Thursday, May 1, 2014

So Reinhold Niebuhr *Did* Write "The Serenity Prayer"

Back in 2008 Fred Shapiro, a librarian at Yale Law School and the compiler of The Yale Book of Quotations. argued that Reinhold Niebuhr did not write the so-called "Serenity Prayer." 

He has since changed his mind.  You can learn why by reading his piece at The Chronicle Review, but it has something to do with more expansive databases and more powerful search engines.  Here is a taste:

What are the lessons to be drawn from this saga of historiographical twists and turns? One is that the billions (trillions?) of words of searchable old texts we now have at our disposal create a double-edged sword. In the 21st century, the factual researcher lives by the database, but also dies by the database. Such a plethora of periodicals, books, and legal documents have been digitized that it is tempting to draw negative inferences from a lack of search hits. If so many publications before 1943 cite a prayer without any mention of Reinhold Niebuhr, the reasoning may go, then he must not have been involved.
But new materials are continually being scanned, and the same methods that build a compelling historical argument one year may undo the argument the next because of new fodder for the keyword searches. In some cases, the answers to historians’ questions may lie forever out of reach, because they were printed in very minor publications that will never be captured by Google or ProQuest; or printed in sources now lost, like the newspapers in the British Museum destroyed by a German bomb in World War II; or discussed orally without ever being printed anywhere; or printed and digitized but expressed in discourse whose semantics cannot be matched by Boolean searching of words and phrases.
And Shapiro concludes:
The 1933 Serenity Prayer that is the oldest known full-fledged appearance, and the 1937 text that is the earliest complete one accompanied by an attribution to Reinhold Niebuhr, may lack the idea of "grace," but they possess another virtue. They ask for courage before serenity, which seems fitting for a theologian whose life embodied great courage on many levels. And perhaps now we can be serene knowing that the longstanding dispute over who wrote this beloved prayer has at last itself attained serenity.
I really like Niebuhr's "Serenity Prayer," but I also like this serenity prayer: