Piety, Commercialism, Activism: The Uses of Mother’s Day

by Leigh E. Schmidt

Leigh E. Schmidt is assistant professor of church history in the Theological and Graduate Schools of Drew University and the author of Holy Fairs: Scottish Communions and American Revivals in the Early Modern Period.

This article appeared in The Christian May 8, 1991, pp. 522-524. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org Article prepared for Religion Online by Herb and June Lowe.


The origin of Mother’s Day and its past, present, and future role in local churches.

Here we are on the eve of one of our odder hallowed days. On the second Sunday in May, churches across the country will again honor mothers. Some churches will recognize the oldest mother and, if not a matter of scandal, the youngest or most recent mother. Perhaps, too, congregations will applaud the mother with the most children attending with her. Mothers will wear flowers; preachers will give suitable sermons; choirs will sing fitting hymns. In many churches, especially in evangelical circles, this is one of the high days of the year. Even in those Protestant churches that have tried to recover the traditional Christian year and to minimize extraneous feasts, Mother's Day may still be celebrated.

Some suspect that the churches actually have little reason to recognize this day, that in observing it they acquiesce to a civic and commercial occasion-one more Flag Day in America's civil religion and one more festival of consumption in America's commercialized calendar. Some see Mother's Day as at best an antiquated observance or at worst a patriarchal indulgence, evoking traditional ideals of motherhood and domesticity, when what the churches really need are new liturgies of gender equality and inclusion. Some view Mother's Day as an intrusion on the Christian calendar, a distraction that sometimes falls on Pentecost Sunday, one more anthropocentric feast that impedes Christological celebration. Mother's Day may well be guilty on all counts, but its history is more convoluted, its liturgical enactment and meanings more complex, than such dismissals suggest.

The movement to establish Mother's Day is traceable to a hard-working and well-meaning Methodist laywoman, Anna Jarvis, who spent a good part of her time in the first four decades of this century promoting the new holiday, especially through Sunday schools. When her mother, the daughter and granddaughter of Methodist ministers, died on May 9, 1905, Jarvis in a series of recollections penned for friends and family remembered her mother especially for her evangelical piety and practice: her conversion at age 12; her lifelong work in a Methodist Sunday school in Grafton, West Virginia; her habits of secret prayer, her graces at table; and her abiding affection for her favorite hymns. From Philadelphia, where Jarvis had moved some years before her mother's death, she initially contented herself with simple remembrances, offering memorial gifts in her mother's honor to the Sunday school in Grafton and organizing in May 1907 a special service in commemoration of her mother's long involvement with the church.

By 1908 Jarvis's vision had widened considerably to memorializing her mother by honoring all mothers with their own special day on the second Sunday in May. What inspired this grandiose plan, besides her devotion to her mother, is unclear. Herself a church organist, a Sunday school teacher and a graduate of Augusta Female Seminary, Jarvis was well versed in the red-letter days of American Protestantism. The Sunday schools thrived on special occasions-Christmas programs most prominently, but also such events as Children's Day, Temperance Sunday, Roll Call Day, Decision Day, Missionary Day and Anti-Cigarette Day. The invention of Mother's Day was certainly continuous with this evangelical Protestant world.

Perhaps Jarvis had also heard of the calls of Julia Ward Howe for Mothers' Peace Day celebrations, which Howe had promoted since the 1870s as early-June events in which mothers of the world committed themselves to the cause of world peace. As late as 1893, Howe was still suggesting a Mother’s Day dedicated to peace, wondering forlornly whether women might remake July 4 into such an occasion. Or perhaps Jarvis had heard of the Old World custom of Mothering Sunday, a mid-Lent celebration focused on returning home and paying homage to one's mother. But she never mentioned Howe or Mothering Sunday, never intimated any connection between her special day and other special days in the Sunday schools. She was not one to spread the credit around; this was her idea and her day, and she would always jealously protect it. Indeed, she often ungraciously characterized others who took up the cause and offered their own versions of Mother's Day activities as "grafters," " infringers," "trespassers" or "deadbeat."

