Words Worth Reading: The Mother’s Day Proclamation

As you probably already know, today is Mother’s Day. But I learned something very interesting about the holiday from a sermon today at the Unitarian Universalist church my wife and I attend, and I’d like to share it with you.

Given how rampantly commercial Mother’s Day has become, you might be forgiven for assuming, as I did, that it was dreamed up by the jewelry and greeting-card companies. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Although the holiday did become commercialized soon after it was established, so much so that one of its creators spent the rest of her life protesting it, it was originally created for a very different reason.

In response to the bloodshed of the American Civil War, Mother’s Day was first conceived of as an explicitly pacifist holiday by the radical American feminist, abolitionist, and social activist Julia Ward Howe. Howe’s Mother’s Day Proclamation, written in 1870, expressed her belief that women had a political responsibility to shape the society they lived in by opposing all war and violence. It’s an amazing piece of writing, and if you can overlook the biblical quote added as window dressing, it’s still well worth a read:

Arise, then, women of this day!

Arise, all women who have hearts,
Whether our baptism be of water or of tears!

Say firmly:
“We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will 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, the 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 indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough 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 solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace,
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God.

In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality
May be appointed and held at someplace 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.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Katie M

    I only knew Howe as the writer of “Battle Hymn of the Republic”. Perhaps I’m reading it wrong, but doesn’t “Battle Hymn” seem to glorify war? Or is my perception of it clouded by how I’ve heard it used?

  • unintentionalhypocrite

    This post surprised me a little since here in the UK we had Mother’s Day a couple of months ago (I can never remember the exact day it’s supposed to fall on…) and I assumed the holiday fell on the same day in the States. I think the origin of Mother’s Day here had something to do with servants being permitted a special day off to go and visit their mothers. As for Father’s Day, well, we’ve never celebrated it, as my mother always insisted it was a fake holiday invented by the card companies. Whether or not that’s true, for the sake of equality I don’t see why there shouldn’t be a father’s day. Even though my dad never seemed to mind being overlooked. Not that I do a great deal for Mother’s Day either, besides a greeting and maybe a gift. Now I feel guilty…
    Sorry, just thinking out loud…If anyone has any more info on the origins of both Mother’s and Father’s Days, that would be appreciated ^.^ I could just Wikipedia it, but a discussion is more interesting.

  • http://gazinglongintoanabyss.blogspot.com/ Michael

    Battle Hymn of the Republic also famously quotes Isaiah: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of Lord, he is trampling down the vineyards where the grapes of wrath are stored.” It was intended to be a call for righteous struggle against slavery. Kind of hard to say if that glorifies war directly. Howe wrote this at the beginning of the war though, so after seeing the carnage it changed her mind, if this is any clue.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    @Katie: That is a good question – it does seem strange that a peace advocate like Howe could write such an explicitly warlike hymn. I did a quick search, but didn’t find anything that addresses that discrepancy. Maybe the carnage of the war was what changed her mind and inspired her to become a pacifist?

  • James Hafseth

    “I learned something very interesting about the holiday from a sermon today at the Unitarian Universalist church my wife and I attend, and I’d like to share it with you.”

    Too early on a Monday morning for me to begin to get my head around this…

  • Katie M

    Michael and Adam are right.


    “In 1870, Julia Ward Howe took on a new issue and a new cause. Distressed by her experience of the realities of war, determined that peace was one of the two most important causes of the world (the other being equality in its many forms) and seeing war arise again in the world in the Franco-Prussian War, she called in 1870 for women to rise up and oppose war in all its forms.”

  • NoAstronomer

    As an import to the US, from the UK 20 years ago, it has always amused me how the commercial interests lurch from one holiday to the next* at about one per month…

    New Years->Valentines Day->Easter->Mother’s Day->Labor Day->Father’s Day->July 4th->(bit of a gap in August)->Memorial Day->Columbus Day->Halloween->Thanksgiving->Christmas.

    It’s almost like it was planned this way.


    * Though my recent trips back home indicate that the UK has moved towards this cycle also.

  • Katie M

    You have Labor Day and Memorial Day mixed up :)

    It’s gotten to the point where I see Christmas stuff out in September :/

  • NoAstronomer


    Thank you, yes I did. I still associate Memorial Day with Veterans Day which I also missed out.