A Brief History of the Serenity Prayer
There is no shortage of theories as to who wrote the Serenity Prayer. There are unending twists & turns in the quest to uncover the original author. For every bit of research that we've uncovered, there has been more research to refute it.
Records from Alcoholics Anonymous, in January of 1950, show that Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr, of the Union Theological Seminary, NYC, composed it in 1932 as the ending to a longer prayer. The way it was originally written by Dr. Niebuhr is as follows:
God give me the serenity to accept things which cannot be changed;
Give me courage to change things which must be changed;
And the wisdom to distinguish one from the other.
In 1934, Dr. Robbins, the doctor’s friend, neighbor & ex Dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, requested permission to use that portion of the longer prayer in a compilation he was building at the time. It was published that year in Dr. Robbins’ book of prayers. Dr. Niebuhr says, "Of course, it may have been spooking around for years, even centuries, but I don't think so. I honestly do believe that I wrote it myself." Research from the Library of Congress shows:
Robbins, Howard Chandler, 1876-1952.
Way of light : a manual of praise, prayer and meditation /
compiled by Howard Chandler Robbins. 1933
CALL NUMBER: BV4801 .R6 1933
So, already the year of publication of the book has been contradicted. AA states that it was 1934, the Library of Congress states that it was 1933. But that's only the beginning. An undated letter from Dr. Niebur's wife, Ursula, claims that the prayer was written by her husband in the early 1940's, which could refute the AA records which will continue below."
In 1939, it came to the attention of Jack, an early A.A. member, who had read it in the New York Times obituary columns, which read "Mother--God grant me the serenity to accept things I cannot change, courage to change things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. Goodbye." He liked it so much, he brought it to the old Vesey Street office. Bill W., the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous & the staff read the prayer & felt that it particularly suited the needs of AA. Cards were printed & passed around. Thus the simple little prayer became an integral part of the AA movement.
Another popular theory states that Reinhold Niebuhr actually accredited Friedrich Oetinger (1702-1782), an 18th century theologian, for writing the Serenity Prayer. This theory suggests that in 1947, Niebuhr read the prayer in an obituary notice in the New York Tribune & was so taken by it that he shared it with Bill Wilson.
Interestingly enough, in November of 1964, A.A. reports having received a clipping from the Paris Herald Tribune of an article written by the papers special Koblenz (West Germany) correspondent, which reads:
"In the rather dreary hall of a converted hotel, overlooking the Rhine at Koblenz, framed by the flags of famous Prussian regiments rescued from the Tannenberg memorial, is a tablet inscribed with the following words: 'God give me the detachment to accept those things I cannot alter; the courage to alter those things which I can alter; and the wisdom to distinguish the ones from the others.' These words [are] by Friedrich Otinger, an evangelical pietist of the eighteenth century--"
The plaque was affixed to a wall in a hall where modern day troops & company commanders of the new German army were trained "in the principles of management and... behavior of the soldier citizen in a democratic state."
Here, at last, thought A.A. researchers, was concrete evidence - quote, author, date - of the Serenity Prayer's original source. That conviction went unchallenged for fifteen years. Then in 1979 came material, shared with G.S.O.'s Beth K., by Peter T., of Berlin. Peter's research threw the authenticity of 18th century authorship out the window. But it also added more tantalizing facts about the plaque's origin.
"The first form of the prayer," Beth wrote back, originated with Boethius, the Roman philosopher (480-524 A.D.) & author of the book, Consolations of Philosophy. The prayer's thoughts were used from then on by "religious-like people who had to suffer first by the English, later the Prussian puritans... then the Pietists from southwest Germany... then A.A.s... & through them, the West Germans after the Second World War."
Moreover, Beth continued, after the war, a north German University professor, Dr. Theodor Wilhelm, who had started a revival of spiritual life in West Germany, had acquired the "little prayer" from Canadian soldiers. He had written a book in which he had included the prayer, without attribution, but which resulted in the prayer's appearance in many different places, such as army officer's halls, schools & other institutions. The professor's pseudonym Friedrich Oetinger, the 18th century pietist had apparently been selected out of admiration of his south German forebears.
Back in 1957, another G.S.O. staff member, Anita R., browsing in a New York bookstore, came upon a beautifully bordered card, on which was printed:
"Almighty God, our Heavenly Father, give us Serenity to accept what cannot be changed, Courage to change what should be changed, and Wisdom to know the one from the other; through Jesus Christ, our Lord."
The card, which came from a bookshop in England, called it the "General's Prayer," dating it back to the fourteenth century! AA acknowledged in their 1964 report that they ...have somewhere a printed card stating that the prayer is a "soldier's prayer from the fourteenth century."
Page 67 of the out-of-print booklet, "Between Dawn & Dark," by Frederick Ward Kates published by the Upper Room in 1957 reads:
Almighty God, our heavenly father, give us serenity to accept what cannot be changed, courage to change what should be changed, and wisdom to know the one from the other. Amen
Despite years of research by numerous individuals, the exact origin of the prayer is shrouded in time & mystery; every time a researcher appears to uncover the definitive source, another one crops up to refute the claim.
Pagan Serenity Prayer
God & Goddess grant me:
The power of water, to accept with ease & grace what I cannot change
The power of fire, for the energy & courage to change the things I can.
The power of Air, for the ability to know the difference.
And the power of Earth, for the strength to continue my path.