Mothers’ Day.

19 May

Julia’s Voice Heard Today
Delivered at First Unitarian Church on May 8, 2011

In our meditation a few moments ago, we recognized the varying forms that motherhood can take. Some of us come to today celebrating our connections with our mothers, some of us mourn their loss, some of us are angry or sad or confused. It can be a difficult day to stand up here and try to say something that is relevant to everyone.

So today, I’m going to go back to the origins of the day. As you heard when I was talking to the kids, Mothers’ Day was actually originated up by Julia Ward Howe, who, in 1870, wrote the Mothers Day Proclamation that we read as a responsive reading. Now, the name “Julia Ward Howe” might sound familiar to many of you. There’s good reason for that, for she is the woman who wrote the words to the anthemic “Battle Hymn of the Republic” after an experience she had with soldiers in the Civil War.

Julia Ward was born in 1819, in New York City, into a strict Episcopalian family. Her mother died when she was young. When Julia’s father died, her guardianship became the responsibility of a more liberal-minded uncle and aunt. As time passed, Julia herself grew more and more liberal — on religion and on social issues.

When she was 21, Julia married the reformer Samuel Gridley Howe and became a Unitarian Christian. Until her death, she retained her belief in a personal, loving God who cared about the affairs of humanity, and she believed in a Christ who had taught a way of acting, a pattern of behavior, that humans should follow. She was a religious radical who didn’t see her own belief as the only route to salvation; she, like many others of her generation, had come to believe that religion was a matter of “deed, not creed.”

This was the heyday of Unitarianism in the United States. Julia met and corresponded with Reverends William Ellery Channing and Ralph Waldo Emerson. She established a friendship with Margaret Fuller, and for a time attended the church of Theodore Parker. She later worked hand in hand with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and with Dorothea Dix.

Now Samuel Gridley Howe, Julia’s husband, admired her ideas, her quick mind, her wit, and her active commitment to causes he also shared. But Samuel was a product of his time and social location, and he believed that married women shouldn’t have a life outside the home, that they should support their husbands and that they shouldn’t speak publicly or be active themselves in the causes of the day.

So Julia stayed home. And studied philosophy on her own, learned several languages — at that time a bit of a scandal for a woman — and devoted herself to her own self-education as well as to the education and care of their children. She began, despite his opposition, to get more involved in writing and in public life.

As a result of their voluntary work with the Sanitary Commission, in 1862 Samuel and Julia Howe were invited to Washington by President Lincoln. The Howes visited a Union Army camp in Virginia across the Potomac. There, they heard the men singing the song which had been sung by both North and South, one in admiration of John Brown, the other in celebration of his death: “John Brown’s body lies a’mouldering in his grave.”

A Unitarian minister in the party, James Freeman Clarke, knew of Julia’s published poems, and urged her to write a new song for the war effort to replace “John Brown’s Body.”

The result was a poem, published first in February 1862 in the Atlantic Monthly, and called “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The poem was quickly put to the tune that had been used for “John Brown’s Body” and became the best known Civil War song of the North.

Living through the Civil War, Julia saw some of the worst effects of war — death, disease and economic devastation. She worked with the widows and orphans of soldiers on both sides, and realized that the effects of war go beyond the killing of soldiers in battle.

Distressed by her experience of the realities of war, determined that peace was one of the most important causes of the world and seeing war arise again in the Franco-Prussian War, in 1870 she called for women to…

Rise up and oppose war in all its forms, to come together across national lines, to recognize what we hold in common above what divides us, and commit to finding peaceful resolutions to conflicts.

She issued her Mothers Day Proclamation to gather together women in a congress of action.

Mothers Day for Peace was observed for several years. But it was left to a woman named Anna Jarvis to push to make Mothers Day a national holiday honor to the important work of mothers. In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson declared the first national Mothers Day, and the celebration’s emphasis on peace was lost.

Julia preached often in Unitarian and Universalist churches. Beginning in 1873, she hosted an annual gathering of women ministers, and helped to found the Free Religious Association.

When Julia Ward Howe died in 1910, four thousand people attended her memorial service. Samuel Eliot, head of the American Unitarian Association, gave the eulogy.

That’s but a brief sketch of Julia’s rich life. Let’s go back to her experience with the Civil War, and in particular with the Sanitation Commission. The Commission, which was run by another Unitarian minister, Henry Whitney Bellows, “was an official agency of the United States government, created by legislation signed by President Abraham Lincoln, to coordinate the volunteer efforts of women who wanted to contribute to the war effort of the Union states during the American Civil War.” These volunteer efforts ran the gamut from raising money, collecting donations, working as nurses, running kitchens in the Army camps, administering hospital ships, and making uniforms. After the war, the commission worked with Union Veterans to secure their bounties, back pay, and apply for pensions.

