Gary Dorrien, R. Niebuhr


From the New York Times:

Generations of recovering alcoholics, soldiers, weary parents, exploited workers and just about anybody feeling beaten down by life have found solace in a short prayer that begins, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.”

Now the Serenity Prayer is about to endure a controversy over its authorship that is likely to be anything but serene.

For more than 70 years, the composer of the prayer was thought to be the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, one of modern Christianity’s towering figures. Niebuhr, who died in 1971, said he was quite sure he had written it, and his wife, Ursula, also a prominent theologian, dated its composition to the early 1940s.

…Now, a law librarian at Yale, using new databases of archival documents, 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 — a Y.W.C.A. leader in Syracuse, a public school counselor in Oklahoma City — and are always, interestingly, by women.

And of course the Times asks Dorrien:

The artifacts that Mr. Shapiro unearthed dismayed the Rev. Gary Dorrien, the Reinhold Niebuhr professor of social ethics at Union Theological Seminary, which was Niebuhr’s scholarly home for many years.

Professor Dorrien said, “What has the ring of truth to me is that some of the phrases in it, the gist of it, he heard or came into contact with in some way that he wouldn’t have remembered, since he’s not a scholarly, bookwormish person with habits of scholarly exactitude anyway.”

“He is a preacher. He is coming into contact with things and blending them,” Professor Dorrien said, adding that for preachers, “it’s an occupational hazard.”

From what Dorrien has said in the past of R. Niebuhr’s memory, this actually seems plausible, even likely. Charitably, Dorrien mentions when talking of Niebuhr’s appointment to Union, that Niebuhr seemed to never accurately remember the actual circumstances — I just suspected that Niebuhr was embarrassed, which Dorrien mentioned as well, and he just couldn’t continue to relive the embarrassment whenever people asked, which Dorrien has seemed to have hinted at. In the end, Niebuhr sometimes seemed a bit… well, he liked to hide his faults (but then, don’t we all?). Then again, plenty of times people hear something, incorporate it and then think they came up with it, especially if the people you get that “something” from are invisible (like women historically are).


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