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From our exchanges: “The Mormon Concept of Mother in Heaven”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - June 09, 2008

John Heeren, Donald B. Lindsey, Marylee Mason, “The Mormon Concept of Mother in Heaven: A Sociological Account of Its Origins and Development,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 23:4 (Dec. 1984), 396-411.

“Among the various faiths within the Judeo-Christian tradition, belief in a female deity is rather uncommon. One important exception to this image of an exclusively male-occupied pantheon is found in the Mormon belief in a Heavenly Mother.” The three authors discuss the historical manifestation of the Mormon belief in a Mother in Heaven, and also “the contending interests” connected with teaching or distancing the church from the idea.

The various familiar 19th and early 20th century references to a Mother in Heaven are cited: Lorenzo Snow’s “As man now is, God once was; as God is now, man may become”; teaching that eternal marriage is a prerequisite to exaltation, with the logical extension that “as people can only be exalted as married pairs, then God, as an exalted man, must be married”; Eliza R. Snow’s “O, My Father”; the 1909 First Presidency statement on evolution, concluding that “All men and women are in the similitude of the universal Father and Mother, and are literally the sons and daughters of Deity;” and Bruce R. McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine statement that “An exalted and glorified Man of Holiness … could not be a Father unless a Woman of like glory, perfection, and holiness was associated with him as a Mother.”

The authors find three possible explanations for the doctrine of a Heavenly Mother suggested by previous writers:

1. Theological Explanation: Mormonism has traits of a “mystical orientation,” with the union of male and female representing the believer’s quest to find union between God and man. The authors note problems with this explanation, though: the Heavenly Father and the Heavenly Mother are distinct personages. “She is a separate divine personage whose role it is to be wife and helpmeet of the Heavenly Father and mother of His spiritual offspring. Her separateness is affirmed by the fact that She is not part of the Godhead.”

2. Socio-Historical Explanation: This theory places Mormonism in the context of surrounding events during its development. Women were prominent actors in the spread of religious enthusiasm during the excitement of the 1820s-30s, and Mormonism developed during the time and in the cradle of the growth of women’s rights. The authors criticize earlier writers who propose this explanation, claiming that “women have never played a dominant part in the religious affairs of the Church … are not given priesthood authority and thus are deprived of significant decision-making and leadership responsibilities … [and despite auxiliary leadership] their activities have been more or less circumscribed by their not holding the priesthood.” The conclude that “by itself, a belief in a Heavenly Mother does not indicate any feminist commitments.”

3. Social-Psychological Explanation: The authors note that “Mormons seem inclined toward accepting the simplest, most literal interpretations of religious ideas.” We engage in a literal reading of scripture, and are generally free from the distortions and ambiguities to religious texts that occur during the passage of centuries. If “the divine realm is merely an elevated form of the human sphere … there must be a sexual dimension in divine relationships. The logical conclusion from this is that God the Father must have a wife.” The authors note exceptions to the general literalness of Mormon belief, such as textual changes to divinely-translated Book of Mormon, and belief that creation of Eve from Adam’s rib is a figurative explanation.

The authors note that any “definitive explanation of the existence of a belief in a female deity” will likely require “systematic comparative studies of various religions.” Incorporating the Mormon belief in a Mother in Heaven in such comparative studies will address at least these ideas:

1. The Mormon viewpoint of female deity is substantially different from that of Shakers, Christian Scientists, or other believers in a divine feminine. Whereas other religions “elevat[e] the feminine principle into essential equality with the masculine,” Mormon thought “elevat[e]s the conjugal relationship into the eternal realm.”

2. Mormonism embraces an anthropomorphic God, meaning that the male body, and by extension, the female body, are essential features of doctrine, whereas other Christian beliefs conceive of a principle or essence of the feminine without the physical, tangible presence of a body.

The second half of this article addresses “the politics of Mother in Heaven.”

The authors note that the theological framework for a Mother in heaven is present in D&C 132, the 1843 revelation on celestial marriage. “What is intriguing here is that the revelation provided a heavenly justification for the practice of plural marriage, yet did so by implying that women can achieve divine status. Thus, one could see the revelation as carrying both demeaning and glorifying implications for women.” They see an “immediate political function of the goddess belief” as an attempt “to win the support of women (and men) who were reluctant to accept the doctrine of plural wives.”

They see a similar “conservative purpose” in the 1909 statement on the origin of man – but they also see that 1909 statement as a refutation of the theory of evolution, whereas most readers see it not as a refutation but as a clarification between what we do know (including man’s relationship to a literal Father and Mother) from what we do not know (the mechanism for the development of physical life on earth).

A third conservative purpose to which belief in a Heavenly Mother has been put, they say, is “that of defining a woman’s earthly role. For Mormons, Mother in heaven is idealized as the ultimate standard of womanhood. the focus of all that has been revealed about Her divine role centers on Her functions of bearing and nurturing spiritual offspring. therefore, it is the religious duty of Mormon women to marry and to bear and nurture children.”

In recent years, the authors note, the image of a Mother in Heaven has been put to more liberal political uses:

Carolyn Lynn Pearson is cited for the desire to “[bring] about greater equality and [meet] the needs of Mormon women” by further developing the theology of a Mother in Heaven, an understanding “involving nontraditional roles as well as motherhood.”

