Lesser Known Origins of Mother's Day

a sermon by Jaco B. ten Hove
Paint Branch UU Church
May 11, 2003

[Attributions, unless otherwise noted, are from "Private Woman, Public Person," by Mary Grant.]

Mothers Day as we know it today began at urging of a good Methodist woman early in the 20th century, but there's a prehistory to his holiday that is usually overlooked, and that I hope to illuminate in this presentation.

Mother's Day is indeed a fine opportunity to celebrate and honor the mothers in our lives as the treasures they are. Since my mom died 25 years ago now, I honor her in absentia, as do some of you if your moms are no longer among us in person.

I also want to acknowledge that Mother's Day can be hard for some of us. Not all of us have or have had good relationships with our mothers. Not all of us even had a mother whom we knew. Also, the pain of infertility can diminish this celebration for some couples. Barbara and I, having made the choice, about seven years ago, not to parent, feel good that this is right for us, but it's still hard to let go of any dreams related to raising offspring. Instead, we try to spread our parenting energy around, and thus can still participate in a significant way in the celebration of mothers and fathers.

Yes, the energy of mothering can be shared by many people today, as we also recognize our "spiritual" mothers, those women who've helped give birth to ideas, passions and growth in us and/or in our culture. I want to tell you a bit of the story of one such woman, an American spiritual mother of the highest order: Julia Ward Howe. She was a Unitarian whose influential 91-year life spanned most of the 19th century and ended in 1910. Her story includes planting the seeds for Mother's Day.

I have always loved to read biographies, and hers is a rich one, from which I will draw out three strands. Julia Ward Howe was very affected by early Unitarianism, esp. Transcendentalism, and most noted for writing the passionate words to "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" during first year of the Civil War.

But, a few years after that War, she also issued a pacifist and feminist statement called a Mother's Day Proclamation, calling for a very different kind of celebration than what we know today. After I briefly portray each of these three key environments in her long life, perhaps you will find new meaning in a fuller celebration of Mother's Day.

Julia Ward was born in May of 1819, into a New York family that believed in education (including for women, which was unusual in that era). Her own mother died when Julia was five years old but her loving father, a religiously conservative banker, gave her the best teachers they could afford, although he became concerned that her "temperament and imagination [made her] oversensitive to impressions from without." So he sought to "guard [her] from exciting influences" [D. Robinson, The Unitarians and the Universalists].

Consequently, Julia learned to make the most of long hours of study, which became a lifelong exercise. Her adolescent inclinations were toward literature and poetry, and her poems tried to explore the harsh Calvinist images of her orthodox religious training.

She was nonetheless a popular teen, known by suitors as "Diva Julia." The combination of intellect, grace and humor that would propel her into fame were present early on. Despite her well-meaning father's restrictions, she was, evidently, a partyer of some reputation. Puns and double entendres were a particular feature of her repartee. She once used a scandalous play on an Old Testament reference (to Shadrack, Meshack and Abendego) when describing her condition after a ball: "It was," she said, "Sad-sack, Me-rack and Abed-no-go."

Her family vacationed in Newport, RI, where she met a friend from Boston, Mary Ward, no relation. (Mary later married Julia's older brother, thus becoming a typical New Englander with three names: Mary Ward Ward.) Julia and Mary Ward, while not related, did became soul mates, both with intellectual leanings. They corresponded extensively, assisting their own and each other's development. Julia also went to Boston to visit Mary, who gets credit for introducing her to Unitarians such as Ralph Waldo Emerson & William Ellery Channing, and especially Margaret Fuller, who hosted very influential gatherings for women called, simply, "Conversations."

Interactions with these Unitarian Transcendentalists were a beacon for Julia, showing a path away from Calvinism. Not surprisingly, she became convinced that the Bible needn't be taken literally and she was encouraged to follow her own instincts and thoughts. (Transcendentalism was an upstart branch of early American Unitarianism that eloquently suggested how the human–divine relationship could be direct, could transcend any intermediary formalism, such as religious authorities. This was a very empowering and appealing approach for a young generation of creative Americans.)

