Women and Authority
Edited by Maxine Hanks

Chapter 18
Put on Your Strength O Daughters of Zion: Claiming Priesthood and Knowing the Mother
Margaret Merrill Toscano

[411] Claiming the priesthood and knowing God the Mother are nearly always on the list of concerns of Mormon feminists. Why are these objectives considered essential for women’s spiritual equality with men? Why do discussions about Mormon women so often gravitate to these dual focal points? Feminist theologians assert that as long as there is only a male god and a male priesthood, women will be subordinate. In Mormonism a female priesthood and a heavenly mother are doctrinal attestations of the equality of women. I believe these concepts are not merely feminist inventions imported from the world, but that they are true and important revelations given by God to Joseph Smith at the beginning of this dispensation, which continue to resonate in current LDS doctrine and ritual even if not widely accepted. I see them as an inherent part of the “restoration of all things.”

Moreover, these issues are not only relevant to feminists, they are vital to all Mormon women. These doctrines have both enormous spiritual and pragmatic value for even the most traditional women—precisely because these are the women who are mostly likely to accept a subordinate position to the very religious authority which excludes them on the basis of male priesthood and divine male leadership. As long as women have limited access to both ecclesias[412]tical and spiritual authority, their voices and concerns will largely be muted or silenced. And their spirituality will suffer as long as they are denied direct access to divine authority and the opportunity to exercise the full panoply of spiritual gifts both publicly and privately.

Of course many women claim they do not feel excluded and are satisfied with the status quo. But if female priesthood and female divinity are a restoration or fulfillment of revelations from God, they are the inheritance of all Mormon women. They are a call from God for all of us to accept a new order of things. When God commanded the church to build Zion, it was a call for equality in both earthly and heavenly things (D&C 70, 76, 78, 82), which I believe included the equality of men and women. To paraphrase Doctrine and Covenants 113: Zion cannot put on her strength until her daughters put on the authority of the priesthood and return to the power which they have lost. This is the dispensation of the fullness of times when all things must be brought together in one. If women are not restored to their rightful place as priestesses in Zion, the restoration cannot be complete. And until God the Mother is accepted as the equal of God the Father, we as a church will remain bereft of the fullness of the Spirit of God. Zion, our Mother, cannot return until we are ready to receive her.

Currently Mormon doctrines of female priesthood and female divinity are not seen as essential or fully legitimate, nor have their implications been sufficiently explored or ramified. Though these concepts are rooted in Mormonism, they have remained as dormant seeds, planted in the early days of the church. It appears to be the work of women and men of our day to water these seeds, to let them sprout, grow, blossom, and bring forth fruit. Elsewhere I have traced the evidence of priesthood for women and the existence of a female divinity in Mormon (and Judeo-Christian) traditions.1 In this essay I will further explore the theological implications and importance of these concepts.

If Women Have Priesthood, Why Can’t They Use It?

The statements of Joseph Smith along with the structure and content of the temple endowment confirm that every endowed Mormon woman holds the priesthood. Still this circumstance is not [413] widely acknowledged. When the women of Nauvoo, Illinois, came to him with their proposal for a Female Relief Society in 1842, Joseph Smith said, “I am glad to have the opportunity of organizing the women, as a part of the priesthood belongs to them.”2 Later during the first meetings of the Relief Society of Nauvoo, Joseph said that the keys of the kingdom were “about to be given to [the women] as well as to the Elders.”3 Joseph Smith confirmed that he was speaking of the priesthood on this and other occasions by recording the following in his journal: “[At two o’clock P.M. I met] the members of the ‘Female Relief Society’ and … gave them a lecture on the Priesthood shewing how the sisters would come in possession of the privileges, blessings, and gifts of the priesthood, and that signs should follow them.”4 On another occasion Joseph Smith said that the Relief Society “should move according to the ancient Priesthood” and that he was going to make of the Relief Society “a kingdom of priests as in Enoch’s day—as in Paul’s day.”5

Joseph Smith’s statements about the temple ceremony also make it clear that he conceived of the endowment as the ritual or means for the transmission or bestowal of priesthood upon women. When he endowed the first men in this dispensation, he said he was instructing these individuals in “the principles and order of the Priesthood, attending to washings, anointings, endowments, and the communication of keys pertaining to the Aaronic Priesthood, and so on to the highest order of the Melchizedek Priesthood.”6 In other words the keys of the priesthood, even of the highest order of the Melchizedek priesthood, were transmitted to these men by means of the endowment. In the temple women and men receive the same endowment. Through the temple endowment LDS women are made priestesses and receive the robes, keys, and power of the priesthood. Women are also told, along with men, that having been invested in the robes of the priesthood they may officiate in the ordinances of the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods. Women temple workers officiate in and administer priesthood ordinances in the temple by virtue of this authority. In the nineteenth century women temple workers were called “priestesses.” Eliza R. Snow, the president of the Relief Society, was often referred to as “high priestess” as well as “presidentess.”7

But do women have the right to priesthood offices in the [414] church? The answer to this question centers around the nature of the priesthood bestowed in the temple. Joseph Smith once remarked that “All priesthood is Melchizedek; but there are different portions or degrees of it.”8 The priesthood bestowed in the temple is not a different priesthood from that conferred upon men in the church by the laying on of hands. Men receive priesthood in a step by step process. First the Aaronic priesthood is conferred, then the Melchizedek, with the understanding that it circumscribes the Aaronic or lesser priesthood. Following conferral a priesthood holder is then ordained to an Aaronic priesthood office such as deacon, teacher, or priest or a Melchizedek priesthood office such as elder, high priest, patriarch, seventy, or apostle. After ordination to office, a male priesthood holder may be set apart to a church office such as ward bishop, stake president, regional representative, or general authority.

