Mormon mystery • She's the ultimate mom and members revere her, but they know little beyond that.
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On Sunday, Mormon speakers may share stories of supermoms who run marathons, home-school their 10 children, help out at the homeless shelter and sing Bach cantatas all while leading daily prayers, scripture study and blogging about it.
Few members, however, will hear about the greatest mom of all: Heavenly Mother.
Though she has been acknowledged by Mormon prophets and celebrated in LDS hymns, Mother in Heaven is absent from missionary materials, religious manuals, youth programs, and, for the most part, scriptural texts.
This is not surprising, given that the belief presents a conundrum for the Utah-based faith: While more talk of God the Mother would appeal to some potential converts yearning for more female recognition, it might become entwined in the push to ordain women or in feminist politics. Yes, it would underscore Mormonism's uniqueness, but it also could turn off those who come from traditional Christianity,
allowing more outsiders to view Latter-day Saints as non-Christian.
No matter what the institution does, more and more LDS women are finding solace, empathy and identification in the notion of a Mother God. Most do not pray to a female god, but many do write, talk or whisper about her and some unexpectedly sense her presence.
It is, after all, one of the faith's boldest theological contributions.
Heavenly Mother, says Elizabeth Hammond, a Boston Latter-day Saint who does plan to include the female deity in her Mother's Day talk, "is what sets Mormonism apart as potentially the most empowering and woman-friendly [form of] Christianity."
She is the church's "ace in the hole," Hammond says. Her existence "leaves us a huge field of potential to develop an exciting, modern egalitarian theology."
It's no wonder, then, that some Mormon women are stepping lightly into the mystery of who and what she is.
From the beginning • All this Mother God talk emerged in Mormonism's 19th-century beginnings, when founder Joseph Smith declared that God is a literal father of Jesus and all human spirits. It made sense to Smith and subsequent LDS leaders that Heavenly Father must have a wife.
"In the heavens are parents single? No, the thought makes reason stare! Truth is reason, truth eternal, tells me I've a mother there," LDS poet and early Mormon women's leader Eliza Snow penned in the poem "Invocation, or the Eternal Father and Mother," which became the hymn "O My Father."
According to researcher Linda P. Wilcox, author of a 1980 groundbreaking article, "The Mormon Concept of a Mother in Heaven," LDS President Wilford Woodruff "gave Snow credit for originating the idea."
"That hymn is a revelation, though it was given unto us by a woman," Wilcox quotes Woodruff as saying.
"President Joseph F. Smith claimed that God revealed that principle ('that we have a Mother as well as a Father in Heaven') to Joseph Smith," writes Wilcox, "that Smith revealed it to Snow, his polygamous wife; and that Snow was inspired, being a poet, to put it into verse."
Mormonism's understanding of creation is that "the Gods went down to organize man in their own image, in the image of the Gods to form they him, male and female to form they them."
In this view, "God comprises an exalted man and woman," says Fiona Givens, co-author with husband Terryl of The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life. The belief that "we are children of heavenly parents [is] a radical break with traditional Christianity."
In 2011, Brigham Young University professor David L. Paulsen and his student Martin Pulido found some 600 references to Heavenly Mother in Mormon and academic discourse from 1844 to the present.
She is depicted, they write in their BYU Studies article, "'A Mother There': A Survey of Historical Teachings about Mother in Heaven," as "procreator and parent, as a divine person, as co-creator of worlds, as co-framer of the plan of salvation with the Father, and as a concerned and loving parent involved in our mortal probation."
Paulsen and Pulido see their research as debunking the idea that LDS leaders don't mention Heavenly Mother much, and neither should members.
Others are not so sure.
Believe but don't pray • In the late 1980s, some Mormon women began exploring the history and theology of Heavenly Mother. A few even mentioned her in prayers and speeches, which triggered consternation among male LDS leaders.
In 1991, then-apostle Gordon B. Hinckley, who would rise to church president four years later, affirmed the church's teaching about Mother God, saying, "Logic and reason would certainly suggest that if we have a Father in Heaven, we have a Mother in Heaven. That doctrine rests well with me."
