This is the fourth and last post in a series on General Conference. Part 3 is here.
Well, since Jonathan Green and James Olsen blew this out of the water (thanks guys) it’s much shorter. That’s probably a good thing. So here’s the final post in the series. Which opens the way for another series on the Seventy. Fair warning.
Pulpit scripture comes with varying valence. As promised in part 2, here is some (nearly?) canonical pulpit scripture.
A recent issue of BYU Studies (vol. 50/1) contains an article regarding Mother in Heaven. David L. Paulsen and Martin Pulido present an informal descriptive bibliography (not an exhaustive one) on the subject to show that Latter-day Saint sermons and writings are not silent (and mostly do not advocate silence) on the subject. They present references from Latter-day Saint speakers and writers from the 1840s to the present. The authors catalog these Mormon discursions under the rubrics of
1. Mother in Heaven as Heavenly Wife and Parent.
2. Mother in Heaven as Divine.
3. Co-creator with the Father.
4. A Framer of the Plan of Salvation.
5. Involved Parent in Our Mortality.
6. Mother in Heaven in the Hereafter.
The authors present an interesting picture of a doctrine in tension with other traditional Mormon themes like Trinity, the Garden of Eden story, classical Mormon narratives of the 20th century nuclear family, etc.
One thing all the sources in the article share: they are at most pulpit scripture (see part 2 of this post). None have been “canonized” in the usual sense. Two conclusions follow. Individually, it makes the status of those texts fluid and collectively it puts the idea of Mother in Heaven in doctrinal uncertainty since canonical text is indefinite and provides no direct support.
Paulsen and Pulido do not argue for the doctrine of Mother in Heaven, they take it for granted. I think they are on pretty firm ground in the 21st century church in doing so. But in doing that, they (purposely) fail to engage the cultural and historical issues that led to its elevation from private speculation to relatively broad (if shallow) acceptance in Mormon discourse.
With this in mind, I offer some discussion points:
1. The idea of Mother in Heaven was not advocated by Joseph Smith. (In saying this, I’m aware of very late hearsay to the contrary. There are good reasons to discount such things but see note  below.)
2. The idea of Mother in Heaven is an extrapolation of Mormon sealing ideas like those found in D&C 132.
3. The idea of Mother in Heaven is closely connected to both the Adam-God ideas and plural marriage. In those readings, She is typological and possibly “Eve” of the creation narrative.
4. The existence of Mother in Heaven is nearly always justified by seeing it through the lens of procreation of spirits by Male God and Female God.
5. With the termination of polygamy and adoptive sealings to apostles and prophets in Mormonism in the 1890s, Mother in Heaven became an important fall-back position in three ways: She became a firm part of monogamous exaltation (and simultaneously no longer legion it seems), her spirit children production was now the only way to describe ongoing personal kingdom growth (contra Joseph Smith’s use of polygamy and sealing in Nauvoo) and her existence became the new narrative basis of the earthly Mormon Mother (and perhaps vice-versa) standing in for those women who wished to have children but could not (and holding out that hope for the afterlife).
I think these and other points may suggest both a need for rehabilitation of the idea of Mother in Heaven and a way this could be done. I think that it *might* be done, but whether it should be done is open to question. [If the Roberts solution were made canonical I think this would fly, but there would be repercussions to resolve.]
The larger question of the title is institutionally irrelevant in 21st century Mormonism. Years of cultural and discursive reference puts this doctrine out of reach from all but new canonical text (think 1978). But the roles we identify for Mother in Heaven may be subject to gradual change and we have seen some of that in the drafting of a less specific procreation narrative for God in 20th century Mormonism.
An important part of the issue is the question of preexistence itself. What is the proper way to engage that doctrine?
In my opinion, the mature Joseph Smith placed the human spirit/mind/consciousness out of reach of creation or procreation. The idea that spirits were created or procreated by divine parents was not just in tension with this, it was in contradiction to it. That is an important first point. [On Smith, here, here, here, here. On procreation/creation, here, here, here.]
The questions of how and why a hyper-literal procreative veneer was overlaid on God in a post-Joseph Smith era is beyond what I want to undertake here, but that explanation is rich in cultural, environmental and religious cues. The story of how Joseph Smith’s discourse and later Mormon preaching would find a common ground is interesting too but also requires a lengthy departure from the central theme.
