Two—count ‘em—two questions about Heavenly Mother materialized in my mailbox this week. And I realized with a start that in more than two years of Ask Mormon Girl columns, I had never written about this unique and inspiring aspect of Mormon doctrine here.
So here’s question number one:
I have a question for you about Heavenly Mother and why we don’t talk about her. Do you think that the church really does it to “keep women in their place”? Why can’t we pray to her? Why isn’t she worshipped like our heavenly Father. This has been something that I have been wondering for a long time and if you have any ideas on reading or anything like that I would love to hear!! Thanks!
And number two:
As a lifelong, 52-year-old member of the LDS Church, I surprised myself yesterday by having a rather basic question occur to me for the first time. It occurred to me that perhaps part of the reason that we talk little of our Heavenly Mother in the church is that she is one of many. That is, perhaps God the Father has polygamous (read polygynous) relationships. Maybe my heavenly mother is not your heavenly mother. What do you think, and what do you think church leaders think? Are there some sources on this subject, or must we simply speculate?
Yes, world, it is Mormon doctrine that God is not only a Heavenly Father but a Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother. The idea proceeds very logically from Doctrine & Covenants 132: 19 – 20, which teaches that marriage in an LDS temple is a requirement for attaining the highest levels of heaven, or “exaltation.” Those who do, the scripture states, “shall be gods.”
If doctrine holds that only the married are exalted to godhood, then it follows quite rationally that God is a married couple. This beautiful, symmetrical idea found an early articulation by the LDS leader Eliza R. Snow in her hymn, “O My Father”: “In the heavens, are parents single? / No, the thought makes reason stare. / Truth is reason, truth eternal, / Tells me I’ve a mother there.” This hymn is in the official LDS hymnbook and is regularly sung in Mormon congregations around the world. And the 1995 “Proclamation on the Family” refers to our “Heavenly Parents.” Clearly, our Mother is no secret.
But she sure feels like a secret. You could listen in on a year’s worth of Mormon meetings and scarcely hear her named. What gives?
The silence around Heavenly Mother is not doctrinal. A far-reaching study published in the journal BYU Studies last year located more than six hundred references to Heavenly Mother in the writings and speeches of LDS Church leaders. It’s really an important read—please download it for free here–and the authors find that there is absolutely no doctrinal basis for the prohibition of discussion of Heavenly Mother. And that’s the journal BYU Studies, for crying out loud.
The silence around Heavenly Mother, then, is cultural. It’s just a human tradition—a habit that fell into place and has become difficult to dislodge. We don’t find her as the object of discussion or even mention in General Conference speeches. Little inquiry is made into her attributes, character, or contributions, as if such concerns were marginal or even fringe. And thus for many decades there was a virtual vacuum of substantive reflection on Heavenly Mother.
Just as folk doctrine—some of it quite cruel–crept in to rationalize Mormonism’s century-plus ban on Black priesthood ordination, a good deal of folk doctrine has also crept in to rationalize our lack of discussion about our Mother. I grew up in the 1980s hearing from my seminary teacher that Heavenly Father himself prohibits discussion of our Mother because he wants to protect her from the abuse of the world—from regular mortals taking her name in vain, and the like—a story that always sounded utterly preposterous to me. As if God Herself were too fragile!
One sometimes also hears in Mormon circles the hushed speculation that we don’t talk about Heavenly Mother because there are in fact plural Heavenly Mothers. This is a bit of theological speculation we can trace to the nineteenth-century LDS theologian Orson Pratt’s The Seer, which was in its own day disclaimed by LDS authorities as a speculative rather than a doctrinal text. I have also met contemporary polygamous Mormon fundamentalist women who do believe that Heavenly Father has many exalted wives—many Heavenly Mothers for the whole human family. (I spent a memorable evening a few years ago, gathered around the dining room table of a—and they were utterly scandalized by the fact that talking about Heavenly Mother was so scandalized in the mainstream LDS Church.) The residual speculative idea that there are plural Heavenly Mothers is substantiated in some mainstream Mormon minds by the polygamous facets of D&C 132, plus current LDS temple sealing policies that permit living husbands to be sealed to more than one wife for the eternities (but not wives to husbands), as well as an ultra-literal projection of human procreation onto Heavenly Parents. Yes, it’s true that some LDS people today imagine that our Parents in Heaven create the spirits of humankind in a manner similar to the means through which the bodies of humankind are created on earth. That’s a lot of spiritual procreation, the story goes, hence the need for so many Heavenly Mothers. Again, none of this is doctrine, but it is the kind of storytelling we hear in the absence of doctrine. And just for the record, I’ll say it again, I know plenty of women who would firmly disagree that eternal pregnancy in the company of a gaggle of eternally pregnant wives is no heaven.
