Seeking Heavenly Mother

19 Jan

TEST3

{Image from here}

Our little family recently moved back to Philadelphia, where we lived a few years ago. We found an apartment close to where we previously attended church, and are thrilled to be back both in the city and the branch (Mormon congregations are called wards or branches). It feels like home.

This Sunday Dave and I were assigned to present talks about Heavenly Father. However, I asked if I could speak on Heavenly Mother—in part because the LDS Church recently released an essay about the topic, and in part because I have spent much of the last year researching and pondering the topic. Our branch president, a dear friend, kindly assented to my slight course change.

I was especially concerned that both the content and tone of my talk speak to all members of our branch—a diverse group of people that includes lifelong Church members, recent converts, and visitors; West Coast transplants and native Philadelphians; high school–only graduates and Wharton MBA students; young families and older single women; and a range of nationalities and languages that delightfully resembles the United Nations.

When I posted on Facebook that I would be speaking about the Feminine Divine/Heavenly Mother, I was encouraged by how many friends expressed interest. This is partly because I am friends with lovely, encouraging people, but I think it speaks to the far-reaching hunger to learn more about Heavenly Mother. Many people requested a copy of my talk, and because it’s such a tender topic, I would love to wrap a printed copy in red-and-white baker’s twine and mail it to each person… but I figured my blog would be the simplest medium for the job.

Style note: The text below is as delivered, minus a brief introduction of our family. Sources are in parentheses, using a slightly abbreviated reference system. I included page numbers where applicable and links to either the full text or the book’s Amazon page. I fact-checked all quotes myself, because I am too legit to quit.

* * * * *

Dave and I were asked to speak about Heavenly Father. The first Article of Faith states simply, “We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.”

However, there is another divine personage that we as Mormons recognize—our Mother in Heaven. She is also known as Heavenly Mother, God the Mother, the Feminine Divine, and the Eternal Feminine. I asked [our branch president] if I could speak about this today, and he said yes.

Before I begin, I should say that one former prophet, President Gordon B. Hinckley, has said that we should not pray to Heavenly Mother, because Jesus Christ taught His disciples to “always pray unto the Father in my name” (“Daughters of God,” Ensign, 1991). And although modern prophets have not spoken specifically about how Heavenly Mother fits into the Mormon concept of the Godhead, a recent essay published in the Gospel Topics section of LDS.org confirms that “the doctrine of a Heavenly Mother is a cherished and distinctive belief among Latter-day Saints” (“Mother in Heaven,” LDS.org, 2015). (Regarding the Godhead matter, Elder Erastus Snow did say, “We may never hope to attain unto the eternal power and the Godhead upon any other principle … this Godhead composing two parts, male and female” [cited in David L. Paulsen and Martin Pulido, “A Mother There,” BYU Studies, 2011, p. 79]. This presents some intriguing possibilities, such as the sometimes suggested notion that “Elohim” refers to a combination of Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother, or that the entire Godhead has a combination of male and female attributes woven throughout, although that opens up questions about which attributes are male and female. Also it brings up the fun question of whether Mormons are monotheists or monolatrists. It is now obvious why this train of thought was not in my original talk.)

It wasn’t long ago that I considered the Mormon belief in a Heavenly Mother as merely a fun fact, a theological novelty. But I’ve come to realize it is more like a referendum on the fate of half the human family.

There is a lovely play called Mother Wove the Morning by Mormon author Carol Lynn Pearson (she wrote the Primary song “I’ll Walk With You”). It explores the journeys of women throughout history seeking to know the Feminine Divine. One character declares, “If you can see no femaleness in God, you will see nothing of God in the female. But if you can, you will see God in everyone!” (p. 53).

My primary purpose is first, to dispel the myth that we are not allowed to talk about Heavenly Mother, and second, to explore Her character and Her role, and how we can seek Her.

Dispelling the myth

If you have heard anything about Heavenly Mother in the course of your membership in the Church, you have probably heard that yes, she exists, but we are not supposed to talk about Her because she is too pure and sacred, and that Heavenly Father is protecting Her name “from the kinds of slander that human beings direct toward the names of the Father and the Son” (quoted by Kathryn H. Shirts, “Women in the Image of the Son: Being Female and Being Like Christ,” LDS Women’s Treasury, 1997, p. 53).

