Serenity Prayer in Yale Alumni Magazine (UNCLASSIFIED)

Mullins, Bill AMRDEC Bill.Mullins at US.ARMY.MIL
Mon Jul 14 22:00:19 UTC 2008

Classification:  UNCLASSIFIED
Caveats: NONE

One other issue, which Sifton dances around, that works against Niebuhr
as the author is the problem of documentation of sources of anecdotes
within the oral tradition of churches.  Sifton alludes to this as
possibly supporting the idea that her father originated the prayer, and
others disseminated it from his original thinking.  I think it is as
least as likely that her father heard it from somewhere else, and used
it in his sermons and messages.

We've all been the recipients of emails copying from a church bulletin
or sermon or some other church-related source in which an anecdote is
retold as original, or from source unknown, but in fact it can be
clearly shown to have a specific origin which is not acknowledged. is full of these sorts of retold stories.   The linked
article in Time Magazine refers to this tradition, and gives some

There is probably a doctoral dissertation out there waiting to be
written on the subject, using as specific supporting evidence the fact
that not only Martin Luther King Jr but also Jesse Jackson (who grew out
of such a tradition) had problems with plagiarization in their academic

> -----Original Message-----
> From: American Dialect Society
> [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf Of Baker, John
> Sent: Sunday, July 13, 2008 5:01 PM
> Subject: Re: Serenity Prayer in Yale Alumni Magazine
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
> -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       "Baker, John" <JMB at STRADLEY.COM>
> Subject:      Re: Serenity Prayer in Yale Alumni Magazine
> --------------------------------------------------------------
> -----------------
>         As I read her response, Elisabeth Sifton essentially makes two
> arguments:
>         1.      That the Serenity Prayer is essentially oral in its
> presentation and circulation, and therefore written sources
> are a less than ideal guide to its provenance.  While this is
> true, it's also true that written sources are what we have to
> work with.  The only alternative would be human memory, and
> the known principal participants are all dead.  In any case,
> memory has been shown to be an extremely unreliable guide
> even when we do not have to look back over a period of more
> than 70 years.  Fred's research is no different from other
> cases where we use historical sources to attempt to divine
> the origin of a predominantly oral word or phrase.  Because
> Fred has done so much work in this area, Sifton is simply
> wrong to suggest that it differs from the traditions with
> which he is more familiar.
>         2.      That the Serenity Prayer is novel and
> profound, it must
> have come from one of the tradition's most gifted
> practitioners, it is consistent with Niebuhr's thinking, and
> it is inconsistent with the thinking of most other prominent
> clergymen at the time.  While Fred is, I think, wrong to say
> that the prayer's formula is not intellectually
> sophisticated, Sifton does not convince me that its novelty
> and profundity require that it came from Niebuhr or someone
> equally gifted and successful in the field.  There must have
> been hundreds, probably thousands, of people who had the
> background and were in the position to compose the prayer and
> to use it publicly in a context where others would pass it
> on.  There are any number of "one-hit wonders," where an
> author produces a work of brilliance that he is never able to
> duplicate, and that seems even more likely when the work is
> only one sentence long.
>         I don't think that there is sufficient evidence at
> present to say that Niebuhr did or did not compose the
> Serenity Prayer.  The evidence supporting a composition in
> the early 1940s, as previously held by Sifton, has now been
> shown to be overthrown.  Still, Fred himself presented
> evidence linking the Serenity Prayer with Niebuhr by 1942,
> which is not very long after 1936, the earliest documented example.
> What does seem clear is that, whether or not he wrote it,
> Niebuhr was a factor in the prayer's dissemination.
>         I think it's also significant that the early
> citations are all to women, none of whom were clergymen but
> many of whom (and especially the earliest) were associated
> with eleemosynary or educational institutions.  Consider
> these datings:
>                 1936            Syracuse YWCA executive secretary
>                 1938            superintendent of the
> Newington Home for
> Crippled Children
>                 1939            home counselor of Oklahoma
> City's public
> schools
>                 1940            Middlesex, Mass. women's club
> (speaker's
> status unspecified)
>                 1941            book with two female authors
>                 1941            Texas state home demonstration agent
>                 1941            visiting professor at
> Pennsylvania State
> College
>         So seven out of seven of the early citations came from women.
> For this period, that's not typical.  None of these refer in
> any way to a clergyman.  These considerations argue against
> (though they certainly do not disprove) an origin with
> Niebuhr or any other clergyman; they argue so strongly
> against propagation through a conventional church sermon that
> I think that vector all but disproved.  The initial
> propagation, if not necessarily the origin, must have come
> from some source to which a YWCA executive secretary, a
> superintendent of a home for crippled children, and a highly
> placed home counselor would have had access.  Plausible
> candidates include some sort of conference, specialized
> publication, or traveling speaker.
>         Fred has my permission to use any part of this that
> he sees fit.
> John Baker
> -----Original Message-----
> From: American Dialect Society
> [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf Of Shapiro, Fred
> Sent: Saturday, July 12, 2008 9:42 AM
> Subject: Serenity Prayer in Yale Alumni Magazine
> I apologize if I don't answer all of the "Serenity Prayer"
> postings on this list, but right now I'm at a conference in
> Portland, Oregon with
> limited access to e-mail.   The Yale Alumni Magazine has posted my
> article about the SP and the response to it by Reinhold Niebuhr's
> daughter:
> #neweviden
> ce
> This presents my position much more fully and carefully than
> the New York Times article or the Reuters article.  I would
> be interested in any feedback from members of this list as to
> how compelling or not compelling my arguments are and
> Elizabeth Sifton's arguments are.  Such feedback will help me
> in answering any future press inquiries.
> ADS-Lers will see that the research techniques I use in
> addressing the Serenity Prayer origins are the same that I
> and others on this list have used in researching word origins.
> Fred Shapiro
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society -
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