Article

Tabitha Abel

and her husband, Gary, live in rural southern Oregon. Tabitha teaches online and works as a nurse at the local community hospital.

How Did Mother's Day Get Started?

Reflecting on the United Kingdom and the United States

It was Friday, and school was out. My sister and I were dallying in front of the flower shop. Spilling onto the pavement were cut spring flowers: daffodils, tulips, narcissi, carnations, and, of course, roses. It was early in the 1960s in southern England, and Mothering Sunday was just two days away.

“Mum won’t want cut flowers,” my older sister Rebecca told me. “They’ll die too soon.” Two years her junior, I was quick to agree with her wisdom, so we ventured inside with our money jangling in our blazer pockets. We had no clue as to what to buy, but we reasoned that if it were growing in a pot, it could be planted outside and hopefully bloom again another year. We left the flower shop with a small pot of crimson-and-yellow primulas. On Mothering Sunday we would present our mother with the flowers and a card—and hope that she felt appreciated.

Mothering Sunday in the United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, Mothering Sunday, the “mother” of all Mother’s Days, still falls on the fourth Sunday of Lent. In was in A.D. 325 at the Council of Nicea that the Catholic Church regularized Lent as the 40 days (excluding Sundays) preceding Easter Sunday. 1 In that same year Constantine also accepted the pagan festival of Easter, harmonizing it with Christian beliefs, and set the date for Easter as the Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox. Easter, therefore, always takes place between March 22 and April 25,2 and so Mothering Sunday also moves around the spring calendar.

In seventeenth-century England it was common for children to leave home at a very young age to work in service or as apprentices. 3 Churchgoers generally worshipped at their nearest parish, or “daughter,” church, but it became a tradition for people to return to their home, or “mother,” church one day a year. The fourth Sunday in Lent was the time for those in service to go “a-mothering.”That Sunday at the “mother” church, churchgoers would express thankfulness and love to mothers.4 Thus a lasting connection was made between the Christian Church calendar and Mothering Sunday.

Mother’s Day in the United States

Approximately 200 years later in the United States, in 1858, “Mothers Friendship Day” was initiated by Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis to promote improved sanitation and healing in homes and families. 5 In 1870 Julia Ward Howe, author of the words to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” promoted a “Mother’s Day for Peace,” which was an appeal to women to rise up against war.6

But it was Anna Jarvis, Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis’ daughter, who eventually introduced Mother’s Day to the United States on May 10, 1908, in Grafton, West Virginia, in honor of her mother, who died in 1905. 7 Anna and her friends continued to promote Mother’s Day to “honor mothers both living and dead,”8 and in 1914 President Woodrow Wilson declared Mother’s Day a national holiday, to be held each year on the second Sunday of May as a public expression of love and reverence for the mothers of our country.9

So Mother’s Day was born, with countries celebrating mothers the world over.

Motherhood in Transition

Mother’s Day quickly became commercialized, and motherhood continued to transition. The American Feminist Movement in the 1960s-1970s resulted in a shift for many women from being full-time homemakers to also working
outside the home and giving more emphasis to careers. With the rise in living standards a mother’s earnings were deemed essential to many family budgets, and mothers became phenomenal multitaskers, endeavoring to balance careers, support school activities, run a “taxi service” for their children to and from extracurricular activities, prepare family meals . . . and countless other jobs. For some, spending time raising their children became less of a priority.

Sometimes we look back on the centuries-old “good old days” with rose-colored glasses, but life was not perfect then, either. Seventeenth-century England, for example, wasn’t filled with mothers who had endless time to give to their children. Families had to work hard to survive, and many children actually died early in life. 10 Rape, incest, starvation, and other social issues were rampant. But even today, when most people at least in North America and Britain live fairly comfortable lifestyles, families are falling apart. According to Barna Research, divorce is growing in Western Christian families,11 and single-parent families are increasing.12 Women who are full-time mothers often feel “trapped” at home or stifled.13 Some don’t understand the importance attached to the role of motherhood.

