The inspiring text -- long attributed to an eminent theologian -- may have deeper roots than we thought.
Yale Alumni Magazine
by Fred R. Shapiro
Folklorists regard variant versions of a text as evidence of a descent that has not been fixed by writing and print. Sayings with this kind of variation may be proverbial, the circumstances of their coinage often unknowable. The Serenity Prayer is probably too long to function as a true proverb, but the considerable variations in wording and ordering of phrases in the newspaper versions suggest a deep, traditional ancestry, perhaps long predating both the women in the 1930s who now provide the oldest attestations and the courageous and wise Reinhold Niebuhr.
New York Times coverage
Serenity Prayer Stirs Up Doubt: Who Wrote It?
By LAURIE GOODSTEIN
Published: July 11, 2008
Plus a response by Elizabeth Sifton, Niebuhr's daughter and the author of a book on the prayer.
Mr. Shapiro's working premise for his research on the Serenity Prayer seems to be that we must find out just who first spoke or wrote it in the public record, because that person is more likely to be -- or to be near -- its true author. But, as I've said to him before, this is not necessarily the right way to go about looking for prayer authors. Prayers are presented orally, circulate orally, and become famous orally long before they are put on paper. Pastors and congregants use them in worship, recall and even misremember them, think about them for years before they are printed. That is why common, i.e., shared, use is one criterion for establishing a text, no matter who may have originated it -- though that still matters. This spiritual tradition differs from the legal tradition with which Mr. Shapiro is more familiar; I'm glad if he's now taking it into account.
Yet the great masterpiece prayers don't materialize in some random, bubble-up way, either: their power comes from a distillation of complex spiritual truths, and for this we need authors, we need the tradition's most gifted practitioners.