Delane B. Rouse, Associated Press
In November 1861, the writer Julia Ward Howe and her husband visited the cold, barricaded capitol of Washington, D.C. They met Abraham Lincoln at the White House, and in the afternoon, Howe toured the army camps surrounding the city.
That night she sat up in bed, put pen to paper and wrote, "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord / He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored."
Her lyrics, set to music, became the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," the anthem of the Northern armies, giving a moral imperative and holy overtones to the bitter and bloody civil war they fought.
Howe cherished her song all her life. But it is a testament to the complexities of war and human nature that the same woman who penned lines about the "terrible swift sword" of justice would later write a declaration condemning the "sword of murder" and calling for peace.
In 1870, prompted by her despair over what she had seen of men — sons — killing the sons of other mothers, Howe issued a Mother's Day Proclamation, a call for an international day to celebrate peace and motherhood.
"Arise, then, women of this day! / Arise all women who have hearts," it began.
Further down it read, "Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn / All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience."
Howe called for the women of the world "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."
Howe's vision of this new holiday was deeply influenced by the ideological struggle between peace and war, and more broadly between creation and destruction. She understood that to be a mother is to be a creator, a nurturer and a preserver — three intertwined roles. As the English poet George Herbert wrote: "For Preservation is a Creation, and more a continued Creation, and a Creation every Moment."
Mothers bring life into the world, but they also preserve life by protecting, nourishing and supporting children against the fearful lightning of the world. Howe believed it was the responsibility of the world's women to invest children with "charity, mercy and patience" — the very virtues she hoped might one day make the world a community where armies no longer needed to sing the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" as they marched to war.
Mother's Day did not catch on widely during Howe's lifetime, but other women picked up the torch, and in 1914 President Woodrow Wilson signed legislation declaring the second Sunday in May Mother's Day. It is now observed in some form in more than 70 countries, and though it has evolved over the years, its roots in the Civil War era are still deeply resonant for Americans today.
In celebrating Mother's Day this year, we honor both Julia Ward Howe's grief and her courage. We remember all the women who have lost children — and all the children who have lost mothers — to the terrible swift swords of war, poverty, addiction or disease. But Mother's Day also honors the powers of nurturing and preservation that can overcome these tragedies.
To celebrate motherhood is to celebrate the act of creation. It is to honor another blow dealt against the forces of decay. We celebrate women who give of their own lives to protect, preserve and teach "charity, mercy and patience."
Julia Ward Howe believed women and mothers were the great peacemakers of the world, and as we reflect on Mother's Day today, we encourage people everywhere to contemplate the qualities of motherhood she so fervently preached.
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