Friday, July 11, 2008

Serenity Prayer Causing Agita

Our colleague Fred R. Shapiro is mentioned extensively in a front-page story in today's New York Times. The article is about the authorship of the famous Serenity Prayer, long attributed to the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Shapiro discusses the authorship of the prayer in a forthcoming article for the Yale Alumni Magazine; the magazine will be published next week, but is already available online.

Niebuhr and his wife, Ursula, dated the composition of the poem to the early 1940s, and their daughter dated it to a Sunday service in 1943. However, Shapiro, using databases of archival materials, "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...and are always, interestingly, by women." None of the quotations mentions Niebuhr. Shapiro's explanation is that Niebuhr "probably unconsciously adapted [the prayer] from something that he had heard or read.'" Elisabeth Sifton, Niebuhr's daughter, wrote a book about the Serenity Prayer in 2003, and has written a rebuttal to Shapiro that also appears in the July/August issue. Sifton says that the quotations upon which Shapiro relies are "merely evidence that her father's spellbinding preaching had had a broad impact."

It sounds as if Shapiro has stirred up a hornet's nest!

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