Women and Authority
Maxine Hanks, editor

Chapter 1
The Mormon Concept of a Mother in Heaven
Linda P. Wilcox

[3]The idea of a mother in heaven is shadowy and elusive, 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.1 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 reveal doctrinal teachings about a divine mother as well as father. In some texts God is conceived 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.2

Christianity has also had the elevation of Mary in Catholicism. From first being the Mother of God, Mary eventually became the mother of everyone, the Queen of Heaven, 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 [4] several theological developments. In the fourteenth century Dame Julian of Norwich experienced and wrote about the motherhood as well as fatherhood of God and expressed Christ in mother images.3 For centuries many Catholics have believed that Mary’s sufferings at the Crucifixion were so great that she participated with her son in the redemption of humanity.4

The early nineteenth-century American milieu from which Mormonism sprang had some prototypes for a female deity as well. In 1774, Mother Ann Lee, founder of the Shaker movement, proclaimed herself to be the female incarnation of the Messiah—a parallel to Christ and a necessary balance in a religious system that saw god as both male and female. 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.”5

By the end of the nineteenth 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 Stanton, 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.”6

Half a century before Stanton’s bible, the Mormon religion had begun to develop a doctrine of 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 [5] shadowy. The best known exposition is Eliza R. Snow’s poem, “O My Father,” or “Invocation, or the Eternal Father and Mother”—the title it was known by earlier. When the poem was first published in the Times and Seasons 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 1842-44.7

President Wilford Woodruff gave Snow credit for originating the idea: “That hymn is a revelation, though it was given unto us by a woman.”8 President 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 Smith revealed it to Snow, his polygamous wife; and that Snow was inspired, being a poet, to put it into verse.9

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 into verse.10 Since Huntington and Snow were close friends as well, it was a likely possibility that they spoke of this idea.11 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, “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.”12

Women were not the only ones acquainted with the idea of a mother in heaven during Joseph Smith’s lifetime. 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 Father seated upon a throne; [6] 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.”13

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”—an indirect reference to the necessity of a mother for the process of creation.14 He also quoted his counselor Heber C. Kimball’s recollection of 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.”15

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. 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.16

Snow’s position was somewhat distinct from those 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 and a woman; the male and the female.17

[7] To Snow, God was not a male personage with a heavenly mother as a second divine personage; both of them together constituted God.

This development of theology by inference and common-sense extension of ordinary earth-life experience continued into the twentieth century. It is the primary approach taken by most of those who mention a mother in heaven. For example, Apostle Bruce R. McConkie said 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.”18 And Hugh B. Brown, 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.”19

One reason little theology was developed about a heavenly mother is that the scriptural basis for the doctrine was slim. 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.”20 As a possible reason for this gap in the scriptures, an LDS seminary teacher offered his explanation in 1960: “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?”21

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 new century, the 1920s and 1930s, and finally the more recent decades of the 1960s to the present. 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 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 nineteenth century, especially in Utah. Apostle James E. Talmage in [8] 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.’”22 An article in the Deseret News 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.”23 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 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-satisfying in their own mothers (or which they perhaps had not experienced and so desperately wanted) and which were generally absent in a male god reflecting a stern, closed-in image of Victorian manhood. A national article excerpted in the Deseret News 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.”24 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 this faith and has from time immemorial demanded the deification of woman.”25

Also in that first decade of the twentieth century the Mormon church’s Mother in Heaven doctrine was criticized and challenged by the Salt Lake Ministerial Association as being unchristian.26 B. H. Roberts, of the Council of the Seventy, responded by claiming the ministers were inconsistent. They objected to the idea of Jesus having a literal heavenly father, he said, but then they also complained because

[9] 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.27

Two years later the church’s First Presidency issued a statement entitled “The Origin of Man.” Although much of this message explicated their view of man’s (including woman’s) earthly origins, the statement also took up the question of spirit 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 and are literally the sons and daughters of Deity.”28 By 1909 if not before, the Mother in Heaven doctrine had become an officially recognized tenet of Mormon belief. Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith later described this as one of presumably several “official and authoritative statements” about this doctrine.29

In the 1920s and 1930s there seemed to be emphasis on the idea of “eternal” or “everlasting” motherhood. It seemed important to emphasize that motherhood was as ongoing and eternal as godhood. Apostle 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.”30