Whatever precursors there may have been, Jarvis certainly deserves the lion's share of the credit for inventing Mother’s Day. From 1908 on, her organizational energy, especially her letter-writing cwnpaign, was phenomenal. Protestant luminaries such as William Jennings Bryan, J. Wilbur Chapman and Russell Conwell rang in on her side. Religious organizations, including the World Sunday School Association and the YMCA, lent their support. Jarvis's own church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, formally embraced the holiday at its General Conference in 1912. Jarvis also won Mother's Day endorsements from a string of governors and senators; this political backing found fruition in Woodrow Wilson's presidential proclamation recognizing the holiday in 1914. One Congregationalist paper at the time effused over the rising prominence of Mother's Day on the American calendar: "Not Christmas, nor Easter, nor Children's Day has stirred such depth of sentiment."

This rapid ascent of Mother's Day-in the churches and in the wider culture-was clearly attributable to more than the doings of one pious and dedicated woman. Indeed, the shape it took and the directions it went were quickly beyond Jarvis's control. Mother's Day struck a resonant chord in the culture-with all those unnerved by women's suffrage and urban migration, with Protestants long familiar with the maternal ideals of evangelical womanhood, with business leaders (especially florists) who were quick to see the commercial potential, with politicians who still regularly voiced the Enlightenment precept that virtuous mothers were the essential undergirding of the republic in nurturing sons to be responsible citizens. The new holiday had a web of private meanings and memories for Jarvis, but in its public unfolding, Mother's Day added all kinds of new threads.

Commercialism quickly became one of the dominant threads. Jarvis had envisioned Mother’s Day as "a holy day," even-in a truly grandiloquent moment-as "a divine gift," a Sabbath celebration of maternal affection and perseverance, "not as a holiday" at the disposal of various "trade vandals" and "trade pirates." Embittered by these "greedy tradesmen," she repeatedly lashed out at those who "have feasted on our Cause" and who seemed willing to "take the coppers off a dead mothers’s eyes." She repeatedly fought the florist industry, her arch-nemesis as well as other trade groups, but with little success. At her most severe she urged people not to buy any gifts at all for Mother's Day, especially not flowers and greeting cards, and simply encouraged people to visit home or to write Mother a long letter. At times the churches explicitly joined Jarvis in her resistance; one writer in the Christian Advocate worried that Mother's Day was becoming but "a tool of commercial interests," that the "spiritual values" of this festival of the Christian home were being obscured in an onslaught of "expensive gifts" and "falsely sentimental advertising."

The founding of Mother’s Day in 1908, however, was ill-timed to avoid such commercial influences: the Florists’ Telegraph Delivery Association (FTD) was organized in 1910; the National Association of Greeting Card Manufacturers was formed in 1914; the emergent advertising industry already had a full panoply of trade journals, including Printers’ Ink and the wonderfully named Signs of the Times, which was devoted not to expounding fundamentalist eschatology but to exploring new advertising media. The American calendar as a whole was transformed in these decades into a festal cycle that helped sustain the burgeoning consumer culture. Mother's Day was swept along with the rest.

The pervasive influence of commerce on the observance of Mother’s Day outside the churches is obvious, but even inside the churches the influence was not inconsequential. Denominational publishing houses sold various Mother's Day gimcracks-for example, special Sunday school souvenirs, postcards, bookmarks, bulletins and celluloid buttons. Quick to demonstrate that they shared the

commercial acumen of their compatriots in business, church leaders employed special advertising for Mother's Day services in hopes of packing the house as at Christmas and Easter. More subtly, commerce could shape the very folk liturgy of the celebration. For example, the practice, still observed in many churches, of wearing a red flower in honor of living mothers and a white flower in memory of deceased mothers originated in a florist jingle, promoted tirelessly by the industry in hopes of widening the variety of flowers associated with the day and thus enlarging Jarvis's own emphasis on white carnations. The jingle ran:

White flowers for Mother's memory.

Bright flowers for Mothers living.

As with Rudolph-the-Red-Nosed-Rein-deer (an invention of Montgomery Ward) or Mrs. Santa Claus (a contrivance of Westinghouse), our modern folklore-some have called this "folk- lure"-has often emerged from advertising.

But for all the influence of commerce, the churches have obviously offered their own interpretations of Mother's Day and over the decades have shaped the holiday to their own purposes. In particular, Mother’s Day for Protestants has been the occasion for a running commentary on women's roles, the family and the Christian home.

