The serenity meme

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As reported in the New York Times and Time Magazine, Yale law librarian and quotation-hunter extraordinaire Fred Shapiro has uncovered evidence undermining the long-held attribution of "The Serenity Prayer" to the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr's family originally claimed that he composed the prayer in the summer of 1943, but Shapiro has uncovered variations on the theme going back to 1936 in various American publications. (The first printed attribution to Niebuhr is actually from 1942.) Shapiro lays out his evidence in the Yale Alumni Magazine, followed by a rebuttal by Niebuhr's daughter Elisabeth Sifton.

What's particularly fascinating about Shapiro's documentary evidence is how the early citations all fit a general formula and yet show a divergence in phrasing reminiscent of the Telephone game. Regardless of how much claim her father ultimately has to originating the prayer, Sifton is correct to point out that "prayers are presented orally, circulate orally, and become famous orally long before they are put on paper." It's clear that by the time the prayer found its way into print in the '30s and '40s, the oral transmission of the meme was already well under way, as illustrated by the mutations it underwent in the retelling.

Below are ten variants of the prayer cited in Shapiro's article, with the final one from 1943 being Niebuhr's preferred version, according to his daughter. I've arranged them in tabular form so that the formula is more obvious. What God is being asked to grant consists of three noun phrases, which we can label SERENITY, COURAGE, and WISDOM. Note that in a few of these early cases, COURAGE actually precedes SERENITY; I've marked these with (1) and (2) to indicate the actual order of the NPs in the source texts.

O God, give us serenity to accept what cannot be helped (2) courage to change what must be altered (1) and insight to know the one from the other 1936
we may have an understanding and serenity to face what cannot be changed (2) the courage to change what should be altered (1) and the wisdom to recognize one from the other 1938
oh God, give me serenity to accept that which cannot be changed courage to change that which can be changed and wisdom to tell the one from the other 1939
God give me serenity to accept things I cannot change the courage to change those I can and the wisdom to know the difference 1940
we must have the serenity to accept what we cannot change within ourselves the courage to attempt to change what we can and the wit to know one from the other 1941
God, give me serenity to accept what cannot be helped (2) the courage to change what must be altered (1) and insight to determine one from the other 1941
try to develop serenity to face that which cannot be changed (2) courage to change that which can be changed (1) and insight to tell one from the other 1941
O God, give me serenity to accept what cannot be changed the courage to change what can be changed and the wisdom to know one from the other 1942
give me the patience to accept those things which I cannot change the courage to change those things which can be changed and the wisdom to know the difference 1942
God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed courage to change the things that should be changed and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other 1943

Given the amount of variation in the prayer's form, it takes a lot of clever searching through enormous databases of digitized texts to trace its early transmission. Shapiro long ago turned this type of linguistic investigation into an art form, as is on display in his masterwork, the Yale Book of Quotations. As databases become more powerful in their search functionality and broader in the scope of their source material, tracking these memetic mutations will increasingly become a game that we can all take part in.

[My standard warning: Google Book Search is getting better and better for this sort of research, but it's plagued by misdating problems, particularly with serials like journals and magazines. So if you think you've trumped Shapiro by finding a version of the prayer from, say, 1900, take a close look at the metadata provided by Google for the text. More often than not, a deceptively early dating in the search results actually refers to the first year of the serial's publication.]

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4 Comments »

  1. Fred Shapiro said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 2:21 pm

    Thanks, Ben, for a typically fine posting. Please note that, although Elisabeth Sifton may believe that the "preferred" Niebuhr version is the one he used in 1943, the "preferred" wording appears to date from much later. No one has ever documented the 1943 Niebuhr text. The closest thing we have is the 1944 Federal Council of Churches booklet distributed to chaplains and soldiers, which appears to have been based on a text handed by Niebuhr to Howard Robbins in 1943. Interestingly, that 1944 version is very close to the Alcoholics Anonymous version that Ms. Sifton regards as a simplification or "dumbing down" of the Niebuhr-preferred version.

  2. Sarah Roberts said,

    July 18, 2008 @ 12:17 am

    There is some evidence of the elements of the serenity prayer already in use in liturgical contexts by the time the prayer was first attested. In the published prayers by Chaplain Rev. James S. Montgomery, D.D. at the opening of the daily sessions of the House of Representatives, we have statements such as these:

    Wednesday, July 17, 1935
    "Blessed Lord God, in the noontide light of Thy perfection we humble ourselves and pray Thee to make us wise to know the right and give us courage to perform it." (p. 64)

    Wednesday, February 24, 1937
    "Our Father, enable us to accept what cannot be avoided and sustain us with the peace of God, the higher calm and the eternal poise." (p. 142)

  3. Stephen Goranson said,

    July 24, 2008 @ 6:56 am

    The prayer appears to be a case of mixed oral and written transmission.
    I found a 1934 publication with one part of the later-so-called Serenity
    Prayer–the courage passage may have come first, originally. This 1934 wording is identical to the 1936 (and a 1941) wording, and it is placed within quotation marks. Also it was written by a US woman quite involved in social work, continuing the trend that it may have been disseminated first in those circles (though church social work is not excluded).
    It's in Sewanee Review 42.4 Oct.-Dec. 1934 page 398 in "Why Go South? A Prescription for Patriotism" by June Purcell Guild (1887- ), who was a Northener who moved to Virginia, and wrote:

    It must be added, many Southerners appear to have done little to erase the awful memories of the Civil War. North or South, not all have "serenity to accept what cannot be helped." It may be too much to expect a whole people to be as great in defeat as their great leader [Robert E. Lee] who said: "Recollect that we form one country now. Abandon all these local animosities and make your sons Americans."

  4. Mark LaPorta said,

    October 15, 2008 @ 1:06 pm

    I love a good linguistical analysis and a thoughtful, critical debate — there are too few — but I for one am glad for the prayer in any form, A certain irony is created that the humility requested in the prayer should engender such discussion. Peace.

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