And Julia was ready to hear this very different message, especially after a miserable year grieving the death of both her beloved father and her favorite brother, all the while trying to find solace in the traditional religion of her family. She poured over the writings of Transcendentalists and later commented "I studied my way out of all the mental agonies which Calvinism can engender and became a Unitarian." She willingly adopted the radical belief that there was no hell. (Ostensibly it was the Universalists of that day who were most notorious for declaring there was no hell, but many 19th c. Unitarians also held that belief, indicating how the two liberal streams were already beginning to merge.)

This conversion to Unitarianism was a very significant turning point for Julia Ward, as it meant turning her back on the family faith. Not unlike many UUs still today, she continually faced the challenges of relating to kin with more orthodox beliefs, but she felt that actually made her stronger and more articulate. (Can those of you in similar situations say the same?) With this religious conversion, in her early 20s, Julia now had a firm philosophical center from which the rest of her life would extend.

In particular, she no longer automatically accepted the traditional male authority. She vowed to make her own decisions about right and wrong, good and evil, and especially regarding the behavior of women. Later she would reflect that her discovery of the free development of women's character—modeled by other strong Unitarian women—was to her "like the addition of a new continent to the map of the world."

Nevertheless, she soon married Samuel Gridley Howe, a man 18 years her senior, and himself a social reform-minded Unitarian. Howe was a man of "moral earnestness" who had spent his young adulthood assisting the Roman revolution and then returned to America to found the first school for the blind, deaf and dumb, for which he has received historic recognition. But Julia's marriage decision was based on traditional gender roles, not her emerging self-confidence. Samuel Howe was a difficult husband; despite excellent public service, he was abusive and domineering. He actively discouraged Julia's growing independence, which initially manifested itself by her not taking up his causes, especially abolition.

For instance, Samuel was very close to and supportive of John Brown, the notorious abolitionist, but Julia resisted this cause, until she actually met John Brown and he helped her see how fighting slavery was more than a political battle. It was religious, which he described this way: Brown devoted and sacrificed his life to the redemption of the slaves, much as Christ had willingly offered his life for the salvation of humanity. (This is an important orientation for Julia, as we shall see shortly.)

After their wedding, Julia and Samuel Howe moved to South Boston, where the notorious Unitarian Theodore Parker was minister, and he became an important mentor theologically, as well as another strong model advocating abolition. Meanwhile, despite bearing six children in 12 years, Julia continued writing poetry. However, it was said that her "ethical spirit controlled the aesthetic" and thus, her poems were more likely to inspire good thoughts than just a sense of beauty.

After her youngest child died at age three—another very painful loss—she wrote a lot as therapy and threw herself into her study of philosophers, continuing an interest in the dynamics of morality. All this did not escape family notice, and she wrote to her sister: "My Ethics are now the joke of the family, and any child, wishing a second helping, will say: ‘Is it ethical, Mama?’"

Her writing, her religious commitment to morality and justice, her husband's public service—these pieces were in place to inspire her most famous achievement. Early in the Civil War, Julia went with Samuel to Washington, DC, as he took a lead role in the newly formed Sanitary Commission (a medical, supply and relief organization for the Union Army, and precursor to the Red Cross). There, she experienced firsthand some of the War. She also expressed feelings of inadequacy and discouragement at how little she as a young mother could contribute to the cause.

But after a visit to the troops in nearby Virginia with her Unitarian minister, James Freeman Clarke, he suggested that she write new words to the song, "John Brown's Body." Early the next morning, she had what she called "an attack of versification." She fluidly wrote down six stanzas of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," which needed very little later editing.

Now, I've never been very fond of this religiously militaristic poem, but in its day, it was a monumentally influential piece of work. "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. He is trampling through the winepress where the grapes of wrath are stored. He hath loosed the fateful lightnings of his terrible swift sword. His truth is marching on." Etc.

The genius of this poem is the combination of righteously violent images out of the Old Testament—like bloody justice, which provided an effective rationale and motivation for the War effort—with a New Testament vision of Christ-like transfiguration, whereby deaths would bring a new society. It was published quickly in The Atlantic (earning her a grand sum of $5) and it served to lift the flagging spirits of the North, a year into the War. Their cause now had a hymn to declare its divine purpose.

