Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis. How many people have heard of her? Let me tell you a little about her. She was born in Culpeper, VA, not too far from here, in 1832. Her dad was a Methodist minister, and when she was 18 she married the son of a Baptist minister. They moved to Webster, WV.
Ann Jarvis knew something about motherhood. Over a period of 17 years, she had somewhere between 11 and 13 children. The number is a little uncertain since it was so long ago and records are sketchy, and because only 4 of those children survived. Measles, typhoid, diphtheria – those were common childhood diseases in Appalachia back then, and they were often fatal.
Ann Jarvis saw a need and she tried to meet it. She started what were called Mother’s Day Work Clubs in towns in her area. These groups worked to improve public health. They developed programs to inspect milk. They raised money to buy medicines and hire women to work in families where mothers were sick. They did home visits to educate families about health and sanitation.
There was no such state as West Virginia before the Civil War. When the Civil War began, the western part of Virginia split off and became its own state, loyal to the Union. The Mother’s Day Work Clubs changed their focus and began to work on issues of peace and reconciliation in the community. They helped both Confederate and Union soldiers. Ann Jarvis herself worked to keep the Methodist church from splitting into northern and southern groups, and she was the only person to offer a prayer at the funeral of the first Union soldier killed by Confederates in West Virginia. The clubs fed and clothed soldiers from both sides, and when typhoid and measles broke out in the area, the club members nursed and cared for soldiers from both sides.
After the Civil War, Jarvis looked for ways to bring healing and reconciliation to her community. Despite death threats, she sponsored a “Mothers Friendship Day” for soldiers and their families from both sides of the war. She spoke about unity and reconciliation, bands played “Dixie” and “The Star Spangled Banner”, and everyone from both sides joined in singing “Auld Lang Syne.” There were a lot of tears, a lot of hugs, and a lot of healing that day.
Ann lived in West Virginia until her husband died in 1902, and then moved to Philadelphia to live with her daughter Anna. Ann Jarvis died in 1905.
Julia Ward Howe. That name may be familiar. She wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” She was born before Ann Jarvis, in 1817 in New York City, and died after Jarvis, in 1910.
Julia Ward Howe was really, really smart. One article that I read said that she had a “frightening intellect.” Her dad was a stockbroker, and her mother was a poet. Howe’s mother died when she was 5, so Howe had private tutors growing up and went to a private finishing school. She married and had 6 children, 5 of whom survived to adulthood.
Howe was an Abolitionist, totally opposed to slavery. She met Abraham Lincoln in 1861, and was inspired to write the poem that became “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The poem was set to a tune that was already pretty well known, and became one of the most popular songs during the Civil War throughout the Union side.
After the war, Howe kept on working for justice. She worked to get women the vote, and she worked for peace. In 1872 after a war between France and Prussia she wrote the “Mother’s Day Proclamation.” For those of you who saw the Facebook post, that’s what the Franco-Prussian War has to do with Mother’s Day – it helped inspire this proclamation. It’s not very long, so I’m going to read it to you.
“Again, in the sight of the Christian world, have the skill and power of two great nations exhausted themselves in mutual murder. Again have the sacred questions of international justice been committed to the fatal mediation of military weapons. In this day of progress, in this century of light, the ambition of rulers has been allowed to barter the dear interests of domestic life for the bloody exchanges of the battle field. Thus men have done. Thus men will do. But women need no longer be made a party to proceedings which fill the globe with grief and horror. Despite the assumptions of physical force, the mother has a sacred and commanding word to say to the sons who owe their life to her suffering. That word should now be heard, and answered as never before.”
“Arise, then, Christian women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or of tears! Say firmly: We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall 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, 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 vindicate 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 council.
“Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them then solemnly take council with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, man as the brother of man, each bearing after his own kind the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.
“In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women, without limit of nationality, may be appointed and held at some place 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.” That was pretty good, I think. It’s not what Mother’s Day proclamations these days sound like, is it!
Anna Jarvis. That sounds familiar too – probably because our first name was Ann Jarvis. This is her daughter. Anna Jarvis lived from 1864 to 1948, and she was an advertising writer by trade. In fact, she was the first female advertising editor for Fidelity Mutual. As far as I know Anna Jarvis never had any children, but she is nevertheless a mother; she is probably the mother of Mother’s Day. She’s the one who took the seeds planted by her mom, and nurtured them and cared for them and grew them into a movement to create a formal national holiday.
Ann Jarvis died in 1905. In 1908 her daughter Anna held a memorial service for her mother and for all mothers in West Virginia. This was really the first Mother’s Day observance. Anna Jarvis quit her job and started working full-time to make Mother’s Day a national holiday. In 1914, President Wilson finally proclaimed Mother’s Day a national holiday.
Traditionally the flower for Mother’s Day is a white carnation. Anna Jarvis chose that flower. She wrote, “Its whiteness is to symbolize the truth, purity and broad-charity of mother love; its fragrance, her memory, and her prayers. The carnation does not drop its petals, but hugs them to its heart as it dies, and so, too, mothers hug their children to their hearts, their mother love never dying. When I selected this flower, I was remembering my mother’s bed of white pinks.”
Do you see some of the difference between the original vision and what Anna Jarvis actually began? Ann Jarvis’s original Mother’s Day Work Clubs were about health and sanitation, she who lost over half a dozen children, and later about peace and reconciliation. Julia Ward Howe’s Mother’s Day Proclamation called for disarmament and the end of war. But when Mother’s Day is finally an official holiday, those aspects of it are de-emphasized and the image of mothers hugging their children to their hearts is brought forward.
It’s easy to be critical of the sentimentality. For me there’s nothing wrong with being sentimental – I’m pretty sentimental myself sometimes. Where it crosses the line into commercialization, where the holiday becomes less about mom and more about money, less about history and more about Hallmark, that’s where it becomes problematic for me.
It’s also an issue when we generalize about mothers, or parents, or frankly about anyone. Mother’s Day isn’t a happy day for everyone. Some people want children but it has never happened, so it can be a painful day for them. Other folks did not have good mothers. They did not have mothers who treated them right. We can’t ignore those people or those feelings.
What we can do is look at what Jesus says in our reading from John. You thought I would never get to that, didn’t you. Just as a reminder, here are verses 9 and 10 again. Jesus is speaking and he says, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.”
Mother’s Day at its best is about love. Not just about loving our mother or our mother loving us; that’s not a universal experience. Mother’s Day at its best is about God’s love. It’s about the vision that Ann Jarvis had back even before the Civil War, a vision of health and wholeness, a vision of a world where children could grow up into adulthood, a vision of peace and reconciliation. It’s about the love that Julia Ward Howe wrote about, the love that leads to a world where “the great human family can live in peace,” where the image on our hearts is not of Caesar but of God. It’s even about the more sentimental imagery of Anna Jarvis, the daughter, as the white carnation draws it’s petals in as it dies, just as Jesus’ death and resurrection draws in all of the lost and the lonely and the poor and the hungry, just as Jesus’ death and resurrection draws in all of us who fall short of what we can be and forgive us and loves us, just as Jesus draws us in and invites us to abide in his love.
This Mother’s Day celebrate the people, whoever they are, who have loved you and supported you and cared for you and inspired you. This Mother’s Day look for ways to reach out to others, to give help and hope, to work for peace and for justice. In doing these things you will truly honor the spirit of Mother’s Day, and you will also abide in God’s love. Amen.