Looking for My Mother’s Shadow

MI+mother+daughter+love+gettyA common argument about why we don’t speak more about Heavenly Mother or actively seek a relationship with Her is because we just don’t have a lot of documentation about Her. She doesn’t show up in LDS canonized scripture, and we only have secondhand accounts of Joseph Smith teaching of Her existence.

However, the “Mother in Heaven” essay published by the church last week seems to suggest that in spite of our ignorance, Heavenly Mother plays an important role in the mortal lives of both men and women. The essay cites President Harold B. Lee when he argued, “we have a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother who are even more concerned, probably, than our earthly father and mother, and that influences from beyond are constantly working to try to help us.” Furthermore, the essay quotes Elder Rudger Clawson saying, “We honor woman when we acknowledge Godhood in her eternal Prototype,” suggesting that we know at least enough about Heavenly Mother to acknowledge Her.

So just how much do we need to know about Heavenly Mother in order to emulate and honor Her? (I ask this sincerely, not rhetorically.)

The thing is, we don’t know all that much about our Heavenly Father, either. We have accounts of mortal men recording His commandments and His doings, but since most of us have never seen God ourselves, all of our information about Him comes to us secondhand. According to LDS theology, though, this is all right because “by the power of the Holy Ghost [we can] know the truth of all things” (Moroni 10).

God teaches us about Himself through mortal examples, types, and shadows: “all things which have been given of God from the beginning of the world, unto man, are the typifying of him” (2 Nephi 11:4).

Moses chapter 6 is a beautiful telling of Adam’s relationship with his Heavenly Father, in which Adam speaks with God, learns about the Plan of Salvation, is baptized, receives the holy priesthood, and becomes “one” with God as His “son” (6:68). In verse 63, Heavenly Father teaches Adam that man may know God by observing His creations: “And behold, all things have their likeness, and all things are created and made to bear record of me, both things which are temporal, and things which are spiritual; things which are in the heavens above, and things which are on the earth, and things which are in the earth, and things which are under the earth, both above and beneath: all things bear record of me.” In other words, our relationship with Heavenly Father is strengthened, and we come to know who He is, as we observe His likenesses recorded in the people and the world around us. For example, we are told that “God is love” (John 4:8), but this is only a vague generality until we have stories of mortal beings—in scripture and literature and life—who provide concrete interpretations of what this kind of love is, like the stories of a 22-year-old Thomas S. Monson knowing by name and caring for the 84 widows in his ward.

Is there nothing on earth that has recorded the likeness of my Heavenly Mother? For me, the thought makes reason stare. If “truth is reason,” then it is only reasonable to me that I can learn of my Heavenly Mother by seeking out her types and shadows in the women and creations around me that testify of Her.

The tricky thing is that cultural sexism has been intertwined with religious instruction for a long, long time. Of around 2,600 proper names in the Bible, only 188 are women with names. In the Book of Mormon, only six women are mentioned by name (and three of those women are actually references to biblical women: Eve, Mary, and Sarah). This doesn’t mean that women in these societies weren’t cared for or appreciated, but for whatever reason, women’s spiritual narratives were not recorded or valued nearly as often or dearly as men’s.

In 2015, however, we no longer have the excuse of cultural sexism to explain away the lack of women’s narratives in our religious observations. Elder Russell M. Nelson’s General Conference Address, “A Plea to My Sisters,” seems to recognize this and passionately pleads for more female voices to be heard: “We, your brethren, need your strength, your conversion, your conviction, your ability to lead, your wisdom, and your voices. The kingdom of God is not and cannot be complete without women . . . women who can speak with the power and authority of God!”

The irony that we only heard from five women in the last General Conference has not been lost on many members of the church. However, I remain optimistic that women giving talks and prayers will not always feel like a novelty. We now have vast resources that record the lives and spiritual journeys of all kinds of women throughout our church history. In fact, the recent interest in Joseph Smith and his plural wives has led many people to learn these fascinating women’s stories for the first time. These women’s narratives have, up until now, constituted a tragic silence in our study of church history and in our study into the nature of God, male and female. And yet, we still haven’t reached a point in our church culture in which these women’s stories are heard very often in Relief Society and Priesthood. Even the Daughters of Our Kingdom church publication is regarded largely as a book for women of the church, and it is marketed as such. But why shouldn’t men of the church be as interested and engaged in these stories of women who might be understood as types and shadows of the Female Divine?

