Conference Prep #4: Mother in Heaven. Or not.

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.[1]

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 [3] 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.[2]

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.[3]

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!


[1] 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.

[2] 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.]

[3] 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?)


  1. Steve Evans says:

    WVS, haven’t we at least begun to move beyond the spirit child procreative narrative at this point? It seems to me that was a big theme 20+ years ago, but for the most part now we just say they are the parents of our spirits and leave it at that.

  2. The idea of a Heavenly Mother does seem inconsistent with the idea of intelligences being organized rather than created.

  3. Steve, the use of the word “literal” in reference to “spirit children” still occurs some, like Elder Holland’s address Oct 2007, etc. The quote cloud from 1971 on is still out there though.

    On intelligences being “organized” – I think there’s a whole host of misconception about what that means in the sources.

  4. If the Book of Mormon is considered the most correct book of scripture in Mormon theology, we note that a trinitarian view of God is held. The Book of Mormon describes a God who is modeled after the Christian God. Consider the words of Abinidi: ” would that ye should understand that God himself shall bcome down among the children of men, and shall redeem his people.And because he dwelleth in flesh he shall be called the Son of God, and having subjected the flesh to the will of the Father, being the Father and the Son—The Father, because he was conceived by the power of God; and the Son, because of the flesh; thus becoming the Father and Son—And they are one God, yea, the very Eternal Father of heaven and of earth (Mosiah 15:1-4).

    An interesting discussion of Joseph Smith’s evolution of the view of God, along with Brigham Young’s Adam/God theory is found in a Sunstone article here:

  5. Wonderful stuff, WVS. I simply can’t wait for your published treatment.

    Kirkland’s piece has been a sort of go-to place on this topic for too long. As WVS has repeatedly shown there is much more nuance and granularity to what was going on.

  6. Jan,
    That’s actually a modalist interpretation, declared a heresy within Christianity. So you know.

  7. I think we need to move past the concept of a gendered-diety. Just saying.

  8. I think we need to move past the concept that a gendered-deity is something worth moving past. I think gendered deities and anthropomorphism is the highest form of humanism, which is what makes Mormonism so inspiring. Just saying.

    I’ve really never understood the conflict some see between eternal intelligence and spirit birth. All matter is spirit; all spirit has the light of intelligence. We’re little sparks of light, we’re organized through spiritual birth to receive spirit bodies, then sent here for a mortal probation. Voila. Eternal existence, spiritual birth, physical birth, gendered deity.

    I’ll spam y’all with a repeat of a post I made on Times and Seasons: I converted to the Church in my 20’s, and one major reason why was the idea that men and women are *both* modeled after divine parents.

    Indeed, I speculate even further.

    From the Gospel of the Birth of Mary:

    5:14 For Isaiah saith, there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a flower shall spring out of its root, and the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of Wisdom and Understanding, the Spirit of Counsel and Might, the Spirit of Knowledge and Piety, and the Spirit of the fear of the Lord shall fill him. Then, according to this prophecy, he appointed, that all the men of the house and family of David, who were marriageable, and not married, should bring their several rods to the altar, and out of whatsoever person’s rod after it was brought, a flower should bud forth, and on the top of it the Spirit of the Lord should sit in the appearance of a dove, he should be the man to whom the Virgin should be given and be betrothed.

    In this passage, the Spirit of Wisdom (personified as female everywhere in the Bible) is the Dove, is the rod/Tree, is the signifier of the mortal girl who will receive the divine child from the male and female Gods implied in Genesis.

    In John’s overview of the Plan of Salvation in Revelation, he notes that the Queen of Heaven, having been given wings (just like Ma’at, the Egyptian version of Lady Wisdom), comes down to earth (personifying it as female, as in the Book of Moses and countless other religions with an “earth goddess” – see Hinduism etc. for beautiful examples) in order to guide Her children back to Heaven.

    Wisdom, who existed before the foundation of the world, is “a Tree of Life” to those who grasp her, according to Proverbs. The Tree of Life purged from the Temple (modeled after the lampstand in the Tabernacle) was in all likelihood the Asherah (meaning “She who treads on the sea”, reminding one of the Spirit who “brooded” over the waters during the Creation). Far too often, people make the mistake of assuming Jeremiah is condemning the Queen of Heaven herself, rather than the human sacrifices which have perverted her worship – yet it is a retroactive scribal *assertion* that it was the Asherah herself who was a foreign pagan blasphemy.

