Several years ago I wrote a prayer based on the beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-16) and posted it on this blog. It is one of my most read posts and people regularly find it because it is the top result when you google “prayer based on the beatitudes”. Many people have left comments asking for permission to use it or to let me know that they have.

Last week I received an email from Abingdon Press letting me know that a recently published book failed to give me credit for using portions of this prayer. The book is Strong for a Moment Like This, a collection of daily devotions pastor Bill Shillady emailed to Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign. The first two stanzas of my prayer are offered as the prayer after the first of a series of devotions on the beatitudes.

Though I was assured that future editions of the book would give me proper credit, I was torn about whether or not I should be upset by this. After all, I posted this prayer—along with many other prayers and sermons—with the hopes that others might find it meaningful and useful. Does it really matter if some people will think that Bill Shillady wrote it instead of me?

When I shared my thinking about this with a colleague, he pointed out that Shillady and this book were involved in a plagiarism scandal. Sure enough, I quickly found stories on CNN and The Washington Post about Shillady lifting portions of his devotion for the morning after the election from this blog post by Matt Deuel. Shillady apologized, but the articles noted that it wasn’t clear how much of the rest of the book of devotions was similarly taken from other online sources. My assumption, more or less confirmed by Abingdon, is that they combed through the book looking for other instances of plagiarism and discovered that my prayer was among the material not attributed to the original authors. Last night it was reported that Abingdon is pulling the book from shelves because of the extensive plagiarism.

I’m still not sure what to make of this, mostly because I’ve never really thought about prayers as intellectual property in the same way I think of sermons, blog posts, books, and other such material. To me, the difference has to do with the addressee—God—and the nature of prayer as a devotional practice. It also occurs to me that I wrote this prayer to read aloud in a public worship service. If I had not subsequently published it in written form on my blog, would people who heard it live or on an audio recording be free to use it without citation? Further, some legal experts maintain that sermons and prayers are “work for hire” products that technically belong to a pastor’s employing church, so maybe I don’t own the rights to this material in the first place.

In the end, maybe all that matters in this case is that in some small way I contributed to the spiritual life of Hillary Clinton as she did what few people do. She wasn’t a perfect candidate, Bill Shillady wasn’t a perfect pastor or author, and I’m sure as hell not perfect at what I do—but I’m grateful that each of us looks to the radical wisdom of Jesus’ beatitudes for comfort and guidance as we navigate the challenges of life and do our best to follow the ways of God in our respective vocations.

John W. Vest

John is a "church hacker" attempting to overcome the limitations of church as we know it. To connect with him and learn more about his work, please visit johnvest.com.

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  1. Wow. I guess I always assumed prayers were “public property” because of just what you cite– the addressee.

  2. Your motive was right: you posted for others to use to support their own spiritual life. Where Shillady went wrong is using others’ words for his own profit. That is plagiarism.

  3. Abingdon Press should have done what most colleges and universities do for students’ term papers, submit text to scanning for plagiarism. You are gracious to be forgiving, but what the “author” had done was clearly wrong, to take credit for another’s work.

  4. I don’t think I have an original prayer that I use anymore. It started with me and then adds a dash of something I heard someone else say and then a rephrase of something I read somewhere.
    I could never publish a book of prayers, if only because my prayers are so open sourced.

  5. …and as long as you “add a dash” and “rephrase …something” you are not plagiarizing. When you quote verbatim and do not credit another (more than 10 words), it is plagiarism. In the pulpit,no one cares or knows; in a book for sale, likely to attract a large audience and result in substantial compensation, it is unethical.

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