Serenity Prayer

Sunday, January 19th, 2014

The wisdom of the Serenity Prayer may be timeless, but the prayer itself is rather new:

The best-known form is:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Though clearly circulating in oral form earlier, the earliest established date for a written form of the prayer is Niebuhr’s inclusion of it in a sermon in 1943, followed closely by its inclusion in a Federal Council of Churches (FCC) book for army chaplains and servicemen in 1944. Niebuhr himself did not publish the Serenity Prayer until 1951, in one of his magazine columns, although it had previously appeared under his name.

The prayer is cited both by Niebuhr and by Niebuhr’s daughter, Elisabeth Sifton. Sifton thought that he had first written it in 1943, although Niebuhr’s wife wrote in an unpublished memorandum that it had been written in 1941 or ’42, adding that it may have been used in prayers as early as 1934. Niebuhr himself was quoted in the January 1950 Grapevine as saying the prayer “may have been spooking around for years, even centuries, but I don’t think so. I honestly do believe that I wrote it myself.”

In his book Niebuhr recalls that his prayer was circulated by the FCC and later by the United States armed forces. Niebuhr’s versions of the prayer were always printed as a single prose sentence; printings that set out the prayer as three lines of verse modify the author’s original version.

The original, attributed to Niebuhr, is:

God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

An approximate version (apparently quoted from memory) appears in the “Queries and Answers” column in The New York Times Book Review, July 2, 1950, p. 23, which asks for the author of the quotation; and a reply in the same column in the issue for August 13, 1950, p. 19, where the quotation is attributed to Niebuhr and an unidentified printed text is quoted as follows:

O God and Heavenly Father,
Grant to us the serenity of mind to accept that which cannot be changed; courage to change that which can be changed, and wisdom to know the one from the other, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

The prayer became more widely known after being brought to the attention of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1941 by an early member.

The prayer has many precursors:

Epictetus wrote: “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens. Some things are up to us [eph' hêmin] and some things are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions — in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our own doing.”

The 8th-century Indian Buddhist scholar Shantideva of Nalanda University expressed a similar sentiment:

If there’s a remedy when trouble strikes,
What reason is there for dejection?
And if there is no help for it,
What use is there in being glum?

The 11th century Jewish philosopher Solomon ibn Gabirol wrote “And they said: At the head of all understanding — is realizing what is and what cannot be, and the consoling of what is not in our power to change.”

The philosopher W.W. Bartley juxtaposes without comment Niebuhr’s prayer with a Mother Goose rhyme (1695) expressing a similar sentiment:

For every ailment under the sun
There is a remedy, or there is none;
If there be one, try to find it;
If there be none, never mind it.

Friedrich Schiller advocated the first part in 1801:

„Wohl dem Menschen, wenn er gelernt hat, zu ertragen, was er nicht ändern kann, und preiszugeben mit Würde, was er nicht retten kann,” or “Blessed is he, who has learned to bear what he cannot change, and to give up with dignity, what he cannot save.”

The prayer has been variously but incorrectly attributed to, among others, Thomas Aquinas, Cicero, Augustine, Boethius, Marcus Aurelius, Francis of Assisi, Thomas More, and Friedrich Christoph Oetinger (1702–1782).


  1. Alrenous says:

    My favourite extension of Epictetus is that your actions are up to you, but the consequences of those actions are not.

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