel. Under the pseudonym "Friedrich Oetinger" (after the 18th-century philosopher Friedrich Christoph Oetinger), Wilhelm published a German version of the prayer in his Wendepunkt der poltitischen Erziehung (1951). This version of the prayer and the attribution to the 18th-century Oetinger became popular in West Germany.
The text has been set to music by James MacMillan and Stratovarius. The prayer also appears in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, on the back cover of Neil Young's Re-ac-tor album, as well as in Sinéad O'Connor's "Feel So different". It is recited as part of the song "Higher Power" by Boston, a song about alcohol addiction. Robert Downey, Jr. sings part of the prayer in the song "Broken" on his album The Futurist. It also appears in 50 cent's "Gotta Make It to Heaven", and is also referenced in his autobiography, From Pieces to Weight: Once upon a Time in Southside Queens. The character of Samuel L. Jackson, Doyle Gipson, a recovering alcoholic, quotes the first line of the prayer in the 2002 film Changing Lanes, with the aim of conveying the exasperation and sorrow over the unfortunate events that seem to plague not only that particular day, but his life up to that point. The Denzel Washington character, William "Whip" Whitaker, a recovering alcoholic and drug user, has a copy of the prayer at the end of the 2012 film Flight. The prayer also appears in John Green's novel The Fault in Our Stars, and also by the psychiatrist in the 2010 film It's Kind of a Funny Story.
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"Transcending and Transforming the World," in Niebuhr, Reinhold (1927). Does Civilization Need Religion? A Study in the Social Resources and Limitations of Religion in Modern Life. See especially pages 179–81. http://www.archive.org/details/MN40125ucmf_6