When Joseph Smith promised priesthood to the women, it appears he was not speaking of the offices but of the authority of the priesthood. This authority was conferred upon women by virtue of the temple endowment. This authority was not at that time differentiated by Joseph Smith into offices for women. But it must be recalled that priesthood conferred on male members of the church was also not clearly differentiated in the period between 1829 and 1834. Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdrey were not ordained to offices by John the Baptist and Peter, James, and John. Rather they had the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods conferred on them with their authority and keys. This gave them the right to ordain each other to offices. As the church grew and the need arose, the priesthood became subdivided into orders, appendages, and additional offices. Inherent in the authority of the priesthood is the power and the right to constitute the offices of the priesthood and to ordain priesthood holders to those offices so that certain functions may be carried out.

Because women are endowed with the authority of the fullness of the Melchizedek priesthood in the temple, they already possess the right, given the approval of the church, to constitute the offices of the priesthood and to ordain each other to those offices. A precedent for this is seen in Joseph Smith’s speech at the organization of the Relief Society when he instructed the women to choose [415] a president and counsellors to preside over them just as the presidency “preside over the church.” He also told them that if they needed any officers, they should “be appointed and set apart, as Deacons, Teachers, &C are among us” (my emphasis).9 It appears from this and other discourses given by Joseph to the Relief Society in 1842 that he viewed the Relief Society as the vehicle through which women would prepare for and receive the fullness of the priesthood, just as the priesthood quorums of the church were to prepare men to receive the fullness of the priesthood.10 Leading sisters such as Eliza R. Snow and Sarah M. Kimball did organize some Utah Relief Societies with priestesses, teachers, and deacons.11 The Relief Society and priesthood quorums of the church are both appendages to the fullness of the priesthood.

While it may be argued that conferral of priesthood by the laying on of hands in the church transmits authority but not keys, it is clear that Joseph saw the fullness of the priesthood bestowed in the temple as a conferral of both authority and keys. He connected the fullness of the Melchizedek priesthood with the power and priesthood of Elijah which holds the “keys of the revelations ordinances, oracles, powers … to receive, obtain & perform all the ordinances.”12 The priesthood bestowed in the temple is the same priesthood given by the laying on of hands, but it is a fullness of that authority and embraces all other authorities, appendages, and offices of the priesthood (D&C 107:5). It is true that all keys in the church are subject to the president of the high priesthood, who has the right to say how other keys are used in the church. Nevertheless, the keys of the fullness of the priesthood are transmitted to women in the temple.

Why Women Do Not Want Priesthood

Many Mormon women have not acknowledged the temple endowment as the source of their priesthood for various reasons. The most common are: (1) many are not aware of this fact; (2) some women see priesthood as a male privilege, contrary to female nature; (3) some women do not want to be part of the hierarchical structure; and (4) some women do not want to receive priesthood through men or in the name of Melchizedek.

Priesthood through Men

[416] Some Mormon women argue that if women accept the priesthood from men, they are acquiescing to patriarchal authority, implying that a woman’s power is derived from and therefore is inferior to a man’s. While female subordination in the temple endowment only adds to this concern, this dilemma is not avoided by rejecting the endowment and seeking instead the ecclesiastical priesthood, since this too is male-controlled. The question is: How can women become equal members of the church priesthood order when they must receive permission to function within that order from men?

In my view the resolution of this problem requires us to reevaluate what was for women one of the most important events in the history of the LDS church. On 28 April 1842 at a meeting of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, Joseph Smith “spoke of delivering the keys to this society and to the Church.”13 This was a reference to the keys of the priesthood communicated through the temple endowment. When Joseph passed on these keys, women received a priesthood that originated not with him or any other man but with God. As with men, women’s priesthood is derived from the divine source. Though all priesthood is one, it has differing orders and manifestations. The manifestation of the priesthood may be different in women than in men, and women are undoubtedly entitled to their own priesthood orders and offices. It was perhaps with this in mind that Joseph Smith stated that he would make of the Relief Society “a kingdom of priestesses” and that the church itself was not complete without a temple in which the priesthood could be revealed to all Latter-day Saints, women and men alike.

Though Joseph Smith transmitted these important keys, he was merely a conduit of the power, not the source. He gave us gifts which had been given to him by God to hold in trust for us. As members of the church community we have all been given gifts which are to be used for the benefit of others. None of us is entirely independent. Even Jesus relied on others. He received power for the resurrection by means of a holy anointing conferred on him by Mary. Yet we would not say that because Jesus received this ordinance from a woman that he was therefore inferior or subordinate to her; he [417] collaborated with her. On the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus received keys from Moses and Elias, and yet Jesus was Lord of heaven and earth before and after that event. In his teachings Joseph Smith makes frequent reference to the giving back and forth of keys among many male priesthood figures. It may be then that the frequent transmittal of keys among angels and divinities bespeaks the existence among these personages not of a rigid hierarchy but rather of a fluid community.

Joseph Smith’s act of delivering keys to women need not be seen in hierarchical terms as an act of subordination but as an act of liberation—for “keys” in Mormon theology are the “right of presidency, the directing, controlling, governing power.”14 It is significant that Joseph did not presume to define women nor their priesthood offices. He seemed to recognize those privileges as belonging to them and to those women who would come after them. He took the responsibility for defining the male part of priesthood. And he also introduced a model for men and women to hold priesthood in joint-tenancy in the Holy Order. But he left it to women to find for themselves what God wanted for them.