Widtsoe’s colleague in the Quorum of Twelve Melvin J. Ballard carried on the theme 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 worshipped female deities—Ballard called the Mother in Heaven concept a “startling [10] doctrine” which was “so far as I know, never taught before in the history of the world.” He also emphasized the noble, goddess-like 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.”31

German Ellsworth, president of the church’s Northern States Mission, stressed the theme of “Eternal Motherhood,” noting that after eighty years the world finally was coming to accept the doctrine that if we had a heavenly father we must have a heavenly mother as well. Ellsworth linked this doctrine specifically to the “true mission of women” on the earth, which was to be mothers. Specifically “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.” Women were encouraged “to build up a better race—to successfully do their part in peopling the earth with a noble and intelligent class of citizens.”32 These examples share an attempt to raise the status of women as mothers by comparison with the Mother in Heaven.

Since the 1960s, we can see some widening out, with a greater variety of images presented by church authorities who speak about a mother in heaven. Joseph Fielding Smith, much like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, quoted 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’?”33 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.

In 1974 H. Burke Peterson of the Presiding Bishopric 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 call that will one day prepare her to become an eternal mother—a co-creator of spiritual offspring.”34 One supposes that by “her call” Peterson means the care of her children and that he is suggesting nurturing and guiding one’s children prepares one to become an exalted goddess-mother.

[11] Four years later President Spencer W. Kimball expressed his view of the Mother in Heaven as “the ultimate in maternal modesty” and “restrained, queenly elegance.” He 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?”35 Here we have both maternal nurturing and exalted goddess qualities in the Mother in Heaven.

At the same general conference, Elder Neal A. Maxwell presented this version of the role and activities of 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?”36 Here he defines one of Heavenly Mother’s duties as preparing an aesthetically pleasing environment of unimaginable glory to welcome her children home.

A question to which there is no definitive answer—but much speculation—is whether there is more than one Mother in Heaven. The Mormon church’s doctrinal commitment to celestial (plural) marriage as well as the exigencies of producing billions of spirit children suggests a probability of more than one mother in heaven. This problem is illustrated by an anecdote where a wife asks her husband, “What do you think Heavenly Mother’s attitudes are about polygamy, Frank?” to which the husband responds, “Which Heavenly Mother?”

Apostle John Taylor, writing in answer to a question reportedly raised by a woman in the church, said in 1857 in a newspaper he was publishing in New York City: “Knowest thou not that eternities ago thy spirit, pure and holy, dwelt in the Heavenly Father’s bosom, and in his presence, and with thy mother, one of the Queens of heaven, surrounded by the brother and sister spirits in the spirit world, among the Gods?”37 He implied one Heavenly Father with many “Queens.”

An LDS Seminaries and Institutes student manual also hints at the possibility of multiple heavenly mothers. In a diagram entitled “Becoming a Spirit Child of Heavenly Parents,” an individual (male) [12] is depicted with upward lines to his heavenly parents, the one parent labeled “Heavenly Father” (caps), the other labeled “a heavenly mother” (lower case).38

There has been no encouragement from contemporary Mormon church leaders to worship a heavenly mother. Still there has been evidence of female desire to reach out to a mother in heaven in some way. A letter to the editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought in 1974 told of a Mormon woman spending preparatory time in meditation, kneeling privately to pray, and then calling out for the first time, “’Mother in Heaven, I believe you may exist. Are you there? We know the Father and the Son, but why have you not revealed yourself?’ And a wondrous voice clearly answered, ‘Good daughter, until this time, no one asked. The men have not thought to ask.’”39

Since 1980 an increasing awareness of and attention to the Mother in Heaven doctrine has occurred at the grass-roots level in the church, particularly among women. Submissions to the 1980 Relief Society “Eliza R. Snow Poetry Contest” included, for the first time, several poems dealing with the subject of a heavenly mother.40 Collectively these poems picture a mother in heaven who is the essence of femininity and nurturing motherhood. She has a “radiant face” and “soft firm voice.” She is usually smiling unless her “gentle eyes fill with tears.” Her spirit children learn wisdom at her knee. She is “the Father’s cherished half” who “surely must merit His eternal love.” She is described as a “Goddess, a Priestess, a loving companion” and such a noble presence in the celestial realm that “the heavenly flowers bend with adoration” and “the animals await [her] caress.”

