History of the Serenity Prayer


Today’s daily reflection offers some reflections on the Serenity Prayer. The Serenity Prayer and Alcoholics Anonymous have become deeply linked to one another, I could write a long history of the prayer’s history within A.A., but that’s for another time. Instead, today I’m taking a quick look at the history of the prayer itself.

Contrary to popular belief within the fellowship and the general public, the prayer did not originate in A.A. and pre-dates it with the earliest reference found in 1932. But just where did the prayer originate from? It’s been hotly contested in the past few decades, with declarations and retractions all the same as new information has been discovered. In this video clip, Fred Shapiro, associate director for collections and access at the Yale Law Library and the editor of The New Yale Book of Quotations, takes a look at the history of the prayer.


Shapiro has been doggedly researching the origin of the prayer for over twenty years, and he still isn’t absolutely convinced about its origin. Most of the early publications of the prayer appear to originate from Winnifred Crane Wygal in her work for the YWCA. However, in her own 1940 book, We Plan Our Own Worship Services, Wygal included the prayer and attributed it to the famous American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr whom she studied under. In a 2014 article for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Shapiro reported his original research finding the earliest reference to the prayer in one of Wygal’s diary entries of October 31, 1932. Portions of the prayer are there and attributed to “RN” or Reinhold Niebuhr. So, it remains unclear who created the prayer. While it may well have been Niebuhr, all of the earliest documented attributions of it are Wygal’s with inspiration from Niebuhr. Is this the case of a student merely publishing the works of her teacher or a chauvinistic society where it was not allowed to be her own? We may never know.

Speaking of students chronicling the thoughts and words of their teachers, we can explore the concepts of the Serenity Prayer deeper with Epictetus. The core message of the prayer, acceptance, resonates throughout early thought and philosophy. Epictetus is the name history gave this philosopher, a name which loosely translates to “slave.” His only works which survive are not his own but those of his student, Arrian, who dutifully took them down. In his book, The Enchiridion (commonly referred to now by the title’s translation, The Manual) which originates around 125 A.D., Epictetus said,

Some things are under our control, while others are not under our control. Under our control are conception, choice, desire, aversion, and, in a word, everything that is our own doing; not under our control are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, everything that is not our own doing. Furthermore, the things under our control are by nature free, unhindered, and unimpeded; while the things not under our control are weak, servile, subject to hindrance, and not our own. Remember, therefore, that if what is naturally slavish you think to be free, and what is not your own to be your own, you will be hampered, will grieve, will be in turmoil, and will blame both gods and men; while if you think only what is your own to be your own, and what is not your own to be, as it really is, not your own, then no one will ever be able to exert compulsion upon you, no one will hinder you, you will blame no one, will find fault with no one, will do absolutely nothing against your will, you will have no personal enemy, no one will harm you, for neither is there any harm that can touch you.

Clearly, Epictetus was speaking to the heart of the prayer here with his references to things that are under our control and things that are not. We can go even further back, some six centuries, to the Tao Te Ching. Its author, popularly referred to as Lao Tzu, wrote in its 9th Chapter:

Rather than pour into a cup overflowed, It is better to stop it.
To hammer and to sharpen, it won’t take long to be broken.
Brimming a hall with riches, one shall not be able to keep it.
The man arrogant from enormous wealth buries disaster upon his road.
Resigning after succeeding fits with the principle of the universe.

So, here too, we have a reference to acceptance and the serenity (“principle of the universe”) it provides. Clearly, no matter who wrote the Serenity Prayer, the concept is an ancient one and one we would do well to remember. There’s no denying the impact the Serenity Prayer has had on our fellowship and why it is written on every anniversary coin; it has a powerful yet simple message, ready for us to turn to in any time of reflection or need.


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