Serenity Prayer

The Origin of Our Serenity Prayer

As published in August/September 1992 BOX-459

(Reprinted with permission)

For many years, long after the Serenity Prayer became attached to the very fabric of the Fellowship's life and thought, its exact origin, its actual author, have played a tantalizing game of hide and seek with researchers, both in and out of A.A. The facts of how it came to be used by A.A. a half century ago are much easier to pinpoint.

Early in 1942, writes Bill W., in A.A. Comes of Age, a New York member, Jack, brought to everyone's attention a caption in a routine New York Herald Tribune obituary that read:

"God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change,
courage to change the things we can,
and wisdom to know the difference."

Everyone in A.A.'s burgeoning office on Manhattan's Vesey Street was struck by the power and wisdom contained in the prayer's thoughts. "Never had we seen so much A.A. in so few words," Bill writes. Someone suggested that the prayer be printed on a small, wallet-sized card, to be included in every piece of outgoing mail.

Ruth Hock, the Fellowship's first (and nonalcoholic) secretary, contacted Henry S., a Washington D.C. member, and a professional printer, asking him what it would cost to order a bulk printing. Henry's enthusiastic response was to print 500 copies of the prayer, with the remark: "Incidentally, I am only a heel when I'm drunk. . .so naturally, there could be no charge for anything of this nature."

"With amazing speed," writes Bill, "the Serenity Prayer came into general use and took its place alongside our two other favorites, the Lord's Prayer and the Prayer of St. Francis."

Thus did the "accidental" noticing of an unattributed prayer, printed alongside a simple obituary of an unknown individual, open the way toward the prayer's daily use by thousands upon thousands of A.A.s worldwide?

But despite years of research by numerous individuals, the exact origin of the prayer is shrouded in overlays of history, even mystery.

Moreover, every time a researcher appears to uncover the definitive source, Another one crops up to refute the former's claim, at the same time that it raises new, intriguing facts. What is undisputed is the claim of authorship by the theologian Dr. Rheinhold Niebuhr, who recounted to interviewers on several occasions that he had written the prayer as a "tag line" to a sermon he had delivered on Practical Christianity. Yet even Dr. Niebuhr added at least a touch of doubt to his claim, when he told one interviewer, "Of course, it may have been spooking around for years, even centuries, but I don't think so. I honestly do believe that I wrote it myself."

Early in World War II, with Dr. Niebuhr's permission, the prayer was printed on cards and distributed to the troops by the U.S.O. By then, the National Council of Churches, as well as Alcoholics Anonymous had also reprinted it.

Dr. Niebuhr was quite accurate in suggesting that the prayer may have been "spooking around" for centuries. "No one can tell for sure who first wrote the Serenity Prayer," writes Bill in A.A. Comes of Age. "Some say it came from the early Greeks; others think it was from the pen of an anonymous English poet; still others claim it was written by an American Naval officer...." Other attributions have gone as far afield as ancient Sanskrit texts, Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas and Spinoza. One A.A. member came across the Roman philosopher Cicero's Six Mistakes of Man, one of which reads: "The tendency to worry about things that cannot be changed or corrected."

No one has actually found the prayer's text among the writings of these alleged, original sources. What are probably truly ancient, as with the above quote from Cicero, are the prayer's themes of acceptance, courage to change what can be changed and the free letting go of what is out of one's ability to change.

The search for pinpointing origins of the prayer has been like the peeling of an onion. For example, in July 1964, the A.A. Grapevine received a clipping of an article that had appeared in the Paris Herald Tribune, by the paper's correspondent in Koblenz, then in West Germany. "In a rather dreary hall of a converted hotel, overlooking the Rhine at Koblenz," the correspondent wrote, is a tablet inscribed with the following words:

"God give me the detachment to accept those things I cannot alter;
the courage to alter those things I can alter;
and the wisdom to distinguish the one thing from the other."

These words were attributed, the correspondent wrote, to an 18th century pietist, Friedrich Oetinger (1702-1782). Moreover, the plaque was affixed to a wall in a hall where modern day troops and company commanders of the new German army were trained "in the principles of management and . . . behavior of the soldier citizen in a democratic state."

Here, at last, thought A.A. researchers, was concrete evidence-quote, author, and date-of the Serenity Prayer's original source. That conviction went unchallenged for fifteen years. Then in 1979 came material, shared with G.S.O.'s Beth K., by Peter T., of Berlin. Peter's research threw the authenticity of 18th century authorship out the window. But it also added more tantalizing facts about the plaque's origin.

"The first form of the prayer," Beth wrote back, originated with Boethius, the Roman philosopher (480-524 A.D.), and author of the book, Consolations of Philosophy. The prayer's thoughts were used from then on by "religious-like people who had to suffer first by the English, later the Prussian puritans, then the Pietists from southwest Germany . . . then A.A.s . . . and through them, the West Germans after the Second World War."

