The response online to David Paulsen and Martin Pulido’s recently published article in BYU Studies (“A Mother There”: A Survey of Historical Teachings about Mother in Heaven) about the history of LDS discourse about Heavenly Mother seems to have been overwhelmingly positive. Based on the commentary found in blogs and discussion forums, many have received their argument that 1) strict silence about Heavenly Mother was never mandated by church leadership and 2) that throughout church history discussion of her has been diverse and substantial as something like water on parched ground. V. H. Cassler at SquareTwo calls the article path-breaking, and in particular emphasizes its symbolic significance: “by the very act of publishing this article in BYU Studies, they have opened a door for the membership of the Church to speak openly of their belief in a Heavenly Mother, and to assert that silence about Heavenly Mother is not ‘sacred,’ but a cultural artifact which is not supported by the General Authorities of the Church.”
I do not want to diminish what Paulsen and Pulido have done, for I think they have certainly shattered some assumptions commonly held by church members, while doing it in a venue that could not be more orthodox. And their exhaustive research has uncovered and caused to be remembered statements that have the potential of leading us toward a more productive and theologically creative discussion of the place of the divine feminine in contemporary Latter-day Saint belief and practice.
But in spite of how much I appreciate what they are trying to do, I take issue with their claim that they have shown that historically “there has been substantial discussion and elaboration on the roles and divinity of our Heavenly Mother.” What do they mean by “substantial discussion and elaboration”? Apparently, “substantial discussion and elaboration” is the same thing as saying that the doctrine of Heavenly Mother has not been “marginalized or trivialized.” But on what basis do they make this judgment? Does it not depend on one’s view of what constitutes “substantial”? After all, the question over whether the doctrine of Heavenly Mother has been neglected by church leaders depends not simply on the number of statements made about Her, but the nature of the statements themselves, their meaning in context, and their place of emphasis in the whole shifting mosaic of LDS theology. And what about elaboration? Does not “elaboration” imply some kind of development, expansion, or refinement? Have Paulsen and Pulido demonstrated theological elaboration of the doctrine of Heavenly Mother in any sense of the term?
Paulsen and Pulido’s strategy for demonstrating “substantial discussion and elaboration” is basically twofold. First, they document statements about Heavenly Mother that portray her in a range of roles, including Heavenly Wife and Parent, A Divine Person, Co-creator with the Father, Co-framer of the Plan of Salvation, Involved Parent in our Mortality, and Mother in Heaven in the Hereafter. With multiple references found in the endnotes, this arrangement is intended to show the breadth of discussion about Heavenly Mother, that she is imagined as more than a silent housewife. Second, they provide examples for each category from various epochs of church history, including from church leaders who are still living. This feature is presumably meant to show that discussion and development of the roles of Heavenly Mother have continued from the early days of the church until the present. Paulsen and Pulido seem to be saying, “Look! Can’t you see our extensive documentation? Heavenly Mother has always been an important part of LDS theological discourse.”
Unfortunately, this presentation of the data obscures more than it reveals, since it homogenizes LDS discourse about Heavenly Mother, fails to make distinctions in the kinds of things said about her and the people who are saying them, and evaluates statements outside of their rhetorical and theological context. When we read the statements more carefully, we find that 1) few of the those cited are “substantial” in the sense that Heavenly Mother is a focus of theological discussion, and 2) even fewer rise to the level of theological “elaboration” in the sense that they go beyond the basic ideas articulated in Eliza R. Snow’s 1845 hymn: that we have a Mother in Heaven, that she is a divine queen, that she, along with the Father, sent us here to earth and will receive us again. The vast majority of the statements are of a rather unsubstantial and unelaborative (or mildly elaborative) sort. Heavenly Mother is briefly mentioned or inclusive language such as “Heavenly Parents” is used, but her alleged roles are not addressed in any significant way and we are given little confidence from the rhetorical and theological context that she plays anything but a minor auxiliary role in the cosmic drama of the plan of salvation, whose main actors are the Father and the Son.
To illustrate what I mean by substantial/unsubstantial and elaborative/unelaborative, I will briefly evaluate the examples provided by Paulsen and Pulido in the categories of Co-creator with the Father, Co-framer of the Plan of Salvation, and Involved Parent in Mortality. These categories are the heart of their paper and more than anything else give their research the appearance of having broken new ground in expanding what has traditionally been thought to be the limits of LDS discourse about the divine feminine. My discussion of their references proceeds in the sequence they appear in the article.
Co-creator with the Father
The first quote is from Brigham Young and is interpreted to imply Heavenly Mother’s participation in the creation of the earth. But on closer analysis, the context suggests that “our parents” (qua Adam-god theory) has reference to the act of reproduction in peopling the earth and not to creation in the sense of cosmic labor: “to people them in the same manner as we have been brought forth by our parents [Adam and Eve].” From other sources, it is clear that Brigham Young believed that the creation of the earth was carried out by a divine council of male creator gods.
