Monday, May 11, 2009

Church building lost to presidential veto

So a Baptist congregation built a meeting house in the Mississippi Territory sometime in the early 1800's. At some point it was realized that, due to a surveying error, the church building had accidentally been constructed on federal property. The church apparently petitioned Congress for relief and a bill was passed granting the congregation what was considered an inconsequential five acre parcel.

President James Madison vetoed the bill on February 28, 1811.

Why would Madison, a lifelong friend of Baptists, be so mean to a Baptist church? Because he saw this bill that gave federal land to a church as a violation of the First Amendment. In his veto message to Congress, Madison wrote that this legislative act comprised "a principle and precedent for the appropriation of funds of the United States for the use and support of religious societies, contrary to the article of the Constitution which declares that 'Congress shall make no law respecting a religious establishment.'"

While Madison's action might seem pretty unkind, the principle that he defended is crucial to religious freedom. I don't know what happened to the meeting place of that Baptist congregation after Madison's veto. It must have been tough time for the church. I wonder if the members of the congregation took any comfort in the fact that they lost their meeting house for a good cause?

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Angry Anna

Anna Jarvis was the driving force in establishing Mother’s Day in the U.S. In 1914, after years of hard work, Jarvis saw President Woodrow Wilson sign a joint congressional resolution establishing Mother’s Day as a national observance. It was the realization of a dream for Jarvis but she became disillusioned by what Mother’s Day quickly became.

Jarvis’ mother, Anna Maria Jarvis, dedicated her life to numerous social causes as a way of expressing her Christian faith. Her “Mother’s Day Work Clubs” were designed to improve health and sanitary conditions and to raise money for those who could not afford needed medicine. Her organization assisted families where the mother of the house was stricken with tuberculosis. Anna Maria Jarvis and her fellow mothers organized an inspection process for milk and other foods. During the Civil War the Mother’s Day Clubs declared neutrality and cared for wounded soldiers of the Union and the Confederacy. At the conclusion of the war, Jarvis the elder, through her clubs, deliberately worked to reconcile neighbors that had been at war. Besides all this, she was a Sunday School teacher in her Methodist church for 25 years.

In 1905 the younger Jarvis swore at her mother’s graveside that she would dedicate her life to her mother’s work and establish a Mother’s Day. After Mother’s Day became a national reality Jarvis was horrified that it was soon transformed into what she saw as a day of profit for the flower industry and greeting card companies. Gone was the emphasis on social change led by her mother.

Jarvis was very vocal in her complaints about Mother’s Day. She was once arrested for disrupting the meeting of a mother’s organization that she claimed had turned Mother’s Day into nothing but a day of profit. She began circulating petitions trying to have Mother’s Day rescinded as a national observance and spent the bulk of her inheritance attempting to undo what she saw as the damage of Mother’s Day. She was finally committed to a sanitarium where she died penniless and bitter.

While there is certainly nothing wrong with recognizing the positive contributions that mothers have made to our lives, I wonder if there is any hope of restoring any of Anna Marie Reeves Jarvis' emphasis on Christian social activism to the day. Is Mother's Day destined to remain only a "Hallmark moment" or can it also become, as it once was, an opportunity for obeying Jesus' command to reach out to the least of these?