Cover image for The serenity prayer : faith and politics in times of peace and war
The serenity prayer : faith and politics in times of peace and war
Sifton, Elisabeth.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Norton, [2003]

Physical Description:
367 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
General Note:
Includes index.
Title Subject:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
BV284.S47 S54 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



In 1943, the renowned theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote a prayer for a church service in a New England village. Its appeal for grace, courage, and wisdom soon became famous the world over. Here, Elisabeth Sifton, Niebuhr's daughter, reclaims the true history of the Serenity Prayer and, in a poignant narrative, tells of efforts made by the brave men and women who, like Niebuhr, devoted their lives to the causes of social justice, racial equality, and religious freedom in a world spiraling into and out of economic depression and war. Recalling her father's efforts to warn the clergy of the dangers of fascism, and of America's own social and spiritual crises, Sifton reminds us of what is possible when liberal, open-minded leaders--not zealous fundamentalists or hawkish plutocrats--shape the conscience of the nation. The Serenity Prayer is itself a meditation on the power of prayer in morally compromised, unstable times. A New York Times Notable Book.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

The daughter of the great Protestant cleric and intellectual Reinhold Niebuhr, Sifton explores the historical tensions surrounding her father's most lapidary and aphoristic devotional work: an oft-quoted 1943 prayer petitioning the deity for the grace to accept the unchangeable, the courage to change the unacceptable, and the wisdom to distinguish between the two. Sifton recounts the dramatic events surrounding the writing of this wartime prayer, detailing her family's intimate domestic responses to these events and the public debates over their implications--both of which shaped her father's thinking during this trying era. In particular, she describes her father's growing frustration with religious leaders who refused to join him in confronting the growing threat of fascist and totalitarian politics. Given the timeliness and vigor of Niebuhr's fight against complacent religious sentimentality, Sifton regards as deeply ironic that postwar writers misattributed his Serenity Prayer to an eighteenth-century German Pietist. Alloying passionate devotion with critical intelligence, Sifton gives a twentieth-century prayer compelling relevance for twenty-first-century challenges. --Bryce Christensen Copyright 2003 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr's famous prayer ("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") has, Sifton notes, the distinction of being the world's most misattributed text. In a sometimes frustrating, sometimes illuminating and sometimes tedious memoir, Niebuhr's daughter-an eminent book editor and currently senior vice-president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux- sets the prayer in the context of her father's life and work. She traces the prayer's birth to its origins during summer services in a New England village church in 1943. The prayer clearly reveals Niebuhr's Christian realism, which asserts that every human effort is tainted with sin or the inevitable human failure to be perfect. Drawing on her memories of her father and her readings of his books, letters, sermons and prayers, Sifton chronicles her father's development as a theologian who courageously challenged the facile liberalism of American churches, the complicity of German churches with the Nazis and the simplistic solutions of Marxism and socialism. Sifton reminisces about many of the major political, theological, and intellectual figures who were a part of her upbringing (Paul Tillich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, W.H. Auden, Felix Frankfurter, R.H. Tawney, Isaiah Berlin) and with whom her father moved shoulder to shoulder in the world. Despite some unfocused writing as she moves from personal recollection to theological reflection, Sifton offers an intimate portrait of growing up with one of America's most important theologians and demonstrates the timelessness of Niebuhr's struggle for justice and mercy in the world. Photos. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

The senior vice president of Farrar, Straus, & Giroux here offers a loving memoir of her father, Reinhold Niebuhr, the Union Theological Seminary professor and social philosopher who, in 1943, composed the popular "Serenity Prayer" as a response to Nazism and other 20th-century horrors. The prayer, now the motto of Alcoholics Anonymous, can be found on T-shirts and coffee mugs around the world. Niebuhr explained that he had never copyrighted his creation because "prayers weren't something to make claims on." Set in rural Massachusetts and New York City in the 1930s and 1940s (the golden days of mainline churches), Sifton's nostalgic reminiscences depict the Niebuhr home as the Algonquin Round Table of liberal intellectuals. The book is full of anecdotes of childhood encounters with W.H. Auden, Felix Frankfurter, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Alan Paton, and other luminaries. At the same time, Sifton dismisses Norman Vincent Peale and Billy Graham as fundamentalist zealots. A tender, often humorous, and occasionally slow-moving account of the dusk of Protestant hegemony in North America in the last third of the 20th century, this is not leisurely reading but will be useful in academic and seminary libraries. A good, basic biography of Niebuhr is Charles C. Brown's Niebuhr and His Age. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/03.]-Joyce Smothers, Divinity Program, Princeton Theological Seminary, NJ (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.