The women in Joseph’s day began to do this in a limited way. They accepted the keys that Joseph conveyed to them, acted independently, and did not ask permission to give blessings and minister to each other. The Relief Society functioned as a self-governing women’s organization in many ways until this century. But even in today’s priesthood-correlated church, the keys of priesthood given to women have never been taken away. They continue to be bestowed on women in the temple. They are waiting to be used.

It is undoubtedly true that in spite of the liberating statements of Joseph Smith to the Relief Society which imply self-governance, he still saw that body as subordinate to the male order. Joseph, like all of us, was a product of his society. While his teachings may fall short of the full equality that many of us desire today, nonetheless they are an important doctrinal foundation which gives historical precedence for women’s right to priesthood. Perhaps Joseph went as far as he could for his day, and perhaps it is for our day to establish the importance of the equality of men and women.

Some feel that women should declare their own priesthood separate from the male order. It is doubtful, however, that many [418] Mormon women would accept the validity of a self-declaration of priesthood unconnected to the restoration or conferral of authority by heavenly messengers. The priesthood of women must come from God in a way that does not sever them from the church. The reception of priesthood in the temple endowment affirms the divine source of women’s right to the priesthood in a church context. This is not to reject the idea that women can receive private revelations about their callings. The Book of Mormon reinforces two mechanisms of priesthood transmittal: the holy calling that comes directly from God to an individual and the ordination mediated through an earthly priesthood structure (Alma 13). Ideally one should have both the personal calling and the ordination. This distinction emphasizes the fact that priesthood power and spiritual authority are not derived from an earthly source, but the acceptance into a priestly order and the scope to act within a community do depend on human acknowledgement.

Women do not need permission from men to use their priestly power in private ways such as giving blessings or exercising other spiritual gifts. But in order for women to use priesthood in visible ways in the larger religious community, there must be acceptance by the community of their priestly calling. Many Mormon women have gifts of leadership. To confine their priestly role to the private sphere deprives the larger church community of their spiritual gifts. This underscores the need for women to be ordained to offices and accepted into the ecclesiastical priesthood. Within the church structure, women cannot function as fully as men unless they are part of the priesthood order.

Women in the Hierarchy

Some Mormon women want nothing to do with the hierarchal priesthood system that operates the modern church. They see priesthood leadership as power-centered and corruptible. Some women emphasize the private and devotional aspects of worship and claim that these are not stressed enough in the church. Certainly this is true; the spiritual dimension of priesthood should be primary. But I see difficulties if women reject or abandon the organizational dimensions of priesthood. Community is an inevitable component [419] of the religious life. Even in strictly democratic groups, power structures usually emerge. Often by ignoring or denying the reality of authority and leadership, a climate for the abuse of power may inadvertently be fostered. However, if authority is addressed openly and checks and balances established, abuses can be minimized. Women will not eliminate authoritarianism and unrighteous dominion by denying themselves the institutional dimensions of priesthood or by discarding priesthood altogether. In either case authority structures will exist as long as there is an institution.

Certain checks and balances against the abuse of authority are inherent in the priesthood system. These are not often enough discussed. Doctrine and Covenants 121 refers to the “rights” and the “powers” of the priesthood. The power of the priesthood is the power of God attended by the gifts of prophecy, revelation, knowledge, wisdom, and healing. This power comes without ordination or church authorization to those who seek and desire it. The rights of the priesthood come through ordination approved through official church channels. Both the power and the rights of the priesthood can be abused. A spiritual person can use his or her gifts for self-aggrandizement just as an ordained person holding church office can exercise authority unrighteously. Nevertheless, we need both forms of authority in the church, for the rights of the priesthood bring order and the power of the priesthood brings life. Each of these two concepts of priesthood acts as a check against the abuse of power by the other. If priesthood is seen only as spiritual power, then leadership can be claimed only by those who can demonstrate spiritual gifts. Control then moves into the hands of a few spiritually elite. Ordaining everyone in the community to priesthood and considering each voice as important with an equal vote, regardless of individual gifts, promotes equality and a democratic community. On the other hand if priesthood is only a matter of ordination, the idea develops that office means spiritual competence, which leads to spiritual deadness. But when spiritual power and knowledge are accorded equal status with priesthood or ecclesiastical office, then power is rightly balanced, spirituality is fostered, and content is placed on an equal footing with form.

Another check against the abuse of power is the vote of the general assembly made up of all members (or a representative body [420] of all members) of the church. This body can exercise a veto power on church leaders.15 Unfortunately, the “sustaining vote” in the church today is a mere formality that may not express the wishes and spiritual insights of members. Because we stress obedience to authority and emphasize the tradition that revelation comes only through the general authorities, we have lost sight of the “sustaining vote” as a check on authoritarianism. With this loss we have also lost the vision of a general assembly of priestesses and priests who can receive the mind and will of the Lord. These and other checks and balances must be revitalized to mitigate misuse of priesthood authority.

Some Mormon women reject priesthood because they fear power since they do not want to misuse it and become abusive themselves. However, even power and aggressiveness have their positive side. Power in its most basic form is the ability to think, to act and order resources. Even power over other people is not always undesirable. We all have power whether we recognize it or not: parents have power over children, teachers over pupils, friends over each other. In all of these relationships, power is used. For good people to eschew all power is for them to invite a monopoly of power by the power-hungry or evil-minded. Also by failing to admit our power, we may become more susceptible to misusing or manipulating it. To have power is to have the ability to make mistakes. Yet the church should not be denied female leadership because some women wish to avoid making the same mistakes they have accused men of making. Women, like men, do and will abuse power. However, if both men and women share authority jointly, take equal responsibility for the welfare and governance of the church, and respect the power and limitations of each other, corruption will become less likely.

