Line upon Line
Gary James Bergera, editor
The Mormon Concept of a Mother in Heaven
Linda P. Wilcox
[p.103]The idea of a mother in heaven is a shadowy and elusive one floating around the edges of Mormon consciousness. Mormons who grow up singing “O My Father” are familiar with the concept of a heavenly mother, but few hear much else about her. She exists, apparently, but has not been very evident in Mormon meetings or writings, and little if any “theology” has been developed to elucidate her nature and characterize our relationship to her.
Although nearly all world religions have had female divinities and feminine symbolism, the God of western Judeo-Christian culture and scripture has been almost unremittingly masculine. Still, the idea of a heavenly mother or a female counterpart to the male Father-God is not unknown in Christianity. Recently discovered gnostic texts from the first century after Jesus Christ reveal doctrine teaching about a divine mother as well as father. In some texts God is conceived of as a dyad, both male and female. There is also a body of writings which identifies the divine mother as the Holy Spirit, the third member of the Trinity, which then becomes a family group—the Father, Mother, and Son.1
Christianity has also had the elevation of Mary in Catholicism. From first being the Mother of God, Mary eventually became the mother of everyone as she took on a mediating function and became a divine presence to whom prayers could be addressed. This feminization of the divine made possible some further theological developments such as the fourteenth-century thought of Dame [p.104]Julian of Norwich, who wrote about the motherhood as well as fatherhood of God and developed a symbolism of Christ as Mother.2
The nineteenth-century American milieu from which Mormonism sprang had some prototypes for a female deity as well. Ann Lee had proclaimed herself as the feminine incarnation of the Messiah, as Christ had been the male incarnation—a necessary balance in her system since she described a god which was both male and female, father and mother. The Father-Mother God of the Shakers and Christian Scientists included both sexes in a form of divine androgyny, as in this prayer by Mary Baker Eddy: “Father-Mother God/ Loving Me/ Guard me while I sleep/ Guide my little feet up to Thee.”3
By the end of the century Elizabeth Cady Stanton in her Woman’s Bible was explaining Genesis 1:26-28 (“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness …”) as implying the “simultaneous creation of both sexes, in the image of God. It is evident from the language,” she writes, “that the masculine and feminine elements were equally represented” in the Godhead which planned the peopling of the earth. To her, as in the gnostic texts, a trinity of Father, Mother, and Son was more rational, and she called for “the recognition by the rising generation of an ideal Heavenly Mother, to whom their prayers should be addressed, as well as to a Father.”4
Half a century before Stanton, the Mormon religion had begun to develop a doctrine of just such a heavenly mother—a glorified goddess, spouse to an actual heavenly father, and therefore the literal mother of our spirits. While the need for a divine feminine element in religion is perhaps universal, the form it took in Mormonism was particularly well suited to other aspects of Mormon theology. The Mother in Heaven concept was a logical and natural extension of a theology which posited both an anthropomorphic god who had once been a man and the possibility of eternal procreation of spirit children.
The origins of the Heavenly Mother concept in Mormonism are shadowy. The best known exposition is, of course, Eliza R. Snow’s poem, “O My Father,” or—the title it was known by earlier—”Invocation, or the Eternal Father and Mother.” When the poem was first published in the Times and Seasons (15 Nov. 1845, p. 1039) it carried the notation, “City of Joseph, Oct. 1845,” but the actual date of composition is not known. It does not appear in Eliza’s notebook/diary for the years 1842-44.5
Although President Wilford Woodruff gave Snow credit for originating the idea—”That hymn is a revelation, though it was given unto us by a woman”6—it is more likely that Joseph Smith was the first to expound the doctrine of a mother in heaven. Joseph F. Smith claimed that God revealed that principle (“that we have a mother as well as a father in heaven”) to Joseph Smith; that Joseph Smith revealed it to Eliza Snow Smith, his plural wife; and that Eliza Snow was inspired, being a poet, to put it into verse.7
Other incidents tend to confirm this latter view. Susa Young Gates told of Joseph Smith’s consoling Zina Diantha Huntington on the death of her mother in 1839 by telling her that not only would she know her mother again on the other side, but, “More than that, you will meet and become acquainted with your eternal Mother, the wife of your Father in Heaven.” Susa went on to say that about this same time Eliza Snow “learned the same glorious truth from the same inspired lips” and was then moved to put this truth into verse.8 Since Zina Huntington and Eliza were close friends as well, it was also a likely possibility that Zina might have spoken of this idea to Eliza. David McKay recorded that during a buggy ride on which he accompanied Eliza Snow, he asked her if the Lord had revealed the Mother in Heaven doctrine to her. She replied no, that “I got my inspiration from the Prophets teachings all that I was required to do was to use my Poetical gift and give that Eternal principal in Poetry.”9
