The Secret History of the Serenity Prayer

The Secret History of the Serenity Prayer

By Susan Cheever 03/06/12

AA's most famous touchstone was written by an anti-Nazi theologian who was battling against an evil beyond his control.

Image: 
A cri de coeur for German anti-Nazi Christians photo via

For many people who attend 12-step programs, reciting the Serenity Prayer comes as naturally as breathing. So it may come as a surprise to learn that the prayer was originally conceived not as an antidote to addiction but in response to the barbaric evil of Nazi Germany that threatened civilization itself during World War II. Written during the darkest depths of the war by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, a first-generation German-American, the prayer captured the dreadful ethical predicament faced by Niehbur and his fellow German anti-Nazi émigrés in the United States, who were safe from persecution but powerless to intervene against Hitler.

When he wrote it, Niebhur was particularly haunted by the decisions made by his closest friends and fellow teachers at New York's Union Theological Seminary,  Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose responses to the war in their homeland were very different but equally fateful. “The historical meaning of this quite modern American prayer is bound up in the war against one of the greatest evils posed during a violently evil century,” wrote Niebuhr’s daughter Elisabeth Sifton in her 2003 book The Serenity Prayer.

The original version of this famous prayer was delivered by Niehbur at the conclusion of a sermon he delivered at tiny Union Church in Heath, Massachusetts, a farming village where he summered with his family. At the time, the United States was still mired in war on the Western Front. Though the German Army had recently been defeated in the Battle of Stalingrad, the genocide of Europe's Jews was still in full swing. Few people at the time yet realized that the tide had turned against the Third Reich.

What would become of German Christianity, the legacy of Martin Luther and the Reformation, in a Germany where theologians and church leaders had either been outlawed or co-opted by evil? And what should—what could—prominent dissidents like Niebuhr, Tillich and Bonhoeffer do about it? “God give us the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,” Niebuhr prayed with his small congregation an ocean away from the cataclysm of destruction, “courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”

“God give us the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,” Niebuhr prayed with his small summer congregation an ocean away from the cataclysm of World War II, “courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”

Accepting tragedy with serenity was the approach embodied by Niehbur's close friend Paul Tillich, who was a respected writer and professor at the University of Frankfurt when Hitler first emerged on the political scene. An early opponent of the rising Nazi movement, Tillich used his prominent perch to lecture movingly against National Socialism, and was ditched from his post in 1933, soon after Hitler was elected chancellor. The professor's prospects in Germany were dire. So when Niebuhr offered him a position at Union Theological, Tillich quickly accepted. Moving his family to New York, he learned a new language, and eventually established himself as one of the 20th century’s most important Christian theorists. During the war, from 1942 to 1944, he faithfully broadcast, through Voice of America radio, hundreds of political pleas to his fellow Germans, urging them to recognize and resist the moral horrors being committed in their name by the Hitler regime.

Their friend Dietrich Bonhoeffer took a far different path, choosing the courage to change. The wealthy and dashing Bonhoeffer was one of Germany’s most outspoken critics of National Socialism and German Christianity’s rabid antisemitism. He started an anti-Nazi Church and an underground seminary before fleeing Berlin for New York City in 1939. But despite strong pressure from his friends, he soon regretted his decision to leave his embattled homeland.

“I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America,” he wrote to Reinhold Niebuhr. “I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany….Christians in Germany will have to face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose but I cannot make that choice from security.”

Bonfoeffer ended up returning to Germany on the last steamer to cross the Atlantic. Back in Berlin, he immediately reconnected with the underground and joined first a secret effort to rescue Jews and then a secret plan to assassinate Hitler, which he hoped would bring the catastrophic war to an end. But in the summer of 1943 the assassination plot was exposed and Bonhoeffer was sent to prison. He was hanged in April 1945, just weeks before Hitler’s own suicide and the Nazi surrender. When he wrote the prayer, Niebuhr was in a kind of sympathetic spiritual agony over the alternately failed and doomed choices his two friends had made.

Niehbur's Serenity Prayer struck an immediate chord. His Massachusetts neighbor, Dean Howard Robbins of the Federal Council of Churches, asked Niehbur if his little prayer could be included in material that the Council provided to army chaplains in the battlefield. In 1944 it was published for the first time in The Book of Prayers and Services for the Armed Forces. At the time, Alcoholics Anonymous was still in its formative years. Someone in the fledgling fellowship apparently saw the short prayer and brought it to the attention of AA founder Bill Wilson.

With Niebuhr’s permission, Wilson began using a shortened version of the prayer in meetings he led in his wife’s house in Brooklyn and in Akron, Ohio, where he was working with Dr. Bob Smith to convert alcoholics to sobriety. Less lyrical and less theologically complex—the plea for God’s grace is eliminated and the things that “should” be changed become the things that “can” be changed—the Serenity Prayer soon became as familiar at AA fellowships as the window shades at the front of the room printed with the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.

It's rare for us to be able to see and touch evil in our daily lives. We sometimes recognize such moments as a result of other people’s behavior—and our own complicity or silence. There are times when human beings—individuals, families, even entire societies—are possessed by powers that seem to contradict everything we think of as human. Occasionally these times are so disorienting that the victims can often seem stranger and crazier than the perpetrators and bystanders. That is what it was like to live in Germany under Nazism, and, on a much smaller scale, that's often what it's like to live in an alcoholic household. Action seems necessary, but confusion, danger or powerlessness render action seemingly impossible.

Addiction may be a disease, but it is also an evil that many people prefer to ignore. All we can hope for is the courage to strike out against it when we can, and the serenity to accept its existence when we can’t. 

Susan Cheever is a columnist for The Fix, and the author of many books, including the memoirs Home Before Dark and Note Found in a Bottle, and the biography My Name Is Bill, about AA's founder.