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From the Chicago Tribune, Christmas Eve, 1989


Missourian's prayer gives
comfort to millions

By TOM LADWIG
M
any of us will, in the coming hours, be celebrating the birth of Jesus, the man who taught the world that people need not kill their enemies but can, instead, love one another, enemies included.
Peace and love seem synonymous with Christmas and I suspect my generation went with the dictionary definition of peace -- a cessation of fighting. But other meanings go beyond the obvious and refer to serenity, harmony and tranquility.

A Missourian, Reinhold Niebuhr, thought a great deal about love and the conflicts that stifle it. Somehow this resulted in a simple prayer for serenity that brings peace and comfort each year to millions worldwide. Author Robert Brown says this prayer, "in most extraordinary fashion, made its way into the religious folklore of our nation."

Niebuhr and his family often spent summer months in the tiny town of Heath, Mass. Niebuhr conducted the Sunday service in the Heath Evangelical Church, at least once each summer. In 1934, before the service, he jotted down the words:

    O God, give us
    Serenity to accept what cannot be changed,
    Courage to change what should be changed,
    And Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

Niebuhr was a theologian, ethicist and political philosopher. Political scientist Hans Morgenthau called him the greatest living political
philosopher of the United States. He was a close fiend of George
Kennan, Hubert Humphrey, Eleanor Roosevelt and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

He was the son of a German immigrant father and a second generation German-American mother. He was born in Wright City in1892. His father was a pastor in the Evangelical Synod, the offspring of the predominately Lutheran Prussian Union Church

At 10, Niehbur decided to become a minister because his father was the most interesting man in town. After studies in denominational schools, he entered the Yale Divinity School and earned his bachelor's and master's degrees.

He became pastor of a church in Detroit with a membership of 65 souls. The Bethel Church congregation grew to 650 and reflected a broad spectrum of the US. population, including automobile workers, two milliionaires and black families.

This was just before World War 1, and Niebuhr dealt with the growing problems of the urban United States. He became chairman of the Detroit Mayor's Race Committee.

In 1928, he joined the faculty of Union Theological Seminary in New York and also taught at Columbia University. He spoke out on many subjects, including labor unions, tentant farming, pacificism and liberal and left-wing causes

He wrote at least seven books, including "Moral Man and Immoral Society." The Encyclopedia of Religion called it "an epoch-making contribution to social ethics" and said the book established Niebuhr asa major thinker.

But, of the many books written by and about him, only two refer to the brief prayer that soon became known as
"The Serenity Prayer" and developed a life of its own, independent of its author.

June Bingham in her book "Courage to Change," said a summer neighbor, following the church service in Heath, asked for a copy of the prayer. She quotes Niebuhr as saying, "Take it, I have no further use for it." But others did.

Robbins published it as part of a pamphlet. The USO distributed millions of copies to servicemen during World War II, and the National Council of Churches reprinted it.
Alcoholics Anonymous adopted it as its motto. For years, it has been commercially reproduced in many forms of greeting cards.

This wide use doesn't seem to dilute its effectiveness as a tool for individual serenity and peace.

Pared down in the popular version it became:

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.

Try it. It works on little problems. And on big problems.

*********************

But according to Mathew J. Raphael, the pseudonimous author of Bill W.and Mr. Wilson, (University of Massachesetts Press, 2000) Niebuhr is erroneously credited with writing The Serenity Prayer. Raphael cites a Niebuhr 1943 version, and says it seems to put more stress on the possibility of change, especially of things beyond the self:

"God, grant 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."

The origin of this prayer antedates Niebuhr, who himself attributed it to the German philosopher Friedrich Christoph Oetinger (1702-82). Both the German and English versions are quoted in philosopher Sidney Hook's autobiography; Out of Step: An Unquiet Life in the 2Oth Century (New York: Harper and Row, 1987).

According to
Pass It On, the prayer may go back to Boethius in 500 A. D. , says Raphael.