Women and Authority
Edited by Maxine Hanks

Chapter 11
Personal Discourse on God the Mother
Martha Pierce

Background

[247] Today the Mormon church sanctions personal revelation only when members make personal decisions or share testimony with the congregation. The role of personal revelation for women is even more limited because leaders stress the need to counsel with male leaders, including husbands, fathers, and local priesthood leaders.

Contemporary women’s views on God the Mother cannot be learned by attending church testimony meetings. Testimonies given in such meetings must conform to tacit guidelines. Among those guidelines are that members must testify of male power and authority: the father, the son, Joseph Smith, and the current president of the church. These guidelines discourage women from cultivating a relationship with feminine deity. They also guide women who have had spiritual experiences with a feminine deity to define those experiences as emanating from a masculine deity.

Mormon women do, however, speak of a mother god. Such expressions are usually made in private or discussion group settings. I and others have asked women to write down or tell about their beliefs and experiences of a feminine deity.

These stories are important for what they reveal about their writers as well as what they reveal about an emerging theology of God the Mother. The stories show women expanding their spiritual [248] horizons as they own and legitimize their spiritual power. They show women looking within themselves for spirituality. These stories affirm that women feel spiritually connected to the feminine, whether inside, outside, or on the margins of the organized church. My own beliefs of a mother god moved from the theoretical to the spiritually imperative when I experienced her for myself.

During the summer of 1988 I was in San Francisco with my friend Susan. One Saturday we found ourselves in a museum. Our visit to the museum was not a planned event. It just happened to be within walking distance of Susan’s apartment. The main exhibit consisted of hundreds of early Cycladic sculptures of the mother god created over 3,000 years ago.1 These five-to-eight-inch tall sculptures were simple, elegant marble statues representing female deity. These sculptures had been placed in tombs of both women and men. The goddess was represented as an all-powerful force: a female incarnation at once life-giving, life-taking, life-renewing.

These early Greek artists had created powerful, spiritual symbols of life and death. Centuries later these marble sculptures had not lost their power: we both felt the force of the symbols and did not want to leave the room.

The exhibit described a time and a place where feminine spirituality had flourished. There I discovered a longing within me for a time and a place that valued femaleness, that saw femaleness as a powerful, creative, spiritual force. To leave that room was to reenter the everyday world where femininity had been trivialized, objectified, and defined by men.

My experience in the museum raised many questions. Who was this goddess? Why didn’t I know about her? Who were these people who carved goddess after goddess? Who were these people who would not place a loved one in a tomb without a mother god image? What did she mean to them—and to me? How would I have felt had I been raised with such images around me? How would I have felt about my life, my creativity, my worth?

In the museum room I was touched, not because I discovered something new, but because I added some crucial pieces to my spiritual memory. As I began writing this paper, I learned that others had this experience of remembering. As I asked women to share their spiritual experiences with me, some of them began remember[249]ing experiences they had not thought about in years.

These women’s personal discourses had never been presented in church testimony meetings, where male priesthood holders preside. Nor could they be. Such expressions do not fit the structure of traditional testifying in the Mormon church, which requires a statement of orthodox belief supported by personal experience and told to strengthen believers and convert nonbelievers. Moreover, church leaders have directly instructed Mormon women not to discuss or elaborate on the topic of Mother in Heaven.

Shaming

Church leaders condemn the act of speaking in church of Mother in Heaven officially through formal exhortation and unofficially through shame. We are taught to believe that even uttering her name is akin to profanity. Women describe real threats of official reproof which range anywhere from criticism, being “called in,” release from church position, probation, or excommunication. In addition to these sanctions, leaders may impose a financial sanction in cases where the woman is a church employee, whose job is contingent on church status.

Women also write of more subtle, but just as silencing, acts of shaming: “We have heard that she is so sacred and so holy that we should not talk about her.”2 One woman writes: “The church teaches us to call on Father only. Consequently, I have not made any room at all for Her in my life. I don’t feel permission to pray to her—like it might be blasphemy.”

One woman wrote to the general authorities of her frustration with the patriarchal nature of the church. She was called in for interview by her local authorities. They told her that if the answers ever do come, they would come “through the church.” Her leaders, trying to be helpful, added “we would hate for you to miss out.”

Sometimes the shaming is not so subtle. One woman tells of asking Elder Bruce R. McConkie whether the Holy Ghost could be Mother in Heaven. She writes that he “thundered” at her: “Go home and get down on your knees and ask God to forgive you. And if you never sin again the rest of your life, maybe he will forgive you.”3

[250] Another example of authoritative shaming occurred when President Gordon B. Hinckley described prayer to Mother in Heaven as “small beginnings of apostasy” and named “those who use this expression and who try to further its use” as “misguided.”4

In addition to the notion that speaking of a mother god is akin to blasphemy, there is the notion that longing for a mother god implies that we are not grateful for what we have or that we believe that God the Father is somehow inadequate. I and others have heard words to the following effect: “You women have a Father in Heaven who loves you very much and who understands you. Why do you need anyone else?”

Silencing

Silencing comes from many cultural sources, many of which we internalize. One woman describes her struggle against this silencing in symbolic form: “I have an image of myself locked in a garden, over-cultivated to the point of sterility. I’m struggling to speak past severed vocal cords, and there on a white, marble wall are the words, ‘I WILL NOT BE SILENCED’ written in lipstick, the color of fresh blood.” The image makes vivid the struggle to find a voice as it likens the “cultivation” of patriarchy with sterility and transforms the image of lipstick from one often associated with vanity and pretense to a symbol of speech and female blood. The image presents women’s blood not as shameful but as a substance lending vitality and voice to the silent marble and the sterile garden.

The official policy is to be content to wait for church leaders to reveal god’s word. For many women this suffices: “I don’t know anything about her. I don’t speculate about the unknown.” Other women feel that immediate concerns of this life outweigh the need to speculate about a mother god: “I grew very weary of the focus on the after life. I felt it was so much more important to spend our energy making this life better than planning for the next one.”

Some women agree to wait, but are not content: “I have hope that things can change in the church. My testimony is strong, though confusion lingers as I try to wait patiently for the male priesthood leaders to start asking Heavenly Father and Mother the right questions.”

[251] An even more troublesome silencer is the implication that by such discussion we may reveal the family secret of polygamy, and we may find out more than we care to know: There could be several mothers in the father’s harem. “We don’t hear about Heavenly Mother because she is only one of many wives of god.”

Similarly, other women are wary of speaking of God the Mother because men have already used her image to subordinate women, “to perpetuate the patriarchal system.” “The men of the Mormon church have subjugated Mother in Heaven to the same position as the other women in the church.” Another woman writes that to speak of her Mother in Heaven would be like “casting my pearls before swine.”

In contrast, one woman writes that she feels the silence surrounding the mother god is sacred and in harmony with her inner, intuitive workings: “I’ve never felt it right or had the need to pray in public church to her. Her work is so inner and so much seems to be done in sacred silence.”

Aside from our own silence on the topic is God the Mother’s silence. One woman uses the scripture “Behold I stand at the door and knock” to refer to God the Mother waiting only for us to open the door. Another woman, dismissing the need to wait for male authorities, or even for God the Father to speak, writes: “God the Mother speaks for herself and she does speak to us, but we do not listen.” Another woman echoes this: “I also sensed that she eagerly awaits her place in our spiritual lives. She is there but only those who ask will know it.” Yet another woman writes: “It is my experience that if we seek her, she will nurture us.”

For some, connecting with the powerful creative energy of God the Mother is an encounter with god the unspeakable, the indescribable, because the experience cannot be transliterated into words. We lack stories, models, and words to describe our experiences, so we translate them into a language with images and words created for the most part by men to describe male experience.

Language

These stories are not traditional testimonies because they contain no language of exhortation or persuasion. They emanate from a personal perspective rather than an orthodox, prescriptive perspec[252]tive. The focus is on truth-telling. The women say: “This is what happened to me.” “This is what I think.” “This is my truth.” They do not say, “Believe as I do” or even “Believe me.”

