The Sanctity of Dissent
by Paul James Toscano
The Call of Mormon Feminism
“The Call of Mormon Feminism” is a single essay that combines two speeches dealing with feminist issues. The first, a short speech entitled “The Call of Mormon Feminism” given as part of a panel presentation at the Mormon Women’s Forum on 30 November 1988, comprises the first section of the essay. The second speech, first presented on 7 September 1991 in response to Rodney Turner as part of a panel discussion on “How Shall We Worship God the Mother?” comprises the second section of the essay entitled “The Worship of the Lady.”
[p.77]Imbedded in the Restoration movement is the doctrine that women in every way are the equals of men. I believe that Joseph Smith was the source of this doctrine and, therefore, the first exponent of Mormon feminism. It was he who gave the stamp of approval to the organization of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo. It was he who told its earliest members that he intended to make of that society a “kingdom of priests.” It was he who promised its members that they [p.78]would obtain the blessing of the priesthood, with the right to heal the sick and cast out devils, and that they would come into possession of all the privileges enjoyed by male priesthood holders.
Since those early days Mormon feminism has fended for itself, living on its own, within the culture of the Latter-day Saints, most often surviving in obscurity in the hearts of numerous women and men.
The resurgence of Mormon feminism has occurred, I believe, in response to certain troubling conditions in the modern church. The most obvious of which include the disenfranchisement of women from the priesthood and the exclusion of women from church governance. But the problems caused by patriarchal authoritarianism have wreaked more damage than this. They have led to a larger and growing spiritual malaise that is marked by a lack of inner life—a sense that we have somehow strayed from our religious mission, that we have borrowed too much from the male world of business and commerce, that we have become too narrow, too elitist, too self-righteous, too legalistic and judgmental, and that we are adrift in dark seas.
Because the feminist view seeks to respond to these concerns, it involves much more than a demand for equality in Mormon culture. It is more than a claim for power in the ecclesiastical or priestly hierarchy. It is more than a plea for cultural and social change. Mormon feminism, I believe, is a call to repentance—a call for the fundamental spiritual revitalization of our entire religion. For this reason, its goals lie at the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Mormon feminism asks us not only to believe in, but to conduct our lives and our ecclesiastical affairs on the premises that God’s love is truly without bounds or conditions, that God is truly no respecter of persons, that God called the sexes, the families, [p.79]the societies, and the nations of the earth to be one through the blood of Jesus Christ, and that therefore men and women are truly spiritual equals in God’s sight. What I hear in the voices of the exponents of Mormon feminism is a call to all Mormons—male and female—to reject the primacy of male-dominated institutional power and to embrace instead the powers of the spirit under conditions where men and women share equal responsibility for the welfare and governance of the church.
The intent of Mormon feminism is not to create a new religion, but to stop Mormonism’s steady and appalling slurge away from the spirituality and egalitarianism of the restored gospel and toward the materialism, corporatism, and elitism that characterize the modern world. The feminist movement is not, therefore, an apostate movement, but a movement to counter apostasy. It calls for spiritual renewal. And for this reason it is necessarily involved, at least at first, in the process of reexamining and reinterpreting scripture and doctrine. It asks us to re-read all the books, to see where we have gone wrong, to understand where we have become entangled in false traditions and false philosophies.
The initial task of Mormon feminism involves the development of a new way of seeing—a new hermeneutical approach—that attempts to purify our way of looking at our standard works so that we no longer rely upon them as authorizations for oppression. Though the feminist view will undoubtedly continue to focus on the problems and sufferings of women under patriarchy, its ultimate concerns will necessarily extend beyond these immediate afflictions to embrace ideas that tend both to reform and reaffirm important aspects of our religion. The new feminism seeks to reaffirm our fundamental faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ— justification by the spirit, sanctification by God’s blood, the [p.80]resurrection of the flesh, and our ultimate deification. But it also seeks to reform our views so that we see again, in a purer light, many of our most treasured teachings.