Women were not the only ones to have had some acquaintance with the idea of a mother in heaven during the lifetime of Joseph Smith. There is a third-hand account of an experience related by Zebedee Coltrin: “One day the Prophet Joseph asked him [Coltrin] and Sidney Rigdon to accompany him into the woods to pray. When they had reached a secluded spot Joseph laid down on his back and stretched out his arms. He told the brethren to lie one on each arm, and then shut their eyes. After they had prayed he told them to open their eyes. They did so 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 [p.106]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.”10
Church leaders of the nineteenth century, although they did not speak much about a mother in heaven, seemed to accept the idea as commonsensical, that for God to be a father implied the existence of a mother as well. Brigham Young said that God “created man, as we create our children; for there is no other process of creation in heaven, on the earth, in the earth, or under the earth, or in all the eternities, that is, that were, or that ever will be”11—an indirect reference to the necessity of a mother for the process of creation. He also quoted his counselor Heber C. Kimball’s recollection of Joseph Smith’s saying “that he would not worship a God who had not a Father; and I do not know that he would if he had not a mother; the one would be as absurd as the other.”12
Apostle Erastus Snow also used indirect inference in explaining the logic of the Heavenly Mother concept. “Now, it is not said in so many words in the Scriptures, that we have a Mother in heaven as well as a Father,” he admitted. “It is left for us to infer this from what we see and know of all living things in the earth including man. The male and female principle is united and both necessary to the accomplishment of the object of their being, and if this be not the case with our Father in heaven after whose image we are created, then it is an anomaly in nature. But to our minds the idea of a Father suggests that of a Mother.”13
Snow’s position was somewhat distinct from that of other Mormon leaders in that he described God as a unity of male and female elements, much like the Shakers’ Father-Mother God: “`What,’ says one, `do you mean we should understand that Deity consists of man and woman?’ Most certainly I do. If I believe anything that god has ever said about himself, and anything pertaining to the creation and organization of man upon the earth, I must believe that Deity consists of man and woman … there can be no god except he is composed of the man and woman united, and there is not in all the eternities that exist, nor ever will be, a God in any other way … . There never was a God, and there never will be in all eternities, except they are made of these two component parts; a man a woman; the male and the female.”14 To Erastus Snow, God [p.107]was not a male personage, with a heavenly mother being a second divine personage; both of them together constituted God.
This development of theology by means of inference and commonsense extension of ordinary earth-life experience continued into the twentieth century. In fact, it is the primary approach taken by most of those who have made mention of a mother in heaven. Bruce R. McConkie in Mormon Doctrine (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), for example, says that “An exalted and glorified Man of Holiness (Moses 6:57) could not be a Father unless a Woman of like glory, perfection, and holiness was associated with him as a Mother. The begetting of children makes a man a father and a woman a mother whether we are dealing with man in his mortal or immortal state” (p. 516). And Hugh B. Brown, then a member of the First Presidency, noted in 1961 that “some have questioned our concept of a mother in heaven, but no home, no church, no heaven would be complete without a mother there.”15
One reason why little theology was developed about a heavenly mother is that the scriptural basis for the doctrine was slim. But Joseph Fielding Smith noted that “the fact that there is no reference to a mother in heaven either in the Bible, Book of Mormon or Doctrine and Covenants, is not sufficient proof that no such thing as a mother did exist there.”16 One possible reason for this gap in the scriptures is offered by a twentieth-century seminary teacher: “Considering the way man has profaned the name of God, the Father, and His Son, Jesus Christ, is it any wonder that the name of our Mother in Heaven has been withheld, not to mention the fact that the mention of Her is practically nil in scripture?”17
In looking next at statements by church leaders in the twentieth century, I would like to concentrate briefly on three time periods: the first decade of the century, the 1920s and 1930s, and finally the more recent decades of the 1960s and 1970s. I would also like to take note of some themes which are apparent in these time periods—themes which may illustrate developments in the larger society as well.