In her work with the commission, Julia saw the horrors of war – up close and personal. And it had a profound effect on her. The idea that other mothers would experience some of what she did, even far away or in a different nation, led her to write her Proclamation.

Arise then…women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!

It did not matter to Julia where you came from or what you believed. Let us join together, she said, regardless of creed or country and work for something bigger than all of us.

We will not have questions answered 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 to those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

It is startling to me, these lines from her Proclamation; how much they still ring true. Today, we ask questions about war: as mothers, fathers, citizens, and we are often answered by irrelevant agencies. Not only are our sons taken from us, but our daughters; our parents. We struggle to find a way to support our troops while oftentimes we are repulsed by what they are asked to do.

I am reminded of the 10,000 Maniacs song “Gun Shy” that wisely says “they’re so good at making soldiers but they’re not so good at making men.” There’s a staggeringly high suicide rate among returning soldiers right now. Besides the horrors they have seen, I can’t help but think that part of their despair comes from having to participate in actions that are directly opposed to the positive values they have been taught by their families; values like charity, mercy and patience. Being forced to act against your values can break your spirit…

From the voice of a 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.

How fascinating that earlier this week, we learned of the death of Osama bin Laden. Many people cheered and celebrated his death. I could not. While it sounds as though our troops had as good of a process as is possible in such a situation, I do not believe that bin Laden’s death brings justice. Nor do I believe that it will bring peace. Relief, perhaps, but I suspect that it is short lived. What does it mean, to “win” this war? Is such a thing even possible? What place can war have in the interdependent web?

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…

And so here we are, on Mothers day once again, only not Julia’s version. Many of you may be in the situation I am in: the cards won’t arrive on time, the flowers might. I will be making a few phone calls later today. And so a worthwhile day is eclipsed by Hallmark sentimentality.

I’m not saying that it wasn’t a good idea for Anna Jarvis to take this idea and turn it into a celebration of the jobs of motherhood. Heck, mothers are so taken-for-granted we surely deserve a day to have all we do celebrated – just please don’t ask us to clean up after the breakfast in bed, or art project you made for us.

But I ask: how can we celebrate motherhood with a deep sense of integrity when our mothers and our children are in harms way? How can Julia’s voice, calling for peace, be heard today? Can it be heard? Yes, though faint, perhaps, her voice can be heard.

Julia’s voice will be hear this afternoon, in the Kansas City Metro Area. There, Moms Against the War will be Standing for Peace, as they have for the last four years. This act has been well-publicized and is a multi-faith effort that was originally organized by the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church.

Julia’s voice has been heard in the Brave New Foundation’s sponsoring of a Mothers Day for Peace – you may have seen some of their ads, featuring the likes of Felicity Huffman, Gloria Steinem, Alfre Woodard, and more. With al-Qaeda having been driven from Afghanistan, combined with the the death of bin Laden, they believe there is no more justification for spending $2 billion a week on the war on terror. They are sponsoring a online petition, entitled “Osama Bin Laden is Dead. Bring the troops home.”

Julia’s voice was heard on Friday in Washington, DC, where for the seventh year, in honor of Mothers Day, the Peace Alliance delivered pies and information packets to Congressional Representatives across the country, detailing their campaign to create a U.S. Department of Peace and Nonviolence. Their point is that a Department of Peace and Nonviolence would take a very small slice of the federal budget.

Julia’s voice is being heard today, though it may sound faint over the roar of battle. We have an opportunity to change that – to make the call for peace rise above the sounds of war. Particularly now.

Even with no notice or planning, there are things you could do, today and this week, to remember and honor what Mothers’ day was originally about:

  • You might donate money in a mothers’ name to a peace-oriented cause such as the Peace Alliance, or sign the Brave New Foundation’s online petition;
  • You could join the candlelight vigil for peace at the corner of Bardstown Road and Douglass Blvd, from 5-6 this evening;
  • On any Friday, you could join a noon vigil for Peace in the Middle East, at the corner of 6th and Broadway;
  • Or write a note to thank someone in the military for their service and include your wish that they come home soon;
  • Or, you could form a group here, at the church, similar to Julia’s Voice in Kansas City, which works to reclaim Mother’s Day as a day of peace.

The thing about peace is that it doesn’t just happen, it takes effort, and it takes participation; mothers and fathers, children and grandchildren.

As Julia prayed….


May our great human family one day live in peace…
Each bearing after his or her own time the sacred impress, not of government, not of politics, But of God, the spirit of life, the mystery of the universe.

May it be so. May we make it so.

Vast portions of the life of Julia Ward Howe were taken, unattributed, from the Julia’s Voice website. Sorry, that is just part of the difference between the written and spoken word.

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