In the fifth stanza is Julia Ward Howe's primary message of theological justification: "As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free. Our God is marching on." Remember that this was the era of Manifest Destiny, a real chapter of our country's history when Euro-Americans felt they ruled the continent with divine authority and power. (Some still do, I suspect.)

So what's this all to do with Mother's Day, anyway? you might rightly ask. Well, Julia Ward Howe may be best known for the "Battle Hymn," but the next 50 years of her life are noteworthy for the transformation of her attitude away from militarism and toward pacifism, as she used the status her poem gave her to promote peace and especially women's rights. The years immediately after writing the "Battle Hymn" inspired her most intense development, leading up to an astounding public statement, less than a decade after the "Battle Hymn," in opposition to the brewing Franco-Prussian war.

By way of contrast, let us now hear her Proclamation (#573 in Singing the Living Tradition). On the eve of war in Europe, Julia Ward Howe proposed an International Mothers Day of Peace, followed by a general congress of women to promote the alliance of all nations and the amiable settlement of international questions. She launched this crusade with a Mother's Day Proclamation in 1870:

Arise, then, women of this day!
Arise all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or of fears!
Say firmly: "We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.
"Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy, and patience.
"We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."
From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says, "Disarm, Disarm!"
The sword of murder is not the balance of Justice! Blood does not wipe out dishonor nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as the means whereby the great human family can live in peace,
And each bearing after her own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.

Quite a shift from the "Battle Hymn" where "His truth is marching on with a terrible swift sword." Now it's "Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice!" There is in this Proclamation a vision of feminist solidarity not unlike the ancient portrayal of Lysistrata: women challenging the glorification of war.

How Julia Ward Howe journeyed from the "Battle Hymn" to the Proclamation is the stuff of biography. The short story is that she defied her husband, studying extensively and engaging with many of the other great thinkers of her day, especially those radical Unitarians.

She was intent upon listening to her own "still, small voice within" as a guide to action; this was the message of Transcendentalism blossoming in the life of Julia Ward Howe. It was a strong message, one that steered her ahead of many of her complacent peers. For instance, she wrote in her journal about her restrictive husband—and remember this is the middle of the 19th century: "I earnestly desire to live in Christian love and charity with him, but not so that my conscience shall be subject to his will."

That conscience led her to an active idealism, looking ever forward to continual social betterment, especially for women. For the rest of her long life, she preached in Unitarian churches, lectured widely, and wrote numerous essays and poems, many expounding on the rights and responsibilities of conscience, especially for women. It was said that "Her courage, incisiveness and quickness of repartee, the completeness of her conviction accompanied by a balance of mind and a sense of humor that disarmed irritation, made her the greatest of woman organizers."

Her vision of Mother's Day goes beyond appreciative sentiment to the heart of what is most precious about mothers: the giving, not taking away of life. Julia Ward Howe imagined the power of women coming together to speak their stories and promote peace among their nations.

While her particular proposal for a Mother's Day did not get the attention it deserved, no doubt it laid the groundwork for the next such effort, albeit a less radical one, the one we recognize today, beautiful and important as it is. Julia Ward Howe was a woman, a mother, who believed in herself and in others enough to speak and live out her truth. In her early image of a Mother's Day was this vision, in her words:

Every woman is not, in God's Providence, a wife, and every wife is not actually a mother. But every true woman has the mother in her and this grand, spiritual motherhood, exerting its influence and watchfulness in all the walks of life will give every woman a noble part to perform in the great drama of the world.

Today, may we also remember and be grateful for those women who have been spiritual mothers to us—personally or to our nation or the world, people who, like Julia Ward Howe, have given us the gift of good works, loving challenge and hope even in the face of difficulty. On this Mothers Day, "we come with praise and thanks" for our mothers AND the women who've been spiritual mothers to us. And may we raise our voices in such honor, with hymn #128: For All that is Our Life…

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