The Complete History of the Serenity Prayer
August 3, 2017 - News & Articles - 0 Comments
The Serenity Prayer is a prayer that has become common knowledge through its use by Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs, as well as in popular media. Today, the prayer is utilized as a catch-all saying, but is heavily used by 12-step and other recovery groups to incentivize personal responsibility and calm in the face of adversity. The modern version is attributed to the American theologist, Reinhold Neibuhr, but it is possibly based on a series of sayings dating back to ancient times.
The Serenity Prayer
Most people are familiar with the common form of the prayer, which reads as follows:
“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..”
While the most popular version of the prayer, it is a truncation of Niebuhr’s original.
The Origin of the Prayer
The earliest written reference to the Serenity prayer dates to 1932 in a diary entry by Winnifred Crane Wygal. Wygal was then a pupil of Niebuhr, and quoted the prayer in a personal diary, attributing it to the theologist. Wygal was then responsible for several versions of the prayer which appeared in newspapers, as well as a prayer book which was published in 1940 referencing the prayer. These references are often the simplest, and the closest to the current version of the prayer.
It is believed that Neibuhr first wrote the Serenity prayer as part of a sermon, which he then used at the Heath Evangelical Union Church in Massachusetts. He continued to use it in sermons from 1934, where it spread to Alcoholics Anonymous and was quickly adopted by the group. By 1936, the Serenity Prayer was well-circulated enough that it was referenced as-if common knowledge in literature of the time. By 1944, the Federal Council of Churches printed the prayer in a prayer book issues to army chaplains and the USO circulated the prayer on printed cards to soldiers during WW2.
In 1951, Neibuhr published a printed version of the Serenity Prayer, including the first written mention of the word ‘grace’ in the poem.
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.
This longer version of the prayer is no longer used, but did appear in various forms throughout history. Niebuhr himself never used a 3-couplet version of the poem. Instead, these primarily stem from Wygal’s interpretations, which are much shorter and typically just 3 lines long.
Other versions of the 3-line prayer are typically the first 3 or 4 lines of the Prayer.
Use by Alcoholics Anonymous
Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step groups have made use of the Serenity Prayer since at least 1941. While the original introduction of the prayer is not recorded, the official AA version is that a new member of the AA brought the prayer to the attention of William Griffith Wilson, co-founder of AA. Wilson, popularly known as Bill W., liked the prayer so much that he had it printed and distributed during meetings.
The original text of the Serenity Prayer distributed was as follows:
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.
Today, most 12-step groups use the common version of the prayer. In most cases, the prayer is used to invoke a sense of detachment, that things that stress you are not immediately pressing or important, and that it is important to step back and recognize what can and cannot be changed. Because many addicts often have difficulty coping with stress and difficulty, the prayer has remained relevant and in service in AA for over 80 years.
While the current version of the Serenity Prayer was proven to have been written by Niebuhr, there are a variety of much older prayers or sayings that reflect a similar meaning. Niebuhr may have been consciously or unconsciously inspired by any of them when writing, or may have written his own independently of any inspiration.
The oldest dates to the 1st century, to Epictetus, a Greek Stoic philosopher. Born a slave, Epictetus was taught that philosophy was a way of life, and he lived according to his guidelines of accepting whatever happened while remaining responsible for what happens. His writings are filled with many similar quotes:
“Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to, but instead want them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well.”
And famously, The Handbook of Epictetus opens with the following lines:
Some things are up to us and some 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 things that are up to us are by nature free, unhindered, and unimpeded; the things that are not up to us are weak, enslaved, hindered, not our own.
In the 8th century, a Buddhist monk, Shantideva, wrote another line similar in spirit to the Serenity Prayer. Shantideva was especially disliked in his monastery, often being described as lazy. To atone for his sins, Shantideva was asked to speak before the entire monastery. He delivered, creating a work that is still used today, the Bodhicaryavatara. In it, he says:
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
While it is apparent that Reinhold Neibuhr wrote the current version of the Serenity Prayer, it is often heartening to many who use it that similar concepts have been voiced, and often, in other cultures. In fact, while our earliest version of a quote with a similar spirit dates to ancient Greece, we have no earlier records to prove that Epictetus was in fact the first to voice these ideas.
Whether you attend AA, another form of 12-step, or have come across the prayer in another way, you now know the complete history.
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