Religion: Not the Snooze Button on Life’s Alarm Clock

Photo by Erik Witsoe on Unsplash

The first Mother’s Day was proclaimed by the Unitarian abolitionist and feminist Julia Ward Howe. Howe is nowadays best known as the author of the decidedly bellicose “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” That was not the way she wanted to be remembered.

Howe was raised in a strict Calvinist Episcopalian tradition. She wrote, “I studied my way out of all the mental agonies which Calvinism can engender and became a Unitarian.”

She was not, however, a run-of-the-mill Unitarian of her time. She attended the services of Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, who preached at a scandalously informal church held in the Boston Music Hall. Rev. Parker was so unpopular among his Unitarian ministerial colleagues — both for his liberal religious views and his fiery denunciation of slavery — that he was forced to preach his own installation sermon.

Both Parker and Howe believed that religion is not the snooze button on life’s alarm clock. For them, religion was, rather the alarm on life’s alarm clock. You wake up and get to work, or you don’t.

Both Parker and Howe insisted that to live a compassionate life, a life of care for humanity, is to be in a state of constant discomfort. Constant vigilance. To live the opposite of complacently.

While slavery existed, Julia Ward Howe believed that the sword was necessary. Her emotions at the time are frozen in amber in the lyrics of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” However, after slavery had been abolished, Howe believed that it was time to turn to peace and the righting of the wrongs created by white patriarchy. Her proclamation of a mother’s day of peace activism was the result.

Howe made her vision explicit — a woman should be “a free agent, fully sharing with man every human right and every human responsibility.”

It was Rev. Parker who first used the phrase the “arc of the universe,” speculating that it “bends toward justice.” But Parker was dead before the Civil War even started. It was Julia Ward Howe who saw that the abolition of slavery did not bring equal rights or equal opportunities to former slaves.

Howe gained her fame by writing a song that glorified redemptive violence, but she lived to see how little had been changed by that violence. African American men were quickly disenfranchised in large parts of the United States even as white women got closer to voting rights.

I suspect that Howe finally realized that believing we will ever get to a promised land called “A Just Society” is to live in a fool’s paradise. In Howe’s day, the immorality of racial slavery was stopped in the United States. But the genocide of the native population went on. And patriarchy went on.

But back to religion and social change. In 1893 at the now famous Parliament of World Religions at the Chicago World’s Fair, Howe gave a speech titled “What is Religion?”

She began by claiming that “religion is not magic” and went on to condemn religious leaders who treat religion as if it is a special domain for the trained or the initiated. Then she said,

I think nothing is religion which puts one individual absolutely above others, and surely nothing is religion which puts one sex above another.
. . . any religion which will sacrifice a certain set of human beings for the enjoyment or aggrandizement or advantage of another is no religion. It is a thing which may be allowed, but it is against true religion. Any religion which sacrifices women to the brutality of men is no religion.

How’s that for a good rule of thumb? Howe may have been a bit naive when she wrote the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” at age 43 with its images of “grapes of wrath,” “fateful lightening” and a “terrible swift sword,” but by age 74 when she spoke at the Parliament of Religions, she had been through the wringer of American politics, patriarchy, and religion.

Her lesson to us across the years is not only that injustice will never smash itself, but that our values are the alarm, not the snooze button, on life’s clock.

NOTE: A good source for information on Julia Ward Howe is available here.

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