Edward Tullidge is cited for his statement that Heavenly Mother was “the partner with the Father in the creation of worlds.” This statement belongs to one of the few substantial discussions of Heavenly Mother in LDS theological discourse and is authentically elaborative since it expands our understanding of Heavenly Mother’s place in the cosmos and her relationship to the Father in the creation of the earth. But despite Paulsen and Pulido’s attempt to give Tullidge greater spiritual legitimacy by citing the editorship of The Women of Mormondom by Eliza R. Snow, he is not a General Authority and is idiosyncratic in his views as an estranged Mormon intellectual (Godbeite) with feminist leanings.
An article apparently written by Charles W. Penrose before he was ordained an apostle is thought to be further evidence of Mormon thinking on Heavenly Mother’s role in the creation. However, on closer examination this conclusion appears to be premature. First of all, the article is most directly a response to an article written in a California newspaper by a biblical scholar named A. D. Kinsman who believes that women become men in the hereafter and not an exposition of LDS thought on the creation or Heavenly Mother’s alleged role in it. Second, the comment about the divine spirit “that moved upon the face of the waters” being feminine in gender, while suggestive and compelling, is short and undeveloped, almost given as an aside. It is like a brief flash of light that quickly goes dark, probably generated (since Penrose did not read Hebrew) in response to Kinsman’s research on the gender of biblical terms that refer to divine and angelic beings.
Elder Milton R. Hunter’s teaching that exaltation includes “the power to create or organize mortal worlds” does not mention Heavenly Mother at all, so is irrelevant. The statement may be meaningful for contemporary LDS women and may have theological implications for understanding Heavenly Mother’s role in the creation of our world, but, significantly, he does not draw those implications out.
The last statement linking Heavenly Mother with creation is attributed to Elder Jeffrey R. Holland and his wife Patricia, who are said to have taught that “our Mother and our Father are involved in the ongoing process of creating everything around us.” Here a number of comments can be made. First, the author of this chapter is Patricia and not Elder Holland. Second, the creation referred to is not the creation of the earth but a more situational, in process, in the present moment of our life kind of creation (this is not to say that it is theologically useless—the statement is actually creative, but to beg the question of why it is included in a section on cosmic creation). Third, she explicitly acknowledges that the thought came from something she had once read, which is left unspecified.
Co-framer of the Plan of Salvation
The quote by Elder M. Russell Ballard with which they begin this section (“we are part of a divine plan designed by Heavenly Parents who love us”) has theological potential. But on closer analysis his choice of terminology does not appear to mean that he wants us to understand that Heavenly Mother was equally involved in framing the plan of salvation. The point of emphasis is on “Heavenly Parents who love us.” In the immediately following paragraph, when an opportunity is given to continue the inclusive language, the divine is seen in masculine terms, “When our time comes to return to our Heavenly Father to give Him an accounting of our stewardship while here on the earth….” Throughout the chapter and book Heavenly Father is the divine point of reference.
The next quote from the Gospel Principles manual is similar. Inclusive language is used under a bold heading “Our Heavenly Parents Desired to Share their Joy with Us” to suggest that both our Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother “provided us with a celestial home” and “wanted us to develop the godlike qualities that they have.” But immediately following is another bold heading “Our Heavenly Father Presented a Plan for Us to Become Like Him” where we learn that it was our Heavenly Father who “called a Grand Council to present his plan for our progression… We learned that if we followed his plan, we would become like him.” The action of the Father as sole planner is so emphasized that we have the awkward, “we would become heavenly parents and have spirit children just as he does.” Taken in context, the quote does not really support the idea that Heavenly Mother was a co-framer of the Plan of Salvation.
Sister Chieko Okazaki has a higher incidence of inclusive language than many other church authors or leaders, but this quote is not substantially focused on Heavenly Mother and is not really relevant to the question of her role in developing the plan of salvation. In the preceding context, the terminology is wholly masculine and centers on Heavenly Father’s role in developing the plan.
The quote from Elder Theodore Burton is significant. I would count it as truly elaborative, since it expands the meaning of a well-known scripture (Moses 1:39) in a way that is innovative and inclusive. But I hasten to add that the context in which this statement occurs is his emphasizing that “we must believe with all our hearts that we are the spirit children of God.” He is not really trying to promote the idea that Heavenly Mother was a co-framer of the plan of salvation. Burton continually calls it “the Father’s plan.”
The quote from Elder Milton R. Hunter is another example of Paulsen and Pulido drawing out theological implications that are not present in the work of the author itself. Yes, if both of our heavenly parents had to learn and obey the same laws to be gods, then it would make sense that they both contributed to developing the plan of salvation. But that is not what Elder Hunter says. He simply describes how they came to be gods. In his discussion on the plan of salvation in chapter 3 Heavenly Father is the sole author of the plan.
