Friday, May 9, 2008

A Short History of Mother's Day in America

Portrait of a Mother with Her Eight Children, 1565 8914465

Some historians have pointed back to Julia Ward Howe, author of "Battle Hymn of the Republic," as the originator of Mother's Day. However, her motivation for establishing a Mother's Day for Peace in 1873 was to spread her own pacifist ideals by way of stirring up the women of the world in protest of both the American Civil and Franco-Prussian Wars and against all war in general.

The idea of a day set aside to celebrate mothers in particular may have first begun with the medieval practice in England of observing Mother's Sunday on the fourth Sunday in Lent. In America, however, there were at least three attempts to begin an annual observance before the one we celebrate now.


Mary T. Sasseen suggested at an 1890 teachers' meeting that they celebrate mothers each year on her mother's birthday, April 20, but the idea fell flat. A few years later, Robert Cummins thought an observance to honor his pastor's mother, Mrs. Emily C. Pullman (another son was the inventor of the Pullman sleeping car), should be held on the Sunday closest to her death, May 22. Though a day was set aside by the Universalist Church of Our Father in Baltimore, Md., to honor her, and later all mothers, it never caught on nationally. Yet again, in 1902, Fred E. Hering proposed a day set aside to honor mothers, but his friends in the Eagles' Club weren't as interested in the idea as he was.

Anna May Jarvis, a graduate of the Female Seminary in Wheeling, West Virginia, left her career as a school teacher and spent most of her single, adult life caring for her ailing mother and sister. In 1907, two years after her mother's death, Miss Jarvis gathered a group of friends and announced her idea to encourage a day for people to show appreciation for their mothers, both the living and the dead.

Child Kneels in Prayer at Its Mother's Knee

The first Mother's Day observance was held the following year on May 10 at the Andrews Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia, where her mother had been a Sunday school teacher for twenty years. White carnations, Mrs. Jarvis' favorite flower, were handed out to all participants.

Along with her friends, Miss Jarvis started one of the most influential letter-writing campaigns launched in American history urging law makers to establish an official Mother's Day. Miss Jarvis' efforts finally paid off when, on May 9, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson made the first official proclamation for the observance of the second Sunday in May as Mother's Day.

Mother and Child

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It has been suggested that Anna Jarvis grieved over her selfishness in going away to college and beginning a career instead of spending time at home helping her mother. She intended that the observance of Mother's Day be a reminder for people to express their appreciation for their mothers while they were still living and to strengthen family ties. What was meant to be a religious observance, however, soon became soiled by commercialization to the point that even Anna Jarvis herself could not cope with it.

Mother's and Father's Days are good opportunities for raising awareness of the biblical command to "Honor thy father and thy mother." Yet, what does it really mean to honor our parents? Does it mean rushing around every year trying to get a card and a gift in the mail, usually too late (Ouch)? Does it mean going to Mom's house on Mother's Day for a home-cooked meal . . . cooked by her?! (Oh, yes, this does, indeed, happen.)

Mother Rabbit Feeding Baby Bunny

May the Lord give us the grace to truly honor our parents all throughout our lives, just as Miss Anna Jarvis intended and the Lord commanded in His word.
  • When we see they have a legitimate need, let us do all in our power to meet it.
  • When they seem to want to control us, let us remember that, usually, they only have our best interest at heart -- a mother's heart, a father's heart.
  • When they need help with housekeeping or outdoor chores, may we see the need ahead of time and go the extra mile to be a blessing.
  • When they become ill or burdened with the heavy load of life, may we be willing and available to cheer the faltering heart or to minister at their bedside.
  • When they are alone and destitute, let us be willing to open our homes and requite (pay back) them for all the years of care and sacrifice they have bestowed upon us.
  • When they offer their counsel and wisdom, may we open our ears attentively and, at least, consider what they have to say and not shrug them off and turn away.
  • Most of all, when we think of our mothers, and our fathers, let us lift them up in prayer.
My son, hear the instruction of thy father, and forsake not the law of thy mother: -- Proverbs 1:8

My son, keep thy father's commandment, and forsake not the law of thy mother: -- Proverbs 6:20

He that wasteth his father, and chaseth away his mother, is a son that causeth shame, and bringeth reproach. -- Proverbs 19:26

Whoso curseth his father or his mother, his lamp shall be put out in obscure darkness. -- Proverbs 20:20

Hearken unto thy father that begat thee, and despise not thy mother when she is old. -- Proverbs 23:22

Whoso robbeth his father or his mother, and saith, It is no transgression; the same is the companion of a destroyer. -- Proverbs 28:24

There is a generation that curseth their father, and doth not bless their mother. -- Proverbs 30:11

The eye that mocketh at his father, and despiseth to obey his mother, the ravens of the valley shall pick it out, and the young eagles shall eat it. -- Proverbs 30:17

Honour thy father and mother; (which is the first commandment with promise;) -- Ephesians 6:2

But if any widow have children or nephews, let them learn first to shew piety at home, and to requite their parents: for that is good and acceptable before God. -- I Timothy 5:4


~ Deborah G. Felder, A Century of Women (Secaucus, New Jersey: Carol Publishing Group, 1999).
~ "The History of Mother's Day," The Holiday (09 May 2008).
~ David Wallechinsky & Irving Wallace, "The History and Story Behind Mother's Day," (1981) (09 May 2008).