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The Great Mother’s Day Temptation

Photo of Daniel McCoyDaniel McCoy | Bio

Daniel McCoy

Daniel is happily married to Susanna, and they have 3 daughters and 2 sons. He is the editorial director for as well as a part-time professor of philosophy for Ozark Christian College. He has a bachelor’s in theology (Ozark Christian College), master of arts in apologetics (Veritas International University), and PhD in theology (North-West University, South Africa). Among his books are the Popular Handbook of World Religions (general editor), Real Life Theology Handbook (with Andrew Jit), Mirage: 5 Things People Want From God That Don't Exist, and The Atheist's Fatal Flaw (co-authored with Norman Geisler).

What kind of grinch would want to cancel Mother’s Day?

As it turns out, the first person to petition to have Mother’s Day canceled wasn’t a grinch at all. She was the person who had invented it.

The Origin of Mother’s Day

Anna Jarvis was the ninth of eleven children born to Granville and Ann Jarvis. Born in 1864 in West Virginia, Anna completed a two-year degree at a female seminary in Virginia and went on to stints in bank telling, teaching, and editing. Grateful for her mother’s encouragement along the way, she took her mother in after her father’s death and cared for her until the mother’s death in 1905. Her mother had been a peace activist amid the American Civil War, organizing local “Mother’s Day” clubs to provide aid for soldiers on both sides.

What Anna is most known for is channeling her admiration and gratitude for her mother into a campaign to start a day remembering and celebrating all mothers. It started with a memorial ceremony in a local Episcopal church to celebrate her mother and all other mothers. That event in 1908 sparked more Mother’s Day events, and now that church is a historic landmark known as the “International Mother’s Day Shrine.”

“It started with a memorial ceremony in a local Episcopal church to celebrate her mother and all other mothers.”

Prior to the celebration event in 1908, Anna had begun to campaign to have the idea of an annual Mother’s Day celebration applied at a national level. By 1908, Congress declined, jokingly explaining that if they were to have a Mother’s Day, they would also have to have a Mother-in-Law Day. However, by 1911, every state in the U.S. was observing a Mother’s Day. And by 1914, President Woodrow Wilson had designated the second Sunday in May a national Mother’s Day. Anna also began corresponding with foreign leaders and, by the time of her death, some 43 nations had their own version of Mother’s Day.

The Opportunism of Mother’s Day

Mothers were not the only ones to benefit from having a day dedicated to them. Mother’s Day quickly became a favorite holiday for candy makers, florists, and greeting card companies. Anna herself had started the flower trend by encouraging people to wear white carnations in honor of their mothers. Soon, florists were raising prices on carnations and were making a killing—and, according to Anna, were killing the original vision of the day. In 1925, she was arrested for disturbing the peace at a convention of war mothers where white carnations were being sold. “They are commercializing my Mother’s Day!” she accused.[1]

By 1943, the founder of Mother’s Day was circulating an unsuccessful petition to have Mother’s Day revoked. She tried mailing Mother’s Day buttons to schools and churches for people to wear instead of flowers, but it never caught on. Her campaign against Mother’s Day began to lose her money and friends, and due to her failing health she was put in a nursing home. Unbeknownst to her, a florist company began paying her bills, and she died in 1948 at the age of 84.

“By 1943, the founder of Mother’s Day was circulating an unsuccessful petition to have Mother’s Day revoked.”

So, what exactly is wrong with celebrating mothers by buying flowers, candy, and greeting cards? Here are Anna’s thoughts on the question:

“A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world. And candy! You take a box to Mother—and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment.”[2]

Yes, that’s a fairly crochety perspective. The truth is, there’s nothing wrong with celebrating your mother by buying flowers, candy, or a greeting card. And there’s nothing wrong with organizations making money—that’s how their employees take food home to their families.

On the other hand, Anna had spotted that something was indeed off. In the rush to commercialize Mother’s Day, something important was being left behind.

So, what exactly was Anna grieving?

Opportunism and the Church

One of the peaks of Jesus’ popularity was when he fed 5,000+ people with a kid’s lunch. The satiated crowd was ready right then and there to make him their king. Which is what Jesus wanted, right? He had brought a kingdom and was inviting people into it (Mark 1:14-15). From their perspective, here was someone who filled their stomachs, healed their diseases, and would be able to fight their battles. Yet, “Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself” (John 6:15). He sensed that well-meaning opportunists were going to tweak the purpose of his kingdom.

Then, in the Constantine years, what exactly was wrong with a benevolent emperor rolling back generations of anti-Christian persecution by heaping favor on the church and working to maintain its unity? It was only after Constantine’s son Constantius took the reins (himself an Arian, meaning that he didn’t believe in Jesus’ full divinity) that the church began to realize that they had yoked themselves with a friendly regime that was slowly reshaping the church’s mission for the emperor’s aims.

“Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.”

Closer to our own time, what is actually wrong with a Christianity whose primary purpose is to liberate people who are oppressed by unfair economic or power dynamics? Didn’t Jesus come to “set the oppressed free” (Luke 4:18b)? Yet, as described in detail here, “liberation theology” tends to mistake the flower (helping hurting people) for its root (faith in our risen King) and “so pluck it and lose the life of both.” Given enough time, liberation theology will even seek to “liberate” people from the Bible’s own truth claims and moral instructions.

It may look like Jesus and his opportunistic fans are walking the same path, but eventually, their core missions will pull them their own ways. Hopefully before coming to the fork, you will have already discerned the true author of Christianity from the ones who, in their win-win logic, would inadvertently turn his house into a “den of robbers” (Matt. 21:13).

The Great Temptation

In John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, one of the companions of Christian on his way to the Celestial City is “Mr. By-Ends.” He cheerily greets Christian and explains that he is excited to travel Christian’s path as long as the journey brings himself profit. In his words, “We love much to walk with [religion] in the street, if the sun shines, and the people applaud him.” He doesn’t walk with Christian for very long.

And that, I believe is what Anna Jarvis saw in what had become of Mother’s Day. Opportunists were tweaking it into something that profited them more than it celebrated mothers. Yes, the argument can always be made that it can all live together in harmonious and mutual benefit: flowers get bought, candy gets eaten, mothers get celebrated. But it’s incredibly easy for the opportunism to eclipse the original intent.

“It’s incredibly easy for the opportunism to eclipse the original intent.”

So, whether you’re celebrating your mother, participating in Jesus’ kingdom, or contemplating Christianity’s relationship with politics or social programs, you will want to be clear on what’s the celebrant—and what’s just confetti. Confetti isn’t wrong (and neither is candy or flowers or overpriced greeting cards). But it is wrong to let the celebrant get lost in the confetti.

The temptation will always be to lose the purpose amid the perks.

[1] Malcolm S. Forbes, Jeff Bloch, Women Who Made a Difference (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991), 136.

[2] Forbes and Bloch, 135.