This line of reasoning has disturbing implications in two ways. First, it suggests that God the Father is strong and powerful enough to withstand the blows of blasphemy against His name, but God the Mother is too weak and fragile to do the same. This is precisely the kind of reasoning that has been used for centuries to put women on a pedestal that is in reality a cage—that woman is too tender for full freedom and personhood (see Frontiero v. Richardson, U.S. Supreme Court, 1973). I happen to believe that both women and God the Mother are full people. Second, the idea of “protecting” Heavenly Mother suggests that our heavenly parents’ power is weakened when humans reject them. But that is not true. In Doctrine & Covenants 121 God explains how godly power operates: “What power shall stay the heavens? As well might man stretch forth his puny arm to stop the Missouri River in its decreed course, or to turn it up stream, as to hinder the Almighty from pouring down knowledge from heaven upon the heads of the Latter-day Saints.” Furthermore, the scripture points out that God’s power is not exercised with coercion or brute strength, but “only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge.” (For more on the relationship between godly power and vulnerability, read The God Who Weeps by Fiona and Terryl Givens.)

Thankfully, we don’t have to accept these disturbing implications, because this requirement for so-called “sacred silence” is a misunderstanding and myth—not doctrine. This censorship concept has not been taught by any Church president, apostle, or other general authority (Paulsen, p. 75). (However, there is the case of one scholar who was excommunicated in part because she wrote about the doctrine of Heavenly Mother, which is part of a painful history of intellectuals and feminists being monitored and excommunicated by the Church. The recently published volume Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings is an excellent starting point for exploring these issues.)

A 2011 article published in BYU Studies “attempted to identify each distinct reference to Heavenly Mother as found within content endorsed in some fashion by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1830 to present” (Paulsen, p. 74). This article was cited by the recent essay on LDS.org. This article found that many Church leaders have spoken joyfully of Heavenly Mother as a divine person, a procreator, a co-creator of worlds, a co-framer of the plan of salvation with the Father, and a concerned and loving parent involved in our mortal life (Paulsen, p. 76).

Now I’ll provide a sampling of some of the statements about Heavenly Mother and what they can teach us about Her character and role. There are many sources, in the scriptures and elsewhere, from which we can interpret knowledge about Heavenly Mother—we could talk about apocryphal sources that cite goddess worship and matriarchy in ancient Israel, or the woman depicted in Proverbs 8 who was present at the Creation (which was brought to my attention by this interview), or the possible Feminine Divine symbolism in the Tree of Life in Lehi’s dream. But to avoid preaching “false doctrine” or focusing on my own personal interpretations, I will focus on statements made by modern prophets and Church leaders, since they speak in plain, direct, irrefutable language.

Divine person

The most basic belief about Heavenly Mother is that she is a divine person. The most well-known expression about Heavenly Mother is the hymn “O My Father,” which was initially titled “Invocation, or the Eternal Father and Mother” (Paulsen, p. 95).  It was written by Eliza R. Snow, the second general president of the Relief Society and a plural wife of both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.

The hymn declares:

“In the heav’ns are parents single?
No, the thought makes reason stare;
Truth is reason—truth eternal
Tells me I’ve a mother there.”

Eliza said, “I got my inspiration from the Prophet’s [Joseph Smith] teaching. All that I was required to do was use my Poetical gift and give that Eternal principal in Poetry” (quoted in Jill Mulvay Derr, “The Significance of ‘O My Father’ in the Personal Journey of Eliza R. Snow,” BYU Studies, 1997, p. 100).

Several close associates of the Prophet Joseph Smith recorded his teachings on a Mother in Heaven. Zina Huntington Young, who was the third general president of the Relief Society and a plural wife of both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, said that when her mother passed away, she asked Joseph, “Will I know my mother as my mother when I get over on the Other Side?” He responded, “Certainly you will. More than that, you will meet and become acquainted with your eternal Mother, the wife of your Father in Heaven” (Susa Young Gates, History of the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association, 1911, p. 16).

Abraham H. Cannon recorded in his journal that Joseph Smith invited Sidney Rigdon and Zebedee Coltrin to “accompany him into the woods to pray.” They experienced a succession of four visions. Cannon wrote, “They did so [opened their eyes] and saw a brilliant light surrounding a pedestal which seemed to rest on the earth. They closed their eyes and again prayed. They then saw, on opening them, the Father seated upon a throne; they prayed again and on looking saw the Mother also; after praying and looking the fourth time they saw the Savior added to the group” (Abraham H. Cannon Journal, Aug. 25, 1880, LDS Archives; cited in Linda Wilcox, “The Mormon Concept of a Mother in Heaven,” Sunstone, 1980, p. 79).

In 1895 Elder Orson F. Whitney explained that “there was a time when that being whom we now worship—that our eternal Father and Mother were once man and woman in mortality” (Paulsen p. 77).

In 1916 the First Presidency issued a declaration titled “The Father and the Son,” in which they assert that our heavenly parents passed through “several stages or estates by which [they] have attained exaltation” and together “propagate[d] that higher order of beings called spirits.”

