The Maternal Nature of Divinity (Elder Holland) #ldsconf

James Olsen has put together a very good compilation of statements on Heavenly Mother, which are central to the message here.

What kind of mortal love can make you feel, once you have a child, that your life is never, ever your own again? Maternal love has to be divine. There is no other explanation for it.

I add my testimony, such as it is, to Elder Holland’s: that the love of parents for their children is one of the surest signs of God working within us.

Elder Holland’s testimony of the importance of mothers can hardly seem controversial. The love of mothers for their children is a fundamental aspect of human life. And yet I’m sure we can manage to churn controversy out of it, for this is patriarchy praising women. But to do so is to throw the baby out with the bathwater, because Elder Holland is telling us vignettes of motherly love not out of some generic role reinforcement mechanism, but to illustrate for us the very nature of love that we are all to emulate towards each other if we are to become like God. And yet motherly love is not the end. There are three points I’d take from Elder Holland’s talk:

First, the contemporary examples Elder Holland chose are striking: same-sex attraction, faith crises, early return from missions, developmental problems. Are these accidental choices? No, Elder Holland is showing us that the fundamental, primal love he describes is still relevant, and will never be old-fashioned or out-of-date.

Second, Elder Holland rightfully points out the lasting impression such love has on our souls: that we remember that love and it guards us, keeps us from sin and inspires us to be better people. There is a lasting effect from true love. It is not merely a medicine that cures our ills; it builds within us a natural immunity to evil and it casts out fear, not merely while we are in the presence of those who love us but for decades afterwards.

Third, that this sort of love – love that mothers possess for their children – is an example of humanity’s greatest good, but it is not yet divine love. (I’d add that I believe fathers can emulate this love as well, though perhaps there are genetic dispositions at play which we do not fully understand). But the love Jesus showed us all is not the same as the love a parent has for a child. It is greater. Nissho Takeuchi, chair of the Sohjoh Nichiren School of Buddhism, has an essay in the recent Humanum volume that illustrates this point:

…the deep love given by mothers continually and unconditionally without any self-interest, is nothing but a love of absolute purity. However, even this pure love of mothers, the ultimate human love, still stands on the ego-personality that cannot go beyond the human boundary… It is not until we start to pursue truth and justice as the objectives of our love that our love becomes the love of bosatsu [enlightenment].

If we are to compare the love of a mother for her child with the love of Jesus Christ, the difference is both one of scope and one of nature: scope, in that Jesus displayed that love of complete sacrifice for the entire world, and nature, in that Jesus has no genetic/evolutionary imperative driving His love and instead sacrificed Himself without any self-interest. Divine love is to take the highest models of human love and replicate them selflessly across all of creation. This is why Elder Holland pays tribute to mothers as saviors on Mount Zion: these loving human relationships show us the love we are to take into all the world on behalf of our Heavenly Parents. As he says:

no love in mortality comes closer to approximating the pure love of Jesus Christ than the selfless love a devoted mother has for her child.

As we love each other, even those who hate us, as a mother can love her child, the world will be transformed.


  1. Love this response. Great reflection. I found the talk very uplifting and inspiring.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    We seem to be comfortable as a people with the formulation “heavenly parents,” but for some reason less so with “Heavenly Mother.” It is no small thing that Elder Holland both mentioned and thanked Her.

  3. If the matriarchy can speak with authority about the divine role of husbands and fathers (See Sis. Burton, April 2015 Conference), then there is no reason the righteous patriarchy cannot speak with authority about the divine role of mothers (and as a maternal feminist I use that term to include all women who live their lives with the best interest of the rising generation at heart). It was beautiful, powerful, and revelatory. Thank you for this thoughtful treatment of it.

  4. Made me feel deeply inadequate as a mother.

  5. This made me feel inadequate as a father, reflect on how I have sometimes behaved with my children and commit to do better. There are bits of the talk that rubbed me wrong, but I’m grateful generally.

    The talk that followed, though not ideal in every aspect, was for me a good follow-up.

  6. If you don’t feel inadequate as a parent, you’re just not paying attention.

  7. 99 times out of a hundred I resent being told by a man how to be a mother. This is the one time that it was good: Elder Holland didn’t paint an artificially pretty picture, he didn’t condescend and he didn’t pedestalize. I felt like this was *real talk* about motherhood – how it is HARD, like the Atonement was hard. And I’m glad this was a talk delivered by a man in a general session – there are PLENTY of men who need to hear this talk, and stop denigrating motherhood.

    While I was pleased that Holland mentioned Heavenly Mother, at the same time it brought up my single biggest frustration with the restored gospel: that what I have to look forward to in the eternities is being like my Heavenly Mother, ie. invisible. After everything Holland said about the divine nature of a mother’s love, I despair at the idea of spending eternity birthing spirit children who are then forbidden from having a relationship with me.

  8. I felt this talk was manipulative and hurtful. The threat of “you will break your mother’s heart” if you ever leave the church, is a scare tactic. A lot of the people who are distancing themselves from the church are really hurting. These kinds of talks just kick them when they’re down. The message that came across to people struggling with same sex attraction was basically: You are causing your parents (mostly mother) AGONY. If you don’t choose to live a celibate life with 2nd class citizen status within the church, you are a terrible person who hurts their mother. It seems like I’m hearing less and less of the gospel in conference talks these days and more of, this is what will happen to you if you ever leave this church. Can we just hear the good word please?

  9. Marie, I’m not sure we were listening to the same talk.

  10. Steve, that was the message I heard.

  11. I have to agree with Marie. Seems like doubt is the new pornography

  12. Except that this talk wasn’t about doubt. I could see getting that message from other talks. Marie, I am not questioning your sentiments, but I don’t see the connection between the talk and your reaction to it. I apologize for not being able to understand better.

  13. Joni,

    I don’t think you should anticipate being invisible. I don’t think Heavenly Mother is invisible for ever. She is invisible to those on this side of the veil, but that is a small fraction of existence. We are away for a time, not for eternity. She will be seen, and held, and loved again by her children and there will great joy, not at a distance, but in a close familial relationship.

  14. Jax – she may not be invisible forever, but she is invisible NOW, when we need her the most.

    I’m imagining being a Heavenly Mother, watching my children suffer and struggle during mortality and not being able to comfort them. That sounds like Hell.

  15. Steve, go back and listen again. How does Elder Holland begin the talk? He talks about a man on his deathbed who left the church. The man is dreading meeting his mother in the afterlife because he has “broken her heart.” Do we know what kind of life this man led other than that he left the church? It doesn’t matter. This was a careful crafted cautionary tale of the fate of doubters or dissenters (or homosexuals who decide to live as such) given under the guise of sermon about the divinity of motherhood.

  16. Sorry Marie, but I don’t agree at all. But look – it doesn’t matter. Talks are like rorschach tests, and clearly we’re seeing different things. I hope you find a way to enjoy today’s talks.

  17. Joni: Very poignantly said. I agree with you–i wish we knew more about Heavenly Mother. I have come to a personal conclusion, though, that the temple is the best place–line upon line–to do so. In the temple, I think Heavenly Mother CAN and DOES have a relationship with Her Children,

    Steve: Well said. Although I don’t currently understand the anger and despair that some feel over this issue (probably mostly because my wife does not share that anger/despair), I am really trying to. But I agree with you that it will be easy to invent controversy out of this talk where none was intended. But most controversy, I think, is good, because it touches the strings of our minds and gets us to think more clearly.

    My wife mentioned, after Holland’s talk, that she has a friend who does NOT WANT to be an eternal mother, but would rather be a ministering angel for eternity. That, I think, in and of itself, is a very respectable goal. (Sorry that I can’t express myself very well here…) Perhaps we should celebrate that as well–not just the beauty of eternal families, but the beauty of eternity itself–in the Church.

  18. I heard the same talk as Marie. My greatest fear, as with many conference talks, is that portions of it will be used as a hammer.

  19. Steve: I’ve used your “rorschach test” comment three times in the last hour. It’s both true and useful. As for Elder Holland’s talk, I listened to it carefully and really liked it. I put it in my “attributes of godliness” file. I thought he was quite careful to avoid or pre-empt negative or controversial points that some might try to draw out. (“I’m absolutely certain that on his passing his mother received my friend with open loving arms. That’s what parents do.”) But it will have to be taken as a whole, and perhaps as a text in print to get all that. Unfortunately, this talk (like most) presents a number of opportunities for proof-texting in pernicious ways.

