Where did “The Serenity Prayer” come from?

Used by Alcoholics Anonymous and a very often printed on plaques and cards, the Serenity Prayer is part of our religious cultural fabric, but where did it come from?

According to June Bingham, a biographer of Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), it was Niebuhr who first penned the prayer and spoke it in a small church in Heath, Massachusetts.

Niebuhr occasionally preached in the small church near the place where he had a summer home. After a service where he spoke the prayer, a man named Howard Chandler Robbins, a neighbor, asked for a copy. According to the story, Niebuhr handed Robbins the original saying, “Here, take the prayer. I have no further use for it.”

Those words do not sound likely but that’s how the story goes. Robbins later published the prayer as part of a pamphlet the following year. Since then it has been adopted as the motto of Alcoholics Anonymous; the U.S.O. distributed millions of copies to U.S. soldiers during World War II; the National Council of Churches reprinted the prayer; it’s re-printed today in many forms. It often has no attribution, but according to Bingham’s biography, Courage to Change, the attribution should go to Niebuhr.

O God, give us serenity to accept what cannot change, courage to change what should be changed, and wisdom to distinguish the one from the other. — Reinhold Niebuhr, 1934

The Chosen

Cover of "The Chosen"

Cover of The Chosen

Chaim Potok’s The Chosen is one of my favorite books. The story is about two teenagers growing up in WWII era New York City. The story is about two boys and their fathers who are from two different Jewish sects. The boys were taught to fear and demonize the other, until they meet on a softball field and one hurts the other in a way that brings them together and changes their lives forever.