Male Privilege

Many Mormon women reject priesthood because they equate it with maleness and feel that to exercise priesthood would be contrary to their nature as women. This is an understandable objection since our scriptural and church models for priesthood are almost always men. Many Mormon women would feel strange or afraid to say the [421] word priestess aloud. Perhaps if women could see other women using the priesthood and acting in leadership roles, then they would not connect it with maleness. When I first read about Eliza R. Snow, Bathsheba Smith, and other early Mormon women acting as priestesses, it made the notion of women and priesthood more acceptable to me. We need more female role models, and we need to emphasize the heroines we have in our scriptures and history.

However, this alone is not enough. We must also address the male-centered priesthood language in church practice, literature, and scriptures. It has become almost an axiom of post-modern thought that our views of reality are inevitably constructed from our language. We see what our language gives us words to see. But if language has been shaped primarily by male writers, how can it adequately express female experiences and desires?

In struggling with this dilemma, some feminists have concluded that patriarchal discourse can never communicate the experience of the feminine. For this reason a female discourse must be developed. Such an enterprise seems thwarted at the outset because the very discussions of such female language can only take place in existing male-oriented forms of speech. New forms of discourse cannot be forged over night. Such changes take time, and they require the use of old language patterns to give birth to new ones that continue to carry certain characteristics of the old. Everything is born from something else. There is no creation ex nihilo.

Moreover, it can be argued that women have had a steady if subtle or hidden influence on our religious, cultural, and linguistic heritage. This view is based in part on the belief that it may be conceding too much power to hierarchal structures to assume that only visible personalities shape language, religion, and culture. It seems that every speaker participates in the dynamic process of change by which every language constantly evolves. Hopefully we are at a point in history where women’s discourse will begin to have a more visible and profound influence on the shaping of language and thought.

Naming Women’s Priesthood

In the religious sphere how do we include female discourse? [422] Should there be separate terms to emphasize differences or should there be neutral terms to show commonality? Or should we employ both simultaneously? For example, should we refer to the power of God held by women as priesthood or priestesshood? And what about priesthood offices? We already have feminine forms for some terms: prophetess for prophet, priestess for priest, matriarch for patriarch, deaconess for deacon, presidentess for president (although president may sound better for both). The title “teacher” can also be applied to men and women alike. But what about elder? The word elder is derived from the Greek word presbyter. But “Presbytress” is a bit of a mouthful. An elder, like a presbyter, is a wise old man. But the female counterpart to this is “crone.” Not many Mormon women would wish to be ordained “crones.” Perhaps the word matron could serve as a counterpart to elder. They share the same archaic quality; they both carry connotations of age and wisdom. Moreover, the word is connected to the matron or chief female temple worker as well as being related to the title “Matronit” used in the Jewish mystical tradition to refer to a goddess figure.

And what about the priestly orders: Levitical, Aaronic, Patriarchal, Melchizedek, Enoch? Should they be used or should women be members of orders named after women of similar spiritual stature? If so, whose names should be used? Perhaps we can identify female equivalents for these orders. For example, Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, may be an appropriate name to designate the women’s lesser priesthood order: hence, the Miriamic priesthood. Sarah could serve as the model for the matriarchal priesthood as Abraham serves as a model for the patriarchal. The word Melchizedek could continue to serve as the name of the high priesthood for both men and women because it is not really a man’s name but an ancient title derived from two Hebrew roots: melek meaning “king” or “queen,” and zedek meaning “righteousness.” Thus Melchizedek can mean either “queen of righteousness” or “king of righteousness.” Women may still dislike the term because it has been associated for such a long time with men. It would be a shame though to lose a term that can mean “queen of righteousness” as well as “king of righteousness” and that can symbolize the union of male and female in the greater priesthood.

Such changes in terminology would emphasize women as priest[423]ess models. Elizabeth and Mary were counterparts to John the baptist or forerunners, Eliases, who came to prepare the way of the Lord. Mary Magdalene was a counterpart to Elijah, holding the sealing power and anointing Jesus for his resurrection from the dead, even as Elijah anointed the widow’s son at Sereptah. Eve served as a counterpart to Jesus himself: she acted to bring about mortal life as he acted to bring about eternal life. Emphasis could be placed on spiritual and scriptural heroines, such as Pharaoh’s daughter and her ladies in waiting who saved and raised Moses. Young Mormon women could be taught more about Esther, Ruth, Naomi, Huldah, Deborah, Junia, Phoebe, and others who filled prophetic and priestly roles.

Because the temple is the source of priesthood for women, females should play more prominent roles in the endowment ceremony. Now the only female role is that of Eve, but others could be introduced by revelation. Joseph Smith indicated that the term “Elohim” refers to a council of Gods; thus, female deities could be included. Peter, James, and John could be joined by Mary, Martha, and Mary Magdalene. If the attention of church leaders and members were directed to such women, they would become the subject of study, and perhaps their doings and sayings would become a more familiar part of Mormon literature.

Transformation of Priesthood Structure and Holy Order

Is it possible to include women in the priesthood structure without creating a separate priesthood for each gender or forcing women into traditional male priesthood roles? Male and female priesthoods should certainly not be two separate churches. Besides such separation does not promote equality, since separate but equal is never really equal. And such an arrangement is inimical to community. After all the principal purpose of priesthood is to unite, to heal, to atone (to make at one). On the other hand becoming one should not obliterate the distinction between male and female or abolish the concepts of sisterhood and brotherhood, which are now reinforced through the female Relief Society organization and the male priesthood quorums.