Elder Melvin J. Ballard taught, “No matter to what heights God has attained or may attain, he does not stand alone; for side by side with him, in all her glory, a glory like unto his, stands a companion, the Mother of his children. For as we have a Father in heaven, so also we have a Mother there, a glorified, exalted, ennobled Mother” (Bryant S. Hinckley, Sermons and Mission Services of Melvin Joseph Ballard,  1949, p. 205; cited in here by Rachel Hunt Steenblik, who contributed to the Paulsen article).

Elder Dallin H. Oaks stated, “Our theology begins with heavenly parents. Our highest aspiration is to be like them” (“Apostasy and Restoration,” Ensign, 1995).

Procreator

One frequently cited role of Heavenly Mother is that of procreator—the literal mother of the spirits of humankind. “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” issued in 1995 by the First Presidency of the Church, states that “All human beings—male and female—are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny. Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.”

Heavenly Mother is most often invoked when a speaker wishes to instill in the listeners a sense of their divine nature and eternal potential, to motivate righteous choices. In these cases, Church leaders generally use the term “heavenly parents” rather than singling out Heavenly Mother.

For example, Julie B. Beck of the Young Women general presidency told women, “You have light because you are literally spirit daughters of Deity, ‘offspring of exalted parents’ with a divine nature and an eternal destiny. You received your first lessons in the world of spirits from your heavenly parents. You have been sent to earth to ‘prove’ yourselves” (“You Have a Noble Birthright,” Ensign, 2006).

But sometimes the Mother is singled out. For example, President Spencer W. Kimball told women, “You are daughters of God. … You are made in the image of our heavenly mother.” (Conference Report, Mexico City and Central America Area Conference, 1973, p. 10; cited here).

Co-creator of worlds

“Some authorities have described Heavenly Mother as an active participant in the process of creation” (Paulsen, p. 80).

For example, President Harold B. Lee said, “Think of the significant statement contained in the scriptures describing the creation of man. ‘And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him, male and female created he them.’ If you consider carefully those in whose image and likeness male and female were created, I wonder if you will not also discover the organizers of intelligences in the world of spirits” (Clyde J. Williams [ed.], Teachings of Harold B. Lee, 1996, Chapter 2 [I have the e-book, so sorry, no page number]).

Co-framer of the plan of salvation

“In addition to her participation in creation, Heavenly Mother helped the Father direct the plan of salvation” (Paulsen p. 81).

Elder M. Russel Ballard taught that “we are part of a divine plan designed by Heavenly Parents who love us” (When Thou Art Converted: Continuing Our Search for Happiness, 2001, 62; cited here).

The Church’s 1978 Gospel Principles manual taught: “Our heavenly parents provided us with a celestial home more glorious and beautiful than any place on earth. We were happy there. Yet they knew we could not progress beyond a certain point unless we left them for a time. They wanted us to develop the godlike qualities they have. To do this, we needed to leave our celestial home to be tested and to gain experience” (Paulsen, p. 81).

Chieko Okazaki, first counselor in the Relief Society general presidency, stated that “at the end of this process, our Heavenly Parents will have sons and daughters who are their peers, their friends, and their colleagues” (Paulsen, p. 81).

President Thomas S. Monson taught that the necessary experiences of personal growth that come in this life “could come only through separation from our heavenly parents” (“Ponder the Path of Thy Feet,” Ensign, 2014).

Loving parent

Church leaders have taught that despite the separation, our heavenly parents are concerned and involved in our lives.

In 1963, President Harold B. Lee taught: “Sometimes we think the whole job is up to us, forgetful that there are loved ones beyond our sight who are thinking about us and our children. We forget that we have a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother who are even more concerned, probably, than our earthly father and mother, and that influences from beyond are constantly working to try to help us when we do all we can” (Paulsen, p. 83).

“Sister Okazaki has written that our heavenly parents are cosufferers with us in our mortal trials” (Paulsen, p. 83).

In the most recent general conference, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said, “To all of our mothers everywhere, past, present, or future, I say, ‘Thank you. Thank you for giving birth, for shaping souls, for forming character, and for demonstrating the pure love of Christ.’ To Mother Eve, to Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel, to Mary of Nazareth, and to a Mother in Heaven, I say, ‘Thank you for your crucial role in fulfilling the purposes of eternity’” (“Behold Thy Mother,” Ensign, 2015).

Many leaders also speak of the heartwarming parent-child reunion that awaits us after this life. Another hymn, “O, What Songs of the Heart” by Joseph L. Townsend, sings:

“Oh what songs we’ll employ …
As the heart swells with joy
In embraces most dear
When our heavenly parents we meet!”