Sonia Johnson is also cited for liberal belief that the Mother in Heaven is “an authority in her own right, as powerful, as wise and independent as [Father].”

The authors engage in some politicizing of their own: Without relating this ideas specifically to the doctrine of a Mother in Heaven, they present a laundry list of reasons why a more liberal approach to women would be desirable: “At the same time that they e[s]pouse equality for women, the leaders of the church make it clear that religion and family affairs are to be governed patriarchally … only men are permitted priesthood authority … Since Adam’s fall, men have acted as priests and mediated the relationship of women with God … this also makes a man the rightful head of the household … this priest-led family organization certainly inhibits women from seeking careers outside the home … there has been some recent concern that Mormon women suffer considerable guilt over not living up to the church’s motherhood image … certain of women’s religious experiences are less likely to be valued as highly as men’s.” Expansion of the role of the Mother in Heaven would, they feel, lead to an expansion of the role of women in the affairs and respect of the church.

“Contrary to the hopes of some Mormon feminists, we feel the probability of any such pro-feminist expansion is very slight,” they say. “It seems to us that the Heavenly Mother doctrine has always been rather peripheral to Church theology … Moreover, given the negative publicity associated with the Johnson/LDS Church affair, it may be that any political use of the Mother in heaven doctrine stirs more negative than positive reactions among church authorities and membership.”

“What, then, is the structural basis of the Mormon belief in Mother in Heaven? We see its source in the system of patriarchy itself. patriarchal authority among Latter Day Saints provides for an extreme separation or division of labor between men and women. Only men hold priesthood authority; only women bear children. … thus, we arrive at the ironic conclusion that patriarchy and belief in a goddess go hand-in-hand in the Mormon case.”

The authors conclude with an extensive bibliography drawing from both 19th and 20th century sources, Mormon and non-Mormon.



56 Comments »

  1. Interesting Read Ardis, I’d like to know more about your perspecitve on Heavenly Mother. Do you agree with the article’s conclussion, that she is a figment of over-belief generated by a mis-understanding of patriarchy?

    Comment by Matt W. — June 9, 2008 @ 11:44 am

  2. I cannot help but note that the date of the article reflects the time of a recent push for the ERA, especially with the exploration of Sonia Johnson in their research. I wonder if the research and subsequent publication now would draw the same conclusions.

    I disagree with the argument that a female deity in Mormonism is based more on patriarchy, forcing women into stereotypical roles. It is true that Mormon female deity is often thought of as a nurturing mother, but because the development of her personal traits and attributes of her character are virtually non-existent within our theology, it seems hard to come to any conclusions about what it tells women within the Mormon faith.

    Further, the theology of female deity has been explored within Mormonism has been explored almost solely by women, often excommunicated ones. If it was in the interest of patriarchy to situate Mother in Heaven so as to keep women situated in a certain place in mortal life (in a patriarchal family) wouldn’t it be in men’s interest to develop her identity more (assuming of course that the church was not based on truth or revelation)?

    Also, it seems to me that the authors have not noted that Mormon women work outside the home in about the same numbers as non-Mormons. This flies in the face of their reasoning that women are inhibited from careers.

    Comment by mmiles — June 9, 2008 @ 12:01 pm

  3. Matt, personally, I’m as literalist as they come. That is, I believe a Heavenly Mother is as necessary as a Heavenly Father, and I think all the (ha! *all,* as if there were so many) early statements about Her are consistent and reasonable. But I don’t think we know enough to go beyond those early statements without further revelation. I couldn’t pray to or worship a goddess who hadn’t commanded such, or about whom I know so little as I do about a Heavenly Mother, anymore than I could pray to or worship a god as incomprehensible as the everywhere-and-nowhere god of Protestantism.

    We know just enough to be dangerous when we start using the idea of a Heavenly Mother to define women’s roles in a conservative sense, or to demand an expansion of roles in a liberal sense. She is ambiguous enough to be used as a poster child for any cause, and I don’t go there.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 9, 2008 @ 12:03 pm

  4. I wonder if the authors would change anything if they revised this post 1995, after the Proclamation to the World was published. The doctrine of Heavenly Parents is explicit there.

    In my opinion, the idea of gendered, embodied Gods who have a relationship we think of as marriage is enticing, while remaining sketchy on the details. This doctrine is relatively undeveloped among us. Who knows what it really means and what the details are?

    Comment by Mark IV — June 9, 2008 @ 12:04 pm

  5. mmiles, I agree with you that the article is dated, and as much a product of its time as the authors suggest Mother in Heaven may be a product of the time of the Restoration. I also like your question in your third paragraph about the absence of an expansion of teachings about the Heavenly Mother in the service of patriarchy. Perhaps someone more familiar with feminist arguments and studies than I am will read and comment on that.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 9, 2008 @ 12:08 pm

  6. Mark IV, that the doctrine is so undeveloped is what allows it to be so politicized, I think. You are almost forced to supply some speculation in order to say anything at all about a Heavenly Mother, and what you choose to supply is colored by the point you want to drive home.

    In general, I also want to clarify that I’m posting summaries about articles like this on topics that I find interesting, not because I agree or disagree with the authors, but because the articles appear in journals that may be unfamiliar to most of us as sources of Mormon history.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 9, 2008 @ 12:10 pm

  7. I agree that lack of knowledge about Mother in Heaven leaves us open to mere speculation, and politicization of her concept.

