Serenity Prayer

Dan Brown’s novel “The Davinci Code” has been on the New York Times best seller list for months. So has his prior novel, “Angels and Demons,” which I think is just as unlikely and just as much fun as the Davinci Code. But in “Angels and Demons,” the author makes an interesting error. His main character, Robert Langton, offers a quotation, “God grant us the courage to accept what we cannot change.” He then says, “It’s from the prayer of St. Francis.”

First of all, I don’t know what he might mean by The prayer of St. Francis. There are several prayers of St. Francis of Assisi extant. There is the familiar prayer for all the creatures and elements, set to music for the familiar hymn, “The Canticle of the Sun.” And there is the equally well-known prayer, “O Lord, make me an instrument of thy blessing; Where there is hatred, let me sow love; Where there is injury, pardon; Where there is doubt, faith; Where there is despair, hope …” and so on.

But, that’s a quibble. The real problem with Robert Langdon’s quote is that it isn’t from any prayer of St. Francis. It is part of the Serenity Prayer, which most people know as,

God grant us the serenity

to accept the things we cannot change,

courage to change the things we can,

and wisdom to know the difference.

The error isn’t surprising. And it isn’t surprising that I seem to be the only person in the world who has noticed it and/or the only person in the world who cares. One hardly, if ever, sees the prayer ascribed to its author. And though it is perhaps among the two or three most well-known prayers in the western world, it seldom occurs to anyone that someone wrote it. When it does occur to someone that the prayer might have an origin, the origin stories often become inexplicably mysterious, conspiratorial, and simply wrong.

As you may be aware, the Serenity Prayer has been a mainstay of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for decades. Untold numbers of AA members have felt that the prayer concisely captures their struggle and their goal. But a history of the Serenity Prayer’s place in AA says, “[The prayer’s] exact origin, its actual author, have played a tantalizing game of hide and seek with researchers, both in and out of AA.”

The tantalizing games, I think, are worthy of The Davinci Code itself.

The history goes on,

…despite years of research by numerous individuals, the exact origin of the prayer is shrouded in overlays of history, even mystery. Moreover, every time a researcher appears to uncover the definitive source, another one crops up to refute the formers’ claim, at the same time that it raises new, intriguing facts.

There’s got to be hyperbole in that. I find it hard to imagine that “numerous individuals” have devoted “years” of research to discovering the origin of the Serenity Prayer. The origin of the Serenity Prayer has never been a secret. Those who for some reason prefer whodunits to simplicity have managed somehow to attribute the prayer to ancient Sanskrit texts, Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Spinoza, and either of the Roman philosophers Cicero or Boethius.

The author of the Serenity prayer, Lutheran Pastor and theologian, Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr, was occasionally annoyed by but mostly bemused by the confabulations and the confusions relating to what, for him, had been a simple Pastor’s Sunday morning prayer.

In her recent book, “The Serenity Prayer,” Niebuhr’s daughter, Elisabeth Sifton, writes of the summers of her childhood in the lovely New England town of Heath. Her family attended the Union Church in Heath and her father was one of the several summering ministers who preached to the dressed-up worshippers as the sun streamed in through stained glass windows.

Sifton writes, “It was in an ordinary Sunday Service morning Service at the Heath Union Church, in the summer of 1943 that my father first used his new prayer.” He had written the prayer the night before the Service.

As he wrote it, it went like this:

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.

At some time later in 1944, at the urging of a friend, Niebuhr allowed the prayer to be printed in a small book for army chaplains in the field. All the fanciful stories about its origins notwithstanding, this was the first printing of the prayer – though it was the printing that made it famous. Much to the amusement of some of his acquaintances, accustomed to writing for money, Niebuhr never copyrighted the prayer and never received a penny from its use or misuse.

Elisabeth Sifton points out, however, that many others since have made many pennies from it. She writes: “There was an immediate postwar fashion for pairing it with Durer’s drawing of praying hands – this was deemed aptly Germanic and suitably pious. Examples cropped up on bookends, tea towels, pieces of etched stained glass to hang in library windows.”

AA has it printed on coffee mugs. It appears on a knitted afghan in a catalogue. It even appears in what Sifton calls a “ghastly riff” in a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon. Calvin says to Hobbes, “Know what I pray for? The strength to change what I can. The inability to accept what I can’t, and the incapacity to tell the difference.”