But Mormons do not pray to her, he said, "because Jesus Christ ... taught us to pray to our Heavenly Father."
A few months before Hinckley's speech, Janice Allred, a devout Mormon living in Provo with her husband and nine kids, gave a Mother's Day talk in which she discussed Heavenly Mother. It was well-received, she recounts in a recent Sunstone article titled "The One Who Never Left Us." Several congregants even asked for copies.
A year after Hinckley's remarks, however, Allred gave a speech at Sunstone Symposium, "Toward a Mormon Theology of God the Mother."
In it and subsequent pieces, Allred didn't advocate praying to Mother in Heaven, nor say she did so herself. She did, however, argue that God the Mother is the Holy Spirit.
"I proposed that the Eternal God is both a Man and a Woman the Eternal Father and the Eternal Mother. They are both fully God and they work together to bring to pass our immortality and eternal life," Allred said of her 1992 speech. "To do this, the Father sacrifices his eternal body to become the Son to redeem us from our sins, and the Mother sacrifices her eternal body to become the Holy Spirit to comfort, enlighten and sanctify us."
Allred was excommunicated in 1995 for such writings.
A few years later, Allred's sister and respected Mormon feminist Margaret Toscano, was also excommunicated in part for writings about God the Mother. Others were reprimanded or threatened with discipline, and much of the public discussion went underground or went away.
Now Heavenly Mother seems to be flowing back into Mormon conversation bit by bit even her relationship to the Holy Ghost.
A female in the Godhead? Diane Pritchett, a former LDS Relief Society president in Boston, isn't afraid to talk about Mother in Heaven, but also doesn't like either the "fuzzy and sentimental" deity or the politically motivated view of her divinity.
Pritchett is, however, intrigued by the idea of a woman among the gods.
"When we talk about a trio in the Godhead, we very clearly see a female element in the Holy Ghost," she writes from India, where she currently lives. "It drives me crazy when people refer to the Holy Ghost as 'he' does this or 'he' does that because when I look at the traits of the Holy Ghost mentioned in the scriptures and the things that the Holy Ghost offers us, these traits all appear to be female traits to me."
Pritchett realizes there are issues to be worked out with the notion of a female Holy Spirit. Mormonism teaches that God the Father and Jesus are separate beings with exalted bodies and that the Holy Ghost is a spirit man. But Pritchett is willing to wait for time and future revelations to clarify the Divine Mother's role.
Givens also recognizes the difficulty of assigning specific attributes without more scriptural guidance.
"I find a compelling case for wisdom but that still leaves so much unanswered," Givens says. "Is she part of the Godhead? One assumes she is. So, is she the Holy Spirit? The spiritual record is silent on this and so much else that we fall into the sticky quagmire of speculation."
For her part, BYU-Idaho historian Andrea Radke-Moss raises questions about Heavenly Mother's role.
"Is she truly a goddess and a priestess who enjoys priesthood power through the creation of worlds and spirits?" Radke-Moss asks. "Or is she like what women are expected to be on Earth a submissive helpmeet to God the Father ... [or] a spiritual birthing/nurturing machine?"
Part of the problem, the historian says, is that "both gender roles are currently embodied only in God the Father he is both priesthood leader and loving nurturer. She is absent from this gendered division of labor in families."
Radke-Moss worries that too much definition might establish Heavenly Mother as "a 20th-century June Cleaver stay-at-home mother writ large."
LDS writer Julie Smith of Austin, Texas, seconds that view.
"The reason that we don't talk about Heavenly Mother is that there is nothing that we can say about her that we couldn't say about him," Smith says. "We say that gender roles are eternal, but then we see our heavenly parents fulfilling roles that are pretty much inverted from what we expect of earthly parents: God the Father is 'home with the kids' but the Mother has no relationship with her kids. That's pretty odd."
Experiencing the feminine • Heavenly Mother didn't hold much sway for Tresa Edmunds until she became a mom herself.