These poems also discuss the Mother in Heaven’s role in sending spirit children to earth. One poem has her announcing and explaining the departure times for various spirits. In contrast another has a daughter running to tell Mother the news of her impending departure. She gives tender goodbye kisses to her daughters as they leave for their earth missions. She advises them to set goals, overcome discouragement, take time to appreciate beauty—and in times of despair to call upon Heavenly Father and Elder Brother for help and comfort.

Also evident in these poems is a vague sense of not really [13] knowing enough to feel as close as one would like to Heavenly Mother. There is wonder about her name and how we might react to it were we to know it, transferring the Father’s attributes to her, yet realizing that she can only be apprehended “darkly” with a resultant feeling of unease and incompletion.

Mostly these poems present traditional views of Mother in Heaven. However, the appearance of these poems indicated widening interest in a heavenly mother among active church members.

At the same time other views of the Mother in Heaven appeared in independent Mormon publications. In 1980 Lisa Bolin Hawkins’s poem expressed a prayerful reaching out to ask Heavenly Mother to reveal herself and provide women with an adequate role model of goddesshood:

Another Prayer
Why are you silent, Mother? How can I
Become a goddess when the patterns here
Are those of gods? I struggle, and I try
To mold my womanself to something near
Their goodness. I need you, who gave me birth
In your own image, to reveal your ways:
A rich example of thy daughters’ worth;
Pillar of Womanhood to guide our days;
Fire of power and grace to guide my night
When I am lost.
My brothers question me,
And wonder why I seek this added light.
No one can answer all my pain but Thee,
Ordain me to my womanhood, and share
The light that Queens and Priestesses must bear.41

This poem expresses the need which a heavenly mother can fill that a male deity cannot and suggests attributes of both nurturance and spiritual power, as in the concept of “ordaining” her daughters and sharing spiritual light with them.

Other expressions extend the image of a heavenly mother further. Linda Sillitoe’s 1979 poem is a good example:

[14] Song of Creation
Who made the world, my child?
Father made the rain
silver and forever.
Mother’s hand
drew riverbeds and hollowed seas,
drew riverbeds and hollowed seas
to bring the rain home.
Father bridled winds, my child,
to keep the world new.
Mother clashed
fire free from stones
and breathed it strong and dancing,
and breathed it strong and dancing
the color of her hair.

He armed the thunderclouds
rolled out of heaven;

Her finger flickered
weaving the delicate white snow,
weaving the delicate white snow,
a waterfall of flowers.

And if you live long, my child,
you’ll see snow burst
from thunderclouds
and lightening in the snow;
listen to Mother and Father laughing,
listen to Mother and Father laughing
behind the locked door.42

Here is a heavenly mother as a full partner and co-creator with the Father, making riverbeds and seas, creating fire and other elements. She is a female creator and a sexual being outside of the role of bearing spirit children. Images such as this, reflecting strength, competence, and sexuality, were rare prior to the 1980s.

Since 1985 there has been an increase in popular Mormon [15] discourse on Heavenly Mother and speculation about how women can relate to her. Discussions have appeared more regularly in independent publications and forums, and have been popular at women’s retreats and gatherings.43 In 1986, the editor of one independent Mormon women’s magazine asked readers for their views about Mormon feminist theology, and women responded with short essays that created and explored new theological ground.

Since 1988, the Mormon Women’s Forum has sponsored several public discussions on the Mother God and has published many personal accounts; one essay told of a young girl drawing the Heavenly Mother on a blank page in her Book of Mormon in order to include the Mother in scripture.44 A regular column entitled “Thea-logy” has urged further theological development.45 The following poem by Nola Wallace illustrates this concern.