Moreover, Beth continued, after the war, a north German University professor, Dr. Theodor Wilhelm, who had started a revival of spiritual life in West Germany, had acquired the "little prayer" from Canadian soldiers. He had written a book in which he had included the prayer, without attribution, but which resulted in the prayer's appearance in many different places, such as army officer's halls, schools and other institutions. The professor's nom de plume? Friedrich Oetinger, the 18th century pietist! Wilhelm had apparently selected the pseudonym Oetinger out of admiration of his south German forebears.

Back in 1957, another G.S.O. staff member, Anita R., browsing in a New York bookstore, came upon a beautifully bordered card, on which was printed:

"Almighty God, our Heavenly Father,
give us Serenity to accept what cannot be changed,
Courage to change what should be changed,
and Wisdom to know the one from the other;
through Jesus Christ, our Lord."

The card, which came from a bookshop in England, called it the "General's Prayer," dating it back to the fourteenth century! There are still other claims, and no doubt more unearthings will continue for years to come.

In any event, Mrs. Reinhold Niebuhr told an interviewer that her husband was definitely the prayer's author, that she had seen the piece of paper on which he had written it, and that her husband-now that there were numerous variations of wording -"used and preferred" the following form:

"God, give us 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."

While all of these searchings are intriguing, challenging, even mysterious, they pale in significance when compared to the fact that, for fifty years, the prayer has become so deeply imbedded into the heart and soul of A.A. thinking, living, as well as its philosophy, that one could almost believe that the prayer originated in the A.A. experience itself.

Bill made this very point years ago, in thanking an A.A. friend for the plaque upon which the prayer was inscribed: "In creating A.A., the Serenity Prayer has been a most valuable building block-indeed a corner-stone."

And speaking of cornerstones, and mysteries and "coincidences—the building where G.S.O. is now located borders on a stretch of New York City's 120th St., between Riverside Drive and Broadway (where the Union Theological Seminary is situated). It's called Reinhold Niebuhr Place.

(A long version of the Prayer)

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.

Living one day at a time;

enjoying one moment at a time;

accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;

Taking, as He did, this sinful world

as it is, not as I would have it:

Trusting that He will make all things

right if I surrender to His Will;

that I may be reasonably happy in this life

and supremely happy with Him forever in the next. Amen


A note from the correspondence of the Washington Group on the mystery that surrounds the origins of our little prayer The Serenity Prayer is one of the bits of our A.A. heritage that is truly anonymous.

Probably no one knows the true origin of the prayer, although it has periodically been attributed to any number of "authors." We may never discover the origin of the prayer, but it is of interest to know how it became a part of the A.A. way of life. An authoritative account of this has been provided in the correspondence files of the Washington Group.

In the spring of 1948 Henry S., a member of the Chevy Chase Group, set forth to write a history of the Washington Group. Whether he did or did not produce a history of the group is unknown. As a part of this project he contacted Margaret B., secretary for the Alcoholic Foundation, for any information she might have concerning the origins of the Washington Group. He also asked her if she had any information on the history of the Serenity Prayer.

Margaret replied:

"... I think the true story of the little serenity prayer would be interesting to everyone. I can only tell that, too, from my standpoint, but we've heard some very interesting data from all over the world. We first saw those few potent lines in the obit column of the Herald Tribune in June of 1941. It was addressed "To Mother," and signed, "Good bye, Your Son." We tried to dream of the story in back of it and came up with one which made a little sense. We thought perhaps it was put in the paper by a boy who was leaving home suddenly and wanted to get a message to his mother on some difference of opinion they had had. One of the members, Horace C., took the clipping from the papers and had 100 cards made up. Those of us who were there the night we first saw it, each got a card and I have my original one.

The balance Horace gave to Ruth H. to send out to the A.A.'s with whom she was corresponding. Not long ago, one of those original cards came in the mail to me here from a man in Japan, who said someone gave it to him while he was in the Army and he thought that Alcoholics Anonymous might be interested in the saying. Quite a few of these little cards have been returned to us from time to time, as "originating" elsewhere. Only last week, one of our members wrote and said that his young daughter had found this little prayer in her Catholic Sunday School book. We've also heard that it appears in an early Episcopal prayer book.

One of our members in New York says that he can trace it back to Aristotle. Someday, it might be fun to really find the background of this prayer, but I can give you its introduction into A.A. in the spring of 1941. The Washington Group was instrumental in a number of A.A. practices and the development of traditions. The 100 little cards mentioned in Margaret's letter were made possible by Henry S., whose family owned a printing business. This was the same Henry who in 1948 started to write the Washington Group history. There is also reason to believe that the Twelve Steps as we know them and the little cards that they are printed on were, in part, the product of Fitz M. and Henry S. of the Washington Group.