    In Mosiah 2:36, for one instance among many in the Book of Mormon, we read: “If ye should go contrary to that which has been spoken, that ye do withdraw yourself from the Spirit of the Lord, that it may have no place in you to guide you in [W]isdom’s paths that ye may be blessed, prospered, and preserved.”

    Christ instituted a “renewal” of the Holy Spirit during his mortal ministry; John’s few references to the Spirit as male are a translator’s assumption based on the neuter forms of the word.

    The Queen of Heaven is Lady Wisdom, is the Tree of Life, is the Mother, is the Dove, is the Holy Spirit of Promise. This means that Joseph Smith (receiving a Vision in a Sacred Grove) Restored the Sacred Marriage from which springs the Divine Family – a physically real Father, Mother, and Child who act in concert on behalf of a numberless Divine Council of Gods (see the Book of Abraham) and yet retain their individuality, which utterly does away with Trinitarian nonsense and restores religion (”binding”) to the proper place: the highest level of *humanism* in which we are not separated from Godliness by a vast ontological gulf.

    This also means that the Book of Mormon contains *by far* the most information on the Heavenly Mother out of any of our scriptures. The *entire book* is a treatise on why we must not lose Her as did the Israelites after Josiah’s purge, leaving the Temple a Great and Spacious Building bereft of the Living Tree of Life.

    (I wrote a big post about this subject as a warm-up for a massive paper I’m trying to finish as soon as possible: )

    Also, we should keep in mind that the assumption that “Joseph’s” theology “evolved” over time is based on the assumption that the Book of Mormon is a product of his own mind, rather than the Nephites. Joseph’s *understanding* of the Book obviously evolved, but I think there is little evidence in the text of the Trinity, or modalism, etc. Brant Gardner has a good take:

  9. Another great post. I commented in one of the previous posts that I personally didn’t really see a difference between pulpit and canonical scripture, but instead put scripture into one of four categories: direct revelation (stuff directly spoken by God, the Savior, or angelic beings), words of inspired men (prophets/apostles expounding on doctrine), poetic revelation (eg. most old testament prophecies, John’s revelations), and words of uninspired men (eg., histories in the old testament written and analyzed by unenlightened scribes).

    For me personally, a doctrine needs to be founded in category one (direct revelation). General conference consists almost entirely of category two. Category two is important for our spiritual development, but it is by it’s very nature a mingling of revelation and philosophies of men. It can therefore be wrong. We admit it can be wrong by taking it more seriously when all the brethren agree, since we know these inspired men can disagree and contradict each other.

    With Heavenly Mother, there has been nothing “revealed”. No voice from Heaven, no angelic messenger, and no prophet claiming God told him to say it. It’s an appealing concept and fits well with other doctrines, and it may actually be true, but it’s basically a folk doctrine whose foundation is some church officers quoting the speculation of earlier general church officers. When they all agree and put it forth in the Proclamation on the Family, we give it more weight, but it still could be completely off base. Maybe if we all pray hard enough, maybe something might actually be revealed.

  10. I think Mormons will move from a concept of a/their Mother in Heaven when they move from the idea of a/their Father in Heaven. That is move to_ there is a God, father of one. (Unless He also had a daughter).

  11. Okay, then, am I to understand that the little talk Joseph Smith gave to Zina Huntington [Smith Young] upon the death of her mother is an apocryphal account? It’s from Susa Young Gates. (See _Women of Nauvoo_ Holzapfel & Holzapfel pg. 200.) According to that source, Joseph said to Zina, ““You’ll see your mother ¬again—¬and you’ll see your eternal mother, the wife of your Father in Heaven.” So, where did this come from? And was it the basis for Eliza R. Snow’s poetic description of the reasonable-ness of a belief in a Mother in Heaven?

  12. If you are married eternally, being given all the Father hath as the promise in the scripture contains and have increase, that is to say bring about spirit children who would inhabit a body on some other world what does that make you as husband or wife to those spirit children? Gouge would be the mother or father in… as opposed to their mother or father in the flesh would you not? This does nothing to supplant or deny the generations where Gods began to be as all glory and honor will forever be given to the Most High God who invites us to be one together with him.

  13. Some how which was changed to gouge….. Gouge = Which

  14. Margaret, nothing against Susa, but memory is a very tricky thing. There are lots of hearsay stories about Joseph Smith. Drawing conclusions based on them seems unwise — as you may know. A contemporary report of good provenance may be another thing altogether. But no such reports exist in this case.

