The Mothers’ Union: In Word and Deed

In 1876 Mothers’ Union founder Mary Sumner had printed a run of fifty cards with practical advice for mothers. There was a hymn on one side and, on the reverse, the following text:

‘Remember that your Children are given up, body and soul, to Jesus Christ in Holy Baptism, and that your duty is to train them for His Service.

1.       Try, by God’s help, to make them obedient, truthful and pure.

2.       Never allow coarse jests, bad angry words, or low talk in your house. Speak gently.

3.       You are strongly advised never to give your children beer, wine or spirits without the doctor’s orders, or to send young people to the public house.

4.       Do not allow your girls to go about the streets at night, and keep them from unsafe companions and from dangerous amusements.

5.       Be careful that your children do not read bad books or police reports.

6.       Set them a good example in word and deed.

7.       Kneel down, and pray to God morning and evening, and teach your children to pray.

8.       Try to read a few verses of the Bible daily, and come to Church as regularly as possible.'[1]

The cards were distributed among attendees of those first Mothers’ Union meetings held in the parish of Old Alresford, and given to those who had expressed interest in the group’s activities. The language used may seem slightly amusing to us now but the dutiful nature of these words can still be felt. Though not exactly a manifesto, the cards set forth (directly or indirectly) some of the principles on which Sumner founded the Union. The sixth point on the list seems to be the most enduring: a ‘good example in word and deed.’ As we shall see, behind the one hundred and thirty-eight-years of tireless social outreach, domestic and international campaigning, and charity work the Mothers’ Union have informed and educated their members through a prolific publishing campaign.

By 1888 the Mothers’ Union was sanctioned and operating in eighteen dioceses, many with several branches. With such rapid growth a means of clarifying the aims and objects of the Union became essential to its unity and coherence as a national organisation. In response the Mothers’ Union Journal was founded and in addition to articles noting the progress and purpose of the Union, the journal published fiction, poetry and teaching for mothers, including a series entitled ‘Letters to a Young Mother from an Old Mother.’ In its second year of publication the journal doubled its page count in order to dedicate more space to reports of meetings and it was around this time that a central Committee was formed with a view to inaugurating a Central Council.

We see then, that the ‘good example’ of the words printed and disseminated through the journal was one of the central organising principles of the movement in these early years. The articles directly informed the ‘deeds’ of many branches, where the issues discussed in the journal often provided a structure or focal point for meetings. The journal would also be used as a means of advertising pamphlets written by Sumner, her brisk but considered language providing a framework for the deeds carried out in the outreach and education undertaken in the various branches of the union.

The journal – succeeded by other periodicals including Mothers Union News, Mothers in Council, and more recently Families First – was only the beginnings of this organised effort in literary outreach. In Ten Years More: 1926-1936, a pamphlet summarising the achievements of the group during that decade, Mary E Thompson wrote:

It is impossible to give an adequate idea of our publication work. Ceaselessly all kinds of books, booklets, pamphlets and leaflets have been poured out to our members.[2]

They were popular too; in 1889 the first Mothers’ Union Almanac quickly sold 20,000 copies. As the publishing project rapidly expanded the creation of a Literature Committee became necessary and was established in 1906 to oversee the movement’s publishing activities, with Diocesan Literature Representatives appointed to recommend educational texts. At the height of its influence the Mothers’ Union maintained a public library for members and their children at Mary Sumner House in Tufton Street, as well as a bookshop.

The Lending Library at Mary Sumner House
The Lending Library at Mary Sumner House. Image taken from ‘This is the Mary Sumner House’, London : Mothers’ Union, [196-?]
In June 2008 the central archives of the Mothers’ Union – including the records from Mary Sumner House, minutes, correspondence, accounts, pamphlets, architectural plans, photographs and slides – were transferred to Lambeth Palace Library. This valuable historical collection is publicly accessible thanks to the diligent work of our archives team and a glance at the archives catalogue will give you an idea of the thousands of items now held at the Palace. In addition to this archival material are the many boxes of printed books currently being sorted through by our library assistants prior to cataloguing.

While the collection numbers many hundreds of books it by no means represents a complete publication history of the Mothers’ Union, again demonstrating the sheer volume of materials produced by the group. The books came to us in boxes which had been grouped by Cordelia Moyse (who worked on the material while it was still at Mary Sumner House, and who has written the brilliant A History of the Mothers’ Union 1876-2008: Women, Anglicanism and Globalisation) in to a number of broad categories including – but not limited to – prayer books, prayer calendars, orders of service, children’s books, moral & social issues, Mothers’ Union lectures, families & parenting, overseas diocesan histories, overseas vernacular literature, annual reports and many variants and sub-categories in between. This list in itself gives an overview of the range of topics and issues addressed by the Union, the organisation of the group, and moreover asserts the central importance of literature within the Union historically.

Children's prayer book.
Childrens prayer book in an unidentified African dialect.

Sorting through the books the range of production values is striking. There are, as you would expect, beautifully bound volumes with glossy illustrations celebrating and documenting the history of the Union. There is also a wealth of pamphlets and publications which have been produced using low cost printing techniques such as lithography or photocopying, presumably to keep cover prices low where applicable and to enable larger runs and reach more people. Some of the ‘overseas vernacular literature’ has been produced on a typewriter and hand stitched with colour images from another source glued in. This D-I-Y approach brings us again back to the relationship between ‘deeds’ and ‘words’; the deed itself manifested in the physical act of labour involved in setting down the words required to support and educate others.

The Mothers' Union Centenary Brochure
‘The Mothers’ Union 1876-1976 : the Mothers’ Union centenary brochure’, [London : Mothers’ Union, 1976]


[1] Quoted in Violet B Lancaster. A Short History of the Mother’s Union. London: The Mothers’ Union, 1958
[2] Mary E Thompson. Ten Years More: 1926-1936. London: The Mothers’ Union, [1936]

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