Without losing our grasp on Christ crucified and risen, the feminism I accept asks us to acknowledge the limitations of authoritarianism and hierarchy and to accept the concept of a democratized priesthood in which members are valued as much for their God-given spiritual gifts as for their ecclesiastical status. It asks us to accept the value of a true lay priesthood, composed of both men and women, joined together as equals in a general assembly of priesthood-holding believers—a reservoir of talent and spiritual power in which the whole church may participate and on which the whole church may rely. It asks us to accept God not merely as one personage, but as two: God the Female and God the Male. In other words, it asks us to accept Christ’s female counterpart, the Goddess. For the Bridegroom is not without the Bride. It asks us to accept the view that the feminine is and always has been an integral part of the Christian revelation of the divine nature. And it asks us to accept the equality and mutual interdependence of male and female in the priesthood as a revelation of the very image of that God who is the perfect union of divine male and divine female.
If we can accept the fullness of the godhead in these terms, we are prepared to accept the fullness of the priesthood, which does not refer either to individual or corporate power, but to the power of God bestowed by grace in equal dignity upon males and females alike. I believe we must come to accept the revelation of the fullness of the priesthood to males and females as Joseph Smith’s crowning revelation to the church—a revelation given as a comfort and blessing to the Saints in time of travail. Doctrine and Covenants 113 presages such a time, when Zion would find itself in the dust.
[p.81]Isaiah predicted the time when Zion would be yoked with oppression: “Put on thy strength O Zion!” Joseph Smith’s contemporaries asked: “To what people had Isaiah reference to?” Joseph revealed, in response, that Isaiah had reference to those “whom God should call in the last days, who should hold the power of priesthood to bring again Zion, and the redemption of Israel; and to put on her strength is to put on the authority of the priesthood, which Zion has a right to by lineage, and also to return to that power which she had lost” (v. 7-8).
By way of these and other feminine symbols, Joseph Smith called the whole church to accept the doctrine of the fullness of the priesthood of men and women, with all of its implications about the eternality and equality of the sexes. But we have never accepted this teaching. Instead, we find that over 150 years after its founding the church has retreated backward into the comforting dogmas of the early church fathers with all of their prejudices against time, flesh, intuition, and women. I see Mormon feminism as a call to repent-a call to change our minds and come at last to accept time as the mother of eternity, flesh as the sister of the spirit, intuition as the companion of reason, and woman as the equal—the priesthood equal—of man.
I have no way of knowing whether this feminist view will prevail. But I believe that it must attempt to prevail. And I am confident that, should it succeed, Christianity in general and Mormonism in particular will owe to it an incalculable debt which, I believe, will be gratefully acknowledged by both men and women for many generations to come.
The Worship of the Lady
The main contention of Mormon feminism is that God the Mother stands on equal footing with God the Father. There are two primary objections raised against the recogni-[p.82]tion and worship of God the Mother as a co-equal member of the Godhead:
1. Such recognition and worship, especially in the form of public or even private prayers to her, constitutes a contamination of our doctrine, which must be kept pure; and
2. There is no precedent in Christianity or Mormonism for worshipping or praying to God the Mother.
I believe both of these objections are substantially without merit. Let me address, first, the view that worship of God the Mother is not in keeping with the Mormon view of the Godhead, which some conservative Mormons contend is trinitarian. This assertion is so contrary to the doctrine and history of the church that I hardly know which evidence to submit first in rebuttal to it. Perhaps it is best to begin with Joseph Smith’s first vision.
Joseph gave several different accounts of this vision, and from each of them a different God concept can be extracted. In the earliest recorded version (1832),Joseph reports having seen only one deity: the Lord Jesus (in Dean C. Jessee, ed., Personal Writings of Joseph Smith [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1984], 6). In an 1835 version, he reports having seen two personages: the Lord and another being—possibly an angel or the Father (ibid., 75-76). In the 1838 version, eventually canonized in the Pearl of Great Price, Joseph reports having seen the Father and the Son (JS-H 2:17). In the Lectures on Faith the Godhead is also portrayed as a duality consisting of Father and Son (Lec. 5). But in the Doctrine and Covenants the Godhead is pictured as a trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost (20:28). The Book of Abraham, on the other hand, [p.83]represents the Godhead as a plurality composed of a council of deities, “the Gods” (Abr. 3:22-28; 4). More to the point is a 19 April 1834 vision in which Joseph and others beheld the Father, the Mother, and the Son.