For example, immediately after the turn of the century one noticeable thread which ran through several comments about the Mother in Heaven was an association of that doctrine with the movement for women’s rights, a major issue in the last years of the [p.108]nineteenth century, especially in Utah. James E. Talmage in discussing the status and mission of women spoke of the early granting of the franchise to women in Utah and the Mormon church’s claim that woman is man’s equal. In this context he then went on to say, “The Church is bold enough to go so far as to declare that man has an Eternal Mother in the Heavens as well as an Eternal Father, and in the same sense `we look upon woman as a being, essential in every particular to the carrying out of God’s purposes in respect to mankind.'”18 An article in the Deseret News (4 Feb. 1905) noted that the truthfulness of the doctrine of a mother in heaven would eventually be accepted by the world—that “it is a truth from which, when fully realized, the perfect `emancipation’ and ennobling of woman will result.” To many, the concept of a mother in heaven was a fitting expression of a larger movement which aimed at raising the status of women and expanding their rights and opportunities.
Another theme, evident elsewhere in American thought as well as in Mormonism, was the yearning for a female divinity—the need for a nurturing presence in the universe. A mother in heaven thus exemplified and embodied all those maternal qualities which men had experienced as so warm and soul-filling in their own mothers (or which they perhaps had not experienced and so now desperately wanted) and which were generally absent in a male god that perhaps reflected a stern, closed-in image of Victorian manhood. A national article excerpted in the Deseret News (4 Feb. 1905) said that the world was coming to accept the idea of a mother in heaven. It spoke of the tendency for human beings to crave, especially in times of grief and anguish, the tenderness, gentleness, and sympathy of a mother-figure which must in some way “be resident in the Divine Being.” And in the Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star an article noted how not only small children but also adults need and want a mother figure as a divine personage: “The heart of man craves his faith and has from time immemorial demanded the deification of woman.”19
But also in that first decade of the twentieth century, in 1907, the Mormon church’s teaching of the Mother in Heaven doctrine was criticized and challenged by the Salt Lake Ministerial Association as being unchristian.20 B. H. Roberts, one of the members of the church’s Council of the Seventy, responded by claiming that the ministers were inconsistent. They objected to the idea of Jesus having a literal Heavenly Father, he said, but then they also [p.109]complained because “we believe that we have for our spirits a heavenly mother as well as a heavenly father! Now observe the peculiar position of these critics: It is all right for Jesus to have a mother; but it is all wrong for him to have a father. On the other hand, it is all right for men’s spirits to have a Father in heaven, but our reviewers object to our doctrine of their having a mother there.”21
Two years later the First Presidency of the Mormon church issued a statement entitled “The Origin of Man.” Although much of this message was concerned with explicating a Mormon view of man’s (and woman’s) earthly origins, the statement also took up the question of man’s (and woman’s) spiritual beginnings as well. While couching the doctrine partially in abstract generalities such as that “man, as a spirit, was begotten and born of heavenly parents,” the statement also made a clear and explicit reference to a mother in heaven. “All men and women are in the similitude of the universal Father and Mother,” it said, “and are literally the sons and daughters of Deity.”22 By 1909, then, if not before, the Mother in Heaven doctrine was an official part of Mormon belief. Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith later described this as one of (presumably several) “official and authoritative statements” about this doctrine.23
In the 1920s and 1930s there seemed to be an emphasis on the idea of “eternal” or “everlasting” motherhood, with several sermons or articles having titles of this sort or dealing with this theme. Somehow it seemed important to emphasize that motherhood was as ongoing and eternal as was godhood. John A. Widtsoe, for example, found a “radiant warmth” in the “thought that among the exalted beings in the world to come we shall find a mother who possesses the attributes of Godhood. Such conceptions raise motherhood to a high position. They explain the generous provision made for women in the Church of Christ. To be a mother is to engage in the eternal work of God.”24
