Mother’s Peace Day – May 10, 2020

May 10, 2020
I’m sure you’re familiar with the lyrics of the so-called, Battle Hymn of the Republic that I read earlier, published in 1862 by Julia Ward Howe. Encouraged by her minister, she had fitted her words to the tune of a popular song known in the north as, John Brown’s Body.
The first verse, as I said, is certainly the most familiar, the others less so. “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/he has loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword/his truth is marching on.”
Julia Ward Howe, as so many of the Unitarian activists and leaders of that generation, still stood firmly in a liberal interpretation of the Christian tradition. The final verse of the poem is in the spirit of that witness: “In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea/with a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me/as he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free/While God is marching on.”
It was only eight years later that Howe wrote to the women, to the mothers of the world, her impassioned plea for peace—only eight years, but eight years saturated with a level of violence never before known on the battlefield, inflicted by ever more deadly weapons of war. When she wrote the Battle Hymn poem in late 1861, upon a visit to a Union army camp, both sides still cherished the illusion that the war would soon be over (and of course, with their side victorious, for their cause was righteous and favored by God.)
On first consideration, it seems paradoxical that these two very eloquent, but very different pronouncements came from the same woman. On the one hand, “Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel.” On the other, “Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy, and patience.”
One the one hand, “He has loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible, swift sword: his truth is marching on.” On the other, “The sword of murder is not the balance of justice! Blood does not wipe out dishonor. “
On the one hand, “Christ was borne across the sea, with a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me.” On the other, “From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says, ‘Disarm! Disarm!”
When we think about the dates of their composition, however, this seems less paradoxical. The battle hymn poem was written in the early months of the conflict, before the true, grinding, bloody cost of the war had mounted and mounted. The words were less composed than “discovered” by Howe, if you will, on a visit to an Army camp in connection with her work on the Unitarian Sanitary Commission. She had been urged the night before by Unitarian clergyman James Freeman Clarke to write new words to an old song, a Southern revivalist tune, the melody popular both North and South. She wrote later, “I awoke that morning in the gray of the early dawn, and to my astonishment found that the wished-for lines were arranging themselves in my brain. I lay quite still until the last verse had completed itself in my thoughts [then] began to scrawl the lines almost without looking . . .. Having completed this, I lay down again and fell asleep, but not before feeling that something of importance had happened to me.” Oh yes; indeed.
That one poem went on to overshadow everything else she ever wrote. Except by students of history, she is remembered only as the author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic.
The American Civil War, on both sides, began in a haze of euphoria and romance and was expected to come to an end within months. Four years later, a new sort of warfare had been developed that had little to do with the noble myths of knightly combat. The modern, industrial state was now at war, with every resource of increasingly efficient firearms, massed artillery, railroads, telegraphs and war production brought into play.
Appalled at the human cost of this new kind of warfare, exhibited again in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Howe determined to use her fame as the author of the Battle Hymn to speak out for causes important to her—disarmament and peace, prison reform, and the rights of women. She began to write, travel and lecture widely. She also needed also to provide for herself, as her troubled marriage to Samuel Gridley Howe ended with his death in 1876.
It cannot be said that Julia Ward Howe’s attempt to mobilize the women of the world as a mass political force was ever even a partial success. Although she did great work in this country organizing women’s groups such as the Association for the Advancement of Women and in merging two rival women’s suffrage groups, her work really had little impact worldwide.
Now the Mother’s Day that we celebrate in American popular culture today has separate but parallel roots, going back to a young Appalachian homemaker named Anna Jarvis who, beginning in 1858 attempted to organize Mother’s Work Days for better sanitary conditions, carried that on through the Civil War for both sides and in 1868 took up, as well, the cause of reconciliation between former enemies. Her daughter, also named Anna Jarvis, took up that work after her mother’s death and the first Mother’s Day, as we now know it, was celebrated in 1907, when carnations were given to the mothers of her home church, thus beginning the floral tradition. It became a national observance in 1914. Today, of course, it has become a staple of holiday economics. Florists see their highest sales in May, telephone usage peaks, restaurants cite it as their busiest day (not this year, of course) and according to Hallmark, 96% of Americans shop for Mother’s Day as a gift-giving holiday, second only to Christmas.
This commercialization began early, and Anna Jarvis was not happy about it, feeling that greed had overwhelmed her intention, and her mother’s vision. But flower sales and card sales continued to grow, and Anna Jarvis died in poverty and without any children of her own. What would she make of it all?
And what would Julia Ward Howe make of it all? I would suppose her to be disappointed that her vision of a women’s day for peace did not take root in her life, at least not as powerfully as she envisaged. There are inheritors of her vision, doing their best, using tools she would never have been able to imagine—film, TV, computers, ZOOM and so forth.
Humans are complicated creatures and Americans a complicated people, inheritors of a complicated history and an unfolding present that, for better or worse, affects the whole world in important ways. We have waged war, we have waged peace, we have changed our minds about the whole thing in the middle. We have been sincerely misguided; we have been duped. We have also been unmistakably attacked and risen to the occasion. We have oppressively misused our military force and we have used it to set people free.
Though the Civil War, as has been pointed out many times, was not begun to free the slaves that, in the end, was one of its most important results. Had the South not been confronted by force of arms, had it been allowed break up the Union to go its own way with its “Peculiar Institution,” what could have been the future for people of color, indeed, for all people in a poor region frozen in a slave-based, plantation economy while the rest of the world moved on?
In the words of another great leader of that era, Frederick Douglass, “Power concedes nothing without a demand, it never did and never will. Find out what people will submit to, and you have found the exact amount of injustice which will be imposed upon them. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
If Howe’s Battle Hymn inspired some to the cause of resisting that tyranny, can we really say that such a war was completely wrong? Yet, at the same time, it is never wrong to speak out for peace, and that has always been complication. If the same woman who celebrated the “terrible, swift sword” could later call for it to be cast down, then she was being both thoroughly human and thoroughly American, and on this day we should be proud to embrace her complicated legacy, that it may inspire us in our own, complicated work toward greater freedom and justice.
May it be so.

Written in November 1861, published in The Atlantic, 1862
Julia Ward Howe

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;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.

I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
His day is marching on.

I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
“As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on.”

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat:
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on.

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me:
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.

Mother’s Day Proclamation – 1870
by Julia Ward Howe

Arise then…women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly:
“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 of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

From the bosom 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.
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
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.