By Fred R. Shapiro
In 2008 I made the front page of The New York Times by asserting that the greatest American theologian of the 20th century, who was also perhaps the greatest American political philosopher of the 20th century, probably did not originate the most famous and beloved prayer of the 20th century. The theologian-philosopher was Reinhold Niebuhr. The prayer was the Serenity Prayer, commonly quoted as follows: "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." Its adoption by Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs has propelled it to worldwide renown.
My assertion engendered considerable controversy, and was strongly contested by Niebuhr’s daughter, the eminent publisher Elisabeth Sifton. Sifton’s 2003 book The Serenity Prayer featured a specific account of her father’s writing the prayer for a Sunday service in Heath, Mass., in 1943. In no less than 13 places in the book, she characterized Heath in 1943 as the place and time of composition. It is because I relied on the Heath story as the authoritative dating of the theologian’s first use of the prayer that, when I discovered eight instances of the prayer’s being printed in newspapers and books between January 1936 and April 1942—none of which mentioned Niebuhr—I concluded that he appeared to have drawn unconsciously on earlier versions of unknown authorship.