Ann Jarvis: Honouring mothers

by Graham McDonald 

Mothers have been celebrated over the centuries in various ways and with various traditions, possibly since before ancient Roman times.  

In the 1600s, the Church of England created ‘Mothering Sunday’ in recognition of Mary the mother of Jesus. Later this religious celebration was expanded to include honouring all mothers. As time passed the celebration became less popular in many churches; however, some Anglican churches still celebrate Mothering Sunday to this day.  

Mother’s Day as we celebrate it today had its beginnings in 1858 in the USA, with Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis. She was a Christian lady who worked to help and heal the nation before, during and after the American Civil War. Her strategy was to promote and honour the important role of mothers and help them to create healthier and more hygienic homes. 

As part of her work, she started a ‘Mothers’ Friendship Day’ which eventually developed into an important movement called ‘Mothers’ Friendship Clubs’.  At these clubs Ann would teach the mothers basic nursing and safe sanitation practices to be used in the home. Ann’s brother was a famous doctor and she had learnt these skills from him. 

The child mortality rate was very high at the time. (This means that many babies and young children died.) Ann herself had had eleven children and only three of these had reached adulthood. So many lives were saved as a result of her work to promote healthier households.  

And there was another benefit. Ann offered these clubs and services to people from both sides involved in the American Civil War. When neighbours who’d been on different sides in the War shared together in the services that Ann was offering, it helped them to be reconciled and contributed to healing and reuniting American society. 

When Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis died after a long illness, one of her two daughters, Anna Maria Jarvis, decided to dedicate her life to her mother’s dream of establishing a Mother’s Day to honour all mothers around the world. 

Anna missed her mother greatly and felt that children often failed to appreciate their mothers enough while they were still alive. 

As a Sunday School teacher for twenty years, Anna had many times taught children about the fifth commandment of the Ten Commandments, ‘Honour your father and your mother’. 

She told her friends about her desire to carry on her mother’s work in honouring mothers everywhere, and they supported and encouraged her. The first church service to celebrate Mother’s Day was held at her church and she handed out white carnations, her mother’s favourite flower,  

At first, people observed Mother’s Day by attending special church services and writing letters to their mothers. But Anna’s vision for the day was bigger than this. After she lobbied the government through much letter writing, the second Sunday in May was proclaimed as Mother’s Day in 1910 by the Governors of Oklahoma and West Virginia. The spread of this celebration throughout the USA was breathtakingly fast. By 1911 there was not one state in the USA that did not celebrate Mother’s Day. 

On 9 May 1914, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the second Sunday in May a national holiday for Mother’s Day. It was not long before the Mother’s Day celebration was embraced by other societies as far away as Japan, China, some African nations, and some countries in South America. 

However, the success and spread of the idea of Mother’s Day rapidly led to commercialisation and exploitation of this sacred celebration of mothers. In other words, it became more important to people to sell Mother’s Day gifts than to celebrate mothers and thank God for them. This caused Anna much grief. She went on to spend her inheritance fighting against the abuse of what had begun as a Christian celebration, and said that she “wished she would never have started the day because it became so out of control”. 

In spite of Anna Jarvis’s concerns, Mother’s Day has flourished around the world. People gather on the second Sunday in May to eat together; people phone their mums, send cards and give gifts; and people honour and remember their mothers for the important role they have played in their lives.  

Ann Jarvis and her daughter Anna understood that as well as being thankful to mothers, people should be thankful to God for them. Their original intention in the work they both did was to ensure that mothers were equipped to care for their families, respected, honoured and celebrated as gifts from God – just as the fifth commandment instructed. They knew how important it is to society that parents be held in high respect, and they have helped societies across the world to do this. 

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