Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.
The first reading was the “Mother’s Day Proclamation” by Julia Ward Howe:
Arise, then, 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 is not the balance of justice.” Blood does not wipe out dishonor nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plow 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 counsel. Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each learning after his own time, 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.
The second reading was from “Gitanjali 35” by Rabindranath Tagore:
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom… let my country awake.
Sermon: “Mother’s Peace Day”
It appears that the very first mention of Mother’s Day dates back to 1870. Julia Ward Howe, a Unitarian and author of the popular Civil War song “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” had grown horrified at the actual results of war. She was horrified by how many young men were killed or disabled by war, but she was also horrified by what war did to the moral character of those who fought. A mother herself, she wrote in her proclamation for Mother’s Peace Day: “Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.” Thus she issued her historic call for all mothers everywhere to come together in an international congress of women in order to promote world peace.
After that initial proclamation of Mothers Peace Day in 1870, the idea of a day for mothers to take action together was forgotten until 1907. In that year, an Episcopalian laywoman named Anna Jarvis organized a worship service for mothers at her church in West Virginia. She did so in part to honor her own mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, who had been a peace activist who had worked with Julia Ward Howe, and had supported Howe’s original idea for a Mother’s Peace Day. So our modern Mother’s Day began with a worship service in 1907, which had been inspired by Julia Ward Howe’s original vision of Mother’s Peace Day.
Since 1907, Mother’s Day has continued to evolve. By the mid-twentieth century, Mother’s Day was not centered on a church service. It had become a holiday that upheld a view of women then permeating American society: a woman was supposed to get married young, have lots of children, and subsume her identity in motherhood. This mid-twentieth century myth of motherhood ignored all the women who chose not to marry, or who were unable to have children, or didn’t become mothers for whatever reason. Unfortunately, when Mother’s Day became a day to uphold that old mid-twentieth century myth of motherhood, the original purpose of the day was forgotten. No longer were mothers actively taking control of the destiny of the world. Instead of mothers coming together as peace activists, mothers were supposed to be passive recipients of cards and flowers from their children and husbands. If they were lucky, mothers got taken out to lunch; at least then there was one less meal they had to cook and clean up after.
During the second-wave feminist movement of the 1970s, some feminists began to criticize Mother’s Day: why should women be reduced to being mothers? Why couldn’t we value women for all their contributions to society? These were needed criticisms, helping society to understand that women could be more than stereotypical mothers. At the same time, it turned out that many feminists happened to like Mother’s Day. We liked the thought that there might be a special connection between a mother and the children to whom she had given birth. We liked giving cards or flowers to our mothers. We liked the thought of taking our mothers out to lunch — although in my family, my mother, being a thrifty New England Yankee, was resistant to buying lunch in a restaurant.
In the twenty-first century, Mother’s Day continued to evolve and change. We began to re-evaluate the American myth of motherhood. We began to expand our understanding of what it meant to be a mother. We had already heard from women who had adopted their children, who had pointed out that their connection with their children was just as special as that of biological mothers. At the start of the twenty-first century, increasing numbers of same sex couples began having children, and male couples began to point out that they provided the mothering that their children wanted and needed. In the past decade, increasing numbers of transgender and non-binary people began having children, and they too have pointed out that mothering is not limited to just one gender.
And in the past half century, we have also learned to adopt the the perspective of children when we think about motherhood. For some children, their fathers provide more mothering than their mothers. Some children have cold or distant parents, and get their mothering from people who are not their parents. There are of course a great many children who do get mothering from their biological or adoptive mothers, but we began to understand that those children can get mothering not just from their mothers, but from other people in their lives — fathers and aunts and older siblings and teachers and so on.
We have expanded our understanding of motherhood, and this has come about in part because we have expanded our understanding of gender. It used to be that our society took it for granted that biological sex, gender identity, and gender role were all the same thing. Indeed, some conservative Christians still believe that if your biological sex is female then you are female, and many states in the South are passing laws that uphold this conservative Christian notion of sex gender. Many of those conservative Christians also believe that all women should be ruled by biological males, and should stay at home to raise children; these conservative Christians want to go back to that mid-twentieth century stereotype that the only appropriate role for a biological female is to be a mother.
However, the rest of our society has come to understand that biological sex, gender identity, and gender role can be quite separate. For example — and this is an example that gets the most press these days — our society is coming to understand that there are transgender people whose biological sex happens to be different from their gender identity. But our society is also coming to accept that people can take on a gender role that is different from their biological sex or their gender identity. We are coming to understand that man can be nurturing and can even take on the role of mothering; we are coming to understand that people who do not have children of their own can take on the role of nurturing and mothering.
