Hope you’re having a good Mother’s Day today.
Did you know, however, that the very first Mother’s Day in America was not a day for flowers or Hallmark Cards? Did you realize that it was not a day of champagne brunches and long distance phone calls?
The very first Mother’s Day in America was an anti-war protest.
It’s true. It’s a story I’ve been telling in Mother’s Day sermons for many years now. I first learned this story from the Rev. Forrester Church’s great book, “God, and Other Famous Liberals.” But it’s also a story that’s now been chronicled in the website “Mother’s Day for Peace.”
The Mother’s Day we celebrate now was codified as a national holiday in 1914 by President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson was urged to create Mother’s Day by activists like Anna Jarvis. (Some of the proponents of the Mother’s Day we celebrate, btw, were good Methodist women…)
But that wasn’t the very first Mother’s Day. The first Mother’s Day was the invention of a remarkable woman: Julia Ward Howe.
Julia Ward Howe and her husband were among the “whos who” of Boston society in the mid-1800s. But Julia was not content to rest comfortably in a high strata of society. She was a free-thinker and a passionate supporter of women’s rights. She was an abolitionist.
Julia Ward Howe is actually best known as the writer of the famous “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” A song that eventually became the anthem of the Union Army, and remains a national treasure.
Howe was initially honored that a song she’d written became such a crucial part of the war effort. However, as the Civil War grew longer and the casualties mounted, she became increasingly uneasy that her song was being used to justify aggression and killing. Although she never renounced the song, it’s clear that in later years that she became concerned about the nationalistic pride that some took from it.
After the long horror of the Civil War ended, Julia Ward Howe became hopeful that perhaps humankind would put an end to war once and for all. Surely, she reasoned, humanity would find other ways to resolve disputes. Surely everyone could see how bloody and senseless war was as a tool of diplomacy and change. Surely, the horrid lesson of the American Civil War would be that war would “never again” be waged.
However, even as America was still healing its own war wounds, Howe began to hear the rumors of war a new war in Europe. The Franko-Prussian War soon broke out. Julia Ward Howe was devastated.
How could humanity be so mindless?
Could anyone actually stop war?
Finally, she hit on an idea. She reasoned that politicians and generals were usually men, and that men were usually the drivers of war. So, she thought, perhaps the one group who would have an undeniable voice in the struggle to end war were mothers.
Who else gave up more in war?
Who else suffered more from the premature and senseless deaths of their sons?
So, in 1870 Julia Ward Howe wrote the first official “Mother’s Day Proclamation.” In subsequent years, Mother’s Day gatherings were organized around this proclamation in towns like Boston, New York, and Paris.
Here’s a part of that first proclamation:
“We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies, Our husbands will 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, the 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.”
Like many visionaries and dreamers, Julia Ward Howe’s vision of Mother’s Day faded. Some fifty-years after her original proclamation, a new generation took up the Mother’s Day-case, and it morphed into the sweet, sentimental, and relatively benign holiday we’ve come to know.
But it can never be denied that the very first Mother’s Day was organized by a mother opposed to war, a mother filled with righteous anger and desire for peace and justice.
Recently, a friend sent me a link to a new website that tells the story of Julia Ward Howe’s “Mother’s Day” in much the same way that I have related it here.
But this site does one more thing. It takes Howe’s own proclamation –now almost 140-years-old– and brings them to life through the voices of famous actresses and activists of our time.
Take a look at it the video now, and hear the words of Julia Ward Howe, as they echo down through time…
As I said, I’ve been telling the story of Julia Ward Howe for several years now. And as I mentioned, I have used her story in several Mother’s Day sermons over the years. But it struck me this year that the great Julia Ward Howe has a modern counterpart. Her name is Cindy Sheehan.
I realize that a great many people dislike Cindy Sheehan. Perhaps even hate her. Even though three-fourths of Americans now believe the war is not going well, and vast majorities want to the war to end soon, mothers like Cindy Sheehan are still vilified and hated by many.
But the reality is that the “movement” Sheehan inspired was first led by modern-day mothers, just as Howe led it 140-years-ago. These are mothers who simply want an answer to a simple question:
What is the noble justification for this war?
It’s a good question. And it remains unanswered to this day.
During my trips to Camp Casey that first August, I was struck by how organic the movement was. It was clearly a movement primarily led by women. They were not well rehearsed. They were not “slick” and packaged. They were not “politicos.”
But they were sincere, they were hurting, and they just wanted answers. They came together more to gather strength from each other –to learn they were not alone– as they did with the goal of becoming activists.
Many of the mothers I met at Camp Casey had never spoken publicly before any crowd, but were now being interviewed on national television. Many were still sorting out their own views of the war. But they felt compelled to speak up, and to be heard. And for a short time the nation listened to them.
They are the great-great-great-granddaughters of Julia Ward Howe.
So, whatever you are doing this Mother’s Day, whatever your view of this particular war, I hope remember the vision of Julia Ward Howe, the peaceful vision of the very first Mother’s Day, and the truth that this holiday has roots in the search for justice and peace.