President Spencer W. Kimball reasoned, “Knowing how profoundly our mortal mothers shaped us here, do we suppose her influence on us as individuals to be less if we live so as to return [to heaven]?” (Paulsen, p. 85).

What we don’t know

So far I have sought to accumulate the most impressively authoritative quotes from the upper echelons of Church leadership, attempting to prove my own orthodoxy and to lend legitimacy to this precious concept of a Heavenly Mother. The aforementioned myth about staying silent makes me feel a bit defensive, so forgive me if it sounds too much like I’m presenting evidence in a legal case.

But I’d also like to acknowledge the evidence we lack. Though there are many quotes to be had on this subject, many of the quotes briefly acknowledge “heavenly parents”—then any reference to action or concrete characteristics are attributed solely to Heavenly Father. The Family Proclamation, for example, cites “heavenly parents” once, but thereafter discusses only the “Eternal Father,” “His plan,” and “His children.” The Young Women theme that girls recite each week states, “We are daughters of our Heavenly Father, who loves us, and we love Him.” Perhaps someday those words will be changed to reference both loving heavenly parents. Likewise, a recent general conference talk by Rosemary Wixom of the general Primary presidency spoke to women and girls of their “divine nature and destiny” (“Discovering the Divinity Within,” Ensign, 2015). Sister Wixom proclaimed, “Heavenly Father generously shares a portion of His divinity within us,” yet there is glaringly no mention of what divinity might be derived from our Heavenly Mother. Is the gift of divinity not as much from our Mother’s DNA as from our Father’s? I hope that these kinds of oversights are unintentional, merely the effects of a culture that conditions us to accept male pronouns and male anything to stand in for the general (or at the exclusion of the female). As the always-diplomatic Mormon author Neylan McBaine says: “I’m not saying this is wrong; I’m saying it is hard” (Women at Church, 2014, p. 53).

Reaching for the Mother

I have felt kinship with a poem by Carol Lynn Pearson called “I Live in a Motherless House”:

“I live in a Motherless house,
Motherless and without a trace
Who could have done this?
Who would tear an unweaned infant
From its Mother’s arms
And clear the place of every souvenir? …
I am a child—
Crying for my Mother in the night.”

I feel encouraged by the content of the statements I’ve shared here, but my journey to seek Heavenly Mother has still been difficult. Sometimes it feels like the things I’ve learned are clever clues in a scavenger hunt where She is waiting at the end of the rainbow. Sometimes it feels like a grieving process, a mourning of a great loss.

But I accept this struggle, because I know growth comes out of struggle, and that specifically, an essential struggle of this mortal life is to be separated from our heavenly parents so that we can learn and grow and, through our actions, demonstrate the true desires of our hearts. And along the way, I find hope in many sources.

I find hope in the proclamation of the woman Wisdom in Proverbs 8, who says “All the words of my mouth are in righteousness … They are all plain to him [or her] that understandeth, and right to them that find knowledge.”

I find hope in the Savior’s repeated reminders that “He [or she] that hath ears to hear, let him [or her] hear.”

I find hope in the fact that “the Restoration is an ongoing process” (Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Are You Sleeping Through the Restoration?” Ensign, 2014). Doctrine & Covenants 121:26, 28 speaks of knowledge “that has not been revealed since the world was until now; a time to come in which nothing shall be withheld, whether there be one God or many gods, they shall be manifest.”

Most of all, I find hope in my faith in the Savior, because I believe that, as James E. Talmage wrote, “the world’s greatest champion of woman and womanhood is Jesus the Christ” (Jesus the Christ, 1916, p. 475). Even when I feel like I have blank spaces in my understanding of and relationship with Heavenly Mother, I believe my faith in Jesus Christ can help heal my sense of loss. And I’m pretty sure that’s what the gospel is about.

* * * * *

Post-talk thoughts

I was quite nervous to deliver this talk because of the sensitivity of the subject. I was not the most composed speaker, but I got through it, and I’m so grateful for the kind words from branch members afterward, and of course for Dave’s support.

Preparing this talk was a way to gather and reflect on the information I’ve encountered so far, but it also opened my eyes to areas I’d like to explore further. I realized after giving my talk that part of my thesis was to “explore Her character and Her role, and how we can seek Her,” but really only talked about Her role, because that is what most authoritative statements focus on.

Understanding the character of God is a lofty task, but an essential one. Joseph Smith taught in 1844, “If men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, Chapter 2). To mirror his words, if women do not comprehend the character of Heavenly Mother, they do not comprehend themselves.