In the 1910s and '20s (and often enough thereafter) Mother’s Day served as a solace to those who feared that the "new womanhood" was threatening the very institutions of motherhood and the family. Mother's Day offered the assurance, as a writer in the Homiletic Review put it in 1917, that "women are still at their old tasks." The holiday also underscored the traditional themes of motherly influences in matters of evangelism and salvation, themes grown familiar from a century of Protestant maternal associations and female missionary societies. Mother’s Day in the churches painted, as it often still does, a traditional picture

of self-sacrificing domesticity and sentimental piety. The very ceremony of honoring mothers on this day in churches is a ritual way of enclosing all women in motherhood. Mother’s Day gave quintessential if belated expression to what Ann Douglas calls the 19th century's "cult of motherhood," which, as she observes, offered women "flattery in the place of justice and equality."

But in fairness to Anna Jarvis and to all those daughters who rushed to affirm Mother's Day, a small prophetic glint shone amid the old saws on motherhood and home. One of Jarvis's favorite defenses of Mother's Day was a playful litany that she recited on the patriarchy of the American calendar: "Washington's Birthday is for the 'Father of our Country'; Memorial Day for our 'Heroic Fathers'; 4th of July for 'Patriot Fathers’; Labor Day for 'Laboring Fathers’; Thanksgiving Day for ‘Pilgrim Fathers’; and even New Year's Day is for ‘Old Father Time.’" Of course, Mother's Day hardly constituted an inclusion of all women-not even Jarvis herself, who never married and never had any children. Mother's Day was confessedly not an International Women's Day (March 8) or a Women's Equality Day (August 26), 'both of which offer potential alternatives to Mother's Day, but to which churches have paid little attention.

Yet Mother's Day was a furtive opening to women in the Protestant calendar. A friend of mine remembers Mother's Day as the one Sunday in the year in her rural North Carolina church on which congregants joined in singing "Faith of Our Mothers" instead of "Faith of Our Fathers"-a populist revision that worked uncontroversially because it arose from the people themselves. More broadly, the new holy day also inspired extensive reconsideration within Protestant ranks of the Virgin Mary as Mother of Jesus. A plethora of sermon ideas on this topic (and even a number of illustrations of the Virgin and Child) found space in the May issues of such journals as the Homiletic Review.

Once a part of the calendar, Mother's Day proved a flexible feast, hardly bound to traditional associations. It often provided a liturgical focus for women's groups to raise broader social issues. For instance, as part of the Poor People's Campaign in 1968, Coretta Scott King led a Mother's Day march in support of poor mothers and their children. Under the banner of "Mother Power," she exhorted "black women, white women, brown women, and red women-all the women of this nation"-to take up this ..campaign of conscience." In the 1970s the National Organization of Women employed Mother's Day to stage rallies for the Equal Rights Amendment, to promote access to child-care, and to hold their own "Give-Equality-for-Mother's Day" banquets. In the 1980s the Women's Party for Survival, founded by Helen Caldicott, reappropriated Howe's idea of a Mothers' Peace Day and used the holiday as an occasion for peace demonstrations. Others used Mother's Day to highlight their boycott of multinational corporations selling infant formulas to third World mothers. In the 1990s Mother's Day is becoming in circles such as Wicca and the California group Women Spirit Rising the occasion to honor Mother Earth and the Mother Goddess. Instead of being confined to hidebound formulations, Mother's Day has served to locate cultural debates about women and equality.

Like other holidays, Mother's Day is a "text," ready for variant readings and interpretations. There have been, of course, prevailing perspectives-about women as guardians of the Christian home, about our celebrations as essentially private, domestic affairs, about the need in a consumer society to validate our deepest social relationships through cards, flowers and candies. But there are other possibilities here. The story of Anna Jarvis and her mother reminds us of the Methodist wellsprings of this feast, of an evangelical piety still lit up like a camp meeting. Coretta Scott King, NOW and the Women's Party for Survival remind us of still other uses and enactments of the holiday. Possibly the surest lesson of Mother's Day is how it high-lights the regularly exercised freedom in American Protestantism to invent and reinvent the church year.