The Foundation of Fathers’ Day
A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.
5th September 2008
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It appears that Fathers' Day is about 100 years old—at least in the USA where it was started.
Australia's history of celebrating Fathers' Day may be different. Unlike most of the world, we do not follow the American date of the third Sunday in June. But finding the source of our celebration is not as easy as discovering the American foundations.
There are two common accounts of the commencement of Fathers' Day in the USA.
The first comes from a mine disaster that killed 361 men. A Methodist Episcopal Church in Fairmont, West Virginia, held a special service on July 5th 1908 to celebrate fathers, seeing that so many had died in the tragedy.
The other foundation of Fathers' Day in America is more personal. It was the story of Mrs Sonora Smart Dodd of Spokane, Washington. When she was 16 her mother died in childbirth leaving six children. Her father, a civil war veteran, raised the children as a single parent. Sonora's deep appreciation of the father lay behind her desire to honour fathers. It was while she was in church on Mothers' Day 1909 that she thought of celebrating fathers with a special day.
With the help of the ministers fraternal and the YMCA she organised the first citywide Fathers' Day. Her plans were to hold it on her own father's birthday (June 5), but could not organise it in time. So it was held on the third Sunday in June 1910.
It seems that from these two events the modern idea and celebration spread across the nation and from America across the world.
It is not surprising that both ideas were connected with church. Not just because, in the early twentieth century, the church was the centre of social organization—but because family, honouring parents, giving thanks, and fatherhood are all such integral parts of Christianity.
It is not surprising that the celebration went beyond the church into the community as a whole. Fatherhood is part of creation. It is intrinsic to humanity and the concern of the whole society.
What is surprising, and very sad, is the failure of much modern fatherhood. There is today a failure to take paternal responsibility, matched by the failure to respect honour or value fathers and fatherhood. Words like “patriarchal”, “paternalism” and even “father” itself are seen as derogatory terms. Through divorce, de facto relationships and sexual permissiveness, the “absent father” is becoming all too common, as many single mothers are left to raise their children alone. More concerning still is the danger involved in the growth in numbers of de facto stepfathers.
Christianity has an important contribution to make to society on the subject of fatherhood. We are committed to the Creator God whom we know as our Father. He has always been the Father. For all eternity, before the creation of the world, he was the Father. He is the one upon whom all human fatherhood has been modelled (Ephesians 3:15). He is called the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 15:6, 2 Corinthians 1:3, Ephesians 1:3, 17, 1 Peter 1:3, Revelation 1:6).
Our focus on Jesus does not distract us from the Father. Just the reverse, it models for us the relationship of Father and Son and introduces us to God as our Father. Jesus is God the Son become man. And as the Messiah, the Christ, Jesus is also the Son of God, just as all who are his people—the Christians—become the children of God (John 1:12-13).
The work of Jesus was to do the will of his Father. Ultimately Jesus will hand his kingdom over to his Father as he is subject to his God and Father (1 Corinthians 15:24-28). Jesus' work in dying and rising for us brings us to his Father. For Jesus is the one and only way to the Father (John 14:6). It is as the Spirit of the risen Lord Jesus is poured into our hearts in rebirth that we come to call the almighty creator of the universe and judge of all the world: “our father” (Romans 8:15f, Galatians 4:6).
Fatherhood is built into creation and is central to Christianity. This is one of the bridges by which society can understand the Christian message and by which Christians can make contribution to society as a whole.
As Christians we know the importance of honouring father and mother. It is built into the very commandments of God. We also know the importance of being a father who loves and provides, protects and disciplines his children as God does for us.
We live in a society that is confused about gender roles, unsure of how to raise boys, and with a generation of adult men unwilling to make commitments or undertake responsibility for others. It is the individualism that atheism teaches. It is miserable and lonely for many men as well as women. It fails to reproduce itself as the birth rate drops well below sustainability.
The message of the Bible was never more needed in Australia than today. Let us be bold to declare the greatness of our great God and Father. Let us be bold to uphold the importance of fatherhood in the structure of a healthy society. Let us train up our boys and young men to rejoice in the privilege of taking on the responsibility of becoming fathers. Let us encourage fathers to stick to their task of raising their children in the fear and nurture of the Lord. Let us invite all Australians to come into the family of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.