    However, I think we might not know her because as a result of politicization too. If it wasn’t so feared that she might become a fertility cult (or something), would church leaders seek out more revelation of her? Of course, that is again all speculation.

    Thanks for the write up.

    Comment by mmiles — June 9, 2008 @ 12:22 pm

  8. Thanks for this summary, Ardis — very interesting.

    Comment by Kaimi — June 9, 2008 @ 12:30 pm

  9. Ardis, I love your comment 3. Thanks also for giving us a glimpse into some articles that, as you said, are likely not familiar to most of us.

    In my opinion, the idea of gendered, embodied Gods who have a relationship we think of as marriage is enticing, while remaining sketchy on the details. This doctrine is relatively undeveloped among us. Who knows what it really means and what the details are?

    Maybe this is what you are saying, but to me, a lot of what eternal life looks like — not just the eternal marriage relationship — is sketchy. I can’t help but think that is part of the program, part of the veil. We take it on faith that eternal life and exaltation will be wonderful, beyond what eye can see and what mind can comprehend. What we are here to do is to learn to live the simple principles of the gospel in their purity.

    As such, I don’t think it’s fear that keeps revelation from coming.

    Comment by m&m — June 9, 2008 @ 1:29 pm

  10. Thanks, mmiles, and Kaimi.

    m&m, yup, that’s what I think, too, that if we knew everything about where we are headed, the faith that is such a power in every circumstance would not develop. One of my favorite hymns is “Lead, Kindly Light” in part for its imagery of seeing only one step ahead. That doesn’t mean that everything else is utter blackness — we have enough of an idea of our surroundings to be going *somewhere* — but everything gets dimmer in proprotion to its distance.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 9, 2008 @ 1:52 pm

  11. To me, this is some of the most exciting stuff in Mormonism.

    It’s as if we have a sort of religious frontier, with “undiscovered country” laying just beyond the horizon. I know it looks scary and some of us may “not want to go there.” But I think part of being handed down a legacy from our forebears requires and demands that we “go there.”

    This is an important topic and it deserves some revelation. If we have not yet received it, I’m inclined to think it’s because we aren’t asking for it.

    While I appreciate the attempts to reassure by saying “who knows?” that really isn’t what our living revelatory faith is supposed to be about. We are supposed to be blazing new paths, and covering new ground. Mormons are not allowed to be content with the light and knowledge they already have. They can never be at rest or content in Zion.

    Remember, from those that “have not” shall “be taken even that which they have.” If we aren’t anxiously asking about our Mother, we are failing as Latter-day Saints.

    Comment by Seth R. — June 9, 2008 @ 2:19 pm

  12. Seth, what is your idea of “anxiously asking”? Seeking to understand through personal study and prayer is one thing, but announcing my impressions publicly? speculating? advancing a pet theory for others to consider? No, that’s not my right, and I don’t go there.

    I’m not sure you can point to a model from the early days of the Church where revelation was received by Joseph Smith because other church members sought it for him, although you can find numerous examples of people condemned by the Lord for trying to usurp for themselves the role of the prophet.

    Or do I completely misunderstand you?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 9, 2008 @ 2:38 pm

  13. #10

    That is one of my fave hymns as well. :) (I have already told my hubby that I want that one sung at my funeral someday (Mack Wilberg arrangement, please)).

    One of the ways I know the gospel is true is that it just keeps on giving…that as I move forward, I keep finding light, truth, knowledge, help, strength, understanding. It doesn’t always come when and where and how I want it to, but it comes. Gospel living is a living thing.

    Comment by m&m — June 9, 2008 @ 3:02 pm

  14. Thought I would throw this in here, since it’s been brought up.

    Sister Holland once wrote an article that has stuck with me. While I think we should never strive to get ahead of the prophets and what they teach regarding things like this (and I don’t think she is advocating such), I think what Sister Holland says is interesting.

    “The Lord has not placed us in this lone and dreary world without a blueprint for living. In Doctrine and Covenants 52, we read the Lord’s words: “I will give unto you a pattern in all things, that ye may not be deceived.” (D&C 52:14; italics added.) He certainly includes us women in that promise. He has given us patterns in the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price; and he has given us patterns in the temple ceremony. As we study these patterns, we must continually ask, “Why does the Lord choose to say these particular words and present it in just this way?” We know he uses metaphors and symbols and parables and allegories to teach us of his eternal ways. We have all recognized the relationship between Abraham and Isaac that so parallels God’s anguish over the sacrifice of his son, Jesus Christ. But, as women, do we stretch ourselves and also ask about Sarah’s travail in this experience as well? We need to search in this manner, and we need always to look for deeper meaning. We should look for parallels and symbols. We should look for themes and motifs such as those we would find in a Bach or a Mozart composition, and we should look for repeated patterns.”

    Again, I don’t think we do this with the intent to one-up the prophets, get ahead of them, or teach/advocate what they do not. I also think it’s out of line to want to somehow influence or dictate what the prophets “should” ask about. First and foremost, we accept and live according to what they teach, scripturally and in our current times. Obedience is the first law of heaven. But as we live and obey, we can study and learn.

    To me, things like this are like wanting to understand the temple better. We don’t hear specific revelation about temple interpretation, nor should we expect to. We do hear general teachings and are taught how to live and keep our covenants. The key to revelation is first obedience, then studying and pondering and praying to understand more about the things of God. As we live in obedience and faith, I believe He can and will give us line upon line, according to His own will and time and way.