  20. The comments of Joni, Steve Evans, Jax, and others reminds me of some aspects of Heavenly Mother discussed and felt by others. I know one single, Temple Recommend holding sister, who has Feminist feelings, who says she doesn’t think Heavenly Mother exists. She has been unable to find her in the Temple.

    And, Rodney Turner, Religion Professor at BYU some years ago, had Carol Lynn Pearson in tears, with his claims that Heavenly Mother was immortal, but, she had no other powers beyond ability to bear Spirit children. Turner’s teachings about this never received any known rebuke from any General Authority, unlike other Religion Professors there.

  21. I couldn’t even gather myself together after first assertions. My mother had six children and as far as she is concerned no one in the world really exists but her. She was perfectly willing to throw her children out whenever we might not love the thing she loved more than all of us, the church. Today, most of us can’t handle being in the same room with her for five minutes.

  22. Every time she goes to the temple I wish they’d lock her in and keep her.

  23. Marie, you asked if we can just hear the good word. But sometimes calling people to repentance is part of the good word. That is part of the job apostles and prophets have been called to do and PLENTY of examples are in the scriptures.

    Joni, I keep in mind a line from my patriarchal blessing which says, “In the Celestial Kingdom you will have joy that you cannot comprehend at this time.” I often wonder what is in the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon and think that maybe it contains a lot about our Mother in Heaven. To be honest, I was a little disappointed when the new temple videos were made but they were not changed to show Her. I thought it was a missed opportunity to teach us “line upon line”. Personally I refrain from speculating on why more isn’t spoken of Her, why she is never mentioned a single time in all the scriptures, even in the Book of Mormon which gives us so many plain and precious truths which were taken out of the Bible. The speculative responses I have heard are silly at best, and at worst demeaning, and almost certainly incorrect. Instead I just focus on what the Lord has revealed so far and pray for more understanding to come when the Lord is ready to reveal it (and try my best to be ready when it is revealed).

  24. Frank, when I first went to the temple I had every hope and expectation of coming to know and understand our Heavenly Mother. She was not there. She is not shown as having any part in the creative process or role in the lives of Her children. Women are given no expectation that they will have any power in the afterlife beyond serving and obeying their husbands and being vessels that bear the spirit children of their husbands – it seems like a stretch to call those spirits the children of their Mother. That, among other things, has kept me out of the temple for the past year and a half.

    It has taken a long time for me to be able to pray to God without imagining Mother, beaten and bruised, chained away, eternally pregnant, crying out for her children. I no longer believe that is the case, but it took time to accept that our current understanding (and lack thereof) of our Mother is wrong. I’m glad the temple has helped you in that respect, but temple attendance is about the last thing I’d recommend someone who is looking for Heavenly Mother do.

  25. Lee, if Holland was clear about calling people to repentance I would see it as such. His talk was manipulative. Hidden within a discourse about motherhood was a message of don’t you dare leave the church and if you are gay don’t act on it. Or else.

  26. Marie, help me understand a little better what he said that made you see that message. You’ve mentioned this a few times now and I have been unable to see it in this talk – now, I’ve seen it loads of other talks, some in this recent conference. Was there a turn of phrase that led you in that direction?