As for how we can seek Her, that is something I am figuring out along the way. I try to find a balance between being open-minded to the possibility of finding truth anywhere, and also being a critical thinker who questions and tests everything. I think Doctrine & Covenants 91 is a good guide for faithful Mormons seeking Heavenly Mother. The revelation is about the Apocrypha (biblical writings that are not part of canonical scripture), but it can apply to any nontraditional source:

“There are many things contained therein that are true … There are many things contained therein that are not true, which are interpolations by the hands of men. … Therefore, whoso readeth it, let him [or her] understand, for the Spirit manifesteth truth; And whoso is enlightened by the Spirit shall obtain benefit therefrom; And whoso receiveth not by the Spirit, cannot be benefited.”

I was hesitant to share this publicly because it still feels tenuous and raw, and because it feels like my understanding is so immature. But I hope something here is helpful to others on their own truth-seeking journey.

Recommended reading

David L. Paulsen and Martin Pulido, “A Mother There,” BYU Studies, 2011. This survey of historical LDS teachings serves as the perfect starting point for research on Heavenly Mother.

“A Mother There” Art and Poetry Contest. The winners are featured online and they are lovely. I also started a Pinterest board about Heavenly Mother.

Carol Lynn Pearson, Mother Wove the Morning, 1992. This is a quick read and covers not only the LDS concept of Heavenly Mother but also notions of the Feminine Divine across history, culture, and geography. The reading list at the back provides an excellent starting point for a broader exploration of the Feminine Divine.

Joanna Brooks, Rachel Hunt Steenblik, and Hannah Wheelwright (eds.), Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings, 2015. This invaluable anthology shares the historical and theological foundations for today’s Mormon Feminism movement, which includes explorations of the Feminine Divine.

Fiona and Terryl Givens, The God Who Weeps, 2012. Although the BYU Studies article offers numerous quotes about the roles of Heavenly Mother, this book offers a viewpoint on the character of God. The focus is on Heavenly Father but could possibly be extended to Heavenly Mother.

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5 Responses to “Seeking Heavenly Mother”

  1. Amanda January 20, 2016 at 1:00 am #

    Thanks for sharing, Holly! Very well articulated, as always!

    • Holly January 20, 2016 at 7:47 am #

      Thanks, Amanda! You are the best.

  2. Ian Kinzel January 20, 2016 at 5:12 pm #

    As an outsider to your church, Heavenly Mother is a very intriguing and provocative idea – certainly fertile ground for discussion. It is not a view that I share, as I don’t apply gender or sex to my understanding of God; however, given that many other Christians do believe (at least implicitly) in a gendered deity, I appreciate the balance and the inclusiveness of a Heavenly Mother alongside Heavenly Father.

    In light of this theological point, it saddens me to that LDS is often portrayed as being especially, uniquely, or even inherently misogynistic vis-a-vis Protestant churches, while my own United Methodist Church gets a free pass because women are now 1/4 of church clergy…one in four! Look at us!

    (The issue being one of double standards on the part of outsider judgments – I’m not trying to say what LDS should and shouldn’t do).

    Learning about the belief in Heavenly Mother has drastically altered how I understand the reality and possibilities of LDS. I lack a deep, nuanced understanding of where this road ultimately leads, but you make a strong case and I like what I’m seeing. Oh, and as the son of a former public defender, I don’t get that legal case vibe at all from reading this. Smiley emoji!

  3. Heidi January 20, 2016 at 8:25 pm #

    Holly, your talk was wonderful and so well-thought out and heartfelt. I’m sure it touched all those who heard it. I still want a copy of Dave’s too. 🙂 I actually saw Carol Lynn Pearson perform “Mother Wove the Morning” when she did it here. And I think Aunt Anne might have been visiting and came with me. I’ll have to ask her if she remembers that. I haven’t had a chance to look at all your links, but I plan to do that. Love you!

  4. Dad January 21, 2016 at 11:41 pm #

    Holly: My beautiful daughter, I really enjoyed reading your talk about our Heavenly Mother and wish I could have been there to hear you present it, along with Dave’s on Heavenly Father. I believe you were inspired when you asked the Branch President to allow you to alter your topic to be inclusive of both of our Heavenly Parents. Bookends! Every time I hear “Oh My Father” my first thought is that I get to hear and sing about my Heavenly Mother, as well. I am so grateful to have a testimony that we truly have Heavenly Parents, both a Mother and a Father ,and I honestly would not feel complete without that knowledge. As you quoted President Uchtdorff in his recent Gen Conf talk, “the restoration is continuing” and I believe we will have a greater increase in knowledge that will strengthen us. As always, I am in awe of your thoroughly exhaustive research. All my love, Dad

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