When I went to seminary I was startled to find that there was a rebellion against celebrating Mother’s Day as a liturgical day in the church.
Some of the reasons were compelling: Some women have desperately tried to have children and haven’t been able to, some mother’s are abusive or neglectful, some women have lost children tragically, a celebration of biological motherhood isn’t the only thing womanhood is good for, etc…
But the problem was then the same problem I have today when I start reading the pleas not to celebrate Mother’s Day as a part of worship: I am a Methodist from West Virginia. One simply cannot be a Methodist in West Virginia and ignore Mother’s Day–it’s an abomination here… after all, Mother’s Day was born in a Methodist Church in West Virginia to celebrate the life of a West Virginia Methodist mother.
But as I skimmed through the articles showing up in my email and on Facebook over the past couple of weeks directing pastors away from a celebration of Mother’s Day, I can’t help but think these folks don’t even know what Mother’s Day is really about.
Here’s the thing–Anna Jarvis, who lobbied for a nationally recognized Mother’s Day was disgusted by the commercialization of it and wound up spending her last years fighting against it… and she was right. That greeting-card version of Mothers’ Day was a sick perversion of what she had in mind to honor her own mother and it needs to go.
However, scrapping the holiday all together I think is a mistake when we take a look at how Mother’s Day began and the woman who inspired it:
Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis was a visionary and forward-thinker of her day. Born in Culpeper, VA in 1832, her family moved to Philippi, VA (now West Virgina) as a young child when her father, a Methodist minister, received a new appointment in the region. She eventually married the son of a Baptist preacher and together they would have thirteen children, though only four would live to adulthood.
Life in the Appalachian Mountains in the 1800s was anything but desirable. Infrastructure and sanitation systems did not exist. Hard scrabble farmers had been making a living in the region for a while, but the population was beginning to grow only because of new industries that were popping up. Housing was often thrown up quickly, especially for the laborers. Indoor plumbing wasn’t common and many had privies that opened directly over the river or outhouses that were located too close to wells and other water sources.
Disease was common. Infant mortality was high. And Ann Marie wasn’t going to take it sitting down.
Ann Marie began organizing local women into Mothers’ Day Work Clubs which were tasked with improving sanitation and hygiene while also educating women about the causes of disease and infant mortality. She recruited her brother, Dr. James Reeves, who had been active in typhoid epidemics in the region, to help, lending medical authenticity to her efforts.
Long before any state requirements existed for inspecting milk, Ann Marie and her women were inspecting the milk of local farmers to ensure a healthy quality. They were pressuring politicians for better infrastructure. They were raising funds to employ local women to care for families in which the mothers were ill. They provided much-needed and difficult to obtain medication. They were making their communities better places, one task at a time.
But the Civil War erupted. The Appalachian region was suddenly inundated with Confederate and Union armies fighting their war on that previously ignored land. Like all border states, western Virginia was torn apart by conflicting sympathies. This was only made worse when midway through the war, western Virginia broke away and formed the new state of West Virgina.
Ann Marie and her Mothers’ Work Day Clubs shifted their emphasis from community development to meeting the needs being caused by war. She encouraged total neutrality from the women and regardless of their individual opinions, they provided relief and care for all soldiers. It didn’t matter the color of the uniform, each soldier was someone’s son, and these mothers cared for each and every one.
Their reputation soared amongst the brass–when disease began to spread through the ranks, the Mothers Work Day Clubs were brought in to provide support for the ailing troops.
Ann Marie was so dedicated to remaining neutral for the sake of caring for these troops that when the Methodist church began to explore the possibility of splitting into a northern and southern branch, she rejected the idea. Unity was more important than anything else. Unity was the focus of her women, and it should’ve been the focus of her religion as well. The war would not last forever, but the love they were showing would.
And the war did not last forever. Eventually it came to an end. But when a person lives on the battleground of a war zone–when one had to go to war against his own neighbors and family–the hard and hurt feelings don’t end with a peace treaty.
Conflicts would continue to arise for years afterward. There were constant threats of violence. There were some who refused to lay down their weapons.
In the midst of this tension, Ann Marie and her women were once again called upon.
In 1868, Ann Marie staged the first Mother’ Friendship Day. There were threats of violence. Many who gathered in front of the Taylor County Courthouse came with weapons on their hip, ready to begin firing at the first sign of trouble. There was a mix of blue and gray filling the street when a band fired up with Dixie, to the delight of Confederate sympathizers. Then Star Spangled Banner boomed through the street to the cheers of Union sympathizers before all joined together in Auld Lang Syne.
By the time Ann Marie was finished with her message of reconciliation and unity, war-hardened soldiers had been reduced to tears. No violence erupted that day. The healing had begun.
Ann Marie knew tragedy. She knew hard times. But she didn’t let those ugly events destroy her vision of living in the heavenly kingdom and she didn’t let all the evil of war and hatred to steer her away from following Jesus.
She taught and organized Sunday School for twenty-five years and became a very popular speaker at community and religious events. She covered a wide range of topics from theology to public health care to the importance of literature.
When her daughter, Anna, began campaigning for a day to memorialize mothers, she was thinking of a day to honor the work women like her mother had performed: how they had made the world a better place, how they had taken tragedy and turned it into triumph, and how they had fought to save lives when the world was fighting to steal life away.
What’s so wrong with celebrating that in our churches?
So forego the roses and carnations, forego the greeting cards–and reclaim the revolutionary, visionary, world-changing spirit of Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis and her Mothers’ Work Day Clubs.
Learn more about Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis: