There is no overstating the importance of mothers in the growth of Christianity. From the devotion of Mary to the faithful example of Lois and Eunice (the mother and grandmother of Timothy), the pages of Scripture are filled with the stories of how mothers have influenced their children to follow the will of God.
Church history is no different. Below are some mothers from church history who have, through their lives of faithful devotion, contributed to the story of Christianity. Though their stories are often overshadowed by those of their children and husbands, their lives were pivotal for the advance of the gospel.
Monica: The weeping mother
Outside the pages of Scripture, few mothers are as important in church history as Monica, mother of Augustine of Hippo. Much of what we know of her is drawn from her son’s Confessions, and the picture that emerges is of a mother who by her tears and prayers earnestly desired to see her son come to know Christ. Although she was married to an unbeliever, Monica was persistent in her faith. Though Augustine recounts that his youth and early adulthood was spent in a life that was characterized by vice and sin, he also records how Monica earnestly sought his salvation.
She is most famously remembered for the tears and petitions that she offered for Augustine as he lived apart from God. After learning that Augustine had become a Manichaean (a dualistic sect that had much in common with the heretical Gnostics), Monica forced him from the home. However, while speaking to a holy man she was told “the child of those tears shall never perish.” After following her son to Rome and then Milan, Monica was able to see her son converted to Christianity not long before she died.
Katharina Luther: The industrious mother
Though Martin Luther is often remembered for his role in kick-starting the Protestant Reformation, the role of Katharina Luther is no less important. Though she was a Catholic nun, she grew to be convinced of the truths of the Reformation and escaped her convent, along with other nuns, by hiding in barrels of fish, all of this arranged by Luther. After her escape, she and Luther were married, and she organized and ran his household. Noted for her industrious ability to manage the household, Katie was a beloved wife and mother. Luther was fond of calling her “my lord Katie” to describe his trust in her ability to oversee their household. Further, he describes her as the “morning star of Wittenberg” because she would often rise at 4 a.m. to begin her day’s work. These duties included overseeing the family, managing their finances (a task Luther realized she was more equipped to do than he), overseeing the boarders and students who lived with them, managing their farm, and also organizing a hospital on their property in times of sickness Over the course of their marriage, she would give birth to six children, and the couple would raise four orphans.
Anna Maria Moon: The educating mother
Anna Maria Barclay, Lottie Moon’s mother, instilled in her daughter a deep love of education. This desire to educate her daughter, the same as she did her sons, proved instrumental in the latter work that Lottie Moon would do in China. Because of her mother’s support and urging, Lottie would go to college at Virginia Female Seminary and eventually Albermarle Female Institute (the all-girl counterpart of the University of Virginia). Lottie would become one of the first women in the South to receive a master’s degree. During her studies, she became proficient in a number of languages: Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, Italian, and Spanish. Chinese would of course come with her time in China as a missionary.
The love of learning that her mother gave to her, and which was so crucial for her spiritual development, was an essential part of her evangelism. Moon would found a girl’s boarding school and teach other children Bible stories and catechism as well as hymns. This method of evangelism through education formed the cornerstone of her work in northern China. She would eventually expand the single school into a multitude that educated boys and girls. The growth of missions in China and the creation of the international mission offering at Christmas came through the commitment of Moon’s mother to provide her with an education and the ability to exercise her gifts through ministry.
Morrow Graham: The praying mother
Morrow Graham’s fame comes from her son, the evangelist Billy Graham. But it is her influence on him that he says was essential to his coming to know Christ—it was nothing spectacular, but a daily consistency in her faith that was essential in shaping her son. In his memoir, Just as I Am, Graham tells how his mother was essential in the spiritual formation of her children. She provided a sense of family stability and unity: “We really cared about each other, and we liked to do things together.”
Just as mothers daily perform work that goes unnoticed, these mothers are a reminder of the value that the small acts can have for the advance of the cause of Christ.
But it was her faith and devotion that shaped him more than anything. According to Graham, “Of all the people I have ever known, she had the greatest influence on me. I am sure that one reason that the Lord has directed and safeguarded me, as well as Ruth and the children, through the years was the prayers of my mother and father.” Those prayers were a constant reminder to Graham of the family he had left and of his calling. Whenever he spoke of his time at college, he always spoke of her (and his father) daily praying every morning for him and what that meant to his ministry. Morrow Graham’s faithfulness in the small acts of prayer and family devotion was essential to the faith of her son and has led to many coming to faith.
Elisabeth Elliot: The widowed mother
Elisabeth Elliot is known because her husband, Jim Elliot, was killed while serving as a missionary to the Waorani tribe of Ecuador. What is even more remarkable about Elliot is her commitment to evangelism. After the death of her husband, she learned the language of the Waorani people and then moved to the village with her 3-year-old daughter and another of the wives. Elliot modelled for her daughter what it looked like to live in full dependence on God and extend grace and forgiveness because of what God had done for her. Her life, and that of her co-workers, led to the conversion of many of the members of the tribe, including several of the men who had killed her husband. This widowed mother found herself the older sister of a number of new children in Christ.
For many of these women, there is little information about them. They are outshined by their husbands, sons, and daughters. But there is a quiet nobility in this truth. The truths of the gospel were not dispersed to the ends of the earth by the great figures. Often, it was by people for whom only a few small scraps of information remain that the faithful work of evangelism continued. Just as mothers daily perform work that goes unnoticed, these mothers are a reminder of the value that the small acts can have for the advance of the cause of Christ.