The Serenity Prayer: “Is this something that I should accept with serenity, or is this something I should try to change?”

Elisabeth Sifton, a widely respected book editor and publisher who burnished manuscripts by many of the 20th century’s literary lions, died at her home in Manhattan. She was 80.

Ms. Sifton was also an author in her own right, affirming in a memoir that it was her father, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who had popularized what became known as the Serenity Prayer, which begins, “God give us grace to accept with serenity that which we cannot change.”

Since the prayer began circulating during World War II, various theories have emerged about its derivation—did Niebuhr actually write it or cobble it together from historic precedents?—and about its precise wording. Ms. Sifton made it her mission to demystify both questions. . . . It was after she retired from editing full time in 2008 that she began exploring the derivation of the Serenity Prayer, which had been widely attributed to Niebuhr and popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs.

She remembered the prayer from 1943, when her father preached from the Union Church in Heath, Mass., a farming village in the northwestern part of the state where the family spent summer vacations. Other sources quoted Niebuhr from a decade earlier, and he himself later wrote that the prayer “may have been spooking around for years, even centuries, but I don’t think so.”

“I honestly do believe that I wrote it myself,” he said.

The prayer has appeared in various forms, though, including: “God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”

Ms. Sifton later reflected on the prayer. In one interview, she said: “Every single day one has to think, Is this something that I should accept with serenity, or is this something I should try to change? That’s the deep conundrum that serious people think about all the time.”


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