Serenity Prayer

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The Serenity Prayer is the common name for an originally untitled prayer by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr[1] (1892–1971). It has been adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step programs.

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.

History and attributions[edit]

Reinhold Niebuhr[edit]

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.[2] The prayer is cited both by Niebuhr[3] and by Niebuhr's daughter, Elisabeth Sifton.[4] Sifton thought that he had first written it in 1943, although Niebuhr's wife wrote in an unpublished memorandum that it had been written in 1941 or '42, adding that it may have been used in prayers as early as 1934.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[5] 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."[6] In his book Niebuhr recalls that his prayer was circulated by the FCC and later by the United States armed forces.[7] 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.[8] The co-founder, William Griffith Wilson, and the staff liked the prayer and had it printed out in modified form and handed around. It has been part of Alcoholics Anonymous ever since, and has also been used in other twelve-step programs. Grapevine, The International Journal of Alcoholics Anonymous, identified Niebuhr as the author (January 1950, pp. 6–7), and the AA web site continues to identify Niebuhr as the author.[6]

In 2008, Yale Book of Quotations editor Fred R. Shapiro published evidence showing that versions of the Serenity Prayer[9] were in use as early as 1936, years before the first known attribution to Niebuhr.[2] Shapiro also mentions that all early recorded usages, in its various forms of circulation and improvisation, were from women typically involved in volunteer or educational activities.[10] In 2009, however, Duke researcher Stephen Goranson found a variant attributed to Niebuhr in a 1937 Christian student publication:

"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."

This form, requesting 'courage to change' before petitioning for serenity, matches the other earliest published forms found to date. The earliest, in 1936, mentions that during a speech, a Miss Mildred Pinkerton "quotes the prayer," as if to indicate it was already in a circulation known to the reporter, or that Pinkerton relayed it as a quote. The 1938 version contains the same order, albeit in a flowing, slightly improvised fashion.[10] Shapiro does not regard the new discovery as conclusively settling the question, but will list the Serenity Prayer under Niebuhr’s name in the next edition of the Yale Book of Quotations.[11]


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."[12]

The 8th-century Indian Buddhist scholar Shantideva of the ancient Nalanda University expressed a similar sentiment:[13]

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."[14]

The philosopher W.W. Bartley juxtaposes without comment Niebuhr's prayer with a Mother Goose rhyme (1695) expressing a similar sentiment:[15]

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,"[16] or "Blessed is he, who has learned to bear what he cannot change, and to give up with dignity, what he cannot save."

Spurious claims[edit]

The prayer has been variously but incorrectly attributed to, among others, Thomas Aquinas, Cicero, Augustine, Boethius, Marcus Aurelius,[17] Francis of Assisi,[18] Thomas More, and Friedrich Christoph Oetinger.

The attribution to Friedrich Christoph Oetinger comes from a plagiarism of the prayer by Theodor Wilhelm, a professor of education at the University of Kiel. Wilhelm published a German version of the prayer in his Wendepunkt der poltitischen Erziehung (1951) under the pseudonym "Friedrich Oetinger". This version of the prayer and the attribution to the 18th-century philosopher Oetinger became popular in West Germany.[19]

Cultural use[edit]

In music:

In books:

In movies:

  • Doyle Gipson (played by [Samuel L. Jackson]), a recovering alcoholic, quotes the first line of the prayer in the 2002 film Changing Lanes, with the aim of conveying the exasperation and sorrow over the unfortunate events that seem to plague not only that particular day, but his life up to that point.
  • William "Whip" Whitaker (played by [Denzel Washington]), a recovering alcoholic and drug user, has a copy of the prayer at the end of the 2012 film Flight.
  • The prayer is referenced by the psychiatrist in the 2010 film It's Kind of a Funny Story.[22]

Recovery use[edit]

The serenity prayer was adapted for group settings in the recovery networks, such as Narcotics Anonymous (NA), as well as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).[23] The original text for this adapted prayer was: ″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.″ A slightly different version of the prayer has been adopted by 12 Step Groups: ″God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.″


  1. ^ See, e.g., Justin Kaplan, ed., Bartlett's Familiar Quotations 735 (17th ed. 2002) (attributing the prayer to Niebuhr in 1943)
  2. ^ a b Fred R. Shapiro, Who Wrote the Serenity Prayer, Yale Alumni Magazine (July/August 2008).
  3. ^ The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Addresses, Reinhold Niebuhr, edited by Robert McAfee Brown, page 251, Yale University Press; New Ed edition (September 10, 1987)
  4. ^ The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War, Elisabeth Sifton, page 277, W. W. Norton & Company (January 30, 2005)
  5. ^ The Grapevine. "The Serenity Prayer", The International Journal of Alcoholics Anonymous, January 1950.
  6. ^ a b The Origin of our Serenity Prayer, AA History & Trivia (visited July 14, 2008).
  7. ^ "The Serenity Prayer, by Reinhold Niebuhr. Complete, Unabridged, Original Version. God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed ... , Inspirational, Motivational, Spiritual, Religious Prose, Poems, Prayers. Inspiration, Spirituality and Alternative Healing Articles, Alternative Medicine, Health, Internet Resources, SKDesigns". Retrieved 2013-03-14. 
  8. ^ "Stalking the Wild Serenity Prayer", Appendix B in: Wing, Nell. Grateful to Have Been There: My 42 Years with Bill and Lois, and the Evolution of Alcoholics Anonymous. p. 167. ISBN 1-56838-064-X. 
  9. ^ The Serenity Meme, Language Log (visited July 14, 2008) (contrasting various early versions of the Serenity Prayer).
  10. ^ a b Fred R. Shapiro, New Evidence, Yale Alumni Magazine (July/August 2008).
  11. ^ Fred R. Shapiro, You Can Quote Them, Yale Alumni Magazine (January/February 2010).
  12. ^ Epictetus (1983) Handbook of Epictetus. Trans. Nicholas White. Indianapolis: Hackett. Section 1.1
  13. ^ Shantideva, Padmakara Translation Group, "The Way of the Bodhisattva", p. 130, Shambhala Publications, (October 14, 2008)
  14. ^ 'Choice of Emeralds' (Chapter 17 'Conciousness' 2nd verse)
  15. ^ W.W. Bartley, The Retreat to Commitment, p. 35, Open Court Publishing Company; New Ed edition (April 1990) (first edition 1962)
  16. ^ Schiller, Über das Erhabene (Essay)
  17. ^ Zaleski, Philip and Carol, Prayer: A History, p. 127, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006
  18. ^ "Alexander Dubcek – Introduzione". Retrieved 2013-03-14. 
  19. ^ Sifton, p. 343ff
  20. ^ "Oldie Lyrics". Retrieved 28 December 2012. 
  21. ^ Jackson, Ex, Curtis, Kris (2005). From Pieces to Weight: Once Upon a Time in Southside, Queens. New York, New York: Simon & Schuster, Pocket Books. ISBN 1-4165-2178-X. 
  22. ^
  23. ^

Further reading[edit]

"Transcending and Transforming the World," in Niebuhr, Reinhold (1927). Does Civilization Need Religion? A Study in the Social Resources and Limitations of Religion in Modern Life.  See especially pages 179–81.

External links[edit]