A Psalm
At Heaven’s throne, I cry for wisdom.
O Father, give me your instruction,
O Mother, teach me of your laws.
Let me know You, that I may know myself.
If you are silent, then I am bereft.
Have I denied you, Mother, unaware?
Have you stretched out your hand, and I not seen?
Have you cried vainly at the gates, and I not heard?
Or have I heard, and not known your voice?
O Mother, give me your instruction,
O Father, teach me of your laws:
That I may follow, whole of heart.46


A poem by Mimi Irving visualized the Mother affirming her own existence, as seen in this excerpt: “I am your Mother, your goddess earth./ I am eternal Matter. I matter eternally./ I am. I AM.”47

Recently Mormon author Carol Lynn Pearson’s play “Mother Wove the Morning” dramatized woman’s relationship to the divine female through female historical characters. The play responded to and ignited popular feeling about the need for acknowledgement of the Mother God, particularly among Mormons.

[16] Perhaps unsurprisingly, the 1990s have seen an authoritative backlash against emerging Mother in Heaven theology and worship. As personal discourse about the Mother God has become more public and widespread more people have included her in their prayers. Increasingly Mormon women are warned to avoid such “beginnings of apostasy” over which “some few women of the church appear to be greatly exercised” and “evidently are seeking to lead others in the paths which they are following.”48 In 1991 apostles Gordon B. Hinckley and James E. Faust as well as retired BYU religion professor Rodney Turner and others49 echoed the nineteenth-century position of Elder Orson Pratt, who taught that we are not to worship the mother of our spirits. Although we worship the father, “for the Father of our spirits is the head of His household,” said Pratt, “and His wives and children are required to yield the most perfect obedience to their great Head. It is lawful for the children to worship the King of heaven, but not the ‘Queen of heaven.’ … Jesus prayed to His father, and taught His disciples to do likewise; but we are nowhere taught that Jesus prayed to His Heavenly Mother.”50

In a meeting for church regional representatives on 5 April 1991, Gordon B. Hinckley, first counselor in the First Presidency, responded to reports that “here and there, prayers have been offered to our Mother in Heaven.” He had searched and found “nowhere in the Standard Works an account where Jesus prayed other than to His Father in Heaven … I have looked in vain for any instance … [of] ‘a prayer to our Mother in Heaven.’” He said he “consider[s] it inappropriate for anyone in the Church to pray to our Mother in Heaven” and instructed regional representatives to “counsel priesthood leaders to be on the alert for the use of this expression and to make correction where necessary. Such correction can be handled in a discreet and inoffensive way. But it should be firm and without equivocation.”51

Reactions to Hinckley’s address occurred in private and public. A Sunstone Symposium panelist called the statement a “gag order on the Mother in Heaven.”52 At a Mormon Women’s Forum discussion panelists suggested that “Heavenly Mother empowers women and therefore [17] it is not spiritually healthy to stonewall the power of women which god has ordained,” and “it is the need of the children for the Mother … so many are demonstrating the need—and the need is profound.”53 Whether one can adore the Mother without the mechanism of prayer is an open question.

“It doesn’t take from our worship of the Eternal Father, to adore our Eternal Mother … We honor woman when we acknowledge Godhood in her eternal Prototype,” reported a 1910 article in the Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star.54 My survey of images suggests that one’s concept of a mother in heaven reflects one’s views about real women and their roles. Those who see women as basically producers of babies tend to emphasize the feminine deity’s role as producer of spirit children. Those who consider women to be refined and spiritual emphasize the Heavenly Mother’s nobility and queenly attributes—and so forth.

What can be said in summary about Mormon theology concerning a heavenly mother? At present the nineteenth-century image of a female counterpart to a literal male father-god is receiving attention and expansion and is becoming more personalized and individualized. The widening Heavenly Mother “theology” is developing mostly from a “folk” or speculative theology, joined by suggestions for systematic development by emerging Mormon theologians. There has yet to be an official, theological definition of Mother in Heaven by ecclesiastical leaders.

Historically Mother in Heaven has been almost whatever an individual Mormon has envisioned 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.

Linda P. Wilcox earned a B.A. and M.A. at Stanford University and an M.A. in history from the University of Utah. One of her essays, “Crying Change in a Permanent World: Contemporary Mormon Women on Motherhood,” won special recognition. She is an administrative assistant for Salt Lake County and a mother of three daughters. “The Mormon Concept of a Mother in Heaven” was first published in Sunstone 5 (Sept./Oct. 1980); then in Sisters in Spirit: Mormon Women in Historical and Cultural Perspective, eds. Maureen Ursenbach Beecher and Lavina Fielding Anderson (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985); and in Line Upon Line: Essays on Mormon Doctrine, ed. Gary James Bergera (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989).