    Comment by m&m — June 9, 2008 @ 3:06 pm

  15. No, I’m not advocating street preaching or book publications. Personal prayer and searching is fine.

    However, in the personal realm, such revelation is to be sought after. Joseph was a big fan of people getting the revelations he had had for themselves. You don’t impose your will on the Church of course, with or without authority and there is an order of things.

    But this isn’t what I was criticizing.

    What I am saying is that a lot of Mormons use the fact that they have to “follow the prophet” as an excuse for not searching at all. It was this that I was speaking against.

    Comment by Seth R. — June 9, 2008 @ 3:12 pm

  16. Ardis:

    Great post, and I also applaud your comment #3.

    I might also second the notion that the proclamation on the family is another step or evidence of this teaching.

    Thanks again.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — June 9, 2008 @ 3:24 pm

  17. Okay, that I can get on board with, Seth. Am on board with, actually, although that won’t often show up in my blogging because I tend to be very, very conservative about presenting my personal doctrinal thoughts publicly.

    m&m, maybe you primed me to be more receptive to Seth’s explanation by your example of seeking to understand the temple. When I have insights there that are more impressionistic and less supportable by scriptural footnotes, I tend to keep them close.

    And, by the way, m&m, I know you are occasionally teased about your ability to find scriptures or talk extracts to illustrate every imaginable idea, those contributions, no matter how lengthy, will always be welcome here. They’re always on point, and usually a source new to me.

    Thanks, Eric. There’s little doubt, IMO, that were the authors writing this today, they would have to sharpen some of their conclusions with input from the Proclamation.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 9, 2008 @ 3:31 pm

  18. Ardis thanks for the post and the viewpoint. I appreciate it.

    I agree that there is a danger of politicization when we talk about HM. Such politics are unhealthy. There has to be a way to obtain some discourse on the subject though.

    Comment by TrevorM — June 9, 2008 @ 3:41 pm

  19. When I have insights there that are more impressionistic and less supportable by scriptural footnotes, I tend to keep them close.

    Indeed. This to me is a huge key to whether we will receive personal insight and revelation. (Brigham Young said something about that…about being trustworthy, about keeping the secrets God may see fit to share.) I also think that grassroots efforts to try to influence what our leaders receive is also out of line and could hinder our personal ability to receive. The scriptures say that we have to receive what we have, including receiving counsel [I would add teachings] we already have to receive more.

    And, by the way, m&m, I know you are occasionally teased about your ability to find scriptures or talk extracts to illustrate every imaginable idea, those contributions, no matter how lengthy, will always be welcome here. They’re always on point, and usually a source new to me.

    Thanks, Ardis. That means a lot to me. I appreciate being able to share and explore with someone who will let me share and explore in a way that is meaningful for me.

    p.s. Just found that BY quote:

    Discourses of Brigham Young, p.40 – p.41
    Should you receive a vision or revelation from the Almighty, one that the Lord gave you concerning yourselves, or this people, but which you are not to reveal on account of your not being the proper person, or because it ought not to be known by the people at present, you should shut it up and seal it as close, and lock it as tight as heaven is to you, and make it as secret as the grave. The Lord has no confidence in those who reveal secrets, for he cannot safely reveal himself to such persons. 4:288.

    Comment by m&m — June 9, 2008 @ 3:42 pm

  20. TrevorM, thanks, and I must agree with you about the need for discourse or I wouldn’t choose articles to review with quite such a potential for controversy. Summarizing what someone else said without having to take personal responsibility for that other person’s words lets us all say what we agree or disagree with and explore a little. Maybe that’s a cowardly way to tackle it — maybe it would be better to speak out boldly — but I don’t always know what I think until someone will bat an idea around with me for a while. Being challenged the way some have done on this thread has made me stretch a little to realize what exactly I do and don’t believe.

    m&m, love the BY quotation. There are scriptural remarks about people receiving such glorious revelations that they can’t speak or write them; this is much closer to my experience. Nice to know that sometimes we can have the right idea without being explicitly taught!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 9, 2008 @ 4:16 pm

  21. I appreciate being able to share and explore with someone who will let me share and explore in a way that is meaningful for me.

    Hm. That came across sounding self-centered, which wasn’t my intention. I hope you know what I meant. :)

    Summarizing what someone else said without having to take personal responsibility for that other person’s words lets us all say what we agree or disagree with and explore a little.

    Interesting approach. :)

    Comment by m&m — June 9, 2008 @ 4:31 pm

  22. I understood! and yeah, I’m perfectly happy sneaking in sideways, sometimes.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 9, 2008 @ 4:52 pm

  23. I enjoy the blog, Ardis.

    When we talk about a Mormon female deity, we are not talking about a central female deity (a la the White Goddess from Graves), we are talking about an ancillary female deity. I don’t think that theology is noteworthy or ‘progressive.’ Now if the central God were female … that would be something.

    Comment by tiredmormon — June 9, 2008 @ 8:16 pm

  24. [...] to Ardis’ blog she has up a very interesting sociological discussion of the LDS concept of Mother in Heaven. She has an other discussion of women’s visionary narratives as well as several other posts [...]