In 1968 Arthur S. Maxwell alluded to Proverbs 22:6, where we are instructed to “train up a child in the way he should go” (RSV), 14 when he wrote, “Bringing up children to be honest, trustworthy, dependable, godly citizens is the most arduous and responsible task anybody can undertake. Guiding them through all the perils, temptations, and downright wickedness that surround them nowadays is a task of the utmost importance, requiring patience, wisdom, and strength that only God can supply.” He added that mothers “have a lifetime responsibility they can never evade nor relinquish.”15

What loving mother, exhausted at the end of the day after caring for busy preschoolers or older children, will not sometimes question the Bible text that says children “are a heritage from the Lord” (Ps. 127:3, RSV)? But such thoughts generally pass as they realize that a mother’s lifework is one of extreme, eternal importance.

Mother’s Day, a Time to Reflect

Many churches honor all women on Mother’s Day—women who provide support to harried young mothers and the children of the church, those who work in the children’s Sabbath school departments or Pathfinders, or those who hold positions on the pastoral staff and serve as church leaders. As Jesus respected them, so do we, particularly on this special day.

On Mother’s Day we as Christian children—both young and grown—should ponder ways in which we can better reach out with love and respect to the mothers in our churches and in our own homes. Mothers can reevaluate their role and the choices they are making for their children and family. Are there changes they should consider that would better promote the physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being of their children and spouse? Mother’s Day is an opportunity for all us mothers to reflect on the God-given privilege we’ve been given as mothers and challenge ourselves to become more Christ-centered in the coming year.

A Mother’s Provider

The year following that long-ago time when my sister and I bought the primula for our mother, as the spring sunshine drenched our mum’s small flowerbed, the flowers emerged from their winter’s rest and were joined, year after year, by an assortment of hyacinths, daisies, narcissi, and tulips.

Flowers and more costly gifts are still given on Mother’s Day to show love and respect for mothers, and faithful mothers still pray for their children. Isaiah says that a mother can indeed forget her child (see Isa. 49:15), but those mothers who face the challenges of another year in the power of the Holy Spirit can be sure that God will never forget their children. Jesus Christ understands a mother’s heart and is ever willing to provide for her and her children in more ways than she can imagine.


  1. Christ Church Anglican, “About Our Lenten Worship,” http://christchurchanglican-wakulla.com/ourworship/lent/.
  2. Jerry Wilson, “The Traditions of Easter,” CBN.com, www.cbn.com/spirituallife/onlinediscipleship/easter/the_traditions_of_easter.aspx?option=print.
  3. Plimoth Plantation/New England Historic Genealogical Society, “Raising Children in the Early 17th Century: Work,” www.plimoth.org/media/pdf/edmaterials_work.pdf.
  4. Wikipeda.org, “Mothering Sunday,” http://en.wiki pedia.org/wiki/Mothering_Sunday.
  5. Examiner.com, “The Origins of Mother’s Day,” www.examiner.com/article/the-origins-of-mother-s-day.
  6. Jone Johnson Lewis, “Julia Ward Howe: Mother’s Day and Peace,” About.com, http://womenshistory.about.com/od/howejuliaward/a/julia_ward_howe_4_mothers_day.htm.
  7. Examiner.com, “The Origins of Mother’s Day,” www.examiner.com/article/the-origins-of-mother-s-day.
  8. Ibid.
  9. The Holiday Spot, “The History of Mother’s Day,” www.theholidayspot.com/mothersday/history.htm.
  10. Plimoth Plantation/New England Historic Genealogical Society, “Raising Children in the Early 17th Century: Demographics,” www.plimoth.org/media/pdf/edmaterials_demographics.pdf.
  11. www.religioustolerance.org/chr_dira.htm.
  12. www.census.gov/prod/2004pubs/p20-553.pdf.
  13. Steve and Candice Watters, “Can You Balance Work and Home?” www.familylife.com/articles/topics/parenting/challenges/frazzled-family/can-you-balance-work-and-family#.UznghFxAU8M.
  14. Bible texts credited to RSV are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1946, 1952, 1971, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
  15. Arthur S. Maxwell, “Missing Mothers,” Signs of the Times, May 1968, p. 5.

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