We are slowly expanding our understanding motherhood to include a wider range of actual experiences. Of course we still celebrate biological females who give birth to new human beings. But now we can also celebrate those biological females who do not fit comfortably into the gender role of nurturing female, and we can also celebrate the biological males who take on the role of a nurturing mother. We can celebrate people of any gender identity, of any biological sex, who take on the gender role of mothering.
This helps us to expand Julia Ward Howe’s original idea of Mother’s Peace Day. Howe knew that anyone who had been a mother would not want to send their child off to war. Anyone who had been a mother would not want to see their child killed or maimed or traumatized by the horrors of war. That is why she ended the original Mother’s Peace Day Proclamation with these words: “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.” Howe’s idea is quite logical and straightforward: If she could just gather all the mothers of the world together in one great room, surely they could find a way to put an end to war. She was thinking about just those biological females who happened to have given birth, but why not include in that gathering all those who people who have filled some sort of mothering, nurturing role? The more people we can find who have filled a nurturing mothering role, the more people there are who will feel committed to ending war.
This might include people who would never be called mothers. Take me, for example. I’m a biological male, my gender identity is male, I’ve never had children of my own. Yet I spent a couple of decades doing religious education, and in my own way I helped raise two or three generations of young people. And there are quite a few people like me, people who didn’t exactly do any mothering, but who wound up doing a lot of nurturing. When add together all the mothers with the non-mothers who did a lot of nurturing, that adds up to a great many people who have put a lot of effort into helping the next generation grow up. And we would all prefer it if the next generation were not killed or maimed or traumatized by war.
I like to think that Julia Ward Howe would have welcomed no just women but nurturing people of all genders to her “general congress of women without limit of nationality.” I suspect Julia Ward Howe would have given the women and mothers the seats of honor in the front of the congress. But she would have welcomed anyone dedicated to keeping our children safe — people of all genders; teachers and social workers and doctors and anyone who nurtured others; aunts and uncles and cousins and older siblings and anyone who didn’t happen to have children of their own but helped raise and nurture children — anyone who has contributed to raising up the next generations. I think Julia Ward Howe would welcomed us all to her great congress.
And to me, this remains the central meaning of Mother’s Day. Not that any of this should interfere with your traditional celebration of Mother’s Day. Do whatever it is that you usually do on Mother’s Day: call your mom, let your children take you out to lunch, take your spouse out to lunch, ignore the whole thing. I don’t mean any of this to interfere with your celebration of Mother’s Day, but perhaps the thought of Julia Ward howe and Mother’s Peace Day will add to your celebration. If we were all better at mothering, perhaps the world would be a better, more peaceful place. If our world leaders learned some mothering skills, if they allowed themselves to be more nurturing, perhaps we would have fewer wars. Maybe that’s too much to ask — it’s hard for me to imagine that Vladimir Putin knows what it is to nurture others. But what if he could change? What if he could become empathetic? What if he could forget his own egotistical ambitions and learn to how to selflessly nurture those people who are not as strong or powerful as he?
What if all our world leaders learned how to be empathetic and nurturing? That is, what if all world leaders lived up to the late nineteenth century ideal of motherhood? What if Julia Ward Howe’s great congress of mothers had actually gathered, and had actually taken on real power? We can imagine that such a congress would have focused on how to nurture and raise the next generation. And if our governments were formed with the goal of nurturing and raising the next generation, perhaps we would finally put an end to war.
Of course Julia Ward Howe’s great congress of mothers was not able to take control of world affairs in 1870. Given the rampant sexism of the time, it was too much to expect that a congress of mothers could in fact take over the world. Nor are the chances for a great congress of mothers much better in today’s world.
That does not mean that we should lose all hope. We can start small. We can honor and support empathetic nurturing wherever we may find it. We can honor every person in our lives who nurtures others with empathy. There are people of all genders who nurture others with empathy. There are people of all ages who nurture others with empathy. Both parents and non-parents can be nurturing influences in the lives of others. We can honor all these people, and we can support them in their efforts to raise the next generation — to raise up a generation that in its turn will be more nurturing and empathetic than we are today. Perhaps one day, everyone will know the central skills of mothering — nurturing, empathy, and kindness.
Until that time comes, may we continue to honor the mothers among us. Those of us who had empathetic nurturing mothers can honor their roles in our lives, and if our mothers are still alive we can send them a card or maybe even take them out to lunch. Those of us who have a spouse who is a mother can honor our spouse. All of us can remember and honor all those people in our lives who helped to nurture us.
And so may I wish all the mothers among us a happy Mother’s Day. May you be honored for all you do, and all you have done. And in the spirit of the original Mother’s Peace Day, may your example of mothering be an inspiration to the rest of the world — so that together we may, in the words of Julia Ward Howe, “take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace.”