Too often we think of women’s stories as only being relevant to other women, and yet women have always found relevance in men’s stories, especially as it is often only a man’s story that is available in our scriptures. Yet I believe that a woman’s story should resonate with a man as much as a man’s story could resonate with me as a woman, just as a Mother in Heaven ought to be as important to men of the church as a Father in Heaven is important to me as a woman.

My eight-week-old daughter was perched on my chest as I typed the first half of this post; she is currently asleep in her father’s arms. Tonight, we will gather our young family around us and teach them to pray to our Father in Heaven. We will fall asleep in the faith that we are remembered by Him and guided by His hand. And in the back of my mind I will wonder, like Eliza Snow did, if I have a Mother listening in close by, working behind the scenes to comfort me and help me when I need it. In those moments when I want to be furious with my four-year-old for drawing on the couch with pen, will it be She who whispers in my ear to wait a moment before responding? When my two-year-old son gets embarrassed and runs to me in tears, is it Her influence that makes my arms instinctually open and pull him close? And in 3 a.m. feedings with my infant in the dark and loneliness of night, is it wrong for me to wonder if She is nearby, keeping me company and knowing me personally?

My hope is that my children will wonder less about these things and instead feel conviction that both of their Heavenly Parents are encircled about them in love and empathy and wisdom. My hope is that my children experience a church in which women’s stories are heard as often as men’s, from the mouths of women as much as from the mouths of men. My hope is that future church leaders do not need to plead for women to “speak up and speak out” because we are already doing so.

In this mortal probation, we “see through a glass darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12),  searching for the Divine through types and shadows. We may not know much about our Heavenly Mother, but I believe we can come to know Her likeness as more stories of women are heard from the mouths of women over our pulpits as we compile new, latter-day scripture.


  1. kingdomfalling says:

    I wonder if there will be a clear delineation of duties between Father and Mother the way Greek gods were assigned to natural phenomenon. Or will people seek Father or Mother based on personal feeling (seems more likely) leading to people almost seeing Father and Mother as a single entity (one heart one mind?) and making terms like he and she interchangeable, but seemingly denying gender identity, at least to the uninitiated.
    I really have enjoyed the 2 books I have read by Orson Scott Card about a future human race being called to return to earth in a allegory for the BoM. In it the women say She and the men He in reference to the same being, simply depending on experience. I should really finish that series.
    I was raised by my dad and my mother was never there making it easy for me to take comfort from a male nurturer. My wife was raised by her mother and yet sought comfort from a heavenly father to replace the lack of a loving earthly father. Yet even so, both of us look for a heavenly mother to be a role model for us and our daughters. For some reason it is actually easier to believe a Heavenly Mother would be more willing to take direct action in my life.
    I have now thought for a long time that the HG was really Christ, during his moment in Gethsemane walking with each of us through our whole lives and during that time offering us comfort and counsel. Now I wonder if it isn’t a mother’s touch I have felt doing the influencing.

  2. kimgdomfalling, I’m hoping that there isn’t a strict dilineation of duties, but rather a full partnership in all things. Then again, maybe there will be more to it than that. In any case, I’ve always liked the notion of husband and wife cleaving to each other like two things made one, which makes me wonder if when I pray to God I have always actually been praying to both Parents in reality, that They both listen in and respond. I mean, let’s face it, God is incomprehensible to mortal minds as it is, and I have no idea what gender means or looks like in the eternities. But yeah, I do hope men and women work together more than apart.

    Also, your comment reminds me that I’ve meant to pick up that Orson Scott Card series before.

  3. Carol Lynn Pearson mentioned how BYU Religion Professor Rodney Turner was very admit that righteous Women would become immortal, but, could not become Goddesses, i.e., no power of their own.

    Of course, the Church has had problems getting away from institutional racism, so if institutional sexism is a factor in our knowledge of Heavenly Mother, then, that will also take time to sort out.

