Some might argue that Mothers’ Day stems from ancient religions with female deities. Each spring the ancient Greeks devoted a day to honor their maternal goddesses. The ancient Romans had a several-day festival that celebrated Cybele, the Great Mother, beginning on the Ides of March and extending through the vernal equinox. The early church may have baptized these festivals by honoring the Mother Mary during the fourth Sunday of Lent, Laetare Sunday.
In England, this may have been a way for the Mother Church to incorporate the feminine power of the indigenous religion that flourished on the British Isles. By the sixteenth century, Mothering Sunday, celebrated on Laetare Sunday, was the day devoted to the Virgin Mother in church, with children taking flowers to their own earthly mothers afterwards as an extension of their devotion in church. Servants, who often worked away from their own homes in someone else’s, were given the day off to return to their mother church for worship.
While all these ancient roots became entangled with the idea of Mothers’ Day in the United States, it was the social reform movements of the last half of the nineteenth century gave rise to our current celebration of Mothers’ Day. Ann Jarvis, the daughter of a Methodist minister, moved to western Virginia and in the 1850s organized women in the churches around what is now Grafton, West Virginia, to help with the sick and indigent, calling these Mothers Day Work Clubs. These clubs nursed sick soldiers of both the Union and Confederacy during the Civil War. After the war, they called for a Mothers Friendship Day and were instrumental in reconciling families torn apart by loyalties to both the north and the south, having shown how they could work together for healing despite their different loyalties in the midst of the war.
Julia Ward Howe, a social reformer and suffragete, called for an international mothers day devoted to peace in Boston in 1872 with her Mothers’ Day Proclamation. This was held in various places for ten years in June. Local reports of Sundays devoted to honoring mothers subsequently appeared throughout the country in various churches.
After the death of her mother, Ann, on the second Sunday in May 1905, her daughter, Anna Jarvis, devoted her life to making Mothers’ Day a national holiday. She was not alone in this. A popular Notre Dame coach, Frank Hering, had been giving speeches that promoted the idea as early as 1904, and a local action of temperance mothers in Albion, Michigan, also stirred their sons to enlist community leaders in advocating that a day be set aside to honor mothers. Anna Jarvis launched a letter-writing campaign and speaking tour, and Mothers’ Day became officially recognized as a national holiday in 1914 with the help of John Wanamaker who saw its commercial possibilities. Anna Jarvis was so outraged at the commercialization of the holiday that she was arrested for disturbing the peace while protesting against it in 1948. She died impoverished, having spent her inheritance on advocating for Mothers’ Day.
The 1960s and 70s saw the recovery of the birth of Mothers’ Day in compassion, peace, and justice movements. Coretta Scott King organized a march in 1968 to draw attention to the needs of marginalized women and children. Women’s groups in the 1970s used it to highlight the need for equal rights and affordable child care that at the same time granted those in child care a living wage.
By working to honor and help mothers of all kinds on this day, we honor the day’s original intent—to draw attention to those women who serve as disciples of God’s compassion, peace, and justice for all.
Download a litany for Mothers’ Day.
Julia Ward Howe
Arise, then, women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts, whether our baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly: “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. As men have often forsaken the plough 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 solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.
In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.