David Paulsen and Martin Pulido’s survey of statements concerning Heavenly Mother in Mormon thought, recently published in BYU Studies, has earned a good amount of attention. It’s a thorough survey, and I only have two relatively minor criticisms. In addition, the article restricts itself to surveying statements rather than analyzing them, and I see a few possibilities for future analysis. Mostly I want to make a couple observations about the article, primarily that it doesn’t say quite as much as one might think.
1. Although the authors write that there is “considerable evidence” that Joseph Smith taught about a Mother in Heaven (71), the evidence is quite weak, consisting of writings made by others in late 1844 or 1845 (including Eliza Snow’s “O my Father”) months after Joseph Smith’s death, and conversations remembered several decades after the fact (see Derr 98–100). This is not what we usually think of as strong evidence that Joseph Smith taught something.
The lack of strong evidence tying a doctrine of a Mother in Heaven to Joseph Smith isn’t of overriding importance, however. A doctrine’s validity doesn’t depend on its origin with Joseph Smith, as Mormon belief accepts the need for continuing revelation. The doctrine of a Heavenly Mother also fits well with and can be seen as an outgrown of other theological innovations of Joseph Smith on the nature of God and marriage.
2. My second criticism is that the authors lump together two different statements about Heavenly Mother, dismissing one and spending considerable effort arguing against the second. The first is the folk doctrinal explanation that God has not revealed anything concerning Heavenly Mother because he would not want her name profaned. This is something I have heard before, and I suspect it’s an active part of Mormon folk discourse. Paulsen and Pulido cite its appearance in print and its mention at a BYU women’s conference (73–75).
As this seems like a fairly well attested and widespread idea, I think it deserves to be treated seriously as a part of Mormon discourse about Heavenly Mother, as it is no less based on speculation and analogy than any of the other statements about her. While it lacks the backing of an apostolic luminary, it’s not clear to me that something published in a Deseret Book publication in the 1990s by the managing director of the church’s Priesthood Department (Paulsen and Pulido 86 n. 8) is less significant today than a statement made by a general auxiliary leader in the 1890s, or how either of them stacks up against the democratic process of doctrine-making represented by folklore.
The authors never engage with the folkloric explanation of the lack of revealed knowledge concerning a Mother in Heaven but instead conflate it with a second and much different statement, namely that any discussion of Heavenly Mother is inappropriate. Paulsen and Pulido spend considerable effort tilting at this belief, which I hadn’t heard before, and their evidence for its popularity is fairly weak: they cite a work of fiction and an informal Internet survey (75). Or, rather, they cite a 2004 article that refers to a 2002 conference paper by Doe Daughtrey that mentions her informal survey of beliefnet.com readers, which gathered about 40 comments (Toscano 15, 22 n. 10). Neither Paulsen and Pulido nor Toscano provide a link to the original survey, and a quick search of beliefnet.com didn’t find it, so it may no longer be extant. (If anyone can find it, a link in the comments would be appreciated.) I don’t think a comment thread from 2002 can be taken as a representative sample of Mormon beliefs in any case. Moreover, does this non-doctrine differ in kind or only in degree from a reluctance to engage in excessive speculation? “Church leaders may well caution an individual to be respectful of and to avoid teaching unorthodox views about Heavenly Mother,” Paulsen and Pulido write in the conclusion (85).
The citation of statements by authorities both past and present about Heavenly Mother does demonstrate that Mormon leaders have not imposed strict injunction to silence, however, which undermines some criticisms of Mormonism to that effect (75).
3. The use of art and fiction to illustrate Mormon discourse on Mother in Heaven isn’t out of place. Paulsen and Pulido provide several examples of Mormon art and Mormon leadership engaged in dialogue with each other, beginning with Eliza Snow and continuing to the present.
The dialogue over “O my Father,” incidentally, includes both Wilford Woodruff calling the hymn a revelation, and Joseph F. Smith insisting that Eliza Snow had brought only poetic inspiration to one of Joseph Smith’s teachings, with each statement taking opposite views of the possibility of women receiving revelation for the church (see Derr 98–99).
4. “Nothing has been authoritatively revealed about Heavenly Mother,” the authors write, summarizing Gordon B. Hinckley (73). The reader needs to keep this firmly in mind when reading the various statements that Paulsen and Pulido have collected, all of which are the result of speculation and reasoning by analogy. To say that one knows something about a Mother in Heaven, including asserting her existence, requires some interrogation of what we mean by knowledge in the context of Mormonism. When Paulsen and Pulido write, “In addition to her participation in creation, Heavenly Mother helped the Father direct the plan of salvation” (80), this has to be understood as a transition between various speculations to the effect of the former and the latter, rather than an assertion of established doctrine.
