The flurry of comparisons between President Obama’s Nobel Peace Price speech and Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian Realist theology reminded me of a debate over whether Niebuhr is the author of the “Serenity Prayer,” which has long been attributed to him. Last year, Yale law librarian Fred Shapiro produced evidence that the prayer pre-dated 1943, when Niebuhr was said to have composed it. Several weeks ago, the New York Times reported that Duke University librarian Stephen Goranson has uncovered a 1937 Christian student newsletter that attributes the prayer to Niebuhr, thus strengthening the case for Niebuhr’s authorship.
For me, the differences between the earlier and now classic versions of the prayer are even more intriguing than the authorship debate itself. In the familiar, classic version, the supplicant prays: “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.”
The 1937 version is a little different: “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.”
To my ear, the 1937 version sounds a lot more like Niebuhr. Niebuhr’s thought tended toward dichotomies and tensions. He argued that anxiety tempts us toward sin, but that it is not inherently sinful and is the fount of our creativity. The 1937 prayer, with its initial emphasis on courage and change, and request for serenity (a very un-Niebuhrian word and concept) only with respect to “what cannot be helped” seems Niebuhrian to me; the classic version, with its tone of placid acceptance, doesn’t.
Based on no evidence whatsoever, I would even speculate that Niebuhr’s earlier prayer (assuming he was indeed the originator) was shaped into its final form by others, not Niebuhr himself. Is it appropriate to do this, to alter and reuse a prayer penned by someone else? I think it is. Like hymns, prayers are part of our communal worship. We may argue about whether the changes are appropriate—changes to increase gender neutrality, for instance, or to remove references that seem theologically dubious or specific to a different era. But this back and forth is part of participation in Christian community.
This isn’t an argument against identifying the original author. I think we should recognize Niebuhr or whoever the author was, just as we recognize Charles Wesley or John Newton as the author of their hymns. But prayers and hymns are a gift to the Christian community, to be adapted and adjusted by the community as part of our life together.