The Serenity Prayer is perhaps the most famous prayer in the world and the cornerstone of A.A. Almost everyone has heard it or read it:
God grant me the serenity to
Accept the things I cannot change
The courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference
The prayer is sometimes attributed to St. Anthony or is said to have its origins with the Greek Stoics.
Actually, it was written in 1943 as a kind of sermon note by Reinhold Niebuhr, perhaps the most famous theologian in the United States. Back then Niebuhr was a professor at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He continued to be very influential in the years between WW I and WWII and in the struggle for social justice for labor, for blacks, for Jews.
He actively struggled to rouse an isolationist nation to take up war against Hitler and Mussolini.
This is the prayer as originally written by Niebuhr:
God grant us the grace to
Accept with serenity that which we cannot change
The courage to change what should be changed
And the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other
Elizabeth Sifton, the daughter of Niebuhr and a prominent book editor and publisher, wrote a wonderful book about her father, The Serenity Prayer (Norton, 2003) where she traces the origins of the influences that shaped the prayer., The story begins with the Deportation in Bisbee, Arizona
Two of Niebuhr’s great friends were an Episcopal priest, Will Scarlett, and Felix Frankfurter, a Supreme Court justice. But in 1917 Frankfurter was a young law graduate and he was sent to Bisbee by President Wilson after the Deportation to sort out the many different claims between the mine owners and managers and the strikers. Scarlett was an Episcopal priest in Phoenix.
Bisbee in the fall months after the July Deportation was still hot with threatened violence. Frankfurter was allegedly visited in his rail car by Bisbee deputy Frank Johnson who called Frankfurter a “Jewish son-of-a-bitch” and ordered him to get out of town.
Will Scarlett was practically the only prominent Arizona clergyman on the side of labor and the Dean of Trinity Cathedral in Phoenix. Jack Greenway was in his congregation. One day, on visiting his Bishop, he was told that James S. “Rawhide Jimmy” Douglas was just in the Bishop’s office demanding that the Bishop throw Scarlett out of the church or “they [the mining bosses] will sue them.” James S. Douglas was Walter Douglas’s brother. Both were sons of Dr. James Douglas the founder of the Copper Queen Mine. Scarlett was later to become an Episcopal Bishop but not in Arizona.
(The colorful details of the last two paragraphs were taken from James Byrkit’s book, Forging the Copper Collar, perhaps the best book on this famous strike and how it deformed Arizona politics for quite some time.)
Back then, both Scarlett and Frankfurter stood up to the copper owners, and Frankfurter’s report calmly found that Phelps Dodge and its president Walter Douglas, local law enforcement and hired thugs were the cause of violence, not the strikers. This despite the fact that many prominent progressives like Teddy Roosevelt supported the mining companies and the Deportation.
It was this seminal episode during WWI that Elizabeth Sifton sees as the beginnings of a coalition of friends and associates convinced of the powerful forces opposed to social justice in the United States and the need for a realistic and tough social philosophy to combat those forces, one that stresses a strong role for government to intervene on the side of the weak and the powerless.
Frankfurter, Will Scarlett, Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, other church leaders, and prominent labor and social activists joined together in cause after cause, supporting each other and standing as a small but courageous minority against the complacency, the racism, the anti-union feelings, and other injustices in the United States during much of the early and middle of the twentieth century. In the summers and over the years, many of this small group gathered in Heath, Massachusetts to vacation and visit and plan.
Sifton says in her book that Niebuhr generously allowed A.A. to publish its version of the Serenity Prayer without attribution but he was clearly unhappy with its individualist spirituality and its overly inward focus.
Today, we need to remember not just the history of the prayer and its origins in episodes like Bisbee’s Deportation. We also need to remember that the original Niebuhr’s Prayer is perennially current, the best text to understand why one of our two great parties is hard at work dismantling some of the most important achievements of the New Deal and the Great Society, from Medicare and Social Security to the environmental and public health legislation of the 1960s and early 1970s.
The Serenity Prayer warns us to accept the bleak fact that injustice is written in the human heart and that the battle for social justice will never be over. And yet, and despite these terrible odds, it is our task to find the grace and courage for taking up the struggle once again and again.