The women who write these stories acknowledge the difficulty of singing their song in a strange tongue. In this case the difficulty is singing the song of the Mother in the language of the fathers. As French feminist Monique Wittig wrote: “The language you speak is made up of words that are killing you.”5

Yet by resisting naming God the Mother, we risk having someone else name her and describe her for us. The woman whose image was blood-red words written on white marble expressed her image in words. While she may lose some of the urgency and meaning by transforming that image to language, she nevertheless reserves for herself the power of naming her own experience and offering it to others.

By offering their images and their words, these women offer the power of recognition and of permission. That is, many women are silent because they feel they are the only ones with these questions: “I did not know that so many other Mormon women felt as I did. Heavenly Mother has begun a great work with her children.” Another woman writes: “I am one of those who has seriously considered herself alone in the need for feminine influence and opportunity in the church.” The stories thus become transformative as we recognize ourselves and permit ourselves to trust our voices and tell our story. 

The Motherless Child

Many women begin their descriptions by explaining their need to seek for a mother god. For some the need derives from a feeling that there is no place for them in the church: “I’ve felt a lack of place as a woman.”

Being without a place, homelessness, is painful: “For ten years I was unable to say the words Mother in Heaven without breaking down and crying. The fear and pain were so great that I was not even able to articulate any of my questions.” Such expressions hold a power of recognition for many of us. One of my questions as I stood before the Cycladic statues was: how different would my life [253] have been had I been raised with the notion of god as woman?

Some women feel spiritually homeless because of sexual or physical abuse by their fathers or other male authority figures. One consequence of this abuse is that these women do not feel they can trust a father god. They speak of needing a mother god who will protect and comfort them, who will stand as an image of strength for them. For such women one view of the Mother is especially poignant: “I envision her suffering with womankind as we endure the particular trial of being a woman in this life.” Women write of the mother god as comforter: “I need to be comforted by a female.”

Other women write of a lack of spiritual role models: “Mormon women, like all women, need a female archetype that will give them more significance than that of wife and mother.” “I could use an exalted woman as a role model. Such a model would help me enjoy more fully my femaleness, my worth.” Another woman writes that a knowledge of god the mother “would give me more of a sense of my eternal, spiritual identity—essential to my self esteem and self knowledge.” As one woman puts it: “As woman is, goddess once was. As goddess is, woman shall become.”

One woman relates that her patriarchal blessing given years ago admonished her to “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Mother in Heaven is perfect.” The woman writes, “I realize how I have totally forgotten about her. I feel dismayed because when I think about it, I know a relationship with her would greatly benefit my life. It’s dawning on me that a goddess exists who cares about me even more than I care for my daughter (if that’s possible), and I have shut her off from my life.”

Other women, including Eliza R. Snow, point to logic: “Truth is reason, truth eternal, tells me I’ve a mother there.” A contemporary woman reasons: “The church teaches that mothers are and should be the primary nurturers of their children, but the Heavenly Mother is kept exiled from her children.”

Images of the Mother

In contrast to women who feel a need to seek the Mother are women who have always felt her presence: “I seem to have always [254] had the presence of the Mother with me in some conscious form.”

With almost no scriptural or doctrinal descriptions of God the Mother, women are free to describe her according to whatever feels right for them. Even so, many of the descriptions are familial: she is a higher self, a mother, a grandmother: “I know now … that she is my eternal higher self.” “Mother in Heaven is like my earth mother.”

One woman gives her a rocking chair and a shawl: “I see her sitting in my mother’s rocking chair by a fireplace, her long hair flowing down around her shoulders. Her shawl is drawn around her and I sit at her feet with my head on her lap … She is there to comfort me.”

Some women see more strength and vigor: “As to her own personality, Mother God is all woman!” “My own image of a woman god was always one of a strong-bodied, strong-minded, strong-willed, yet tender woman, a woman who was … equal with her partner, a woman who could and would communicate with her daughters.”