The temple ceremony may serve as a useful model because it [424] incorporates both separation and union of females and males as well as of individuals and communities. The endowment constitutes an individual, spiritual journey that ends in the presence of God, which represents Zion, the community of saints—the unity of men and women (the church) and a united priestly order (the Holy Order of God). In the temple men and women strive individually and together to attain this blessed state.

The star of David may also illustrate how gender separation and union may be achieved simultaneously. If male priesthood is represented by one equilateral triangle and female priesthood by another, we can see that each is independent, whole, stable, sound. Each represents a kind of perfection. And yet when the two triangles are brought together to form the six-pointed star, something new is created, different from the parts which comprise it. And perhaps most remarkable: the parts are not obliterated in the new creation. They are still there, visible in their pristine perfection, intertwined, interdependent, a “compound in one.”

Women and men need structures that will allow them to work separately and together, to be independent and interdependent, to maintain their individual identities, while simultaneously being interlinked. On a practical level this concept could be used to define church offices such as ward bishop, stake president, and even church president as joint offices held by a man and a woman or a married couple working as co-holders of the office, each with her or his own vote.16 Single members could also serve in these offices alone or with a counterpart of the opposite sex. Practical benefits could be seen in personal interviews, where females from age twelve could be interviewed by a female bishop or female stake president instead of a male. Using male/female partnerships is a way to reconstitute the offices of the church to reflect the equality of male and female in the priesthood, to prevent rivalry between the sexes, and to further the spiritual well-being of the church.

What I am advocating is not simply an incorporation of women into a male system. I am calling for a transformation of the entire Mormon priesthood system. I am asking for the acceptance of the fullness of the priesthood and the Holy Order of God, in which female and male priesthood holders work together as equals. Including women in the priesthood structure would recenter the [425] church and cause us to see everything in a new light. It would require us to rethink the meaning and essence of priesthood, to recognize the spiritual foundation upon which priesthood rests, to see the connection between the gospel that promises us spiritual rebirth and the priesthood that promises us spiritual maturation, and to understand priesthood as the necessary expression of the divine will that gives life and light to all things. Such a transformation would compel us to restructure our language, our perceptions of history, our expectations of the future, and our appreciation of the meaning of male and female. And in time such a change would move us away from restricted and outmoded models of priesthood hierarchy toward the establishment of a genuine religious community governed by a true lay priesthood, the body of Christ, a kingdom of priestesses and priests, with equal right to know and speak in the name of the Godhead, in whose image we are made, male and female.

God the Mother: The Great High Priestess

Joseph Smith linked priesthood directly with the divine power and glory of God: “The Priesthood is an everlasting principle & Existed with God from Eternity & will to Eternity, without beginning of days or end of years.”17 Doctrine and Covenants 107 reiterates this point when it explains that the true name of the priesthood is “the Holy Priesthood after the Order of the Son of God.” It is called the Melchizedek priesthood to avoid the repetition of the name of God. The name Melchizedek (“king/queen of righteousness”) also connects the priesthood with Christ, the righteous king. Both names of the priesthood remind us that the priesthood is bestowed upon men and women to help them become more like God, to assist them in taking upon themselves the image of Christ through receiving and giving the ordinances of the gospel.

Many women desire, as do I, to receive the attributes of Christ as part of their character. But some of us are also dissatisfied by the idea that only a male God is held up for emulation. This concern is especially understandable in light of the Mormon concept that maleness and femaleness are eternal and there is a female counterpart to God. Why are women (and men, too) not encouraged to be [426] more like the female deity? It seems imbalanced and unhealthy not to have a female deity involved in our salvation here on earth. Moreover, since God is the head of the male priesthood order, it is understandable that some Mormon women conclude that a female goddess is or should be the head of the female priesthood order. The doctrine of a female deity is the foundation for female priesthood. Male priests are called after the order of God, the Great High Priest, the King of Righteousness, Jesus Christ. Female priests are called after the order of God, the Great High Priestess, the Queen of Righteousness. But who is she? What do we call her? What is her name?

Naming the Goddess

Mormon theology acknowledges the existence of a female god, but she is rarely discussed. Usually references to God the Mother are avoided. Why is this so? Mormons give various answers to this question. Some say she is too holy to be exposed to disrespect. Others say she is not essential to our salvation. And yet others conclude that if her identity were important, then it would be revealed to us. But were any of these conditions true of the identity of Jesus in pre-Christian times? Was his identity withheld because he was too holy to be exposed to disrespect? Or because he was not essential to our salvation? Or because his identity was not important enough to reveal?

Perhaps the Mother stands ready to reveal herself to those who seek her. Perhaps she is among us and we do not know her any more than the citizens of Galilee knew the true identity of the carpenter’s son who worked among them. Perhaps the name of the Mother will remain a mystery to us until we are able to see with new eyes that she has been “hidden” in plain sight all along.

But why name her when we already know her as Heavenly Mother? In Mormon tradition she is linked with Heavenly Father, who is himself left mostly unnamed in our sacred texts. The scriptures speak more of Jehovah or Jesus than of God the Father. But since God in the Judaic tradition is pictured as male and God the Savior in the Christian tradition is also pictured as male, women are bereft of a deity with whom they can identify. The absence of a [427] female divinity as an equal member of the Christian Godhead tends to support a prejudice that women are inferior to men.