1. There are a few instances of feminine imagery of God in Christian scripture, such as Isaiah 66:13 (“As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you; and ye shall be comforted in Jersualem”) and Matthew 23:37 (“how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!”). These verses were brought to my attention by Melodie Moench Charles.

2. Elaine H. Pagels, “What Became of God the Mother? Conflicting Images of God in Early Christianity,” Signs, Winter 1976, 293-303.

3. “Dame Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe: Divine Motherhood and Human Sisterhood,” in Elizabeth Clark and Herbert Richardson, eds., Women and Religion: A Feminist Sourcebook of Christian Thought (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), 102-12.

4. “Handmaid or Feminist?” Time, 30 Dec. 1991, 62.

5. Clark and Richardson, 164.

6. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, The Woman’s Bible, pt.1 (1895-98; rprt. ed., New York Arno Press, 1972), 218.

7. Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, “The Eliza Enigma: The Life and Legend of Eliza R. Snow,” in Charles Redd Monographs on Western History, 6 (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1976): 34; Times and Seasons 6 (15 Nov 1845): 1039.

8. Wilford Woodruff, “Discourse,” Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star 56 (Apr. 1894): 229.

9. Joseph F. Smith, “Discourse,” Deseret Evening News, 9 Feb. 1895. I am indebted to Maureen Ursenbach Beecher for much information on Eliza R. Snow and the Mother in Heaven doctrine. As Boyd Kirkland has noted, a number of sources suggest that Snow and Brigham Young believed Eve to be the Mother in Heaven. Letter to the editor, Sunstone 6 (Mar.-Apr. 1981): 4-5.

10. Susa Young Gates, History of the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1911), 15-16.

11. The debate has continued, however. Church leader B. H. Roberts spoke of “that splendid hymn of ours on heavenly motherhood, the great throbbing hunger of woman’s soul, and which was given to this world through the inspired mind of Eliza R Snow.” Answers to Ministerial Association Review, delivered at two meetings of the M.I.A. Conference, 9 June 1907 (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1907): 18. Apostle Melvin J. Ballard, however, considered the Mother in Heaven concept a revelation given by Jesus Christ through Joseph Smith, in his Mother’s Day address in the Tabernacle, Journal History, 8 May 1921, typescript, archives, Historical Department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, 1-3 (hereafter LDS archives). Apostle Milton R. Hunter in 1945 claimed the doctrine of a mother in heaven originated with Smith, ascribing to him revelation by which “a more complete understanding of man—especially regarding his person and relationship to Deity—was received than could be found in all of the holy scriptures combined.” Among such new understandings was the “stupendous truth of the existence of a Heavenly Mother” and the “complete realization that we are the offspring of Heavenly Parents.” Hunter said that these ideas became “established facts in Mormon theology” and an “integral part of Mormon philosophy,” The Gospel Through the Ages (Salt Lake City: Stevens and Wallis, Inc. 1945), 98-99.

12. David McKay to Mrs. James Hood, 16 Mar. 1916, photocopy of holograph in possession of Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, courtesy of Shirley Bailey.

13. Abraham H. Cannon Journal, 25 Aug. 1880, LDS archives.

14. Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 18 June 1865, 26 vols. (Liverpool: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1855-86), 11:122; hereafter JD.

15. JD, 23 Feb. 1862, 9:286.

16. JD, 31 May 1885, 26:214.

17. JD, 3 Mar. 1878, 19:269-70.

18. Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 516. See also D&C 132, which states that one cannot be a god without entering into the holy order of marriage, which implies both father and mother gods.

19. Hugh B. Brown, “Relief Society—An Extension of the Home,” Relief Society Magazine 48 (Dec. 1961): 814.

20. Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1960), 3:142.

21. Melvin R. Brooks, LDS Reference Encyclopedia (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1960), 309-10.

22. James E. Talmage, Deseret News, 28 Apr. 1902.

23. “The Divine Feminine,” Deseret News, 4 Feb. 1905.

24. George Barlow, in ibid.

25. “Our Mother in Heaven,” Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star 72 (29 Sept. 1910): 619.