Another emphasizes her strength and equality: “She is wise, understanding … confident, courageous, a leader, a follower, assertive, a decision-maker, a female comfort, mighty, and powerful as she stands in her full equal glory next to our Heavenly Father.”

Other women write of God the Couple: “My belief is that God is a man and woman, soulmates who are one in heart and mind and purpose: whose mutual strength is that they are free and separate entities who choose to come together in perfect, passionate, joyful union.” “Father god and mother god dance joyously together, intimately, separately … always generating the energy of love which sustains their worlds.”

A powerful description is one woman’s revision of Isaiah: “Wonderful, Counselor, the mighty God, the Everlasting Mother, the Queen of Peace.”

Blessings

Knowing they are not alone in their search for a mother god and having gained some knowledge and experience of her, women describe blessings gained. Women speak of new confidence and new-found spiritual resources. For some women this spills over into their relationships: “[My husband] has always been a good man, but [255] now I feel there is a new, additional understanding and respect.”
A theology of God the Mother invites women to examine their spiritual as well as earthly relations with women. One woman felt the absence of a divine female had contributed to a lack of relationship with her own mother; she reversed this by cultivating both relationships. Another woman described this connection between how we view the divine and how we view ourselves thus: “You already know her, for you know yourself.”

Some women feel a call to work for social justice: “Heavenly Mother has begun a great work with Her children and … [we] are part of it. It is the mothers and women of this earth who will bring about peace.”
Other women feel a call to exercise their spiritual gifts. “Six months ago I received and gave a blessing—all women. The spiritual effect was tremendous—I felt validated, loved, valued. And the sister who was physically ill was healed. I feel this is my beginning of experiences with Mother in Heaven, for there was a great feeling of female power.”

Dilemmas of Reconciliation

Opening the inner door to the mother god brings with it the dilemma of reconciling a feminist spirituality within a patriarchal church. What happens when the woman evolves faster than the institution?

One woman writes: “I have hope that things can change in the church.” Another woman is not so optimistic: “I feel that unless the church makes a place for our heavenly mother, thinking women will continue to leave the church.”

One woman is clear about her priorities: “I don’t know what peace I will ultimately make with the church, but it will not be at her nor my sisters’ expense.”

Women are celebrating God the Mother. Women are listening to the voice within for their answers. Like Jacob we wrestle with the angel all night and into the morning for our answers, our blessing. Unlike Jacob, who was a prophet in a patriarchal culture, the voice we hear and the blessing we receive is intensely female.

“When I let myself be quiet, and listen—listen to the feeling in [256] my gut, I experience spirituality. When I respond to my voice within, confusion disappears. I feel strength and wholeness. I have clarity. I feel the truth of my life. Perhaps this experience is God. And so, for me, if God has gender, God is female.”

Notes:

Martha Pierce has studied feminism as it relates to language and law. She holds degrees in English, linguistics, and law. Earlier versions of “Personal Discourse on God the Mother” were presented at the Mormon Women’s Forum, September 1989, and at the Salt Lake Sunstone Symposium, August 1990.

1. Cycladic or Cycladean refers to an abstract, cellolike style of a female goddess statue carved during the pre-Mycenaean period on Cyclades in the Aegean Islands, around 2500 B.C.E. In general, stone goddess figures of all types and styles have been dated from as early as 10,000 B.C.E. See Erich Neumann, The Great Mother (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), 113, pl. 24.; and Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988).

2. The quotations in this essay were taken from dozens of personal descriptions of the Mother in Heaven. These descriptions were written responses to surveys by Martha Pierce, Maxine Hanks, and letters to the Mormon Women’s Forum. Original essays and other material are in possession of the author and editor.

3. Lavina Fielding Anderson, “The Achievement of Helen Candlin Stark,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 23 (Fall 1990): 24.

4. Gordon B. Hinckley, “Cornerstones of Responsibility,” Regional Representatives Seminar, Apr. 1991, 3-4, Salt Lake City.

5. Monique Wittig, in The Politics of Women’s Spirituality, ed. Charlene Spretnak (New York: Anchor Books, 1982).