The Founding Mothers of Mother’s Day

                                                                Cindy Davidson, Ministerial Intern

Mother’s Day is one of the most highly commercialized holidays in the United States …. greeting cards, flowers, gifts, special meals out, and long-distance phone calls make for brisk marketing and business. Are these expressions of love and appreciation obscuring the original meaning of the Day? Founding Mothers Ann and Anna Jarvis, Methodists, and Julia Ward Howe, Unitarian, would say so!

Unitarian Universalists point to Julia Ward Howe’s “Appeal to Womanhood Throughout the World” from September 1870, (“Mother’s Day Proclamation”) as the true beginning of Mother’s Day. Meanwhile, the United Methodist Church and the United Methodist Women point to the works of Ann and Anna Jarvis, a mother/daughter duo, as the true beginning. Perhaps the truth lies in the both/and.
Ann Reeves Jarvis (1832-1905) lived in coal mining Grafton, West Virginia and was the mother to between eleven and thirteen children, only four of whom survived to adulthood due to the prevalence of childhood diseases and epidemics. In response to the needs she knew and saw of suffering mothers and children, she organized Mother’s Day Work Clubs in multiple locations in the 1860s. An effective community organizer and public health advocate, she educated mothers about hydration for fevered babies, sanitation and nutrition, and also provided practical assistance in the form of medicines and health aides to those in need.

During the Civil War, a field hospital was sited outside Grafton; Ann Reeves Jarvis recruited nurses and cared herself for the wounded on both sides of the conflict. Following the war, she tried to promote reconciliation and peace between Union and Confederate Moms by forming a Mother's Friendship Day, successfully staged in 1868.

To the North, Juliet Ward Howe (1819-1910), born and educated in New York City, lived the life of an accomplished (often anonymous) writer, poet and socialite with her not-very-supportive husband in Boston and Newport, RI. The mother of five children, she had become a Unitarian and was active in the abolitionist and suffragist movements. As the Civil War broke out in 1861, Juliet and her husband worked briefly with the Sanitary Commission to support sick and wounded soldiers. (After witnessing a skirmish in Washington, she was asked by Unitarian minister James Freeman Clarke to write new and better lyrics to the patriotic song “John Brown’s Body” -- we know her poem today as the lyrics of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”)

It was not until the 1870’s, though, during the Franco-Prussian war, that Juliet Ward Howe was moved to write the “Appeal to Womanhood” and begin her peace crusade. The proclamation called for the establishment of an international Women’s Peace Congress, which Howe travelled to London to promote, unsuccessfully. She did, however, initiate a Mother’s Peace Day observance on the second Sunday in June in Boston which lasted some years.

It was not until after the 1905 death of Ann Jarvis, that efforts to establish a Mother’s Day holiday would prove far-reaching and long-lasting. Her daughter Anna Jarvis, not a mother herself, deserves the credit for organizing the “first” Mother's Day events on May 10, 1908. They took place at the church where Ann Jarvis had taught Sunday School in Grafton, WV, and at the Wanamaker’s department store auditorium in Philadelphia. The holiday spread with Anna’s public relations skills, the financial backing of well-heeled backer, and the help of the World’s Sunday School Association. Congress approved establishing a national holiday in 1914 under President Woodrow Wilson.

As the holiday soared to popularity, Jarvis became disillusioned and bitter about the crass commercialization associated with the holiday. Beginning around 1920, she urged people to stop buying flowers and other gifts for their mothers, preferring they write a simple letter instead. Later she began a door-to-door campaign in Philadelphia to collect signatures to rescind Mother’s Day.

Both Ann Jarvis and Juliet Ward Howe were convinced that women, but especially mothers, had to work for peace because they could see the ravages of war in their husbands, in their sons and in their communities. I have no doubt we need not be mothers nor men’s wives to embrace the spirit of this holiday. When we tap into our nurturing and care-taking instincts, no matter our gender, our collective work to ensure health and wellbeing for all in a peaceful world that knows war no more may be the thing to celebrate.

Extracted and Adapted from these SOURCES:

Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biographies: Article by Joan Goodwin, posted May 28, 2002.

The Founder of Mother’s Day Later Fought to Have it Abolished, Jonathan Mulinix, May 1, 2018. http://mentalfloss.com/article/30659/founder-mothers-day-later-fought-have-it-abolished

Anna Jarvis was Sorry she even Invented Mother’s Day,
Joel Oliphant, May 8, 2015. https://www.buzzfeed.com/joeloliphint/anna-jarvis-was-sorry-she-ever-invented-mothers-day?utm_term=.qpw74b9NR#.eew0KqDl6

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