  4. I think there are many moves towards including women in the greater discourse.

    I teach Primary, and in the lesson about the witnesses of the gold plates, Mary Whitmer is included as a witness. As I was preparing the lesson I came out and reported to my husband that she was included, so I didn’t have to risk going off manual. Because she needed to be included and I would have added her if necessary.

    He was raised in the church and had never heard that story, so I got to practice telling it to him first.

  5. Thanks Grover. Your question is interesting: “So just how much do we need to know about Heavenly Mother in order to emulate and honor Her? (I ask this sincerely, not rhetorically.)”

    I don’t know. We don’t know much about God the Father either. We have seen what Jesus did, and Jesus said that he only did his Father’s works. so we have a transitive property at work, really. God the Father has spoken only a few scant times. And yet we have billions of people who worship that being. So, I guess you don’t need that much, informationally speaking. The methodology you identify: “I can learn of my Heavenly Mother by seeking out her types and shadows in the women and creations around me that testify of Her” — is exactly what we have done for the divine for thousands of years, and I think you’re on the right path.

  6. fuddyduddy says:

    Naismith: Wait, what? I always thought Emma was the only woman with direct experience with the plates.

  7. it's a series of tubes says:
  8. On pg. 46 of the Primary 5 manual it says this,
    “Joseph and Emma Smith and Oliver Cowdery lived in the home of Peter and
    Mary Whitmer, David Whitmer’s parents, for a time during the translation of
    the Book of Mormon. Much of the extra work of having these guests fell on
    Mary Whitmer, but she never complained. One day, as she went to the barn
    to milk the cows, she met a kindly old man, who was actually the angel Moroni,
    who had the plates at that time. Moroni said to her, “You have been very faithful
    and diligent in your labors, but you are tired because of the increase of your
    toil; it is proper therefore that you should receive a witness that your faith may
    be strengthened.” Then he showed her the gold plates. This experience
    strengthened the whole Whitmer family. (See “Report of Elders Orson Pratt
    and Joseph F. Smith,” Millennial Star, 9 Dec. 1878, pp. 772–73; see also
    Church History in the Fulness of Times [Church Educational System manual
    (32502), 1993], pp. 57–58.) “

  9. I’m not biased or anything, but I like this write-up best: https://history.lds.org/article/mary-whitmer-book-of-mormon?lang=eng

  10. Serious question – why is the church asking for (i.e, Elder Nelson) greater participation of women in 2015? I’m trying to stay positive about the recent changes in this regard, but the Bretheren seem to be just now waking up to the importance of women leaders. Is God just now prompting them to change things like having women pray in GC and releasing this essay on Heavenly Mother? If so, why now? These are not new issues.

  11. A different Anon says:

    Asking for greater participation from women is a bit ironic, given that only 2 women are/were invited to speak in the general sessions of conference.

  12. Geoff - Aus says:

    While listening to Elder Nelsons talk we both thought the obvious end to his talk would be to announce that women would now hold the priesthood equally. It just seemed the obvious end he was leading up to.

  13. I’ve wondered if use of the plural Elohim (e.g., in the temple) could mean Father and Mother.

  14. Thanks, Emily, for this well-reasoned response and post. I’m not currently on facebook, but someone mentioned to me that I was being called a “heretic” and writing in “hysterics” from my earlier post. I wasn’t, obviously, but I think your voice makes that even more clear. We, as women, are not writing from a place of hysterics, we are writing and thinking from places of clear reasoning, with clear and simple ideas about how we can better incorporate a Heavenly mother into our understanding and along with that, how the voices of our own gender can be a part of the voices we hear so often.

  15. Clark Goble says:

    I think having more women figures to emulate is a fantastic idea. The idea that women only need women or men only need men never made sense to me. My own hero of the restoration is Zina Huntington.

    I think it a grave problem that there are not more women in the Book of Mormon. I’ve often wondered why Jesus, while telling the Nephites to include the prophet Samuel (who they’d excluded because he was a Laminate) didn’t do the same thing for women. Who knows, maybe he did and there is far more about women in the sealed portion of the text. (Typically estimated to be 30% – 50% of the plates)

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