Mothering Sunday: Battle Hymn of the Republic

I’ve been here long enough now, that I can say this sentence: I looked back at what I did for the Mother’s Day service last year. I read through the service and I noticed that I managed to get through the whole thing with only a couple of passing references to the fact that it was Mothering Sunday. The reason for this might be quite obvious. I am acutely aware of the fact that for many, Mother’s Day, or Mothering Sunday, conjures a lot of pain and hurt. For many of us, the day highlights, not so much joy and thankfulness, but more the loss in our own lives, the loss of mothers, of wives, and of children, or brokenness in relationships, hurts surrounding thoughts of what could be, or what could have been. So that is one problem or challenge. The other problem is, I don’t know about you, but for me, Mother’s Day conjures up quite a traditional image of motherhood, which is not always helpful in this day and age. In reality, we are “mothered” by many people throughout our lives. By parents, yes, but also by friends, colleagues, carers, male and female. After all, what is mothering? It is to give attentive care and affection to another. And I would like to believe that females don’t have a monopoly on those traits. To suggest as much surely perpetuates stereotypes, which can act to exclude, rather than include. I want to include this morning, include everyone who has mothered or been mothered, and that surely includes everyone.

"While your life is the true expression of your faith, whom can you fear?" - Julia Ward Howe

"While your life is the true expression of your faith, whom can you fear?" - Julia Ward Howe

And so here we gather, for Mother’s Day, this secular holiday which has invaded the Church and our Meeting House. There is a theory that the roots of Mothering Sunday lie in a time when people, instead of going to their regular parish Church on a Sunday, would travel to their Mother Church, their Cathedral. Travelling to your mother church in the 16th Century meant walking along nature’s paths, paths lined with flowers, with daffodils. Coming from a wide-ranging area meant families were drawn together, re-united on this special day. Hence the linking of Spring’s beauty with family ties, with being with your mother. It’s a nice idea. But sadly, an idea which entirely lacks evidence. In reality Mother’s Day didn’t really pick up here in the UK until the1940s. It originated in the United States. Its exact origins are a bit unclear. Calls for it bubbled up from a few different quarters, most notably for us from a woman, Julia Ward Howe. She was an American woman who lived in the latter part of the 19th Century. She was a poet, an author, an abolitionist, a woman suffragist, social activist, a pacifist. And she was a Unitarian. She grew up in New York city, dreaming of becoming a great American writer - the dream of writing The Great American Novel. This she did not do, but she did write the words to a very famous American anthem. You may know it, most famously, as the anthem which incorporated the increasingly famous chorus line in the 19th Century, ‘Glory, glory, halleluiah,’ ‘The Battle Hymn Of the Republic’. Words of longing, written in hopeful anticipation of peace during the American Civil War, during the stress and strain of that conflict.

The Poem - 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic', By Julia Ward Howe. 

Julia Ward Howe was described as being unselfish, an almost a saintly figure on one hand, but also quite fierce, a heroic figure who loved virtue, but also jewellery, an intellectual, but also a lover of joyous nonsense. She liked fashion and parties. There’s a comic book reference here which can be made as well. Later this year, a new Wonder Woman movie is going to be coming out. Now a lot could be said on Wonder Woman, she deserves her own service at some point. The Wonder Woman comic books were written specifically to champion females, and give girls a positive feminine role model. One of these comic books named the Wonder Women of History, of which Julia Ward Howe was one. The central conflict in her life was her disastrous marriage. At the same time she was fighting for the liberation of slaves, she was also fighting to be her own independent woman, within a marriage in which her husband, Samuel Howe, the Doctor, and early advocate for schools for the blind and an abolitionist himself, often overshadowed her. Samuel Howe, despite being this great liberator of people with disabilities, and of slaves, in his own home was not a nice guy. He was very old fashioned in his views about the place of women. He didn’t allow her to publish, to teach, to preach, to participate much in wider society at all. He was a strange, bossy kind of man, very much a man’s man. But despite this, she went ahead anyway and published her poetry behind his back anonymously. As time went on, she became more vocal, he became more angry, and you can imagine the kind of ongoing conflict.

When the American Civil War kicked off, woman were propelled more into the public sphere. In the same way as women became more participatory in wider society here in the UK as a result of the two World Wars, the Civil War in America did the same there. Julia became firm in her resolve to serve the highest needs of humanity, the needs she valued, according to the convictions of her own heart, along very Unitarian lines. It was not until her early 50s that the full weight of her feminist vision of society blossomed. She said that up until this point, she always envisioned masculinity as the real ideal of character, she always secretly wished she had been born a man. But now, things were different. She described it as if a new light of womanhood had come to her, and from this moment onwards she never stopped travelling, writing, and speaking up for women’s rights. She wanted women to emerge triumphantly out of the 19th Century. On her 91st birthday she said to an interviewer that her advice to American women, was to be up-to-date. It was also around this time, in her early 50s, that she wrote a speech called the “Mother’s Day Proclamation”. This speech was not about praising Motherhood, far from it. It was an appeal to women to stand up in the face of the American Civil War, and the Franco-Prussian War, which was also taking place at this time. To stand up for Peace. It was an appeal to women to get more involved in society, and in politics, that they might be advocates of Peace.

Painting of Julia Ward Howe, by John Elliott, 1925. 

She said… Arise, then, Christian women of this day ! Arise, all women who have hearts, 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 of murder is not the balance of justice. Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence vindicate possession.

These are the real roots of Mother’s Day. It was not about sentimentality, it was about standing up for a peaceful world. Its roots lie in our own Unitarian tradition. It was a battle cry for love and peace, in a world filled with pain and sorrow. And so, on this Mothering Sunday, let us affirm those feminine values within each one of us. To be compassionate, to care for one another., as we strive for Peace, Peace in our hearts, and Peace in our world.


Lewis Connolly