Serenity Prayer

Reinhold Niebuhr? Winnifred Wygal? Mrs. Harrie R. Chamberlin? Mrs. Lenore Stone Meffley? Edith Theodora Ames? Bram Stoker? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Here are two versions of the famous Serenity Prayer:

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.

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.

Would you please explore the provenance of this prayer?

Quote Investigator: There are many versions of the Serenity Prayer, and its phrasing has evolved over time which makes it difficult to trace. The complex topic of provenance was examined by top quotation expert Fred R. Shapiro who is the editor of “The Yale Book of Quotations”. He concluded with a “high degree of confidence” that prominent theologian Reinhold Niebuhr originated the Serenity Prayer. 1

A crucial piece of evidence appeared in the diary of Winnifred Wygal within an entry dated October 31, 1932. Wygal studied with Reinhold Niebuhr at Union Theological Seminary, and in the following diary passage the initials R.N. referred to Niebuhr. Wygal credited him with a statement that partially matched the prayer. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 2

R.N. says that ‘moral will plus imagination are the two elements of which faith is compounded.’

‘The victorious man in the day of crisis is the man who has the serenity to accept what he cannot help and the courage to change what must be altered.

The above text contained two of the three elements in the tripartite structure of the Serenity Prayer. The phrases “serenity to accept” and “courage to change” were present, but the phrase “wisdom to know” was absent.

The following year in March 1933 Wygal published an article in “The Woman’s Press”, a periodical of the Y.W.C.A. (Young Women’s Christian Association). She included the earliest instance known to QI of a match for the full tripartite structure. The third part of this formulation employed the phrase “insight to know”. This instance appeared as an epigraph in the article without attribution: 3

Oh, God, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what can not be helped, and insight to know the one from the other.

Another crucial piece of evidence occurred in Wygal’s 1940 book “We Plan Our Own Worship Services”. She presented a close match for Serenity Prayer: 4

“O God, give us the serenity to accept what cannot be changed, the courage to change what can be changed, and the wisdom to know the one from the other.” (Reinhold Niebuhr)

Thus, these three citations show that the earliest person known to have used the prayer was a student of Niebuhr’s, and she credited him with its creation.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1897 a partial thematic match with shared vocabulary appeared in “The Smith College Monthly” within the first verse of a work called ‘Hymn” by student Edith Theodora Ames. The piece contained the phrases “wisdom to see” and “strength to do” together with the word “serenity”: 5

O Father, give me wisdom, give me strength;
Wisdom to see thy truth — the strength to do;
And grant, through these, thy fair serenity
That stands when others deem my truth untrue.

In 1902 a partial thematic match occurred in “The Mystery of the Sea” by Bram Stoker. Stoker is best known for the gothic novel “Dracula”: 6

. . . the rest of us, who are wise enough to accept what cannot be altered, try to realise what can be done for the best.

In 1932 Winnifred Wygal wrote in her diary a partial match which she attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr, and in March 1933 she published a full match to the tripartite structure without attribution as mentioned previously.

On March 9, 1933 “The Atlanta Constitution” of Georgia printed a piece about a meeting of the Y.W.C.A. The national president of the organization penned a speech that included a match: 7

The address of Mrs. Harrie R. Chamberlin, national president, will bring the conference to a close this morning, her subject being, “A New Role for Leadership.” She will request Y. W. C. A. board and staff members to carry to their associations “hope for the future based upon experience of the past, with the courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and insight to know one from the other.

On March 15, 1933 a match appeared in the “Santa Cruz Sentinel” of California which acknowledged Wygal’s use in “The Woman’s Press”: 8

Winnifred Wygal in her article, “On the Edge of Tomorrow,” in “The Woman’s Press,” published by the National Board of the Y.W.C.A., quotes this beautiful prayer, “Oh, God, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what can not be helped, and insight to know the one from the other.”

On March 21, 1933 the “Richmond Times Dispatch” reported that Mrs. Harrie R. Chamberlin, national president of the of the Y.W.C.A., employed a match during a meeting: 9

In conclusion, she quoted the prayer which she said expressed the whole aim of the Y. W. C. A.: “O God, give us courage to change the things that must be altered; serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and insight to know the one from the other.”

On March 25, 1933 Mrs. Lenore Stone Meffley used a match during a meeting of the Family Service Society as reported in the “Richmond Times Dispatch”: 10

Admitting need for “courage to change what should be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be altered and insight to know the one from the other,” Mrs. Lenore Stone Meffley yesterday keynoted the Family Service Society’s annual meeting.

In 1934 a prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr appeared in a compilation titled “Prayers For Services: A Manual for Leaders of Worship”. Niebuhr mentioned the key notion of accepting what cannot be altered. He also used the word “patience” which occurs in some versions of the serenity prayer: 11

For those who have been worsted in the battles of life, whether by the inhumanity of their fellows, their own limitations or the fickleness of fortune, that they may contend against injustice without bitterness, overcome their own weaknesses with diligence and learn how to accept what cannot be altered, with patience . . .

In 1937 Niebuhr was given credit for the expression in the pages of “The Intercollegian and Far Horizons”: 12

. . . the prayer attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr:

“Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.”

Reprinted from “Notes and Views” (Published by the Pacific Southwest Field Council).

The important citation above was located by top-notch researcher Stephen Goranson and shared with colleagues via a mailing list. 13

In 1938 the “The Hartford Courant” of Connecticut reported that Miss Constance Leigh who worked at a home for children with disabilities employed a match that used the word “wisdom”: 14

Miss Leigh said, “I would in closing this brief report voice the hope that we may have the courage to change what should be altered, an understanding and serenity to face what cannot be changed, and the wisdom to recognize one from the other.

