Based on John 14:27
Let me begin by wishing a warm Happy Mothers Day to the mothers among us. My own mother rues the commercial nature of the day and gets a bit embarrassed by the attention her children pay her. But, speaking on behalf of her three children, we cannot help ourselves. We mark Mothers’ Day for two reasons: first, because it is our genuine pleasure to express to her our profound thanksgiving, our pride and our love. The second reason is less lofty. And that is this: there is so much cultural pressure to mark Mother’s Day, that to fail to do so, is to feel like an absolute ingrate.
Mothers Day has become a kind of secular American holy day. Its ritual components involve the giving and receiving of cards, flowers and telephone calls. All of which are often capped-off by a special meal. Restaurants do more business on Mother’s Day than on any other day and telephone lines record their highest traffic.
I imagine that the woman who is primarily responsible for Mothers Day would be quite taken aback by all this. After all, her intent was not so much to honor mothers, as it was to organize them!
It was in 1872, in a packed house in Boston that Julia Ward Howe called for a Mother’s Day for Peace. A Mother’s Day for Peace was celebrated, thereafter, every year for the next 30 years.
Today, Mother’s Day coincides with the 60th anniversary of VE Day and the liberation of the death camps. It is also the case that today countless sons and daughters are engaged in deadly combat across the world. Therefore, let us take a closer look at the woman and the purpose behind the original Mother’s Day for Peace.
Julia Ward Howe was a devout Christian. As a Christian, she came to believe that peace was one of the two most important causes in the world … the other important cause being equality in its many forms.
Indeed, peace is a profoundly important pursuit for Christians. A moment ago we wished one another the peace of Christ … a ritual we enact here every Sunday. It is an ancient act by which we affirm our essential kinship to each and all … not merely to a chosen few whom we many know well. We pass the peace to whoever happens to be near us.
In passing the peace in this way, we intend to embody and transmit the peace that Christ promised to his followers: “Peace I leave with you”, he said. “My peace I give to you.” “Blessed are the peacemakers,” he said.
The story of the Mothers’ Day for Peace begins in New York City in 1819. It was in 1819 that Julia Ward was born into a prosperous and distinguished family. Her father was a banker and her mother a published poet. Theirs was an urbane and learned family. In addition to formal schooling, Julia learned foreign languages and read, among others, Goethe, Balzac, and George Sand. Visitors to the Ward home included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Washington Irving and William Cullen Bryant.
Julia Ward married a medical doctor and social reformer, Samuel Gridley Howe. She was beautiful, vivacious, brilliant and the center of attention at any party. He was handsome and heroic. (He was awarded a medal of honor for his service as a soldier.) He was deeply committed to his work as the head of Boston’s famous Perkins Institute for the Blind. An advocate for education and prison reform, he also became a leading abolitionist.
Although Julia Ward Howe was bright and unusually educated for a woman of her day (some might say “scandalously” well educated), she was, none-the-less, a traditionalist. As a woman, she accepted that her role was to be limited to domestic matters … to raising her six children and keeping the house.
Over time, however, her husband’s obsession with controlling her, his temper, his coldness, and his opposition to her literary aspirations, weighed on her. She began to chafe against his oppressive patriarchy. She retreated to, and found comfort in, writing and reading. She wrote letters to her sister, she penned poems, and she recorded her life, feelings and reflections in extensive diary entries. She read Kant and Hegel and explored her Christian faith with her keen intellect.
When she was 34-years-old, she secretly and anonymously, published her first book of poems. She endured her husband’s fury when he discovered what she had done. However, now she would not be stopped. Two plays soon followed.
It was in 1861 that the Atlantic Monthly published a poem of hers that could be sung to a familiar Civil War tune … the hymn we know today as the Battle Hymn of the Republic.
The poem made Julia Ward Howe instantly famous … and fame changed her life. She began to form ties outside the home. She joined the Boston Ladies Club and the Boston Radical Club. A pious and liberal-minded Christian, she began to lecture on philosophical and religious questions … although her husband forbade her to do so. She started a literary magazine. She co-founded the New England Women’s Suffrage Association. In 1908, at the age of 89, she became the first woman to be elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
It was during her travels and on the lecture circuit that Julia Ward Howe saw the worst effects of the Civil War: death and disease among the soldiers, as well as the emotional and physical scarring so many of them suffered. She also witnessed the poverty and desperation of widows and orphans, and the economic devastation that the war brought in its wake.
Distressed by what she had seen and experienced, and determined that peace was one of the most important causes in the world, Julia Ward Howe acted. She issued a Mother’s Day Declaration and called for a Mother’s Day for Peace. Her efforts were not intended to honor mothers, but to organize them.
During her lifetime, war was considered the province of men. Men declared war and men waged war. Men gave the orders, shot at other men and, in their turn, were shot at. Julia Ward Howe’s contribution was to view war through the eyes of women and mothers, and to insist that their perspective was valid and persuasive. She helped her contemporaries to view the Civil War not merely from the perspective of the mothers of northern troops, but also from the perspective of the mothers of southern troops. Moreover, she viewed motherhood as a kind of universalizing perspective … more profound than that of any woman’s national identity.
Julia Ward Howe knew her Bible. She knew that the Bible presented masculine and patriarchal images of God: God as father, king and warrior. But she was familiar with a variety of female images for God also represented in the Bible: God as a mother hen caring for her chicks; God as seamstress sewing cloths for Adam and Eve; God in pain as a mother giving birth.
Her critique of war was informed by her biblical knowledge and Christian perspective. She opened people’s eyes to see the cruelties of war both from the perspective of mothers whose sons were being killed and from the perspective of God, who is mother and father of us all, whose children were killing each other.
Julia Ward Howe was a visionary and a dreamer: she envisioned and dreamed of the end of slavery. She envisioned and dreamed of the end of the social inequality and inferiority of women … of a time when women might vote, as well as and write and publish without incurring the wrath of their husbands. She also envisioned and dreamed of the end of human warfare, of a world at peace.
Today, however, we are still at it: still making war … stilling sending our sons (and now, too, our daughters) into harms way … to kill and be killed. It may be that war is the inevitable consequence of human fallibilities … human sin, brokenness, greed, territoriality, and tribalism. It may be that here, East of Eden, war will always be with us.
Yet it a Mother’s Day gift to us from one of our great foremothers. She reminds us that visions and dreams of peace are at the very heart of the Gospel we profess. Julia Ward Howe was right in insisting that the pursuit of peace is our calling as Christians; we must not shirk this holy responsibility, despite the fact that peace making has become a profoundly countercultural pursuit. She challenges us to regard the whole world through the eyes of God, who is mother and father of us all.
Above all, she invites us to embody and transmit peace in honor of He, in whose name we gather, and whose name we bear: Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace.
Buonomo, Leonardo. Essay in the Literary Encyclopedia: “Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910)”
Howe, Julia Ward. “Mother’s Day Proclamation for Peace” (1870)
Knight, Louise W. The Women’s Review of Books, May 2004 (article)
Rosen, Ruth. “Mothers Doing What?” article published in Common Dreams (March 2005)
Ziegler, Valarie H. Diva Julia: The Public Romance and Private Agony of Julia Ward Howe, (2004)
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