This vision was given while Joseph Smith was travelling from Kirtland to New Portage, Ohio, with Zebedee Coltrin, and either Sidney Rigdon or Oliver Cowdery (or possibly both). Though not reported in the History of the Church, 2:50, where mention is made of the New Portage trip, Coltrin gave several accounts of this vision later in his life, one of which was recorded under the date 3 October 1883 in the “Salt Lake School of the Prophets Minutes” (LDS archives):
Once after returning from a mission, [Coltrin] met Bro. Joseph in Kirtland, who asked him if he did not wish to go with him to a conference at New Portage. The party consisted of Prests. Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Oliver Cowdry [sic] and myself [Coltrin]. Next morning at New Portage, he [Coltrin] noticed that Joseph seemed to have a far off look in his eyes, or was looking at a distance, and presently he, Joseph, stepped between Brothers Cowdry [sic], and Coltrin and taking them by the arm, said, “lets take a walk.” They went to a place where there was beautiful grass, and grapevines and swampbeech interlaced. President Joseph Smith than [sic] said, “Let us pray.” They all three prayed in turn—Joseph, Oliver, and Zebedee. Brother Joseph than [sic] said, “now brethren we will see some visions.” Joseph lay down on the ground on his back and stretched out his arms and the two brethren lay on them. The heavens gradually opened, and they saw a golden throne, on a circular foundation, something like a lighthouse, and on the throne were [p.84]two aged personages, having white hair, and clothed in white garments. They were the two most beautiful and perfect specimens of mankind he ever saw. Joseph said, They are our first parents, Adam and Eve. Adam was a large broadshouldered man, and Eve a woman, was large in proportion.
Another version of this vision was recorded by Abraham H. Cannon in his journal under the date 25 August 1890 (LDS archives):
Pres. Petersen told of an incident which he often heard Zebedee Coltrin relate. One day the Prophet Joseph Smith 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 they 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. He had auburn brown, rather long, wavy hair and appeared quite young.
This may be the first recorded vision of the Heavenly Mother in Mormonism.
In the first of these accounts the Mother is identified as Eve. In the second she is identified as “The Mother” and is given status with the Father and the Son. Although this vision [p.85]raises theological questions about the nature and number of the Godhead which are beyond the scope of these remarks (see Margaret and Paul Toscano, Strangers in Paradox [Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1990], 60-70), the point is that the Mother is mentioned in conjunction and on an equal footing with the Father and the Son.
Father? Son? Father-Son? Father-Son-Holy Ghost? Father-Mother-Son? A council of Gods? Which is it? Perhaps all. Whatever may be said of Mormons, we are not trinitarians in the ordinary sense. Those who insist that the recognition by Mormons of a Mother in Heaven as a deity co-equal with the Father and the Son does violence to the Mormon doctrine of the trinity—the idea of a cosmic presidency of males— are mistaken since there is no such thing as Mormon trinitarian orthodoxy.
Another point advanced by those opposed to the worship of the Heavenly Mother is that such worship violates our understanding of the proper roles of men and women, with women acting as sustainers and nurturers, men as providers and presiders. The concept of eternal sex roles is raised to support the view that God the Mother cannot be a presiding deity of equal power with the Father and the Son. The rationale behind this view is that, because the sex roles are eternal, Heavenly Mother’s eternal role must be that of a nurturer and sustainer. Therefore, she should not be worshipped or prayed to, for these are observances reserved only for those deities who provide and preside—namely, the male deities.
But the scriptures nowhere attest to the propriety of such notions about sex roles. Such ideas are no more scriptural or eternal than the notion that men should be beardless or women should wear bras. These sex roles are cultural conventions borrowed directly from Victorian and post-Victo-[p.86]rian society. As Margaret Toscano has argued: “The differences between the sexes, though real and eternal, cannot be translated willy-nilly into sex roles, many of which are stereotypical, artificial, contrived, rigid, and repugnant to the spiritual feelings and experiences of many Church members, male and female alike” (Toscano and Toscano, 279-97). These sex role models contradict the idea set out in Mormon scripture that there is a male and female component in every person, for each of us is “a compound in one” (2 Ne. 2:11)—that is, a composite of two opposing principles, male and female. Therefore, each person is, or at least can be, whole and independent. For this reason, a good marriage does not depend on people living according to these sex roles. Marriage is not meant to make incomplete and codependent individuals whole, but rather to allow whole and independent persons to conjoin into an even greater fullness without obliterating their individuality. In sum, marriage is not the bringing together of two incomplete arcs in an attempt to make a perfect circle. It is the bringing together of perfect equilateral triangles to make a star.
