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.