26. “Ministerial Association’s Review of Mormon Address to the World,” Salt Lake Herald,

4 June 1907, 8.

27. B. H. Roberts, “Answer to Ministerial Association Review,” 9 June 1907, in An Address: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to the World (Salt Lake City, 1907), 18-19.

28. First Presidency, “The Origin of Man,” Improvement Era 13 (Nov. 1909): 80.

29. Joseph Fielding Smith, “Mothers in Israel,” Relief Society Magazine 57 (Dec. 1970): 884.

30. John A. Widtsoe, “Everlasting Motherhood,” Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star 90 (10 May 1928): 298.

31. Melvin J. Ballard, Journal History, 8 May 1921, 1-3.

32. German E. Ellsworth, “Eternal Motherhood,” Deseret News, 7 May 1932, 5 (included in Journal History).

33. Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, 3:144.

34. H. Burke Peterson, Ensign 4 (May 1974): 32.

35. Spencer W. Kimball, Ensign 8 (May 1978): 6.

36. Neal A. Maxwell, Ensign 8 (May 1978): 11.

37. John Taylor, “Origin, Object, and Destiny of Women,” The Mormon, 29 Aug. 1857.

38. Book of Mormon Student Manual, 2 vols. (Salt Lake City: Church Educational System, 1976), 1:218.

39. Letter to the Editor, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 7 (Autumn 1974): 7.

40. Direct quotes are from the following poems: Sydney Lee Harmer, “My Heavenly Mother”; Nancy Anderson, “Heavenly Mother”; Janet E. Nichols, “The Farewell.” General comments are based on the above poems plus two others: Lynda Jacobs Gardner, “My Heavenly Mother” and Patricia Michell Sylvestre, “My Mother in Heaven.”

41. Lisa Bolin Hawkins, “Another Prayer,” Exponent II 6 (Winter 1980): 16.

42. Linda Sillitoe, “Song of Creation,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 12 (Winter 1979): 95.

43. Maxine Hanks provided information on the contemporary discussion on Mother in Heaven. See issues of Exponent II from 1985 to the present. (1992)

44. Andrea Moore Emmett, “Open Letter to My Daughter,” Mormon Women’s Forum Newsletter 1 (Aug. 1991): 3.

45. “Emerging Mormon Thea-logy,” Mormon Women’s Forum Newsletter 1 (Fall 1990): 15.

46. Nola Wallace, “A Psalm,” Mormon Women’s Forum Newsletter 1 (Fall 1990): 5.

47. Mimi Irving, “Mother Goddess,” Mormon Women’s Forum Newsletter 2 (Mar. 1991): 14.

48. Gordon B. Hinckley, “Daughters of God,” LDS General Conference address, Ensign 21 (Nov. 1991): 100.

49. Gordon B. Hinckley, LDS Regional Representatives Seminar, Apr. 1991; Faust reiterated Hinckley’s remarks at a Salt Lake regional leaders meeting, Sept. 1991; Rodney Turner, Mormon Women’s Forum, Sept. 1991.

50. Orson Pratt, “Celestial Marriage,” The Seer 1 (Oct. 1853): 159. Yet in 1910 Apostle Rudger Clawson pointed out that men as well as women and children crave a mother in heaven to worship and “yearn to adore her.” He said, “It doesn’t take from our worship of the Eternal Father, to adore our Eternal mother, any more than it diminishes the love we bear our earthly fathers, to include our earthly mother in our affection” (Rudger Clawson, unsigned article, “Our Mother in Heaven,” Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star 72 [29 Sept. 1910]: 619-20).

51. Gordon B. Hinckley, “Cornerstones of Responsibility,” address, Regional Representative Seminar, Salt Lake City, 5 Apr. 1991, 3-4, copy in my possession.

52. “The Current State of Mormon Theology,” panel discussion, Salt Lake Sunstone Symposium, Aug. 1991.

53. Paul Toscano and Carol Lynn Pearson, “How Shall We Worship the Mother in Heaven?” Mormon Women’s Forum, Sept. 1991. Also see Margaret Toscano, Lynn K. Whitesides, and Martha D. Esplin, “Finding Our Bodies, Hearts, Voices: A Three Part-Invention,” panel discussion, University of Utah, May 1992.

54. “Our Mother in Heaven,” Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, 620.