Not Your Mothers' Mother’s Day (sermon)

Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Pittsfield on May 11, 2014

The Hallmark Card Company notwithstanding, your mother’s and grandmother’s and even perhaps great grandmother’s Mothers’ Day was called into being by a mother-daughter team. In the first decade of the 20th century, Ann Reeves Jarvis of West Virginia began organizing Mothers’ Day Work Clubs to help improve health and sanitation though women’s education.

She had a wish that there would be wider recognition of the importance contributions and challenges that mothers face, naming it “matchless service she renders to humanity.” Support for this idea grew in her church (she was Methodist) and in other churches in her area. After her death, her daughter, Anna Jarvis, petitioned president after U.S. president until Woodrow Wilson declared and signed into law an annual national day dedicated to the appreciation of the role of mother. That was 1914, one hundred years ago.

But before that call ~ a good two or so generations before ~ for what would become our modern Mother’s Day, there was Julia Ward Howe’s 1870 “Appeal to womanhood throughout the world,” which later became known as “Mother’s Day Proclamation.” We heard that proclamation earlier in our worship service:


Julia Ward Howe. Image is in the public domain


Arise, then, women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts, whether our baptism be of water or oftears! Say firmly: We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies.

Written as a pacifist response to the American Civil War, as well as to the Franco-Prussian War, Julia Ward Howe is more famous for her penning of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” than for this anti-war statement:

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.

Raised by an Episcopalian father who was a strict Calvinist, Ward Howe came into Unitarian environs in the 1840s, hearing lectures by William Ellery Channing and Margaret Fuller. This interface led to her shifting both theology and political engagement in the world.

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.

I shall hold off on reciting the rest of the proclamation to consider two other important councils of women – one that took place even before this call by Julia Ward Howe but about which I have no doubt she knew. And a council of women that she could not have known about because it took place just last month, once again in the throws of violence, once again women ~ mothers ~ proclaiming the need for peace and justice.

Just twenty-two years before the Mother’s Day Proclamation, in 1848, there convened a group of about 300 people. They were primarily women, but there were also men present and participating. They gathered in Seneca Falls, New York. The principal organizers of the convention were Lucretia Coffin Mott, Martha Coffin Wright, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. By the end of their multi-day meeting, there emerged the Declaration of Sentiments (penned primarily by Cady Stanton)– also known as the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments, signed by 68 women and 32 men. Frederick Douglass, who was present at the Convention and was one of the original signatories, described the document as foundation for the “grand movement for attaining the civil, social, political and religious rights of women.”[1]


Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Image is in the public domain

Initially following the format of the United States Declaration of Independence, the document’s middle section is a litany of serious “sentiments,” prefaced with the statement,

The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpation on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.

Candid facts that touch on the right to vote (or lack thereof); the severely curtailed role of women in religious settings; the absence of autonomy and agency of women within many civic institutions, including marriage and education. This document pulls no punches, the last three sentiments being

  • He has created a false public sentiment by giving to the world a different code of morals for men and women, by which moral delinquencies which exclude women from society, are not only tolerated but deemed of little account in man.
  • He has usurped the prerogative of Jehovah himself, claiming it as his right to assign for her a sphere of action, when that belongs to her conscience and her God.
  • He has endeavored, in every way that he could to destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.

I raise this declaration to your attention because, though it is not specifically about mothers or Mother’s Day, it is mother (or grandmother) to Julia Ward Howe’s “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” which may well not have been birthed had there not been the what has come to be called the Seneca Falls Convention on Women’s Rights.

Though Unitarian Universalism can legitimately claim connection to that Mother’s Day Proclamation, given that Julia Ward Howe married a Unitarian and became one herself, we cannot claim much when it comes to the Seneca Falls efforts (as far as my minimal research revealed – I welcome correction). Yet, my mind and heart is reminded of the second source of our Unitarian Universalist Living Tradition, which says our faith’s inspiration, strength, and authority comes from

Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love

And I could end this sermon now, for there is a long and reputable practice of historical sermons in Unitarian Universalism. But for me, history is most compelling when I understand the past through the lens of the now (or understand the now through the lens of the past).

So I considered these great declarations, these powerful comings together of women (and some men) on behalf of an urgent need for justice, and I thought of Nigeria and I thought of the mothers of the nearly 300 kidnapped girls (an consensus on the exact number is hard to come by in news reports) – their mothers (and aunts, and some fathers and uncles) who have raised a ruckus to bring the world’s attention to the violence exercised against these girls, both Muslim and Christian, in their attempt to gain an education.

Whenever I am trying to understand the latest violence in Nigeria, one of my go-to sources is Eliza Griswold, who wrote the book, The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam. So when I began to pay attention to this kidnapping, and to the campaign called “#Bring Our Girls Back,” I looked to what Griswold had to say. She has spent a lot of time in Nigeria. She has been to the stronghold of the terrorist kidnappers, Boko Haram, and she barely escaped with her life. As Griswold notes, it is no coincidence that the kidnapping took place on “April 14, the night before their final exam at the Government Girls Secondary School in the northeastern Nigerian town of Chibok.”

This is fundamentalist religion at its worst, using gender-based violence to stop girls from seeking an education. I am very intentional and clear here, naming this not an issue of Islam per se, but of fundamentalist religion of all ilk. We are seeing it in Nigeria. We have seen it with Joseph Kony in Northern Uganda in 1996, when he, too, kidnapped girls at a school and burned it down. And we have seen it elsewhere, for instance in the heroic struggle in Pakistan whose most visible shero is Malala Yousafzai.

I look to these struggles, which are complex and which I know I do not fully understand and I am reminded of one of the sentiments from the Seneca Falls Declaration:

He has denied her the facilities for obtaining a thorough education – all colleges being closed against her.

This heartbreaking pattern of gender violence, present in all cultures, present in all historical eras in one form or another, can leave us discouraged and demoralized. We must be especially careful to not oversimplify these events, for though they are of a fundamentalist religious nature, they are also inextricably linked to climate change and to the ever growing division of the wealthy getting richer and the poor becoming ever more desperate.

Yet it is women gathering together, banding together to amplify their voices and their declarations, that give us hope. Women – like Naomi Mutah Nyadar and Saratu Angus Ndirpaya — and some men, like Lawan Abana, in Nigeria who are calling their government and the world to account, to take seriously the lives of girl children and the future of this whole spinning planet. They have faced ridicule and loss of freedom by their government – embarrassed by the world’s attention and in denial regarding the facts of the abduction, the wife of the Nigerian president had Naomi Mutah Nyadar jailed overnight for false witness, as she was not actually a mother of one of the kidnapped girls.

May we hear their voices and heed their call.  Let us consider Julia Ward Howe’s proclamation and adapt it to our current challenge:

We, humans of one country, will be too tender of those of another country, to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs or their daughters to be stolen away with indifference and silence as our response.

May we all be part of that influence and power that moves the arc of the moral universe as it bends toward justice.

Amen. And blessed be.


[1] North Star, July 28, 1848, as quoted in Frederick Douglass on Women’s Rights, Philip S. Foner, ed. New York: Da Capo Press, 1992, pp. 49-51; originally published in 1976



Griswold, Eliza.

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