Widtsoe’s colleague Melvin J. Ballard carried on the theme of everlasting motherhood when he noted that “motherhood is eternal with Godhood, and there is no such thing as eternal or endless life without the eternal and endless continuation of motherhood.” With more fervor than accuracy, Ballard claimed that there was not one single life form on earth without a mother—hence “there is no life in the realms that are above and beyond us, unless there also is a mother.” Perhaps unaware of other strains of Christian thought—not to mention other cultures and religions which worshiped female deities—Ballard called the Mother in Heaven concept a “startling doctrine” which was “so far as I know, never taught before in the history of the world.” He also emphasized the noble, goddesslike aspects of the Heavenly Mother. She stands side by side with the Heavenly Father “in all her glory, a glory like unto his … a companion, the Mother of his children.” She is “a glorified, exalted, ennobled Mother.”25
German Ellsworth, who served as president of the church’s Northern States Mission, also stressed the theme of “Eternal Motherhood,” noting that finally, after eighty years, the world was coming to accept the doctrine that if we had a heavenly father we must have had a heavenly mother as well. Ellsworth linked this doctrine specifically to the “true mission of women” on the earth, which was to be mothers. In particular, “the women of Zion can rejoice and take heart in the great calling given to them, in being privileged to be the earthly mothers of the elect sons of our Heavenly Father.” The Mother in Heaven concept seemed important to Ellsworth mainly as a role model for women to become mothers and to seek “to build up a better race—to successfully do their part in peopling the earth with a noble and intelligent class of citizens.”26 These examples share an attempt to raise the status of the mothering role, or of women specifically as mothers, by pointing out that the Mother in Heaven role is as important and eternal as that of God.
In more recent times we can see some widening out, with a greater variety of images presented by General Authorities who speak about a mother in heaven. Joseph Fielding Smith, much like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, quotes Genesis 1:26—”Let us make man in our image after our likeness” (his italics)—and suggests, “Is it not feasible to believe that female spirits were created in the image of a `Mother in Heaven’?”27 His emphasis implies that a female goddess was involved in the planning and decision making, was part of whatever group of exalted beings decided to create earthly men and women.
H. Burke Peterson in 1974 emphasized the Heavenly Mother’s role as producer of spirit offspring. In asking church members to count the cost of a mother working outside the home, he warned about the danger of becoming “a mother whose energy is so sapped that she is sometimes neglecting her call from the Lord, a [p.111]call that will one day prepare her to become an eternal mother–a co-creator of spiritual offspring.”28 One supposes that by “her call” Peterson means the care of her children and is suggesting that the complex responsibility of nurturing and guiding one’s children is the most valuable preparation for eventually becoming an exalted goddess-mother.
Four years later, President Spencer W. Kimball expressed a view of the Mother in Heaven as “the ultimate in maternal modesty” and “restrained, queenly elegance.” He also emphasized her great influence on us: “Knowing how profoundly our mortal mothers have shaped us here,” he said, “do we suppose her influence on us as individuals to be less if we live so as to return there?”29 Here we have maternal nurturing attributes and also a recognition of an exalted goddess quality in the Mother in Heaven.
At the same General Conference Elder Neal A. Maxwell presented this version of the role and activities of our Heavenly Mother: “When we return to our real home, it will be with the `mutual approbation’ of those who reign in the `royal courts on high.’ There we will find beauty such as mortal `eye hath not seen;’ we will hear sounds of surpassing music which mortal `ear hath not heard.’ Could such a regal homecoming be possible without the anticipatory arrangements of a Heavenly Mother?”30 One of a Heavenly Mother’s duties, it seems, might be to provide an aesthetically pleasing environment with sights and sounds of unimaginable glory to welcome her children home.
“We honor woman when we acknowledge Godhood in her eternal Prototype,” reported a 1910 article in the Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star.31 This survey of some of the images which have been expressed about a less-than-well-defined entity suggest that one’s concept of a mother in heaven may reflect one’s views about real women and their roles. Those who see women as basically producers of babies might tend to emphasize the feminine deity’s role as producer of spirit children. Those who consider women to be more refined and spiritual than men might emphasize the Heavenly Mother’s nobility and queenly attributes—and so forth. Mother in Heaven can be almost whatever an individual Mormon envisions her to be. Perhaps, ironically, we thus set her up, despite herself, to fill the most basic maternal role of all—that of meeting the deepest needs of her children, whatever they might be.
2. See “Dame Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe: Divine Motherhood and Human Sisterhood,” in Elizabeth Clark and Herbert Richardson, Women and Religion: A Feminist Sourcebook of Christian Thought (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), 102-112.