    Pingback by Best of the Week 2: Academic LDS : Mormon Metaphysics — June 9, 2008 @ 9:09 pm

  25. I’ll recycle a comment I made at BCC:

    For whatever purpose, Heavenly Father has not revealed to us the actual roles and activities of Heavenly Mother(s).

    We have no idea what goes on behind (or above) the throne of heaven. A council consisting of the plural eternal wives of Elohim may be making all the real decisions. For all we know, Heavenly Father, and the Savior under his direction, are operating off of a list of divine honey-dos.

    Comment by Bookslinger — June 9, 2008 @ 9:55 pm

  26. I like the immortal words of the great Mrs. Portokolos:

    The man is the head of the house, but the woman is the neck – and she can turn the head any way she wants.

    I have no idea what Godhood is like for an eternal couple, but if it’s anything like my own marriage, I might or might not be praying to the boss. I figure I’ll find out eventually – and one of them is going to give me a long time out for my speculation.

    Comment by Ray — June 9, 2008 @ 11:08 pm

  27. Fascinating stuff. Growing up I had been taught the our Mother in Heaven was so special (just like my earthly mother!), our Heavenly Father couldn’t bear to have earthly mortals speak of her they way they speak of him, information about her has been withheld.

    Also, in a high council sacrament meeting a few years ago, the topic was the priesthood. Granted, this is not doctrine, but something to think about. The visiting high councilor made a comment to the effect, “Men have been given the priesthood, the power to act in the name of God. Women have been given the power to create life, a very god-like attribute, much more sacred than anything a man could ever hope for.”

    Comment by Mike P — June 10, 2008 @ 8:14 am

  28. Mike, I don’t discount the earnest, complimentary feeling behind those ideas, which I also have heard many times, but I’m always cautious when I hear them — they sound to me like the same kind of “fill in the revelatory void” game that gave us “reasons” for the priesthood ban. And men with the priesthood can act in the name of God whether or not they’re married, whether or not they actually have children, which is not true of women and the power to create life.

    So while you can chalk me up as one who isn’t convinced and isn’t comforted by such ideas, I agree that it’s fascinating to think and wonder and try to understand the existence and role of a Heavenly Mother.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 10, 2008 @ 8:33 am

  29. Regarding mmiles comment that “Further, the theology of female deity has been explored within Mormonism has been explored almost solely by women, often excommunicated ones.” The most important recent explorations have been Daniel Peterson’s “Nephi and His Asherah” essay, Kevin Barney’s FAIR paper, and most recently Alison Von Feldt’s wonderful review of Dever’s Did God Have a Wife in FR 19:1. Also, Eugene Seiach’s important A Great Mystery has recently been published by a non-LDS press. For that matter, I’ve brought up the topic in a number of papers. And Kerry Shirts has waxed eloquent on the topic online. None of us have run into any problems with the institution.

    For a non-LDS perspective, Margaret Barker has written on the topic as well. Her paper on “Wisdom, The Queen of Heaven” is one of the most insightful things I’ve seen on the topic.

    Kevin Christensen
    Bethel Park, PA

    Comment by Kevin Christensen — June 10, 2008 @ 9:50 am

  30. #29-
    I am unconvinced Asherah is representative of Mother in Heaven. It seems one has to ignore an awful lot of evidence to the contrary in order to claim her. It is scholarly folklore–filling in gaps when we don’t have the evidence we want.

    Mike P-
    Ditto what Ardis said.

    Comment by mmiles — June 10, 2008 @ 10:26 am

  31. I haven’t read the comments yet so forgive me if I repeat someone’s point.

    The first category (theology) just seems off somehow. The idea that theologically it could come only from a mystic union is just a tad weird. I know Apologists in the 20th century (a Nibley article here and there and then a few FARMS articles in the early 90′s) draw parallels to the Jewish beliefs which especially in Kabbalism have this conception of the heavenly divine. But within Mormonism I just don’t see it.

    It seems the theological basis is much more D&C 130:2. That is heaven is like here and if we have marriage here we have it there and by extension God is like us which entails a mother as well as a father. That is the move is from treated descriptions of God as purely metaphoric and then drawing the obvious implications.

    I’m not sure why anyone would make a move towards the mystical which arguably didn’t have a major Mormon component until the large influx of British saints who brought their spiritualism to Utah and then led to the Godbeit schism.

    Comment by Clark — June 10, 2008 @ 10:33 am

  32. To add, while it hasn’t been terribly well established yet the Masonic issue really ought be part of the historical context. I’m hoping Nick’s book deals with this. But the two adjunct female Masonic movements offer a lot of parallels to Mormon temple worship. Some feminists have interpreted the “turn the keys over” passage that is so controversial as forming a parallel organization. (I think the jury is still out on that – especially if the there is something to the Masonic parallels)

    The point being that in that context of heavenly ascents being a becoming like God then the fact there is a female version entails a mother in heaven in the standard reading of the King Follet Discourse. Usually the theology is put before the ritual but I think a compelling argument could be made for reversing this relationship. i.e. once you have the ritual what are its theological implications.

