Fighting Over Serenity

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This is too ironic to overlook. You’re no doubt familiar with this:

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.

Take a breath.

For more than 70 years, the composer of the prayer was thought to be the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, one of modern Christianity’s towering figures. Niebuhr, who died in 1971, said he was quite sure he had written it, and his wife, Ursula, also a prominent theologian, dated its composition to the early 1940s.

His daughter Elisabeth Sifton, a book editor and publisher, wrote a book about the prayer in 2003 in which she described her father first using it in 1943 in an “ordinary Sunday service” at a church in the bucolic Massachusetts town of Heath, where the Niebuhr family spent summers.

…Now [Fred R. Shapiro], a law librarian at Yale, using new databases of archival documents, has found newspaper clippings and a book from as far back as 1936 that quote close versions of the prayer. The quotations are from civic leaders all over the United States — a Y.W.C.A. leader in Syracuse, a public school counselor in Oklahoma City — and are always, interestingly, by women.

…Ms. Sifton faults Mr. Shapiro’s approach as computer-driven and deprived of historical and theological context. In an interview, she said her father traveled widely in the 1930s, preaching in college chapels and to church groups — especially Y.M.C.A.’s and Y.W.C.A.’s — and could have used the prayer then. She said she fixed the date of its composition to 1943 in her book, “The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War” (W. W. Norton, 2003), because she had relied on her parents’ recollections.

It’s not Life of Brian yet, not by a long shot. But it is interesting to see the seeds before they sprout. So which side are you on? Huh? Huh?

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