The Real Meaning of Mother’s Day
by Rob Arner
Mother’s Day is the singular day when the culture turns its attention to honor the mothers among us – our own, or those whom we admire. It’s nearly impossible to get a table at a nice restaurant to take your mother out without reservations far in advance. Hallmark and other greeting card companies make a killing by selling us $5 cards with sweet poems and flowery pictures on them.
And we all go along, because we all agree our moms are special and that motherhood is a vital role in society with responsibilities that extend well beyond the nine months of pregnancy (and interminable hours of labor!) Mothers are special, and setting aside a day to honor them just makes sense.
But what is the origin of the modern observance of Mother’s Day? Where did it come from? The answer may surprise you, because it comes from a woman of remarkable determination and conviction whose experience of human cruelty caused her to initiate the Mother’s Day movement as a prophetic form of social protest against the savagery of war.
It all goes back to the woman who is most famous for writing the song that became the de facto war anthem of the Union Army during the Civil War: “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Julia Ward Howe, New England socialite and social reformer, was a thoughtful woman of deep moral convictions whose campaigns on behalf of the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, and economic justice are well known. Her passion and devotion to her causes is undeniable. But less well-known is her dramatic change of heart with respect to “righteous” warfare.
In the run-up to the Civil War, Howe was one of the most ardent and vocal abolitionists. In 1861, the first year of the war, the song “John Brown’s Body” (about the radical abolitionist who had raided Harper’s Ferry, MD in 1860) was quickly becoming a popular marching song for Union troops. But their commanders, while loving the catchy and inspiring tune, were less enthusiastic about the effect on morale of their troops singing about how “John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave.”
Howe heard the soldiers singing this song as they marched by her home one day in November 1861, and her companion, a Christian pastor, the Reverend James Freeman Clarke, suggested to her that she write new lyrics for the song to make it more uplifting and compelling as a battle anthem. After a flash of late-night inspiration, Howe composed the text of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in order to inject her fervent abolitionist cause with a militant Christian spirituality about the righteous vengeance of God upon the wicked. Perhaps most compelling, certain stanzas of the Battle Hymn of the Republic are written to foster a sense of the soldiers’ cooperation with God in this holy cause. For instance:
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.
This tune is thus reminiscent of a holy war paradigm, or a crusade, completely identifying the singers with God’s righteous cause. So sure was Howe that the Union cause was holy, justified, and righteous that her theology injects this passion and fervency directly into the hearts of those soldiers who would sing the inspirational tune.
But this was not the end of Howe’s writing career.
In the aftermath of the devastating American Civil War, in which well over 600,000 lives were lost, as well as the carnage of the Franco-Prussian War soon thereafter, Howe was horrified at the human toll these conflicts exacted. In the 1870’s, Howe began a one-woman peace crusade, having repudiated the militancy of her optimistic self-righteous “Battle Hymn” years. She saw the effect of actual human combat and came to see war as just as devastating, if not more so, than the other human social evils she had previously dedicated herself to fighting.
Particularly devastating to Howe were the cries of the grieving mothers she met. These women, who had lost their sons in the senseless carnage of the Civil War, were her inspiration. In 1872, Howe set about campaigning for a “Mother’s Day for Peace” as a way of raising awareness of the fact that every nameless soldier and civilian who had lost his or her life in the horrors of the war had left behind a weeping mother.
The day was, however, mainly intended as a call to unite women against war. It was due to her efforts that in 1873, women in 18 cities in America held a Mother’s Day for Peace gathering. See the original Mother’s Day Proclamation.
Howe rigorously championed the cause of declaring Mother’s Day as an official holiday. She held meetings every year at Boston on Mother’s Peace Day and took care to see that the day was well-observed. The celebrations died out when she turned her efforts to working for peace and women’s rights in other ways. Howe failed in her attempt to gain the formal recognition of a Mother’s Day for Peace. Her remarkable contribution in the establishment of Mother’s Day, however, remains in that her Mother’s Day dedicated to peace was the precursor to the modern Mother’s Day celebrations. To acknowledge Howe’s achievements, a stamp was issued in her honor in 1988.
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