    Comment by Clark — June 10, 2008 @ 10:36 am

  33. Clark, I may not have adequately represented the authors’ discussion of possible theological origins. They did spend some space considering and refuting the claims of an earlier author concerning mysticism and Mormonism, but that may not be all that was covered. (I don’t have the article in front of me to check now.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 10, 2008 @ 10:50 am

  34. One last comment on the post and then to the comments.

    The author of the book says, “this priest-led family organization certainly inhibits women from seeking careers outside the home.” I wonder, given Brigham’s agrarian ideal of men in the fields and women as accountants this makes sense. Certainly in the 20th century this has been the structural implication. But I suspect the author is being quite provincial if she (he?) believes this to be essentially the case. There’s a great BY quote on this that unfortunately I just don’t have handy at the moment.

    MMiles: (#2) Further, the theology of female deity has been explored within Mormonism has been explored almost solely by women, often excommunicated ones. If it was in the interest of patriarchy to situate Mother in Heaven so as to keep women situated in a certain place in mortal life (in a patriarchal family) wouldn’t it be in men’s interest to develop her identity more (assuming of course that the church was not based on truth or revelation)?

    I’d disagree with the premise that the theology of a female deity has been explored almost solely by women. I’d argue most of the real interesting stuff has been pursued by those characterized as being in apologetic endeavors. Kevin touched upon some examples (#29) but I don’t think people realize just how much has been written on this subject. Especially with the influence among some of Margaret Barker. As someone else mentioned (#30) I think this can be pushed too far. I also think it doesn’t always get communicated how speculative a lot of these notions are.

    But there is definitely a lot of speculative theology developed even if ultimately it is probably on par with the speculations of Pratt and Roberts. But are the female writers who are often disaffected somehow providing a stronger base to think about these issues?

    Miles larger point that if it’s all about patriarchal control wouldn’t it be better to talk more about her is well made. I think it reasonably clear that the Church tries not to say too much to avoid making speculation into de facto doctrine as has happened in the past. But this non-speaking has obvious implications in terms of power-relations and the like even if they aren’t intended. The problem I have with some writers is in not being clear about unintended consequences verses conspiracies.

    Ardis: (#3) We know just enough to be dangerous when we start using the idea of a Heavenly Mother to define women’s roles in a conservative sense, or to demand an expansion of roles in a liberal sense.

    I think this goes in both directions. Do we know enough about our Father in Heaven to define roles? Not really. Most of what we apply are very vague generalities about being good and nice. They are typically vague enough to apply to both sexes. There are stereotypical male and female traits ascribed to most divine encounters in the scriptures. I don’t think one could develop much of a theology of gender out of them. (Which doesn’t stop people from trying of course)

    What I think tends to happen (as you note in comment 6) is that the doctrine is vague enough to allow people to inject their own politics. These caricatures then get treated as if they were the doctrine.

    Seth: (#11) While I appreciate the attempts to reassure by saying “who knows?” that really isn’t what our living revelatory faith is supposed to be about. We are supposed to be blazing new paths, and covering new ground. Mormons are not allowed to be content with the light and knowledge they already have. They can never be at rest or content in Zion.

    I agree but I think we err if we assume this is going to be dramatic new public information. And those who receive personal knowledge are “laid under a strict command that they shall not impart only according to the portion of his word which he doth grant unto the children of men, according to the heed and diligence which they give unto him.” (Alma 12:9)

    You are certainly correct in your later comment (#15) that some Mormons use the lack of public information to stop inquiry. But one should also question what it is best for us to focus our inquiry on. Personally I think figuring out how I personally can live a better life is a good ideal.

    Also, from my experience, God is quite willing to say, “you’re not ready for that” even if you do inquire.

    Also as Ardis said (#28) the danger in some inquiry not done with skepticism and humility is that we “fill in the void” as was done with the blacks and the priesthood issue. We confuse the possibility of an apologetic explanation with the reality of an answer. And that can be bad.

    Comment by Clark — June 10, 2008 @ 10:55 am

  35. [...] Ardis critiques a fascinating article from the archives: “The Mormon Concept of Mother in Heaven: A Sociological Account of Its Origins and Development” [...]

    Pingback by Virtual Oases, June 10 « The Exponent — June 10, 2008 @ 8:27 pm

  36. Wow. No one responded to anything I said this morning.

    Ardis was kind enough to send me the paper (it’s available off JSTOR if you have access – which I believe comes with a BYU account although I’m using a “borrowed” one.)

    It’s weird as the article bases its ‘theological’ account purely off a single paper and then (correctly) disagrees that Mormons are mystical. What’s really weird is that’s the entire investigation into the theological basis for Mother in Heaven. (At least thus far – I’ve not finished the paper yet)

    Comment by Clark — June 10, 2008 @ 8:59 pm

  37. Clark,
    Sorry I did not respond sooner. I see that I have severely limited myself in what I have read. I’ll have to read beyond the realm of mostly feminist writers on the issue. Thanks.

    I read Ardis as saying in essence what you said; it can go both ways when defining a Mother Godess as a caricature of ourselves.

    Comment by mmiles — June 10, 2008 @ 9:19 pm

  38. Is it also true that the reason why Heavenly Mother’s name is with held is that because Heavenly Father won’t like the men to trample or make fun of her name?

    But great post, and very interesting.

    Comment by kenjebz — June 10, 2008 @ 9:34 pm

  39. Um Kenjebz,

    I think it was covered that this is mere speculation which would be just as sketchy as to the speculation surrounding the Priesthood ban.

    Plus it is such an easy out as opposed to the idea that their may be multiple Mothers in Heaven. Which would give some of the membership the willies.