The Gospel Principles manual describes both our heavenly parents attending the great council. Because this idea is not explicit in the canonical scriptures, it can in some sense be considered elaborative. But it is hardly theologically daring. Again, the context is unremittingly masculine and provides no reason to assume that Heavenly Mother was anything but a silent partner.
Sister Chieko Okazaki’s portrayal of the heavenly parents together accepting the offering of their son Jesus Christ is creative and theologically elaborative since it brings Heavenly Mother into the serious business of instigating and effecting the plan of salvation. But Okazaki’s focus on Heavenly Mother is not sustained as her language easily slips into a Father-only plan of salvation kind of framework.
The reference to Elder Jeffrey R. Holland is not applicable. It is not substantially focused on Heavenly Mother and has little bearing on her role in the preexistence.
Lula Greene Richards’ poem is creative in that it treats Heavenly Mother as a cosmic entity unto herself, who functions separately from the Father. But the Father is clearly the authority behind the plan and the focal point of the poem: “We were there with God, our Father, and voted ‘Thy will be done.’”
Elder Mark E. Peterson and President Thomas S. Monson’s statements do not focus on Heavenly Mother independent of the formulation of “heavenly parents” and do not inform us what her role in “sending” us to earth entailed.
Ruth May Fox’s parable is unusually elaborative since it imagines the types of things Heavenly Mother would say and do for her daughters before their leaving her presence to come to earth. She is portrayed as a powerful authority figure, not only because the literary fiction of the parable puts her in the place of Christ, but because she bestows divine character traits on her daughters and tells them that she will hold them accountable for how they use them.
Elder Orson F. Whitney, President Harold B. Lee, and Elder John Longden’s speculations about the circumstances of our departure from Heavenly Mother and Father are elaborative, since they refine the idea of our being sent found in the hymn “O My Father.” But they are elaborative in a very limited way. This is, after all, a farewell scene and not the serious business of the grand council.
Elder George F. Richard’s statement about honoring our heavenly parents is creative since it interprets the fifth commandment as applying not only to our earthly parents and is inclusive of Heavenly Mother. But I find it a stretch to see it as evidence for Heavenly Mother as co-framer of the plan of salvation.
Involved Parent in our Mortality
The lines from Eliza R. Snow’s poem are uniquely elaborative (though elaborating from what we do not know). Prayer to Heavenly Mother by the saints is seen as fully compatible with her understanding of the gospel. Heavenly Mother’s cosmic authority is underscored by reference to Her “throne” and by use of the epithets “great” and “eternal.” But should this statement be seen in terms of a larger and continually developing LDS discourse about Heavenly Mother? I think not. First, the sentiments expressed in this poem (as well as in the hymn “O My Father”) stand apart in the history of LDS discourse about Heavenly Mother. In all the time since Eliza R. Snow, we have no recorded example of an LDS leader who assumed or advocated for the theological normativity of prayer to Heavenly Mother. Second, Eliza R. Snow was a woman, not a General Authority. Her words should not be used to make up for an apparent lack of theological creativity among the male priesthood leadership. Third, the poem appears to have been edited when published to refer to Heavenly Father instead of Heavenly Mother. What does this say about the nature of LDS discourse about Heavenly Mother?
The statement by Elder Harold B. Lee is elaborative since it sees Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother as equally concerned parents who work to help their children and in particular because it seems to allow for the possibility that Heavenly Mother may communicate with us and have a real impact on our daily lives. But this thought is unfortunately not developed in any significant way in the talk or in other writings or speeches by Harold B. Lee. We must also consider that the talk was given to a female audience (general Relief Society meeting) and subsequently published in the female Relief Society Magazine. This particular setting may help explain the slight deviation from normal authoritative discourse.
Sister Okazaki’s statement about our heavenly parents suffering with their children is mildly elaborative since it implies that Heavenly Mother is emotionally involved in our mortal trials. But this idea is not a focus of discussion and is given more as a question that she wonders about.
Elder Russell M. Ballard’s statement that our “Heavenly Parents’ love and concern for us continues to this very moment” seems significant by itself. But on closer examination, the mention of Heavenly Parents should be seen as a rhetorical transition from talking about living with Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother in the premortal existence to the nature of mortal existence. After this point “Heavenly Parents” or “Heavenly Mother” are not mentioned again. The sole active parent involved in our mortality is Heavenly Father, who is referenced again and again with regard to all aspects of the plan of salvation.
President Spencer W. Kimball’s statement that our Heavenly Parents’ “love and concern for us never ends” is inclusive, but not substantial or elaborative.
