4 1934 notes toward Courage Serenity Prayer origin (?)

Stephen Goranson goranson at DUKE.EDU
Tue Nov 24 12:30:57 UTC 2009

The literature on this prayer is quite complex and contradictory (and I do not
attempt to review it fully here, and I may have read less of it than Fred
Shapiro; I await interlibrary loan items...), but, provisionally, in case it
helps the search, here are four items united by association with 1934.

1) Sewanee Review 1934 p. 398: "North or South, not all have 'serenity to accept
what cannot be helped.'" This is in the July-Sept issue (v. 42 no. 3) by June
Purcell Guild, of Richmond VA. Perhaps she encountered the prayer in early 1934?
I found this quote but have not found an earlier 7-word match (the last 6 words
are found earlier, as also 5 matching words + "changed").
That she put this in quotes suggests (though does not absolutely prove) that
she quotes a pre-existing text. This seven-word string is matched verbatim in
the 1936 and 1937 prayers. The 1936 and 1937 prayers (both with courage then
serenity sequence), except for Father/O God interchange and insight/the insight,
match verbatim for 25 consecutive words. There may be an ur-text, in a
relatively ephemeral publication, from which the 1934, 1936 and 1937
(socially-active) quoters quoted (in Syracuse NY [though formerly of Detroit,
as had been Niebuhr] and Southern California (?)), with oral variations later.

2) The prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr published in a 1934 book p. 145, found by
Garson O'Toole including "...learn how to accept what cannot be altered, with
patience." In the preface, the editor Morgan Phelps Noyes thanks Niebuhr for
giving him this (long) prayer and states that it (overlapping but not identical
with the more famous prayer)  has "not previously appeared in print." (Preface
p. ix, Prayers for Services.)

3) The quote by Mrs. Ursula Niebuhr, published by Fred in Yale Alumni Magazine
July/Aug '08, perhaps taken from RQ p. 184: "My husband may have used it in his
prayers by that time [i.e. 1934 [the date assigned it in Bartlett's
Quotations]], but it certainly was not then in circulation." The Niebuhr family
offered more than one proposed date.

4) According to Tree of renewed life: spiritual renewal of the church through
the twelve-step program. (1992) By Terry Webb, p. 757 note 35: "In a
conversation with Seith Kastern, research librarian at Union Theological
Seminary in November 1989. Dr. Niebuhr took credit for the original authorship
of the Serenity Prayer (the first part of the prayer) [N.B.: the second line in
the now earliest known complete versions, 1936 and 1937] in a letter to...1964
and to...(in the first letter the date of the prayer was 1934; in the second,
1938)....Dr. Niebuhr came to question his own
authorship...in 1970."


Page 29: "Seith Kastern...refutes any claim that Dr. Niebuhr wrote the longer
version of the Serenity Prayer attributed to him." {note 35]

But evidence that Niebuhr was likely the author apparently has increased, e.g.,
with the 1937 attribution to him. (Possible alternatives include, but are not
limited to, multiple cumulative authors [including Niebuhr?], or an unknown,
forgotten author who happened to write so much like Niebuhr that various folk,
including Niebuhr, attributed it to Niebuhr.) Perhaps we will eventually find
an early 1934 printed text of the complete prayer.

Stephen Goranson

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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