There are six Marys in the Bible. Here is one who isn’t:
How many Marys do you know? There is a fair chance you know, or at some time have met at least one person by the name of Mary. The six that the Bible tells us of are all in the new testament.
I think that almost everyone will have heard of Mary Mother of Jesus. A lot of people will have heard of Mary Magdalene and most Christians at least will know of Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. Like me, probably even a goodly number of Christians will not be familiar with the other three Marys
There is another Mary that quite a good number of female Christians, probably less men, might have heard of; Mary Elizabeth Heywood, probably better known by her married name, Mary Sumner. Mary was to become the founder of today’s thriving Christian charity and support organisation, The Mothers’ Union.
The image of Mary is one of only a handful of her that I have been able to discover. Very few seem to have survived to the present day.
Mary, originally from Lancashire, was the third of four children. She was home educated, evidently an intelligent girl, learning three languages and apparently had a good singing voice. It seems that she travelled to Rome, as part of her musical education, and that this is where she met her future husband George Henry Sumner.
Mary started the Mothers’ Union in the Victorian era in 1876, not as most people might expect, when she became a mother herself, but when her oldest daughter, Margaret, had her first child. We can only guess how hard Mary found motherhood herself.
It seems to have been the birth of Mary’s grandchild, coupled with her memory of how hard she had found motherhood, and also, presumably, a mother’s natural wish to make life a little easier for her daughter, that prompted Mary to take the initial steps that established what would become the Mother’s Union.
When Mary of Bethany sat at Jesus’ feet, listening to his teaching while her sister Martha prepared food (Luke 10: 38-42), it was a radical act. Today that same act might have been called feminism, though I admit I speculate as I perhaps do not really understand feminism. My point, however, is that when Mary Sumner arranged that first meeting of local mothers, like Mary of Bethany, in Victorian times she was probably considered radical.
What made Mary’s idea to establish a support group for mothers so radical in that day and age, was her desire that it include mothers of all social classes and, horror of horrors, to put motherhood on a par with the perceived importance of a father’s profession.
That first meeting in 1876 was was held in her Rector husband’s parish of Old Arlesford, near Winchester, It was not until 1885, 11 years later, that Mary’s organisation began to expand beyond her husband’s parish, when the Bishop of Newcastle invited Mary to speak, in his place, at the Portsmouth Church congress. From that congress, a number of women returned to their own parishes to start local unions, with meetings based on Mary’s format.
In 1896 a national council was formed, under the title Mothers’ Union Central Council, to which Mary was, by a unanimous vote, elected president and retained the post until she was over 90 years of age.
Mary died in 1921 at the age of 92. Although she actually died on the 11th August, Mary Sumner day is celebrated on the 9th August, due to an incorrect listing of the date of her death.
When Mary started meeting with mothers in 1876, she wrote what is now known as The Mary Sumner Prayer. Although written primarily for women and mothers, any reader will notice it is equally applicable to anyone, man, woman or child:
All this day, O Lord,
let me touch as many lives as possible for thee;
and every life I touch,
do thou by thy spirit quicken,
whether through the word I speak,
the prayer I breathe,
or the life I live.
Mary Sumner, 31st December 1928 to 11th August 1921.
There is probably little new in this article, for anyone familiar with Mary Sumner or the MU, except possibly my contrast of her to biblical Marys, that I have not seen elsewhere. My original intent was to clarify my own understanding, as a recent member of the MU. Later I wondered if it might help a few, of my admittedly few, readers too.