But again, these are non-doctrinal, folkoric reasons assigned for the lack of official discourse on Heavenly Mother. There is no doctrinal reason for not talking about Her.
And there was a moment two decades ago when our Mother was once again making a resurgence in Mormon talk and thought, thanks to Mormon feminists like Carol Lynn Pearson, whose marvelous play Mother Wove the Morning has given us some of our best imaging of her power and presence. Then, in 1991, President Gordon B. Hinckley gave a talk instructing LDS Church members that it was inappropriate to pray to Heavenly Mother. And Mormon feminist theologian Janice Allred, whose best-known work is a book entitled God the Mother, was excommunicated. And in 1996, Professor Gail Houston was fired from Brigham Young University for publicly describing her personal relationship with her Mother in Heaven, including her use of “meditation” and “visualization” to deepen that relationship. All of these events, I think, led to a renewed stigma around even talking about our Mother. On a day-to-day basis, she is bracketed in speech, again and again and again.
Who is responsible for perpetuating the silence? And who is responsible for the improper value attached to that silence—as if refusing to acknowledge Her or perpetuating some spooky sense of mystery about Her were a sublimely virtuous act. Who is responsible? We are.
A few weeks ago, I was in a group of LDS women, when one of the women related a story of a friend who had given a talk on Heavenly Mother on Mother’s Day in his LDS congregation in the western U.S. He was extremely cautious, crafting his talk only from on-the-record statements by high-ranking LDS leaders. Why not, after all, talk about Heavenly Mother on Mother’s Day? But as soon as he finished his talk, he was followed at the pulpit by his bishop, who denounced the talk and shamed the man. Within a few weeks, his Stake Presidency issued a statement asserting that talk of Heavenly Mother was prohibited.
“That was wrong,” I said to the women in the group. “That’s not doctrinal.”
“How do you know?” the woman looked at me with big fearful eyes, stunned.
“Because I know,” I said. It’s not a mystery. The official statements are available for everyone to study. We need to take responsibility for knowing our own religion, right?
It’s a refusal to know and act on our own doctrine that keeps Heavenly Mother in silence. And that refusal is rooted in culture. Gender-conservative Mormon culture often privileges polite demurral and passivity in women over intellectual curiosity and authority. Perhaps the quiescence we assign to Heavenly Mother is a reflection of what Mormon culture at its most conservative values in women.
I certainly don’t think LDS Church leaders are plotting to keep Heavenly Mother out of the conversation. Not at all. I think they’re preoccupied with the many challenges of running a worldwide church, and Mother in Heaven simply doesn’t occur to them except as a fringe theological speculation. So it may be up to those of us for whom she is not a fringe concern—perhaps because she looks like us or someone we love—to take responsibility for knowing the doctrine.
And don’t blame God for the silence. After all, why would God prohibit discussion of the truth that women are partners in Godhood, that God looks not only like the husbands, brothers, and sons we cherish but also like us, our sisters, and our daughters? That she has parts and passions like ours, as Mormon doctrine teaches. We live in a world where women’s bodies are exploited, shamed, abused and distorted beyond recognition in popular culture, with serious spiritual consequences for men, women, boys, and girls. So many women—including (especially?) Mormon women–have issues with food, size, and embodiment that are tremendously costly to our spiritual lives and the lives of our families. Understanding the embodiment of God in female form calls us to emancipation from distorted and distorting relationships to our bodies.
I appreciate all the Mormon women and men who are making an effort to bring Heavenly Mother steadily and politely back into everyday speech and thought. (And readers, if you’d like to see some truly beautiful art and writing on Motherhood—including divine motherhood—do yourself a favor and get the latest issue of Sunstone magazine, a special issue dedicated entirely to the subject.)
I’ll get back into my silence now, and turn the space over to you, readers. How do you experience the silence around Heavenly Mother, and are you ready to end it for yourself?
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