This is an article written by Ryan Reeves on thegospelcoalition.org
Mother’s Day is an ingrained part of the American world. It is one of the rare holidays that is shared equally both inside and outside the church. So don’t forget to call your mom….
But the history of Mother’s Day is a story worth telling. It’s a funny part of our year, since it both has historic roots in the church and yet also is in some respects a modern invention.
The earliest evidence of the modern Mother’s Day arose in the medieval world. In Britain (and occasionally in other parts of Europe) the fourth Sunday in Lent came to be known as ‘Mothering Sunday’. Today this is celebrated in the UK and Ireland much the same as Mother’s Day in America, but its roots were somewhat different.
The observance of Mothering Sunday originally was an opportunity for Christians to return to their ‘mother church’—where they were baptized, raised, and educated. The folk way of describing this was to say someone was going ‘a-mothering’. Not surprisingly the holiday was infused with great significance due to the honoring of the Virgin Mary, but in this case the focus was more about tying one to their church community. You were to attend your mother church and give thanks for your upbringing.
Naturally the return home allowed for something of a family reunion. Mothering Day thus came to be associated with celebrating your own mother. It became normal to give mothers small gifts in their honor, though in a few occasions there were corporate occasions of the church celebrating all mothers of children.
HISTORY OF MODERN MOTHER’S DAY
The modern version of Mother’s Day in America was founded by Anna Jarvis in the aftermath of the Civil War. Anna was profoundly impacted by her mother, who was something of a hero during the war, tending to soldiers, binding wounds, and feeding the hungry. Many women in the war had served heroically but thanklessly. Anna herself recalls her mother praying that one day mothers would be celebrated for their thankless work.
When her mother passed away in 1905, Anna began to construct an idea for a public day of honor for mothers. Anna was not entirely secular in her aims. Though she often moved around, she was heavily involved in church life, especially at Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church (known today as the ‘Mother’s Day Shrine’). It was Anna’s idea at their second gathering for Mother’s Day to hand out white carnations, since they were her mother’s favorite.
The grassroots movement to celebrate mothers quickly picked up steam, and it even enlisted local leaders. By 1910, West Virginia became the first state to ratify the celebration of Mother’s Day, and by 1914 a joint resolution from Congress was approved by Woodrow Wilson to make the second Sunday in May officially Mother’s Day.
The rise in popularity of Mother’s Day is not hard to guess—people love their mothers. But the importance of this holiday could not have been more poignant than it was during the two world wars. Mothers sent their sons off to die, and many mothers worked tirelessly at home or abroad to support the frontline troops in Europe. Those soldiers fortunate enough to make it home found in Mother’s Day a time to celebrate the comforts of the world they had fought to defend.
Ryan Reeves is Associate Professor of Historical Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also serves as Dean of the Jacksonville campus.