Some argue that the desire to know more about God the Mother is an attempt to change Mormon doctrine to suit the needs of feminists. However, the following statement made by Joseph Smith in the King Follett Discourse emphasizes the importance of knowing God if we are to know ourselves: “If men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves.”18 In the same discourse Joseph quotes John 17:3 and paraphrases it thus: “If any man does not know God … he has not eternal life; for there can be eternal life on no other principle.” If God is male and female, then eternal life is connected with knowing her as well as him. And knowledge of the Mother is crucial for women and men alike to know themselves as eternal beings.

A Female Trinity

In some interpretations, three figures have been seen as both female and divine: Eve, the Mother of All Living; Mary, the Mother of the Son of God; and (in some traditions) the Holy Spirit, the Comforter who is often described as performing feminine functions. Could these three persons form a trinity of female divinities: the Mother, Daughter, and Holy Spirit? Do they parallel the male trinity of Creator, Redeemer, and Nurturer? The Holy Spirit is clearly a nurturer, but is it possible to link either Mary or Eve clearly with the role of Mother or Daughter or Creator or Redeemer? And can either one of these figures be linked with the Heavenly Mother who is the mother of our spirits?

Besides these female figures there are also three images that describe a female deity in the scriptures: Wisdom (Hokmah in Hebrew; Sophia in Greek); Zion or Jerusalem; and the Bride. These references are admittedly sparser and vaguer than those about male deities, still several significant ideas emerge. First, there may be more than one female deity (this is not the polygamous heavenly mothers theory). Second, her (their) functions extend beyond mothering. Third, female deities have been intimately involved in our creation, redemption, and spiritual well-being and growth. Fourth, female deities may be a part of the godhead. And fifth, [428] there are obscure revelations about the unveiling of the Goddess in the last days.


The “Mother of All Living,” is the title given anciently to many goddesses, but it was principally ascribed to the Creatress, from whose womb all earthly creatures emerged. Some have linked Eve with this title. John A. Phillips says: “The story of Eve is also the story of the displacing of the Goddess whose name is taken from a form of the Hebrew verb ‘to be’ by the masculine God, Yahweh, whose name has the same derivation. We cannot understand the history of Eve without seeing her as a deposed Creator-Goddess, and indeed, in some sense as creation itself.”19 In actuality Eve’s name is not taken from the verb “to be” but is derived from a Hebrew root (chaya) which means “to live.” This verb is quite close in form to the root for the verb “to be” (haya), from which the name Jehovah (Yahweh) is taken. Could the female god be the “one who lives” (the “I live”) or the “one who makes live” (“I give life”), while the male god is the “one who is” (the “I am”) or the “one who generates” (“I beget”)? Could Eve be Heavenly Mother, the Creatress? Many people feel uncomfortable identifying the Heavenly Mother with Eve, Mary, or anyone else who may have had a mortal existence, although nineteenth-century Mormons, such as Brigham Young and Eliza R. Snow, clearly linked Eve with God the Mother.20

But Eve is not only the mother of all living, she also acted as a savior goddess when she sacrificed her immortal life to bring about mortality. Just as Christ sacrificed his life to bring his children into eternal life, so Eve sacrificed herself to bring her children into mortal life. Eve’s act was the conscious choice of one who sees that there is no other way to bring about the mortal and eternal life of her children. She was willing to sacrifice her own immortal life for the life and salvation of all. Nineteenth-century Mormon writer Edward Tullidge, who believed Eve to be the Mother Goddess, also compared Eve’s sacrifice to Christ’s atonement:

Did motherhood refuse the cup for her own sake, or did she, with infinite love, take it and drink for her children’s sake? The Mother had plunged down, from the pinnacle of her celestial throne, to earth, to [429] taste of death that her children might have everlasting life. What! should Eve ask Adam to partake of the elements of death first, in such a sacrament! ‘Twould have outraged motherhood! Eve partook of that supper of the Lord’s death first. She ate of that body and drank of that blood.21


Most Mormons are uncomfortable with identifying Mary, the mother of Christ, as a female deity. This is because of her status in Catholicism as the Queen of Heaven. Though many Mormons see this as apostate doctrine, there are a few Mormon texts that suggest otherwise. Brigham Young taught that Mary was sealed in marriage to God the Father and that they together procreated the body of Jesus.22 Though this doctrine was never elaborated, the implication is that Mary also must have divine status to be the wife of God and the mother of Jesus.

Mary’s importance is also stressed in the Book of Mormon where she is prominent in three different prophecies about the coming of Christ. In the vision of the Tree of Life, Nephi is first shown a “virgin, most beautiful and fair above all other virgins” when he asks to know the interpretation or meaning of the tree (1 Ne. 11:15). Is Mary as well as Christ a tree of life? The Spirit of the Lord asks Nephi, “Knowest thou the condescension of God?” Nephi answers that he knows God loves his children. Then the Spirit shows Nephi the virgin again and tells him that she is “the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh.” Then Nephi sees the virgin carried away in the Spirit, followed by a vision of her holding the Christ child in her arms (the important archetype of Madonna and child—vv. 18-20). The phrase “condescension of God” could refer to three deities in this passage: God the Father, Mary, and Jesus Christ. Condescended means “to descend or come down with.” Eternal beings show their love to their children by descending to earth to give life, which all three of these beings do. King Benjamin and Alma also prophesy about the mother of Christ and reveal that her name will be Mary. Alma adds that she is a “precious and chosen vessel” (Alma 7:10). Mary’s exact status is not given, but her importance and purity is stressed. She is exalted above other women.