Perhaps the principal reason why sex role models cannot be eternal is because they do not account for the complexity of human sexuality, or for the many instances of role reversals; or for the differences in accepted sex role definitions found among various cultures, or for the psychological and spiritual abuse and damage caused by compelling people, in the name of God, to accept cultural models that do not comport with spiritual reality.
The notion that men should provide and preside while women should nurture and sustain has proven to have been a short-lived domestic formula that is now everywhere being abandoned. Women who have submitted to this concept have not infrequently found themselves deprived of dignity, [p.87]of material independence, and sometimes even of identity. Many younger couples, often in response to financial necessity, have established their marriages and families on a more equal footing, with man and woman sharing the burdens of providing for and nurturing their families.
In light of both scriptural statements and experiential realities that demonstrate the destructive results of this older view that divides men and women, it is hard to justify the characterization of such roles as divine revelation, rather than as—what they are—the traditions of our fathers and the precepts of men. I agree that recognition of our Mother in Heaven as a member of the Godhead does indeed threaten rigid categories of male and female sex roles. But unlike those who advocate them as God’s final word on the relation between the sexes, I welcome this result. Rather than force the Heavenly Mother into an earthly sex role, would it not be less arrogant, and more prudent, to redefine our sex role models to comport with the concept of a Heavenly Mother and a Heavenly Father of equal power and status?
The picture of a submissive and powerless Heavenly Mother is used in Mormonism to reinforce conventional power structures that continue to repress women. For if the Goddess is powerless in heaven, then her daughters must content themselves with that same status on earth. Opponents of the equal status of the Divine Lady find evidence of second-class divinity in the fact that women have not functioned either as authorities of the church or as heavenly messengers—the point being that if women were meant to preside, surely the scriptures would contain some record of it. Thus the claims that females, such as the Virgin Mary, appear from heaven from time to time with messages for a church or for the world are dismissed as ridiculous and false.
[p.88]They must be false, for they do not fit the current conventional picture of the appropriate female sex role model, and they are not scriptural.
It is true that the scriptures are not replete with instances of women presiding or speaking for God or appearing as heraldic angels. But there are notable exceptions to this pattern. In the Book of Mormon, Nephi sees in vision an interpretation of his father Lehi’s dream of the Tree of Life. This vision begins with the Virgin Mary, through whom the Messiah is to come. In the Book of Revelation John sees a woman with a crown on her head and twelve stars as bright as the sun with the moon under her feet—symbols which, I believe, indicate that the woman is a sovereign with presiding authority, representing not merely the church, but the Mother Goddess of which the church is a symbol. I should add also that Joseph Smith never denied the validity of the visions claimed by Joan of Arc and St. Teresa, women who claimed visitations from female heraldic angels; rather, Joseph endorsed the visions of these women by having himself sealed to St. Joan and St. Teresa in the new and everlasting covenant of marriage.
Why are such visions of women so rare? Is it because they run contrary to the commandments of God? Or to the precepts of men? God communicates with us mostly in terms we are willing to accept. Perhaps men have not been ready, willing, and able to receive revelations from or about women. But the absence of such things in the past is no reason to believe that such things are not to be. Joseph Smith looked into heaven and said that he could not reveal all he saw. There were things in heaven unlawful to utter on earth. He said he only told a hundredth part of what he could have revealed (Joseph Fielding Smith, comp., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1964], 304-305). He [p.89]said that if a person looked into heaven for five minutes that person would know more about it than has ever been written about the subject (ibid., 324). If the scriptures are silent or deficient on a point, we cannot conclude the negative proposition with respect to that point. Scriptural silence does not mean that no female angels make visitations, that women should be denied priesthood, or that Heavenly Mother should not be acknowledged, worshipped, or invoked in prayer.