There are other questions that the Paulsen and Pulido study hint at. If we are to put forward some consistent version of Mother in Heaven (and I think the present version, such as it is, certainly lacks consistency) how do we do it within an already firmly set canon? I know we don’t adhere to a “closed” canon – an article of faith perhaps – but as a practical matter I see little likelihood of the written canon increasing on this point. But of course it could. Some have seen the Proclamation on the Family in this light but it seems there is a much smaller chance now that it will become canon. (No OD3 here.)
On the other end of things, how would a Nauvoo rereading (ala Bushman) of Mother in Heaven fit with Paulsen’s and Pulido’s six topics? Does Mother in Heaven become a historical artifact in that case? Does Ockham’s Razor make her obsolete? Should Mother in Heaven be seen as a necessary belief-catalyst or God-image, whether or not the role/person in fact exists?
Finally, I see Mother in Heaven becoming a more important idea, ironically because of Mormonism’s irresistible move to world religion status, urbanization/sex equality trends and the continued emphasis on the nuclear family. And there you have it. You are primed to listen to some pulpit scripture. Do a little homework and see if you see parallels in these Conference Center sermons and the 19th century, in or out of Mormonism. Oh, and take good notes. There will be a test.
To wrap up: pulpit scripture was defined in Mormonism at its beginning. It had a diminished value compared to written canon. That position was modified in Joseph Smith’s case, whose sermons often were exercises in what may be termed the “gift of translation.” The reporting of church council (including conference) proceedings further narrowed the gap between pulpit scripture and written canon. That gap frequently decreased to zero in Brigham Young’s mind. A separation again developed with Young’s death and an LDS canon was gradually defined. Twentieth century teaching held the written canon as more or less fixed, standing as gatekeeper and judge for the pulpit. A resurgence of pulpit scripture occurred in the latter part of the century as pulpit expression became safer, more regulated, but still inferior to the written canon. Finer distinctions could be made, but that’s roughly it, I think. Happy Listening!
 The belief in a Mother in Heaven is passionately held by many Latter-day Saints and those Saints may see talk of its status as approaching blasphemy. I appreciate that, but at the same time I think it’s possible to consider the matter in terms of its historical position. In saying so, I’m aware that this has been done before and what I say here may add little. Judge as you will. Besides, its the perfect example of the limbo between pulpit and canon.
 The procreative role of God in Mormonism moved from a simple idea of creation of human spirits (forwarding the metaphorical Scriptures “Father of spirits” etc.) for some thinkers like Orson Pratt and Lorenzo Snow, to (in the post-Joseph Smith era) one where human sex and reproduction were mapped onto God by Mormon thinkers. With the beginning of Mormon assimilation, that specificity gradually dropped away into first a reverent distance and then silence. With the retrenchment of the latter half of the 20th century, the discourse on God’s fatherhood has become more “literal” in some respects – at least that word gets much airplay. [On the interconnect of Protestantism, Romantisism, God as Father and Transcendentalism in Joseph Smith’s America see Thomas Jenkins, The Character of God (p. 115ff) and David Holland, Sacred Borders.]
 Richard Bushman and others have noted that an adoptive theme rather than a “literal” procreative one finds support in Joseph Smith and that the structural foundation of that view is fairly robust. [Blake Ostler’s “Exploring Mormon Thought” series takes this view if I’m not mistaken.] Very briefly, the observation of adoptive language in JS’s preaching plus his rigid adherence to personal eternalism places God as adoptive father of spirits as a mutual agreement between spirits and God to assist those spirits in a quest for progress. JS’s later remarks about the Fatherhood of God lack specificity and are open to interpretation. Remarks like this while not directly applying to Father or Mother in Heaven, can be placed under the umbrella of adoption which is sturdy and broad in early Mormonism (the remarks in the link are pretty clearly incomplete in terms of the nature and purpose of marriage in heaven – the idea for instance that sealing must be performed in mortality to be effective). It has been argued that adoption weakens the fatherhood image. But this seems more personal preference than objective fact. Nothing like Transcendentalist impersonalization is at stake. (Can I start using toe notes?)