5. The authors provide some truly eye-opening quotations of expansive statements concerning a Mother in Heaven. These are mostly restricted to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, a time period where we are accustomed to find public speculation among church authorities.
The most expansive statements also met with opposition, which shows where the limits of Mormon discourse on Mother in Heaven lie. George Q. Cannon spoke sharply and emphatically against deifying Heavenly Mother or making her an object of worship (Paulsen and Pulido 78). The most recent direct statement about Mother in Heaven is that of Gordon B. Hinckley from 1991, which arose in reaction to reports of members praying to Heavenly Mother, to which he gave an unequivocal rebuke. “However, in light of the instruction we have received from the Lord Himself, I regard it as inappropriate for anyone in the Church to pray to our Mother in Heaven…I suppose those…who use this expression and who try to further its use are well-meaning, but they are misguided” (Hinckley 100). Liturgical freestylers are not going to find much support in this article.
6. What Paulsen and Pulido are illustrating is less what we know about Heavenly Mother, but rather the functionalizing of Heavenly Mother in Mormon discourse. It seems to me that Heavenly Mother is made to serve just a handful of rhetorical functions. Against feminist critics since the late 19th century, the doctrine of a Heavenly Mother permits Mormons to claim a deification of womanhood found in few other religions (although less uniquely today than a century ago). Heavenly Mother also provides a way to project frequently feminized ideals of nurturing into the celestial plane. In addition, Heavenly Mother gives the ideal of companionate marriage between equal partners a heavenly equivalent and offers a useful rejoinder to critics of marriage as an institution of patriarchal domination. A Heavenly Mother also provides justification for the unique emphasis on family life and marriage as the highest of all sacraments in Mormon belief. In fraught discussions of women’s roles in the church and in Mormon culture, Heavenly Mother functions as a guarantor that current asymmetries are divinely appointed or will be made right in the hereafter. It would be interesting to look at how discussion of a Mother in Heaven reflects debates about gender relations on earth.
7. Paulsen and Pulido don’t give any examples of discourse about Heavenly Mother in the context of polygamy. Why didn’t these two doctrines intersect in the nineteenth century? Was there some kind of tension between them? That might be an interesting question to explore.
8. As Paulsen and Pulido point out, the Heavenly Father/Heavenly Mother binary pair creates an interesting and unresolved tension with Trinitarian formulations of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost (79). Further analysis might usefully compare this tension in Mormon thought with high Maryology in Roman Catholicism.
9. In the final analysis, Paulsen and Pulido convincingly demonstrate that belief in the existence of a Mother in Heaven has been widespread among Mormon laity and leadership since the middle of the nineteenth century.
An additional question one might ask about knowledge concerning a Mother in Heaven is to what extent that knowledge is theological, and to what extent it is social. Beyond any theological propositions with which the proposed existence or qualities of a Mother in Heaven agree or conflict, belief is a matter of community. To what degree would one do violence to Mormon community bonds by denying the existence of a Heavenly Mother? Certainly there would be costs, as Heavenly Mother has come to play an important role in Mormon rhetoric concerning marriage and family, and in the beliefs of many Mormons. One hesitates to reject a doctrine that sat well with Gordon B. Hinckley, or one that can be found in the Proclamation on the Family.
Yet a Protestant-minded Mormon could probably reject the doctrine and do less damage to community ties than other kinds of doubts would, such as rejecting nineteenth-century polygamy as a mistake, or reducing the Book of Mormon to inspired fiction; there are members of the Mormon community who do both of these. Heavenly Mother is ultimately a doctrine based on speculation and analogy that lacks a foundation in scripture or in Joseph Smith’s recorded teachings or in revelation to any modern prophet. At the moment, Heavenly Mother appears to have bright prospects for the future, but not all doctrines born of nineteenth-century speculation have had a continued existence into modern Mormonism. If the tension between parental and traditional Trinitarian models of the Godhead became unsustainable, which would win out in the end?
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If I’ve misread Paulsen and Pulido, please point this out in your comments; I’m not grasping for validation here. But I do insist that you treat one another respectfully, and that you save pointless insults for some other occasion.
Derr, Jill Mulvay. “The Significance of ‘O My Father’ in the Personal Journey of Eliza R. Snow.” BYU Studies 36.1 (1996): 84–126.
Hinckley, Gordon B. “Daughters of God.” Ensign Nov. 1991.
Paulsen, David L., and Martin Pulido. “‘A Mother There’: A Survey of Historical Teachings about Mother in Heaven.” BYU Studies 50.1 (2011): 70-97.
Toscano, Margaret Merrill. “Is There a Place for Heavenly Mother in Mormon Theology?: An Investigation into Discourses of Power.” Sunstone 133 (2004): 14-22.