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The Serenity Prayer by Elisabeth Sifton

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The Serenity Prayer is associated with Alcoholic’s Anonymous, but few know its origins, and it is sometimes misattributed as an medieval German prayer. In fact, it was composed in 1943 for a church service in Massachusetts by Reinhold Niebuhr, a German-American born in Missouri. It first appeared in print in the 1944 Book of Prayers and Services for the Armed Forces of the United States. As originally written, the Serenity Prayer was

God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

Over time, it is been changed into the first person, and is more commonly recited as

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.

Niebuhr was one of the best-know Protestant theologians of the 20th century, and this book serves partly as a biography and memoir of her father by his daughter, Elisabeth Sifton. Niebuhr was a liberal, indeed a long-time Socialist, a friend of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and an influence on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He traveled frequently to Germany during the interwar years, and hosted German theologian Paul Tillich in New York when Tillich went into exile during the Hitler years. Tillich served as an inverse Tokyo Rose during the war, broadcasting anti-Nazi propaganda in German which were transmitted to Germany by the U.S. War Department. Niebuhr was also close to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who remained in Germany, and was executed in the closing days of the Third Reich.

Niebuhr traveled to the Soviet Union in 1930, and returned an anti-Communist. He was also an early anti-Nazi, and broke with many friends who counseled pacifism during World War II, seeing in them a blind absolutist faith differing in content but not form from the right-wing fundamentalists who he also opposed. Niebuhr was one of the founders of the liberal Americans
for Democratic Action, but he was no naive liberal. According to his daughter,

When the fatuously optimistic Unitarian Reverend John Haynes Holmes opined in 1931 that Europe was “slowly but surely approaching the longed-for goal of harmony and peace,” a Niebuhr rebuke thundered back” “Let Liberal Churches Stop Fooling Themselves!”

Elisabeth Sifton writes with grace and wit, as befits someone who is a senior vice president at the publishing house of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. She relates that in his declining years

friends would send along ghastly samples of Serenity Prayer kitsch they’d encountered, for they knew the response would be disbelieving laughter, and they wanted to cheer Pa up when he was in his melancholic phase. Painted trays or crocheted hymn-book covers, say.

I’ve always thought that “less is more,” and the serenity prayer captures a great deal of wisdom in a few short phrases. It is moving to realize that Niebuhr wrote it at a dark time when many lives were in jeopardy and it was no easy task to be serene.

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