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Who wrote the Serenity Prayer?
Looks like Niebuhr after all

“John Maynard Keynes is said to have made a wonderful comment when he was accused of inconsistency of opinions over time,” Fred Shapiro writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week: “‘When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?’”

Shapiro, a Yale Law librarian and researcher of quotations, is explaining why he has changed his own mind. By backtracking from one of his most controversial assertions—challenging the authorship of the Serenity Prayer—Shapiro hopes to lay the subject to rest, if not to serenity.

The invocation “is undoubtedly the most famous prayer originated in modern times,” Shapiro wrote in the Yale Alumni Magazine in 2008. “Billy Pilgrim hung it on his office wall in Slaughterhouse-Five; Bill Clinton ’73JD invoked it repeatedly when he campaigned for the presidency. It has given inspiration and solace to millions of people.”

Best known in the version adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous—“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”—the Serenity Prayer is generally attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr (Yale 1914BDiv, 1915MA), one of the twentieth century's greatest theologians.

But in his 2008 article, and a similar one in the New York Times, Shapiro challenged Niebuhr's authorship based on “new evidence from historical newspaper databases.”

Niebuhr's daughter, Elisabeth Sifton, wrote in a book about the Serenity Prayer that her father composed it in 1943. But the text “was circulating before 1936,” Shapiro noted. His conclusion: it appears “plausible that the great theologian was unconsciously inspired by an idea from elsewhere”—a possibility that Sifton vigorously disputed.

Now, based on even newer evidence from historical newspaper archives, Shapiro has reversed himself: “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,” he writes in his April 28 Chronicle article.

Explaining his change of mind, Shapiro observes, “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.”

And that “wonderful comment” that Keynes “is said to have made”? Shapiro provides no citation, and it's not in his Yale Book of Quotations. Perhaps he'll research it for a future column.


The Yale Alumni Magazine is published by Yale Alumni Publications Inc., an alumni-based nonprofit that is not run by Yale University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration.

Filed under Serenity Prayer, Reinhold Niebuhr, Fred Shapiro
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