    I think we need to stop coming up with soft answers and portraying them as doctrine, MIH is not an easy answer and the reasons for that can be understood and accepted pretty heartily.

    Comment by Jon W. — June 10, 2008 @ 11:28 pm

  40. #39 – Who knows? (Nobody, I think, but that’s pure speculation.)

    Comment by Ray — June 10, 2008 @ 11:29 pm

  41. #40 should have referenced #38, not #39.

    Comment by Ray — June 10, 2008 @ 11:30 pm

  42. It’s always the same story.

    “Who knows? So will you please stop talking about it? You’re making me uncomfortable.”

    The idea that God has to shelter His wife’s reputation from HER OWN CHILDREN is so alien to any experience of earthly motherhood, so at odds with any idea of godhood that I’ve ever been taught, that I have a hard time seeing anything Mormon about it.

    So our Mother in Heaven is so fragile, so mentally unstable that she has to hide from Her own children? Really?

    The whole notion is undoctrinal, speculative, patronizing top women, and frankly insulting.

    The only thing that’s really going on here, is a historically sexist culture is trying to make lame excuses for why we have essentially ignored half of our own God. Kind of like that stupid “women are more spiritual, so they don’t NEED the Priesthood.”

    So don’t you worry your pretty little head about it. Now, off to Enrichment with you, you sweet darling little dear.

    Now, Clark said,

    “You are certainly correct in your later comment (#15) that some Mormons use the lack of public information to stop inquiry. But one should also question what it is best for us to focus our inquiry on. Personally I think figuring out how I personally can live a better life is a good ideal.”

    Yeah Clark, I know we Mormons tend to use unfinished Home Teaching as an excuse for being theological morons, but I ain’t buying it today. Sorry.

    Theology matters. Mother in Heaven matters. A huge chunk of our Mormon women are theologically adrift in this Church with a serious deficiency in their interface with the divine. If all you want is a place to make yourself better serve others, join the Peace Corp. Our religion, contrary to popular belief, and current focus is NOT just a matter of getting your Home Teaching done and improving your behavior with your kids.

    We are COMMANDED to seek after these things and we are BLOWING IT. All the while making lame excuses about how “it doesn’t matter anyway” or “we’ll find out later” or even more ridiculous doctrinal justifications with little or no basis in either scripture or even reality.

    Our Mother is not “Celestial vegetables.” She is not “mere speculation.” She is not a “gospel peripheral.” She is a vital and central part of our faith and our theology and we are ignoring Her entirely. There is a gaping theological hole in our church and it’s hemorrhaging blood.

    And our response? To drape a lace table doily over it and pretend it isn’t there.

    Sorry, I’m not playing today. Our lack of a theology here is disgraceful. It reflects very poorly on us as a people. And I guarantee you there are a lot of people in the Mormon world who are as frustrated about this as I am, and there’s going to be more and more of them.

    Comment by Seth R. — June 11, 2008 @ 7:40 am

  43. So … do you have practical suggestions for a solution, Seth?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 11, 2008 @ 7:56 am

  44. Actually caring would be a nice start.

    I think part of the reason that there was a revelation allowing blacks the priesthood was because people cared about the issue and were praying about it. Concerns made their way up the hierarchy of Priesthood leadership until even the General Authorities were praying about it.

    I’m pretty sure that part of the reason we haven’t received further light and knowledge on this issue is we have become too complacent in our faith and don’t really care about the issue.

    Once we actually care, we can make a beginning.

    Comment by Seth R. — June 11, 2008 @ 8:08 am

  45. From # 15 “There are scriptural remarks about people receiving such glorious revelations that they can’t speak or write them; this is much closer to my experience. Nice to know that sometimes we can have the right idea without being explicitly taught!”

    I loved reading this. It is true for my life also. There have been times, sitting in sacrament meeting and looking around when I have wondered what the collective revealed knowledge of all these seemingly” quite ordinary people might be. I think we would all be surprised. We might also be surprised at who has or hasn’t banged on heaven’s door for answers to inform and comfort their own souls.

    #20 The quote is, “I turn a key to you. . . ” (not “over” or “in behalf of”.) It is only controversial because we have made it so. There is a primary source document containing it. (Nauvoo RS minutes, April 28, 1842) Early on in Utah there was apparently anxiety about what this might imply and so “to” was changed in several significant places to “in your behalf”. Both versions resided side by side until 1940 when “to” disappeared completely (as far as I know) from every official Church source. It was restored by Pres. Hinckley in the First Presidency message in the March 1992 Ensign (a wonderful gift of the RS sesquicentennial). It is also correct in the new JS manual we are all reading from now.

    I also 100% agree with Clark about the following from #34 “I think we err if we assume this is going to be dramatic new public information. And those who receive personal knowledge are “laid under a strict command that they shall not impart only according to the portion of his word which he doth grant unto the children of men, according to the heed and diligence which they give unto him.” (Alma 12:9)

    You are certainly correct in your later comment From that some Mormons use the lack of public information to stop inquiry. But one should also question what it is best for us to focus our inquiry on. Personally I think figuring out how I personally can live a better life is a good ideal.

    Also, from my experience, God is quite willing to say, “you’re not ready for that” even if you do inquire.”

    And finally I think we should not be too ready to dismiss everything about Asherah too readily. I agree there is much here (probably including the name inself which has probably been corrupted). However the old Bible dictionary (pre-1985) has an interesting comment under the entry of Asherah (especailly since the word never appears in the Bible.) A similar comment appears under “grove” in our current Bible dictionary.

