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.]