  27. Steve, I understand that like the rorscharch tests that you mentioned, we all get different things out of conference. I also know that once someone else points out something that they see, it may cause someone else to say…oh yes…I see that now. Other times however, they still won’t see it. That may be the case with you and me.
    I will say that Holland has always been a favorite speaker of mine. That is partly why this talk was so disappointing.
    I’ve already mentioned how Holland began his talk with the man on his deathbed. He says himself that his account is “a cautionary one.” How else do you see this example as cautionary other than: If you leave this church you will cause sorrow to your dear mother. What other caution is he referring to?
    The message is clear to me: It doesn’t matter if you are a wonderful person, which that man could very well have been. Stay in the church or ELSE.
    I know people who are extremely loving, giving, charitable and kind who have left the church. People who are way better people than I am. I think church members need to hear more about the joy and beauty and goodness of God that is in all of us. Not just members of this church. There is so so much good in this world that takes place outside of the Mormon church. Jesus wasn’t a Mormon.
    The example he gives of the mother who agonized over her gay son sends a clear message to youth who are struggling with same sex attraction: Stay in the church and be celibate or else you will destroy your mother and yourself. And the message to all Mormon women out there who are advocating for their gay children is: You are only a successful mother if you keep your children in the church. At all costs.
    It’s pretty well known that gay lds kids have a high suicide rate. I wonder how many heard this talk and felt nothing but despair for themselves and their mothers.
    Not to mention that this glorified message of motherhood can sets up an impossible standard for women. What about all the women who do their best and still have children who leave the church? My former bishop’s wife is an example of this. She has two daughters who left the church and it is extremely painful for her. It doesn’t seem to matter that they are good, productive members of society. To her, If they aren’t in the church, they’re essentially lost. It is impossible for her to talk about her non-member children with anything but grief and disappointment. And I think that is sad. They are good people. And when I hear this talk by Elder Holland I can see where this way of thinking comes from. Apparently you are only able to have joy in your children if they’re active members of the Mormon church. That is the only way to be a successful mother.
    It appears that our comforting doctrine of forever families has caveats. A non-member friend of mine asked me recently, “Is it true that Mormons believe that they won’t be with their families in heaven unless they’re all Mormon?” And another friend of mine who left the church 14 years ago told me she’ll never forget how when she told her mother she was leaving the church, her mother said that she no longer considered her to be her child because they wouldn’t be together in the afterlife. Where did this mother get an idea like that? It’s a message that we hear all the time. Overtly AND subtly. Holland went for a more subtle approach with this talk. But I heard it loud and clear.

  28. Thanks for being patient with me and explaining. Still not sure that I agree with you, but I’m grateful for your view.

  29. Yes, Marie and Steve: It is good to get a different perspective. It has started to clear up one of my blind spots. Thanks!

  30. I wasn’t able to find any evidence of Heavenly Mother in the temple until a friend recommended that I read Margaret Barker’s “Mother of the Lord: Lady of the Temple.” Barker is not LDS, and her work is more about ancient Israelite temple worship, but it has interesting implications for Mormons & temples. I can’t explain it nearly as well as she can, but she points to a time when ancient Israelites worshipped a Heavenly Mother, one of whose symbols was the Tree of Life, with worship of Her being closely associated with the veil of the temple. She sees the story of the Fall, as presented in Genesis, as Israel falling as a result of abandoning worship of Heavenly Mother. From that perspective one of the key messages of the temple – moving from a fallen world to a better world and eventually passing through the veil – take on interesting aspects.

  31. Spencer: Well said. I think that’s part of why Heavenly Mother is not talked about much in public LDS settings–because we get the opportunity of discovering her in the temple. I LOVE Margaret Barker’s contribution. That understanding has dramatically accentuated my enjoyment of temple service.

  32. I am the mother of a gay teen, and I totally agree with Marie. I disliked the talk very much (and also have absolutely loved all of Holland’s other talks.) This one did not land well, at least for me. I want my son to follow the path that God has for him, which may be in or out of our church. I don’t want him, for even one second, to try to force himself to do what he thinks I want him to do. I also don’t want him to commit suicide. So, yes, that’s a real concern for parents of gay kids. For many listeners, this was just an interesting, current events kind of a story. But for the families’ that are in the thick of trying to help our gay kids, I don’t think this was the kind of talk that inspires them to CTR…and my mother love doesn’t have me kneeling and crying and praying for hours, day after day. This talk seemed to indicate spiritual OCD devotion as a great way for moms to help their kids.

    Additionally, How very lucky for the men in the group that have enjoyed attending the temple where they get to discover their Heavenly Mother! That must be so lovely for you, what with being able to clearly see your own future roles explicitly detailed in the scriptures, in the temple, the Father we pray to who you will eventually become! Heavenly Mother is solo important and wonderful… but you can’t pray/talk to her…what? I often feel that I am a part of a dysfunctional eternal family: Dad loves us and sent our older brother to help, and without his help, he won’t let us back in the house.. We have another brother who literally wants to kill us and make us miserable, and we have a mom… but… we’re not supposed to talk to her right now…

    Yes, this talk struck a chord, but I don’t think it was the chord that it was intended to strike.