Holy Ghost

[430] And is there any evidence for linking the Holy Ghost with a female deity? Mormon tradition has always referred to the Holy Ghost in male terms, though the actual scriptural evidence is vague. The problem starts with the Greek and Latin texts where every noun has gender. The word in Greek for the Holy Ghost or Spirit (there is no distinction made between the two) is to pneuma to hagion. The gender of pneuma is neuter; it is a very common Greek word meaning “wind,” “breath,” or “spirit.” Hagion is an adjective meaning “holy” or “sacred” (to is a definite article). The Latin equivalent of this term is spiritus sanctus. Like the Greek term, spiritus is a common word which can mean “wind,” “breath,” or “spirit”; but it happens to have masculine gender. Again no distinction was made between the Holy Ghost and the Holy Spirit. This was a distinction made by the King James Bible translators.

In the Jewish tradition there are two terms for the Spirit of God, both of which are feminine: ruach, the biblical term, which like the Greek and Latin can mean “wind” and “breath” as well as “spirit”; and Shekhina, which is a Talmudic term that comes from a Hebrew root meaning “to dwell.” In midrashic literature the Shekhina is evoked as a feminine deity, who acts to comfort, nurture, and intercede for the children of Israel. Like Jewish thinkers Christian Gnostics also saw the Holy Spirit as a feminine deity. In the secret Gospel to the Hebrews, Jesus speaks of “my Mother, the Spirit,” and in another Gnostic text, The Gospel of Philip, the writer refers to the Holy Spirit as the “Mother of many.” In the Apocryphon of John, the Spirit is referred to as mother and included in the trinity in the place of the Holy Ghost: Father, Mother, and Son.23

Could the Mother be with us as an unseen presence? The attributes that we Mormons connect with the Holy Ghost suggest a female personage: cleanser, nurturer, comforter, teacher, and like Dante’s Beatrice, a guide sent to lead us into all truth. The dove, which is a sign of the Holy Ghost, is also a very ancient symbol of the Mother Goddess. In Moses 7:61 the Comforter is described as the one who “quickeneth all things, which maketh alive all things; that which knoweth all things, and hath all power according to wisdom, mercy, truth, justice, and judgment.” Could it be that the Heavenly Mother, the Mother of All Living, made herself into a [431] daughter so she could wander in exile with her children? Has she been present with us all this while as the Holy Ghost?

Mother in the Godhead

Is it possible that our concept of the Godhead has been too narrow? The Mother was revealed as a personage of the Godhead in an 19 April 1834 vision in which Joseph Smith 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 was made of the New Portage trip, Zebedee 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:

Once after returning from a mission, he [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 brethen [sic] 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 light house, and on the throne were 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 as a woman, was large in proportion.24

Another version of this vision was recorded by Abraham H. Cannon in his journal under the date 25 August 1890:

[432] Pres. Petersen told of an incident which he often heard Zebedee Coltrin relate. One day the Prophet Joseph Smith asked him [Zebedee 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.25

This may be the first recorded vision of the Heavenly Mother in Mormonism. In the first account she is identified as Eve. In the second account she is identified as “the Mother” and is given status with the “Father” and the “Son.” This vision raises some theological questions about the nature and number of the Godhead which are beyond the scope of this essay, but the point here is that the Mother is mentioned in conjunction and on an equal footing with the Father and the Son.26


In the Book of Proverbs as well as in other Jewish and Christian wisdom literature God’s attribute of Wisdom is pictured as a female deity separate from him. For example, in the Book of Proverbs, Wisdom is said to have been with God from the beginning, but she also has a life of her own apart from him. She herself addresses humanity in the authoritative manner of a divine being and gives commandments to Israel just as the male God does. And like him she addresses Israel as her children: “Now therefore hearken unto me, O ye children: for blessed are they that keep my ways” (Prov. 8:32). Wisdom is pictured as having great power and dominion: “By me Kings reign, and princes decree justice. By me princes rule, and nobles, even all the judges of the earth. I love them that love me; and those that seek me early shall find me … For whoso findeth me findeth life, and shall obtain favor of the Lord” (vv. 15-17, 35). Wisdom is also described in the same terms used for [433] the male God. In her hands are eternal life, honor, peace, riches, and power. “She is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her: and happy is everyone that retaineth her” (3:16-18). Certain ancient Jewish writers, such as the first-century philosopher Philo, even regarded Wisdom as the wife of God.27


Zion or Jerusalem is also called the wife of God in the Old Testament. With reference to Zion the prophet Isaiah says, “For thy Maker is thine husband; the Lord of hosts is his name” (54:5). Though Zion and Jerusalem are both used to refer to the house of Israel or the people of God, both symbols are also used to refer to the mother of these children. The prophet Isaiah makes this clear. Through him the Lord says to the people of Israel, “Thus saith the Lord, Where is the bill of your mother’s divorcement, whom I have put away? or which of my creditors is it to whom I have sold you? Behold, for your iniquities have ye sold yourselves, and for your transgressions is your mother put away” (50:1). The mother, or Zion in this passage, is not the children of Israel but God the Mother. Her exile on the earth is not for her sins but for the sins of her children. Jewish mystical writers in commenting on this verse connected the Mother figure with the Shekhina or the Matronit (Lady or Matron) who was part of the godhead in the beginning—the divine tetrad: Father, Mother, Son and Daughter. She was daughter and queen married to her brother who was son and king.28 But she went wandering in the earth in search of her lost children. In the messianic period she is to be restored to her rightful place as queen in full union with the king. She will shake off the dust and ashes of mourning and put on her beautiful garments representing the authority and power she possessed in the beginning (Isa. 52:1-2; D&C 113). Until this Queen of Heaven or Goddess is restored to her rightful place, the King of Heaven or God is left desolate: “the Hall is not worthy of the King except when He enters it with the Matronit. And the joy of the King is found only in the hour in which He enters the Hall of the Matronit, and her son is found there with her. [Then] all of them rejoice together.”29


[434] This Jewish prophecy about the messianic period brings to mind Christian and Mormon prophecies about the coming of “the Son of Man” or Christ. This apocalyptic appearance of Christ is often depicted as a wedding feast, but the importance of the Bride is often overlooked. Hidden in all of the prophecies about Christ as Bridegroom and his coming at a wedding feast is the idea that the Goddess will finally be revealed at the end time. The Book of Revelation says this in symbolic language: “Come hither, I will shew thee the bride, the Lamb’s wife. And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and shewed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, having the glory of God: and her light was like unto a stone most precious” (21:9-11).