  15. Alright! I am primed for conference!!!

    I doubt Heavenly Mother will be a part of conference, but it definitely is a very interesting subject to analyze and I have enjoyed the views in this and the previous two posts at T&S. Although I think this particular post speaks better to me in terms of structure and objectivity, I also like to look at the subject through the lens of “pulpit” vs. canonized scripture. Therefore, thanks WVS for an insightful wrap up.

    Jeremy (Re: #8),

    I am an enthusiast of Sophiology and a student of early Christian writings with Gnostic influences and to some extent Hellenistic influences in early Christianism, but I have to admit you have gone a bit too far by simply interpreting the word “wisdom” and anything related to a tree of life in the Book of Mormon as Sophia (Wisdom), the feminine diety that can be better assumed for passages in Proverbs, such as in Proverbs 8.
    While I share some of your interpretive vision, I believe you may have crossed the line by stating that “… the Book of Mormon contains *by far* the most information on the Heavenly Mother out of any of our scriptures. “ It really does not. It takes a lot of speculation, the stretching of interpretive views and a hint of wishful thinking to find any signs of feminine diety within the Book of Mormon. Sorry, but as a Gnosic Sophiologist, I am not quite buying your simplistic interpolation of terminology.

  16. As radical as this may sound, if there was an official declaration that said that Heavenly Mother was folk doctrine and not actually part of the “true” Mormonism, I’m pretty sure I would leave the church. My testimony in a female deity is the strongest one I have… It just is. I would have no firm testimonial connection to Mormonism particularly if Heavenly Mother was nixed from our, however vague, theological acceptance.

    I really liked this post, by the way, I hope my comment doesn’t sound too threadjacky.

  17. 1. The idea of Mother in Heaven was not advocated by Joseph Smith…

    I don’t know why LDS members think if Joseph Smith can’t be quoted on a subject, it must not be Doctrine. That idea runs counter to Articles of Faith #9:

    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.

    Now there are various comments on this subject, like Rodney Turner saying that exalted Women will be Queens & Priestesses to their Husbands, but not Goddesses. I do disagree with him, but this can be hard to argue.

  18. I’m pretty sure the fact of Rodney Turner’s having said it renders any proposition false.

  19. Apame, the likelihood of that happening on a scale of 1 to 10 is -1.

  20. WVS,

    “On intelligences being “organized” – I think there’s a whole host of misconception about what that means in the sources.”

    Perhaps the problem is that our culture has largely abandoned the body as a symbol of the cosmos, that word meaning ‘order’. Any child born to a mother, heavenly or otherwise, necessarily has its matter ‘organized’ by her temple body, and by the womb in particular.

  21. Maybe this is my Evil Working Biologist Mom mind at work here, but there are a few assumptions in this discussion about how things work in the Spirit World and how that relates to the “need” for a Heavenly Mother.

    -The change in language from ‘create’ to ‘organize’ actually reflects a revised idea of how Heavenly Parents create, rather than simply being semantic;

    -If the organization/creation of spirits involves both a mother and a father, therefore it involves a spiritual uterus, eggs, and vagina. Really? Where is it written that the creation process for spirit children is an exact parallel of that for human children? If that’s so, then why did God have to tell Eve that baby-making was going to work differently now that she’d eaten the apple?

    -Which feeds into the next assumption: women’s reason for existing, in the eternal scheme of things, is to physically make children– both here and in the afterlife– and so on ad nauseum for their daughters. That’s a polite way of saying that women exist in order to make more men. There is no self-existing, no deeper personhood in this model of Goddesshood– this version of goddess doesn’t say “I Am that I Am.” And in that case, she ain’t much of an equal for her husband.

    In my family life my husband and I have children together, and we both nurture and raise them– we shape their creation. And in my professional life, I also work with partners to create meaningful things. (I’m a crop breeder.) In other words, I have goals of my own– I have the power to originate things outside of myself– I make things.

    Some of my professional abilities are *due* to the fact that because of my life experiences as a woman and mother, I do see a few things differently than my male colleagues. Being female does make me different and gives me complementary creative abilities in working with those male colleagues. So femininity does have purposes other than strictly making babies. And if the only creations of mine that you take note of are the ones that come out of my pelvis, you’re missing my identity almost completely.

    It’s a terrible way to treat your mother, folks. I would really hate to think that if/when I become a goddess, I start doing *fewer* things.

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