In 1939 a columnist in “The Daily Oklahoman” published the following version: 15

Here is a prayer which I call the mental hygiene prayer. I do not know its author:

“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.”

In 1940 Winnifred Wygal printed an instance with an attribution to Niebuhr in her book “We Plan Our Own Worship Services” as mentioned previously.

In 1950 “The A.A. Grapevine” , a publication of Alcoholics Anonymous, printed a remark from Niebuhr in which he expressed a measured amount of uncertainty about the authorship of the prayer: 16

Dr. Niebuhr says, “Of course, it may have been spooking around for years, even centuries, but I don’t think so. I honestly do believe that I wrote it myself.”

Some comical variants of the prayer have been concocted over the decades. In 1992 the cartoonist Bill Watterson placed a variant into his strip “Calvin and Hobbes”: 17

Calvin: Know what I pray for?
Hobbes: What?
Calvin: The strength to change what I can, the inability to accept what I can’t, and the incapacity to tell the difference.

In conclusion, the preponderance of evidence supports Reinhold Niebuhr’s authorship of the Serenity Prayer. Yet, the phrasing has evolved over time. For example, the earliest instances used the word “insight” instead of “wisdom”. The tripartite structure appears to be the work of Niebuhr although initial statements were anonymous.

Image Notes: Hands forming a steeple shape from the book “Indoor and Outdoor Recreations for Girls” (1912) by Lina Beard and Adelia Belle Beard; published by Charles Scribner’s Sons. New York. Image has been resized and retouched.

(Great thanks to Henk Barendregt whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and continue with this exploration. Special thanks to Fred R. Shapiro and Stephen Goranson together with previous researchers such as Suzy Platt, Ralph Keyes, and Nigel Rees.)

Notes:

  1. Website: The Chronicle Review, Article title: Who Wrote the Serenity Prayer?, Article author: Fred R. Shapiro, Date on website: April 28, 2014, Website description: The Chronicle of Higher Education is a periodical and website covering colleges and universities; it publishes The Chronicle Review. (Accessed chronicle.com on December 23, 2019) link
  2. Winnifred Wygal’s diary entry dated: October 31, 1932; Wygal’s diary is located at the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study Harvard University; the crucial text in the diary was located by staff member Sarah Guzy; this information was reported by Fred R. Shapiro in The Chronicle Review on April 28, 2014; see companion citation; this data has not been independently verified by QI.)
  3. 1933 March, The Woman’s Press, On the Edge of Tomorrow by Winnifred Wygal (Epigraph), Quote Page 122, National Board of the Y.W.C.A. (Information reported by Fred R. Shapiro in The Chronicle Review on April 28, 2014; see companion citation; this data has not been independently verified by QI.)
  4. 1940 Copyright, We Plan Our Own Worship Services: Business girls practice the act and the art of group worship by Winnifred Wygal, Chapter: The Essential Three-Point Outline, Quote Page 25, The Woman’s Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  5. 1897 December, The Smith College Monthly, Conducted by the Senior Class of Smith College, Volume 5, Number 3, Hymn by Edith Theodora Ames, Quote Page 118 and 119, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts.(Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1902, The Mystery of the Sea: A Novel by Bram Stoker, Chapter 15: A Peculiar Dinner-Party, Quote Page 140, Doubleday, Page & Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1933 March 9, The Atlanta Constitution, Y.W.C.A. Regional Conference Closes On Thursday, Quote Page 6, Column 7, Atlanta, Georgia. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1933 March 15, Santa Cruz Sentinel, Among Our People with Sanford Hunt, Quote Page 1, Column 1, Santa Cruz, California. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1933 March 21, Richmond Times Dispatch, Mrs. F. R. Scott Elected to Head Y.W.C.A. Here, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Richmond, Virginia. (GenealogyBank)
  10. 1933 March 25, Richmond Times Dispatch, Family Service Society Hears Year’s Report, Quote Page 5, Column 4, Richmond, Virginia. (GenealogyBank)
  11. 1934, Prayers For Services: A Manual for Leaders of Worship, Compiled and Edited by Morgan Phelps Noyes, Chapter: The Prayer for Intercession, Section: For Social Righteousness, Untitled Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr, Start Page 144, Quote Page 145, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Internet Archive Full View) link
  12. 1937 November, The Intercollegian and Far Horizons, Volume 55, Number 2, What Makes a Strong Student Christian Association? by Paul E. Pfuetze, Start Page 35. Quote Page 36, Column 1, The Intercollegian, New York. (Data from Stephen Goranson’s post to the American Dialect Society mailing List; see companion citation; this data has not been independently verified by QI.)
  13. Mailing list: American Dialect Society, Message subject: Courage and Serenity Prayer news, Message author: Stephen Goranson at duke.edu, Message time stamp: Nov 19, 2009, 11:27 AM. Organization description: The American Dialect Society was founded in 1889; it is dedicated to the study of the English language in North America. (Accessed listserv.linguistlist.org on December 24, 2019) link
  14. 1938 October 27, The Hartford Courant, Space Needs in Newington Home Cited, Quote Page 13, Column 8, Hartford, Connecticut. (Newspapers_com)
  15. 1939 November 26, The Daily Oklahoman, Our Homes: Peace Be Within Thee by Mrs. Edyth Thomas Wallace, Quote Page C3, Column 6, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (Newspapers_com)
  16. 1950 January, The A.A. Grapevine, The National Monthly of Alcoholics Anonymous, The Serenity Prayer: it’s origin is traced, Unspecified Page, A.A. Grapevine Inc., New York. (Verified with scan at silkworth.net)
  17. 1992 August 28, Arizona Daily Sun, Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson, Quote Page 13, Column 1, Flagstaff, Arizona. (Newspapers_com)