The tendency to treat scriptural silence as a prohibition led to the rejection of Jesus as Messiah. The Old Testament, while stressing the concept of one true God, is silent on the divinity of the Messiah or his identity as God’s son. This lack of information was construed by many as a negative statement: Because the Torah said there was only one God, the claim that Jesus was God’s son and Messiah was rejected as blasphemous.
In like manner, the scriptures seem to say little or nothing about the restoration of the gospel, the flesh-and-bone body of God, the need for prophets and apostles and continuing revelation, the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, etc. Yet after these things became part of received Mormon tradition, the scriptures were consulted again and found to contain evidence, not conclusive but indicative, to support all these points.
The same will be true of the doctrine of the Heavenly Mother. When we come to accept the Heavenly Mother, we will discover that she has not been grafted into the Godhead at the last moment to satisfy the desires of feminists, but that she was in fact an active and co-equal member of the Godhead all along—and we will find scriptural evidence to support this. We will eventually see that her nurturing and chastising spirit was always part of the Judeo-Christian tradi-[p.90]tion as the Hokmah and the Shekinah of Hebrew tradition. We will make arguments that the Holy Spirit, with its rebirthing, nurturing, rebuking, comforting, blessing, healing, and maturing functions, its constant companionship, its constant testifying of Jesus Christ, its ever-presence with us on the earth calling us to full spirituality, appears to meet the expectations of a caring, divine mother ever present among her children.
Another argument against the equality of the Woman of Holiness is that women are prohibited from receiving instructions for the church. This prohibition is not found in scripture, but in tradition. In fact, scripture contradicts this tradition. According to Doctrine and Covenants 25, Emma Smith and all other women of the church are to be “ordained” (v. 7) to “expound scripture and to exhort the Church, according as it shall be given … by my Spirit.” The point of these verses is that women should not be concerned merely with the menial or the domestic (v. 10), but the spiritual and the eternal. They are to be ordained to expound and exhort. If women are not to receive instruction for the church, then how can they keep God’s commandment “to exhort the Church, according as it shall be given … by my Spirit”?
In keeping with Doctrine and Covenants 25, Wilford Woodruff, while president of the church, declared in 1892 not only the right but the necessity for women of the church to receive revelation:
Oh! Ye Latter-day Saints, you talk about revelation, and wonder if there is any revelation. Why, bless your souls, say nothing about the apostles and elders around me, these mountains contain thousands upon thousands of devoted women, holy women, righteous women, virtuous women, who are filled with the inspi-[p.91]ration of Almighty God. … Yes, we have revelation. The Church of God could not live twenty-four hours without revelation (G. Homer Durham, ed., The Discourses of Wilford Woodruff [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1969], 61-62).
The Old Testament tells us that God calls on women. Think of the work of God done through Rahab (Josh. 2), or of the rights and blessings of the priesthood transmitted to Isaac, not through Abraham alone, but through Sarah as well (Gen. 17-18), of the prophetic callings of Miriam (Ex. 15:20), Noadiah (Neh. 6:14), Deborah (Judg. 4-5), and Huldah (2 Kgs. 22:14; 2 Chr. 34:22).
In the New Testament we are told that women prayed and prophesied in the Christian church (1 Cor. 11:15), practices that were forbidden to women in Jewish congregations. Also we have evidence that women performed missionary work and functioned as leaders of Christian households. The four daughters of Philip the Seventy were acknowledged to be prophetesses (Acts 21:9). Paul commends the women Priscilla, Mary, Tryphena, and Tryphosa for their important work. In Romans 16:1-2 the woman Phoebe is identified as a deacon of the church. And in Romans 16:7 Paul accounts Junia, a female, as one of note among the apostles.
It is not likely that these are textual corruptions, but rather remnants of references to the priesthood in the primitive church, references that had not been sanitized from the texts by later editors looking to harmonize the scriptures with the developing view of women as inferior—a view advanced not by the early apostles, but by later Christians under the influence of ancient Greek philosophy and misogyny.