    Oh, and by the way, I absolutely disagree that we don’t kinow about HM because HF is protecting her (from her children???).

    Comment by Marjorie Conder — June 11, 2008 @ 8:36 am

  46. Marjorie, it’s controversial not because of the providence of the quote but because of its meaning/context.

    Seth, I think many people care, but I’m not at all convinced that’ll have the effect you think it will.

    Comment by Clark — June 11, 2008 @ 11:00 am

  47. I was going to comment about “spirit relatives” in the context of “generations of gods” as deductions from the King Follet Discourse and D&C Section 76, and how the people of the 2nd and 3rd degrees of the CK are servants to the exalted ones who obtain the highest degree.

    However, by using human analogies to contemplate such relationships, I wasn’t able to maintain a sufficiently reverent tone. Anyway, I came to the following as a concluding thought, which sobered me to the point where I had to leave out the less-reverent analogies:

    It may be interesting to contemplate how the exalted ones
    among our generation (“our generation” being the children of Elohim, i.e., all spirit brothers/sisters of Jehovah) will relate to their firstborn spirit child, and what they’ll need to teach him about his assignment for his spirit brethren.

    Comment by Bookslinger — June 11, 2008 @ 7:10 pm

  48. By the way Clark and Ardis, sorry about the stridency of those last few posts. You got the receiving end of some frustrations that have been stewing for some time. But neither of you are who I am really irritated with. You just happened to be nearby when I decided to vent.

    The issue of how best to seek for further light and knowledge in this situation is certainly worthy of careful consideration though.

    Comment by Seth R. — June 11, 2008 @ 9:50 pm

  49. Seth, I’m the constant beneficiary of other bloggers’ patience with my own passionate comments — thanks for an exciting discussion.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 12, 2008 @ 7:16 am

  50. Seth, I can see how your personality lends itself to your career in social advocacy issues.

    Comment by Bookslinger — June 12, 2008 @ 7:20 am

  51. We are COMMANDED to seek after these things and we are BLOWING IT. All the while making lame excuses about how “it doesn’t matter anyway” or “we’ll find out later” or even more ridiculous doctrinal justifications with little or no basis in either scripture or even reality.

    Agree with Seth. Alma 12:9-11 comes to mind.

    If we don’t ever want to know, well, we never will.

    Of course, there is a mandate therein that not all that we learn do we need to teach.

    Comment by Tim J. — June 12, 2008 @ 9:35 am

  52. There are some chapters in “Women of Mormondom” (if I recall the title correctly) where Eliza R. Snow makes it clear that the concept of Mother in Heaven is part and parcel of Adam-God teachings. Seems strange that this never seems to be mentioned whenever the topic comes up.

    Comment by Mark N. — June 13, 2008 @ 4:21 pm

  53. When I read this article last year, I got mad because they had made one of the more reasonable analyses of this phenomenon, and I thought some material I was preparing for publication would be the hot new thing on the block. This essay really does merit a good reading.

    My one reservation about Seth’s advocacy is that the early doctrine was not, pace Albanese and others, the dyadic God of Ann Lee or Jacob Boehme. It was much more patriarchal than matriarchal, so if you’re talking about excavating that past, you have to walk through something still quite sexist before taking it in a new direction. Unfortunately, the MiH is much more a part of the broader problematics of the divine anthropology (#52 has noted a part of it, which is in fact mentioned often). Moving back to MiH requires the kind of blatant genealogical polytheism that makes mainline and evangelical Protestants uncomfortable with Mormons in the fold.

    I do agree that the idea that the divine mother has to hide from her children is a silly bit of neo-Victorianism.

    Comment by smb — June 14, 2008 @ 8:39 pm

  54. Do we really know all that much less about Mother in Heaven than we do about Father? Every time Father has revealed himself, it has been to introduce his Son and tell us to heed him (Jesus). Institutional lack of knowledge regarding the personality and attributes of Mother is well-noted. However, I don’t believe there is a comparative richness regarding our knowledge of the attributes and personality of Father. Which is as it should be, for Jesus is “the only name under heaven whereby man can be saved.” While it is true that we should seek for increased knowledge of the gospel, we should be careful not to go beyond the mark by speculating about the nature of EITHER of our heavenly parents. Though speculation regarding Mother brings on a special kind of hand-wringing, speculation regarding Father may do more widespread harm than uninformed (and, without further capital-R revelation, we are all uninformed) discussions regarding Mother.

    Comment by Ugly Mahana — June 15, 2008 @ 10:15 am

  55. It’s interesting that no one ever brings up the 1909 First Presidency statement on evolution. I loved this post. Thanks.

    Comment by Michelle Glauser — June 21, 2008 @ 11:32 am

  56. Further to no. 29, I have an essay provocatively titled “How to Worship Our Mother in Heaven (Without Getting Excommunicated)” [I know, I know, I've been blogging too long!], which is set to appear in the final issue of Dialogue that Levi Peterson is editing before turning the reins over to Kristine. So look for it in the Winter 2008 issue (which I believe is the issue after next).

    (Thanks to Dave for pointing out this post; somehow I had missed it.)

    Comment by Kevin Barney — June 21, 2008 @ 2:00 pm

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