Jeffrey R. Holland’s description of our Heavenly Parents reaching across our personal wildernesses to hold us close is elaborative since it implies that Heavenly Mother is an active participant with the Father in comforting their children. But we should note that the statement is less theologically significant than it first appears. His use of inclusive language, in fact, seems to arise out of the rhetorical context where he analogizes about our heavenly parents from his and his wife’s personal experience and feelings for their children. To not have used “heavenly parents” would have been rhetorically awkward. In other contexts in the book, where inclusive language is not necessary, he mentions only Heavenly Father as the “involved parent.”
Sister Okazaki’s description of the atonement as a familial embrace in which the Father, Mother, and Son include us in their circle of love may be one of the most creative statements about Heavenly Mother by a general auxiliary leader in the contemporary LDS church. This theological move places the Heavenly Mother, even if only by inclusive language, at the center of the drama of the plan of salvation and makes her an active participant in the work of dispensing divine grace. Not surprisingly, the statement was made by a woman.
Elder John A. Widstoe’s statement that the temple helps us “understand the nearness of our heavenly parents” has theological potential, but is left undeveloped.
Milton R. Hunter’s brief mention of Heavenly Parents is not substantial and does not really lend support to the idea that Heavenly Mother is an “involved parent” in mortality.
Elder Dallin H. Oak’s statement that “our highest aspiration is to become like our heavenly parents” can hardly be interpreted as “substantial discussion” or “elaboration” of Heavenly Mother’s role as an “involved parent.” This is merely an example of inclusive language used to describe the state of eternal life because of its rhetorical appropriateness to the context (which is about eternal family relationships). Most of the talk refers to “God the Eternal Father.”
As I hope this exercise has demonstrated, Paulsen and Pulido’s claim to have shown “substantial discussion and elaboration on the roles and divinity of Heavenly Mother” is deeply problematic. I have not dealt here with all their designated categories for describing Heavenly Mother’s various roles. But based on my own study, all the same kinds of problems that attend their presentation of the evidence in the above three categories are also evident there.
As someone who is interested in the church developing a more progressive and spiritually healthy discourse about the divine feminine, I can appreciate what Paulsen and Pulido are trying to do rhetorically with their positively nuanced discussion of the history of LDS thought about Heavenly Mother. Nevertheless, I believe their presentation of the evidence obscures historical reality in several significant ways.
First, their catalog of references about Heavenly Mother or our Heavenly Parents gives the appearance of there having been more extensive and substantial discussion than there actually was. This is because many unsubstantial, unelaborative, and sometimes even irrelevant statements and references have been included in their survey.
Second, their organization of statements and references about Heavenly Mother into several relatively evenly balanced categories that define her several roles obscures the fact that statistically-speaking LDS discourse about Heavenly Mother has depended almost entirely on the particular roles in view. LDS leaders and commentators have been far more comfortable in speaking about Heavenly Mother in terms of the distant past (pre-existence) or the distant future (post-mortal experience) than they have with the here and now.
Third, their conflation of non-General Authority with General Authority statements obscures the fact that the most substantial and elaborative statements have tended to come from non-General Authorities (such as Eliza R. Snow, Edward Tullidge, Susa Young Gates, and Chieko Okazaki). Indeed, the most substantial discussions of Heavenly Mother from high-level priesthood leaders have been attempts to quash theological elaboration and innovation of the uniquely Mormon doctrine by others (Pres. George Q. Cannon and President Gordon B. Hinckley).
Fourth, by amalgamating data from various periods of church history, Paulsen and Pulido have obscured the fact that the most substantial and elaborative discussions in their catalog come earlier in church history (19th-early 20th century) rather than later.
To be sure, Paulsen and Pulido claim that their intent in cataloging statements about Heavenly Mother was merely to report what they find, not to theologically evaluate it. But then why frame the evidence as a rebuttal to the argument that the doctrine of Heavenly Mother has been neglected or marginalized by church leaders throughout church history? Is it possible to make this argument without a clear idea of what “substantial discussion and elaboration” is and without a historically nuanced discussion of whether the individual references measure up to it? I find Paulsen and Pulido’s presentation of the data to be rather unilluminating and their claim for “substantial discussion and elaboration” unpersuasive.
In my view, although belief in a Heavenly Mother has been widely held in 19th and 20th century Mormonism (albeit in different formulations and rhetorically emphasized in different ways), and has firm roots in Mormon theology, despite the lack of obvious scriptural support, it is a doctrine that has not received sufficient attention from church leaders and has definitely not experienced elaboration. If anything, we seem to know less about Heavenly Mother than Eliza R. Snow did and seem less comfortable talking about her than earlier Mormon generations. Recognizing this is important. We are not likely to make changes in our culture and rhetoric if we cannot see what is wrong and what is missing. We have to be able to look to our past and try to discern not only what theological tendencies were inspired and inspiring, but what tendencies led and still lead to spiritual lethargy and ossification.