In addition to this evidence there is the testimony of [p.92]the Gospels that the first witnesses of the resurrection and its angelic heralds were the women who had known Jesus during his life and ministry. Mary Magdalene was the first to see and touch him. Women were first to bear this special witness to the incredulous male apostles and disciples. Since that day, women have been engaged in the ministry, writing hymns, preaching, expounding, and exhorting. Clearly, God has and does work through women. The fact that so many women are feeling the need to recognize and worship our Mother in Heaven is, perhaps, another instance of God working through women to bless the Saints with revelations and to move the church toward greater spiritual maturity.
In my view the most profound problem with opponents of the Goddess is that they manifest a fundamentally flawed understanding of the gospel and mission of Jesus Christ. Before Christ, holiness was defined in Judaism mostly in terms of strict compartmentalization, of separation from the unholy and the unclean. Jews were to separate themselves from gentiles and heathen. Milk and meat were not to be mixed. Ritual cleansings were required if the Law of Moses was violated. Priesthood was bestowed only on males of certain lineages. Holiness and cleanliness before God were seen in terms of strict obedience to law and tradition. Women were seen as inferior to men—so inferior they were considered a reproach.
Jesus swept all this away. A new covenant was established. This was the good news—the gospel. In Christ, gentiles were placed on an equal footing with Jews, black on an equal footing with white, slave on an equal footing with free, and female on an equal footing with male (Gal. 3:28). Salvation was made free and available to all who would partake. It was milk and honey without price. The priesthood too was vouch-safed to men and women alike, for it was revealed as a [p.93]priesthood without father, without mother, without descent, without beginning of days or end of life (Heb. 7:3). Faith in Christ, not lineage or gender, became the only condition for priesthood ordination.
In keeping with the revelation of the gospel through Jesus Christ, Joseph Smith promised the restored priesthood in its fullness to women (Andrew Ehat and Lyndon Cook, eds., The Words of Joseph Smith [Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1980], 119). This promise suggests that men and women are to be equal. Equality is the jewel in the crown of Mormon scripture and theology: God in the person of Christ Jesus was made equal to us so that we might be made equal to him. We are to be equal in earthly things and in heavenly things (D&C 78:6). Women and men are to be equal in the Lord. They are to be equal in spiritual gifts and priestly rights. Like Abraham and Sarah, they are to be priests and priestesses, kings and queens, with the promise of holding the powers of heaven jointly.
Doctrine and Covenants 132 contains a revelation about the status of men and women in the new and everlasting covenant of marriage. There are problems in the tone of certain portions of this text. Perhaps some of Joseph’s anger and frustration with his wife Emma (much of which cannot be justified from our perspective) seeps in. But the theological core of this revelation stands apart from the marital discord of the Smiths. This core theology does not put the man ahead of the woman. It does not marginalize the woman. The man and the woman are spoken of here as equals. The central verses of this revelation state that when a man and woman are married and sealed in the new and everlasting covenant and all power is committed to them by the oath and covenant of God, their names are written in the Lamb’s book [p.94]of life. They become gods. They have no end and are from everlasting to everlasting (vv. 19-20).
The doctrine of equality in spiritual powers and gifts was further advanced by Joseph Smith when he taught that the fullness of the priesthood is to be conferred on the man and woman jointly (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 321), and that through faith and the voluntary acceptance of the ordinances the man and woman would become joint heirs of Jesus Christ. This is the pattern of deification. To this point, Apostle Erastus Snow addressed himself on March 3, 1878:
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 the eternities, except they are made of these two component parts: a man and a woman; the male and the female (Journal of Discourses 19:269-70).
Even as conservative a Mormon theologian as Bruce R. McConkie has written 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” (Mormon Doctrine [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966], 516).
This evidence points to the conclusion that our Mother in Heaven is the equal of our Father in Heaven—a woman of equal stature, who holds with him jointly and equally the [p.95]powers of heaven. This tells us that the Mother in Heaven is a genuine deity, a Goddess, equal in her godhood with the other members of the Godhead. If there is a dearth of information about this being, it is due, I think, to plain and precious things being taken from the scriptures and to our hard-heartedness in refusing to accept the implications of this revelation. The point is that if the church forbids the worship and prayerful invocation of God the Mother as a presiding member of the Christian Godhead, then the church is in fact rejecting the equality of women and men in general and the equality of the Woman of Holiness, the Man of Holiness, and the Son of Righteousness in particular. Are we truly prepared, now, on the record before us, to make such a rejection?
