Mother in Heaven
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, (Mormon Church), has many doctrines and practices that make the faith unique. One of these doctrines is the belief in an embodied, Heavenly Father who is himself a divine or “exalted” man. Joseph Smith, the faith’s founder, said in a sermon, “If men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves”, and Parley P. Pratt, an early apostle in the church wrote, “God, angels, and men are all of one species, one race, one great family”.
This belief in God as literal father of the spirits of human beings is the back drop that informs all other practices in the church. The church emphasizes family relationships and conducts sacred “ordinances” or rituals that “seal” or bind families together for eternity. The sealing of a man to a woman as husband and wife is considered the highest ordinance and privilege in the church and is considered necessary to receive eternal exaltation. In an address to the general church membership in 2008, then apostle, now prophet and president of the church, Russel M. Nelson said, “No man in this Church can obtain the highest degree of celestial glory without a worthy woman who is sealed to him. This temple ordinance enables eventual exaltation for both of them.”
The doctrine of eternal sealing was not new when he taught it in 2008, and early Mormon thinkers and leaders had grappled with the implications of this including one of Joseph Smith’s wives, Eliza R. Snow who penned a poem titled, “Invocation, or the Eternal Father and Mother”, which is now sung in the church as the hymn “” and reads in part,
In the heav’ns are parents single?
No, the thought makes reason stare!
Truth is reason; truth eternal
Tells me I’ve a mother there.
While the idea of a literal Father God who is of the same species, race, and family as his earthly offspring is certainly unique to Latter-day Saint theology, the doctrine that a literal Mother God lives and loves her earthly children is even further from the beliefs of mainstream Christianity.
While this belief in a feminine divine who rules alongside the masculine divine initially sounds progressive, although heteronormative, the church doesn’t do much to flesh out the doctrine of a Mother in Heaven. Beyond the occasional mention of “Heavenly Parents” by a current church authority or declaration or a handful of lines in a single hymn, the church’s belief in a Mother God appears nowhere in Church policy, practice, or doctrinal treatise. A handful of scholars within the church have worked to research and compile church teachings about Heavenly Mother. The foremost of them, Rachel Hunt Steenblik , conducted research full-time for the church-sponsored Brigham Young University, and her research was utilized by the church as the largest contributor to an essay published in October of 2015 on the church’s website titled, “ Mother in Heaven “.
The essay notes, “Latter-day Saints direct their worship to Heavenly Father, in the name of Christ, and do not pray to Heavenly Mother”. This shows, as does the subtle wording of the above statement from Russell M. Nelson, a clear distinction in the way the church views men and women, which includes divine men and women. To repeat, “No man in this Church can obtain the highest degree of celestial glory without a worthy woman who is sealed to him. This temple ordinance enables eventual exaltation for both of them” (Emphasis added). The church’s teaching of eternal Heavenly Parents does not create a new egalitarian theology of the divine, but instead maintains a complementarian, patriarchal theology in which maleness presides over femaleness.
It is here where I interject with my own experience as a member of the church. I love the faith that I belong to because it taught me to have an intense and personal relationship with deity. The church’s doctrine, to borrow from Joseph Smith, “tastes good.” Some of the unique doctrinal points are problematic, like the church’s teachings on polygamy, but other doctrines provide a framework that makes me feel connected to my fellow human beings and fill me with a desire to do and be better, which is why I am saddened and frustrated when the church chooses to ignore or minimize the singular and enriching doctrines that could create, through their very existence, a more inclusive and equal society within the church in favor of bland, unoriginal, patriarchal norms that exist in the more mainstream western religions.
The church’s complementarian view that men and women are equal but serve different roles often emphasizes providing, presiding, and protecting for men, and household and child-bearing duties for women. Repeated teachings from church leaders in recent years have doubled-down on this view by insisting that motherhood for women is their “highest and holiest calling”. They teach that, whenever possible, mothers should stay at home full-time to be active in the raising of their children, but they then teach that our Mother in Heaven is not to have any contact with her children through prayer.
I, like others in the church, have chosen to seek a more personal relationship with my Mother in Heaven, and I do not believe that she or our Father in Heaven wish for her to remain silent and absent from the lives of her children, so I pray to them both because I believe that they understand that neither of them is better than the other. I do these things because I do not believe that the 1950’s gender roles that the church is pushing are correct or eternal, and they are certainly not original or unique.
Originally published at https://feministmasculinity.com on June 3, 2019.