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How Three Christian Women Helped Establish a Day to Honor Mothers and Their ‘Matchless Service’ to Humanity


“Mother’s Day was established more than a century ago as a dedication to mothers who sacrificed themselves daily for the sake of their children. This weekend, we celebrate their dedication, for the work they put into their families to honor the Lord and make a home.”


Women of all ages have, at one point or another, pondered the importance of motherhood. Grandmothers lovingly admire the legacy of generations behind them. New mothers painstakingly revel in the seemingly long days ahead of them. Pregnant women eagerly await the day they can hold their baby in their arms. Grieving mothers mourn the loss of what could have been. And young girls envision their lives a few years from now, longing for the day they will have their own little ones call them “Mom.”

This has been the case for hundreds of years, and thanks to three Christian women who put action and philanthropy behind their ponderings, a day has been dedicated to all mothers to revere their admirable roles.

Beginning in the mid-1800s, Ann Reeves Jarvis, Julia Ward Howe, and Ann’s daughter, Anna M. Jarvis, worked to establish a nationwide holiday to show appreciation for the women who work tirelessly to raise generations of children. Nearly half a century later, the day became known, simply enough, as Mother’s Day.

Ann Reeves Jarvis was a young mother of 11 children in West Virginia. In addition to being a homemaker, she was a Sunday school teacher and, in her spare time, an activist. Ann organized “Mothers’ Day Work Clubs” in the mid-1800s to combat unsanitary living conditions which she believed contributed to high infant mortality rates, which were especially common in Appalachia. After losing seven of her own children, Ann sought to educate mothers so that they didn’t have to experience the loss she did. She worked with other women to not only improve the health and sanitization of local communities, but she also organized women to do the work needed to improve the sanitary conditions for Union and Confederate soldiers during the Civil War.

Ann encouraged the women to help the soldiers, regardless of which side their husbands had chosen. After the war ended, she proposed a Mothers’ Friendship Day to encourage peace among former Union and Confederate families. This was Ann’s ultimate desire: to honor the service of mothers. In fact, she taught a Sunday School class on “The Mothers of the Bible.” Afterwards, she said a prayer that her 12-year-old daughter, Anna, overheard and would one day act on:

“I hope that someone, sometime, will found a memorial mothers day commemorating her for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life. She is entitled to it.”

Farther north, there was another woman, Julia Ward Howe, who was working for a similar cause. Howe is most famous for penning the Civil War song “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” but she also volunteered for the U.S. Sanitary Commission. There, she helped hygienically improve the hospital environments to ensure that sick and wounded soldiers were cared for in sanitary conditions. After being involved in the war effort, she desired to see peace brought to her homeland. In Boston in 1870, she called for a “Mother’s Day for Peace ” in her “Mother’s Day Proclamation.”

That proclamation urged women to unite against the cruelty of war and the “waste of life” it brings. Her plea was for women to come together to promote peace, since, after all, it was women who bore the responsibility of bringing mankind into the world. This “first” Mother’s Day took place in Boston for only 30 years before it was forgotten in the years before World War I.

Anna Jarvis, the daughter of Ann Reeves Jarvis, was finally able to see her mother’s wishes of a “Mothers’ Friendship Day ” come to fruition in the early 1900s. Despite never being married or having children, Anna desired to fulfill the dream that her mother prayed for when she was just a little girl. She spent years tirelessly writing telegrams and letters to public figures and civic organizations, urging them to establish an official “memorial day for women.” Anna also wrote, printed, and distributed booklets to advance her desire to honor her mother’s work and establish a day to cherish all mothers.

The first Mother’s Day took place on May 10, 1908, at the Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia. This was the same church in which Anna’s mother once taught Sunday school. Anna chose to memorialize her mother on that day and honor her lifelong wishes. By 1911, almost every state in the Union celebrated “Mother’s Day,” and by 1912, some states had declared it an official holiday.

Because of Anna’s persistence, she was able to garner support from politicians in Washington D.C. The 1912 General Conference of The Methodist Episcopal Church recognized her as the founder of the holiday, and in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill to officially recognize the second Sunday of May as “Mother’s Day” to honor those mothers whose sons had died in war.

It wasn’t long, however, before the day became commercialized with flowers, cards, and candy. The day became less about motherhood and more about companies profiting off of Anna’s efforts. Later in her life, Anna became one of the most outspoken opponents of the holiday, regretting even starting the tradition.

Mother’s Day is a day first set aside to celebrate women like Ann Reeves Jarvis — the ones who have shaped our own lives and sought the betterment of society through child-rearing to the glory of God. It’s an appreciation for the mundane, the sacrifices, and the silent but often unnoticed tasks that are done as an act of obedience to God.

Mother’s Day is for celebrating women of all walks of life who “mother” others. Mother’s Day is for women who bear the archetype of mothering others, whether that be their own children, adoptive, or foster children; children who have passed away; younger women they have mentored; or fellow church members they have served. Mother’s Day should be a day to honor and revere the work that our mothers, our grandmothers, and our great-grandmothers did to shape their families and the legacies left behind.

For some, Mother’s Day may be just another day. But mothers around the world are deserving of recognition for their tireless sacrifices and efforts to care for and nurture others. Whether laboring for hours as she welcomes her child into the world; spending many late nights awake consoling her crying baby; kissing the wound on her six-year-old’s first scraped knee; crying with her daughter as she experiences her first heartbreak; cheering on her son as he hits his first home run; stewarding her family well so her husband and children can enjoy and thrive in the home she has made; cooking meals for families who have lost loved ones; discipling young women enduring difficult trials; or spending hours in fervent prayer for the well-being of her children and the salvation of their souls — women who have embraced their ability to “mother” others should be honored.

If there’s any biblical indication of the importance of motherly influence, Timothy might be the greatest example. In 2 Timothy 1:5, Paul writes to Timothy:

“I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well.”

Timothy’s father was an unbelieving Greek, so Paul makes an effort to commend Timothy’s mother and grandmother for their steadfastness in the faith and their discipling of Timothy, who became an earnest and faithful leader in the early Church. Paul goes on to encourage Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:14:

“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”

It is clear from Scripture that, like fathers, mothers are given a tremendous responsibility to train their children up in the faith and, thus, have a unique, outsize influence on them. Mother’s Day was established more than a century ago as a dedication to mothers who sacrificed themselves daily for the sake of their children. This weekend, we celebrate their dedication, for the work they put into their families to honor the Lord and make a home.

Follow Reagan on Twitter! @thereaganscott

Ready to dive deeper into the intersection of faith and policy? Head over to our Theology of Politics series page where we’ve published several long-form pieces that will help Christians navigate where their faith should direct them on political issues.

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