Niebuhr’s daughter does not castigate directly those who play fast, loose, and disrespectfully with her father’s prayer; but surely there is a barb for them in what she writes about what she refers to as William Bennett’s “ghastly best seller,” The Book of Virtues. “Bennett’s book” she says, “was compiled from snippets of freely available good-hearted literature composed by dead authors with whom Mr. Bennett did not have to share royalties.”

Does it matter who wrote The Serenity Prayer? – It matters because of who and what Reinhold Niebuhr was, and because of why he wrote the prayer.

Reinhold Niebuhr’s life – from 1892 to 1971 – spanned the most consequential and profound eras of human history: The so-called “Great War,” which turned out to be the First World War; the Great Depression; and the Second World War.

He was born in Wright City, Missouri in the lands and towns of German Lutherans, the son of a first-generation German Lutheran pastor of the Evangelical and Reformed Church. Reinhold attended the same seminary as his father. His brother, Richard, was also a minister. But neither Reinhold or Richard Niebuhr were simple country pastors. Both were, in fact, towering figures in theology throughout those critical decades.

My own theological studies in the sixties were steeped in what was then radical Niebuhrian theology, the Christian ethics of Richard, and the social theology of Reinhold. I wrote a paper in seminary on Richard Niebuhr’s book, “Christ Above Culture,” in which he said that it was the place of faith not to support culture but to rise above it so as to judge it.

The Niebuhr brothers were contemporaries of Paul Tillich, Harry Emerson Fosdick – the prophet of urban change who founded Riverside Church in New York City – of Pastor Martin Niemoller, defiant against Nazism and Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed for his part in a plot to kill Adolf Hitler.

In 1915, the Evangelical and Reformed Church Synod sent Neibuhr to Detroit to serve a congregation there of sixty-five people. When he left fifteen years later, there were over seven hundred people.

During his ministry in Detroit, Niebuhr was deeply troubled by the demoralizing effects of industrialism on the workers. He became an outspoken critic of Henry Ford and often allowed union organizers to use his pulpit to preach their message of worker’s rights. Niebuhr documented the inhumane conditions created by the assembly lines and gross employment practices by which an exhausted worker, resting a moment, found himself out on the street.

During the Great Depression, Niebuhr became a leading spokesman for “religious socialism,” a political ideology claiming to be grounded in religious values. Religious socialists were Christian social activists drawn from both clergy and laity who took seriously both the “prophetic” moral values of the Bible and the horrific inequities of the capitalist system. This was the era of the so-called “Social Gospel,” in which Jesus’ ministry and teaching was seen to have had what was called “A preference for the poor.” He was instrumental in the 1931 founding of the Fellowship of Socialist Christians. All of this, of course, earned him the label “Commie,” which dogged him for most of the rest of his life.

This was also the era of Christian pacifism. The victors in the Great War had wrought economic disaster in Europe bringing poverty, hunger, and despair to millions. It seemed that war accomplished nothing. Niebuhr’s friend, Harry Emerson Fosdick, wrote his famous hymn to dedicate Riverside Church (which, I think ironically, was bankrolled by another robber-baron, John D. Rockefeller).1 Fosdick’s hymn echoed the themes of the Serenity Prayer,

Crown thine ancient church’s story,

Bring her bud to glorious flower.

Grant us wisdom, Grant us courage,

for the facing of this hour.

Cure thy children’s warring madness,

Bend our pride to thy control;

Shame our wanton, selfish gladness,

Rich in things and poor in soul.

As Hitler came to power in Germany, however, and Nazism grew and thrived, Niebuhr gave up his pacifism and joined his colleagues in support and resistance. Because of their German bonds, with much of their family and family friends still in Germany these were difficult times for the Niebuhrs – especially since some, even in his own family in Germany, were enthralled with Hitler and Nazism.

Niebuhr was appalled and saddened by the reluctance of the Christian church – in Germany and in America – to resist the Nazis, especially their encroachment on the conduct of the church and religion. Anti-Semitism had been growing in Germany since the end of World War I. Many in the church were either blind to it or were sucked into its evil. Even the well-known philosopher, Martin Heidegger, joined the Nazi party and donned the black uniform in his classroom.

Most, however, simply kept quiet. Others slipped into a feeble kind of pacifism. Hardly a single clergyman in the United States – Christian or Jew – spoke out publicly about what was happening to the Jews in Europe. And books have been written (and a play)2 about Pope Pius XII refusal to outright condemn Nazism and the slaughter of the Jews.

