Arts & Culture

You can quote them

Yale law librarian Fred R. Shapiro is editor of the <i>Yale Book of Quotations</i>.
Photo illustration: John Paul Chirdon & Mary Banas

Photo illustration: John Paul Chirdon & Mary Banas

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At 11:26 a.m. on November 19, Stephen Goranson of the Duke University Library posted a message to the e-mail discussion list of the American Dialect Society. The posting was headed “Courage and Serenity Prayer news” and began, “As you may recall, this prayer is attested in publications from 1936 (found by Fred Shapiro).” He went on to cite an article he had found, by searching Google Books, from a November 1937 Christian student newsletter entitled The Intercollegian and Far Horizons. This article referred to “the prayer attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr: ‘Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.’”

Almost as soon as I’d read the posting, I knew this was an important discovery. In 2008 Laurie Goodstein, religion correspondent for the New York Times, had written a front-page story about my article on the prayer in the July/August issue of this magazine. In that article I discussed the variations of the Serenity Prayer I’d found in several publications, from all over the country, printed during the mid- to late ’30s—that is, several years before Niebuhr’s and his family’s estimates as to when he had composed the prayer. None of those publications mentioned Niebuhr ’14BDiv, ’15MA, who was a Union Theological Seminary professor and a preacher and writer with a national and international following. Based on these multiple unattributed uses, I thought it likely, though by no means certain, that Niebuhr had adapted the prayer unconsciously from earlier, unknown sources. Indeed, the great theologian had with typical humility conceded this possibility during his lifetime, though he always believed that he had written it.

Feeling that Goranson’s finding should be put prominently into the historical record and before the public, I e-mailed Goodstein immediately—11:49 that same morning. Goranson, as I told Goodstein, is an extraordinarily talented researcher. He is one of a number of people who use databases of historical texts, such as Google Books, Newspaperarchive, and ProQuest Historical Newspapers, to unearth earlier usages of words and quotations than previously known. Many of those researchers communicate their findings to the ADS-L discussion list, the Oxford English Dictionary staff, or to me for the Yale Book of Quotations. Goranson has made a succession of impressive breakthroughs, such as finding the earliest known occurrence of the phrase “whole nine yards,” and this exciting revelation adds to his achievements.

Previously, the earliest evidence linking Niebuhr to the prayer was a 1942 attribution to him in the New York Times, combined with a strong tradition that he had written it in 1943. Now we have someone in 1937 crediting the prayer to him. The discovery significantly strengthens the case for Reinhold Niebuhr and swings the balance of the evidence back toward him as the prayer’s most likely originator. I urged the Times to print a front-page story, as a matter of basic fairness, to give the new information the same status it had given to my original doubts. However, the Times ended up publishing an article on November 28, on page 11, with a short teaser on the front page.

That teaser actually overstated my position. It read: “A Yale librarian who cast doubt on the origins of the Serenity Prayer says new evidence has persuaded him that the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr is indeed the author.” In fact, I don’t regard the new discovery as conclusively settling the question. And still-earlier citations may yet emerge as more historical texts are digitized. But as I told the Times, barring further discoveries, I will list the Serenity Prayer under Niebuhr’s name in the next edition of the Yale Book of Quotations. 

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