With respect to the specific issue of praying to the Heavenly Mother, let me observe that Mormons have been praying to her for years. Doctrine and Covenants 25:12 tells us that the song of the righteous is a prayer that will be answered with blessings upon our heads. Since October 1845 the Saints have been singing and praying to their Mother and Father in heaven in the following words of Eliza R. Snow’s hymn:
When I leave this frail existence,
When I lay this mortal by,
Father, Mother, may I meet you
In your royal courts on high?
Then at length when I’ve completed
All you sent me forth to do,
With your mutual approbation
May I come and dwell with you?
If this is not a prayer, then there never has been a prayer [p.96]uttered in Christendom. It is a prayer not just to the Father, but to the Father and the Mother:
Father, Mother, may I meet you in your royal courts on high?
Linda Wilcox provides evidence that both the concept of the Heavenly Mother and the prayer to the Father and the Mother were revealed to Eliza R. Snow by Joseph Smith:
Although President Wilford Woodruff gave Eliza R. Snow credit for originating the idea—”That hymn is a revelation, though it was given to us by a woman”—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; Joseph Smith revealed it to Eliza Snow Smith, his wife; and Eliza Snow was inspired, being a poet, to put it into verse” (in Maureen Ursenbach Beecher and Lavina Fielding Anderson, eds., Sisters in Spirit [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987], 66).
Wilcox also states that Susa Young Gates claimed the doctrine of a Mother in Heaven came from Joseph Smith. Gates further reported that Joseph Smith told Zina D. Huntington, on the death of Zina’s mother in 1839, that Zina would not only meet her earthly mother, but would also “meet and become acquainted with [the] Eternal Mother, the wife of your Father in Heaven” (ibid., 66). Wilcox notes that a number of sources suggest that Eliza R. Snow and Brigham Young believed Eve to be the Mother in Heaven (ibid.).
The Woman of Holiness has been and is being worshipped by Mormons. Many have come to understand that she is not just a heavenly housewife or a domesticated divinity who stands quietly and patiently three steps behind her [p.97]husband and son, but that she is an equal in the Godhead. There is nothing in the scriptures or teachings of the prophets to suggest that she is inferior. There is evidence to the contrary.
Is it wise then in light of these teachings and practices to relegate the Mother of Life to the status of a second-rate deity—or, worse, to treat her as if she were a fiction—or to forbid her worship as idolatry, especially in light of the revered place she holds in Mormon theology and of the powerful spiritual experiences that many people have had and are having with her—experiences that have fortified their faith in Christ? The Book of Mormon encourages us to follow after those things that lead us to Christ. Does recognition of a heavenly mother detract from the centrality of the Son any more than the recognition of a heavenly father?
Worship, real worship, cannot be dictated. Worship is to move from grace to grace. It is contact with the divine. It is to grow in the knowledge of the mystery that is God. People cannot just shunt aside their spiritual experiences as if they did not exist. Nor should they be forbidden from approaching God by whatever paths God reveals. The Mother has been revealed to Mormons. The revelation cannot now be unspoken, even if it is yet to be fully accepted and appreciated.
It is my hope that we will be neither fearful nor narrow-minded, and that as a church and a people we will neither forbid nor discourage either the worship or prayerful invocation of God the Mother, said in the name of Jesus Christ, nor the recognition of the Holy Mother as part of the Christian Godhead. To those who would forbid such, let me paraphrase the warning given by Gamaliel to the Sanhedrin, inclined to forbid the worship of Jesus Christ: You men of Israel! Take heed to yourselves as to what you intend to do with these people. Refrain from troubling them. Let them [p.98]alone. For if this work be of human origin, then it will come to nothing. But if it be of divine origin, you cannot overthrow it and what is worse you may in your ignorant zeal inadvertently find yourselves fighting against God (Acts 5:34-35, 38-39).