Though this passage can be explained as strictly metaphorical, it can also be seen as prophecy. Prophecies about Jesus’ birth, life, and atonement also seemed obscure before they were fulfilled. It was only in their fulfillment that their meaning became clear. I believe the same is true of metaphors and prophecies about the Mother and the Bride. The revelation of her nature is part of the restoration of all things. But until these metaphors and prophecies are fulfilled, their meaning will often elude us. Some of us feel we live in a time when these prophecies are being fulfilled. As we read the prophecies of Zion, the Mother, the Matronit, the Shekina, and the Bride, we feel compelled to proclaim: Prepare the way for our Lady—Her day is at hand.

Even for those who accept all of the above images of the Goddess (Eve, Mary, Holy Spirit, Zion, Wisdom, Bride), there are still many questions that remain. For example, how do these female deities relate to the male deities we know? Who is the wife of Christ, the Bride? We do not have official answers to these questions. In fact the church hardly recognizes the questions. But our ninth Article of Faith states: “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” Certainly among the great things to be revealed is knowledge of the Goddess and her place in the work of creation and salvation. On a private level some Mormons are beginning the process of seeking for more knowledge about our Mother, the Goddess.

[435] My own vision of the Mother has been of her as Comforter. She is like Rachel mourning for her lost children, the “poor banished children of Eve, mourning and weeping in this veil of tears.” She is Zion above, who has come down to us, Zion below. She is not distant and far away but present and in our midst, bearing our pains. She is with the dying, she is with the woman in labor, she cries with the outcast. She walks veiled among us, seeking to bless us and to rebirth us. She sees into our hearts and knows our sorrow and our joy. She is the breath of life in a dying world. We do not yet know her fully. But her time is coming. Already some can hear her approaching footfalls. Soon she will unveil her face like a bride to the bridegroom. Then her daughters will no more grieve, and her sons will no more be ashamed, and all will know her name.

“Put on thy strength, O Zion.” When will she put on her strength and return to that power which she has lost? Who will bring Zion? Zion above comes only when Zion below is ready—when women and men are ready. We, the daughters of Zion, must put on our strength, the authority of our priesthood, in order to prepare for the return of Zion, our Mother. Her fate and ours are the same. “Beloved, now are we the daughters of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when she shall appear, we shall be like her; for we shall see her as she is.”


Margaret Merrill Toscano is a Ph.D. candidate in comparative literature and Hebrew at the University of Utah. She has authored many papers and articles about Mormon theology and women and is the co-author with Paul Toscano of Strangers in Paradox: Explorations in Mormon Theology. She is a mother of four and lives in Salt Lake City. “Put on Your Strength O Daughters of Zion: Claiming Priesthood and Knowing the Mother” is previously unpublished.

1. Margaret Merrill Toscano and Paul James Toscano, Strangers in Paradox: Explorations in Mormon Theology (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1990).

2. Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery, Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984), 106.

3. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., The Words of Joseph Smith (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1980), 117.

4. Scott H. Faulring, ed., An American Prophet’s Record: The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books in association with Smith Research Associates , 1987), 244.

5. Ehat and Cook, 110.

6. Joseph Fielding Smith, comp., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 237.

7. Carol Cornwall Madsen, “Mormon Women and the Temple: Toward a New Understanding,” in Maureen Ursenbach Beecher and Lavina Fielding Anderson, eds., Sisters in Spirit: Mormon Women in Historical and Cultural Perspective (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 90.

8. Ehat and Cook, 59.

9. Ibid., 104.

10. Margaret Toscano, “The Missing Rib: The Forgotten Place of Queens and Priestesses in the Establishment of Zion,” Sunstone 9 (July 1985): 16-22.

11. Linda King Newell, “Gifts of the Spirit: Women’s Share,” in Beecher and Anderson, 116.

12. Ehat and Cook, 329.

13. Ibid., 116.

14. Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 377.

15. See Toscano and Toscano, 150.

16. In Newell. Also, the Young Women’s Journal reported in 1896 that “the Seventy’s wife bears the priesthood of the Seventy in connection with her husband, and shares in its responsibilities” (7:398).

17. Ehat and Cook, 8.

18. Smith, Teachings, 344.

19. John A. Phillips, Eve: The History of an Idea (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1984), 3.

20. Eliza R. Snow and Edward Tullidge, Women of Mormondom, 195.

21. Ibid., 198-99.

22. Brigham Young, et al., Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (Liverpool: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1855-86), 19:268.

23. Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 52.

24. Located in archives, Historical Department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City.

25. Located in Archives and Manuscripts, Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

26. See Toscano and Toscano, 60-70.

27. Raphael Patai, The Hebrew Goddess (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990), 98.

28. Ibid., 126-52.

29. Patai Raphael, The Messiah Texts (New York: Avon Books, 1979), 187.