For Niebuhr, this was no time for pacifism. He did not believe that either Scripture or theology supported it. He was truly afraid that Hitler’s success would bring an end to freedom, democracy, civilization itself.

Niebuhr’s daughter refers to the “fatuously optimistic” Unitarian Rev. John Haynes Holmes, the founder and minister of our Community Church in NYC. Holmes had been a pacifist in World War I and had accused the churches of being, as he put it, “adjuncts of the war department.” Holmes said in 1931 that Europe was “slowly but surely approaching the longed-for goal of harmony and peace.” Niebuhr thundered back in an article titled, “Let Liberal Churches Stop Fooling Themselves.”

One liberal, at least, the Unitarian theologian, James Luther Adams, was in Germany working with the underground church, those ministers and congregations who were refusing to preach the gospel according to Goebels.

It was Pastor Martin Niemoller, a friend of Niebuhr, who wrote this famous statement:

They came for the Socialists, and I didn’t object

– For I wasn’t a Socialist;

They came for the labor leaders, and I didn’t object

– For I wasn’t a labor leader;

They came for the Jews, and I didn’t object

– For I wasn’t a Jew;

Then they came for me

– And there was no one left to object.

And Niebuhr’s classmate at Yale, theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, imprisoned and tortured for months, was executed one month before the German surrender.

Reinhold Niebuhr was between “the devil and the deep, blue sea” – the self-righteous clergy and churches on the one hand, who would not sully their piety with political action, and the liberals who were just convinced, for no rationally apparent reason, that everything would turn out alright.

Liberal religion has never taken evil seriously.

Niebuhr could not be called a liberal, theologically or politically, because he was not an optimist (which, by the way, our own James Luther Adams said was a primary characteristic of liberal religion). Niebuhr saw no reason to believe or to act as if mere faith, prayer, worship and Bible reading, would outwit or outdo evil in any way and, for him, evil was rampant in his world. For him, the purpose of preaching was not to console or even give hope, but to confront the religious with harsh reality.

Following the Second World War, Niebuhr was caught up in the deadly fiasco of McCarthyism. Again, for the most part, the religious institutions, Jewish and Christian, again mostly stood silently by as heroes of faith were branded and some of the most creative minds of the time were banished from our culture forever.

Niebuhr, with his earlier socialism and with a theological “experiment” that once attempted to forge an alliance between theology and Marxism, was a prime target to the day of his death.

“God give us the grace,” Niebuhr wrote, “to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed.” Had that line stood alone, the self-righteous would have been justified in folding their hands in quiet repose as evil raged about them. But it did not stand alone. The prayer continued,

“(give us) courage to change the things that should be changed.”

Notice the different between the prayer as Niebuhr wrote it and the “watered down” version that became popular on plaques, mugs, and tea towels. Not “give us courage to change the things that can be changed,” but “courage to change the things that should be changed.”

And, of course,

“…and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”

The primary challenge to people of faith is to determine what should be changed – like the path of evil, would-be conquerors, the injustices of uncontrolled greed, the mindless, irrational rejection by “free thinkers” of faith itself. Only after the struggle with evil and justice has been joined can one gain the wisdom to know what can or cannot be changed. Those who brought about the end of a foolish war in Vietnam and those who began to lift the weight of racism did so by not assuming in the outset what could or could not be changed.

What should be changed may not be changed in our lifetime. It is not for us to assume that the earth cannot one day be saved, that nothing can ever be done to save the forests from falling or save the fields and coastlines from the greedy, that nothing can be done to bring about a golden age of visionary and enlightened leadership.

At the close of her story of her father and the Serenity Prayer, Elisabeth Sifton writes,

Can we understand that prayer today? In an inanely amoral, frivolous, and profit-driven world, we are urged to fill ourselves with pride and self esteem and to armor ourselves with pretensions. We may lose the ability to hear such a prayer. Solemn rebuke from self-important priests would then fall appropriately on deaf ears. But the (Serenity Prayer) is not grim, and it came from a free heart, from someone who trusted that the joyful life of attentive, awe-filled, loving people must go on. The Serenity Prayer was meant for them.

1 I first encountered Harry Emerson Fosdick many years ago when his book, For The Living of These Days, which included his account of the founding of Riverside Church, was on the required reading list for my License to Preach in the Methodist Church.

2 The Deputy, by Rolf Hochhuth, 1997.