"It was seeing the importance of my role in the life of my son that turned my heart to her," says the Mormon writer from Modesto, Calif. "Since he was born, I have felt whispers that feel distinctly feminine in ways I never paid attention to before."
On the other hand, it was a hysterectomy in her 30s and the reality of childlessness that propelled one Midwestern Mormon to seek a female god.
"I couldn't fathom how I would ever rebuild my life and dreams with only the 'help' of a male deity who couldn't understand many aspects of my experience," she writes, asking that her name not be used due to the personal nature of her story. "Was there any place for me in this church, or, more importantly, in the eternities, as a childless woman? I don't feel that I ever received any answers to those questions during that period. I was trying so hard to connect with the Divine, but there was a real distance between me and God."
Slowly she began to pray to Mother God, hoping to feel some relief from her uniquely female pain and she did.
"By praying to her," the woman says, "I have found some answers and I have started the healing process."
Like many Mormons, Sarah Familia grew up always knowing about Heavenly Mother, but never really talking about her.
"The relative absence of my Heavenly Mother didn't ever bother me much," she writes in a four-part essay at timesandseasons.org. "In fact, when I thought of her at all, I thought of her as a sort of special, beautiful secret, or an esoteric doctrine I found aesthetically pleasing. To me, she was more of an idea than a real person; certainly she didn't seem as 'real' as God the Father or Jesus Christ, whom I heard about every week at church."
That all changed in 2011, when she was writing poetry about biblical figures on a beach in Tunisia.
"Heavenly Mother appeared in one of my poems," Familia explains. "After I'd written it down, and then polished up the rhyme, meter, and internal assonance and consonance till every word was perfect, I just sat and stared at it. There she was, unaccountably, but undeniably. I hadn't set out to write a poem about her. She had just appeared, unbidden, like a rare pearl unexpectedly washed up on the sand at my feet."
In that moment, her life changed.
The Divine Mother was "no longer just an idea, but suddenly as disconcertingly real as God the Father, as if she had somehow breathed life into herself," Familia writes. "My eyes were opened to a ravishing new world."
Confusion about Mother • Not everyone is drawn to the Divine Feminine.
Hearing about Heavenly Mother for the first time, Mormon convert Chelsea Sue was shocked.
"I grew up in the Baptist Church where all praise goes to God," says Sue, a BYU student at home in Brooklyn for the summer. "I first heard about it in my student ward in a Relief Society lesson about our divine potential. I realized I am not going to grow up to be a man; I'm going to be a heavenly mother."
Sue embraces a Mother God, but certainly won't pray to her "Jesus said give glory to the Father."
She worries about other black converts, who also hail from a Protestant background "where it was just God and the Trinity. They have to navigate it for themselves."
Heavenly Mother may also be a tough to imagine for Mormons who have complicated relations with their own moms.
Salt Lake City resident Rebecca Owen values the chance to do "for my children the myriad things that love encompasses: to cherish, guide, comfort and be comforted, enlighten and be enlightened, teach and be taught, share in both pain and joy, and to generally succor them."
Owen cherishes the relationship with her 87-year-old mother, though the two are very different.
"There are many aspects of my deepest self that she doesn't 'get,' " Owen writes in an email. "Likewise, my dad, for all his great qualities, naturally doesn't completely 'get' me."
LDS teachings provide assurance, she says, that "God my Heavenly Father and Christ 'get' me; that the frailty and brokenness of our most tender and vulnerable earthly relationships, our families, can be ameliorated in part through God's love."
Mormons, Owen adds, don't have enough information to know how Heavenly Mother would handle those differences.
While Pritchett also would love more insight into Mother in Heaven, the enigma has not prevented genuine spiritual experience.
The few times she felt God's presence, she says, were so overwhelming that it "didn't really matter to me whether that presence was male or female."
Hints from a hymn
The following passage by Eliza R. Snow in the Mormon hymn "O My Father" is perhaps the most widely quoted reference to the LDS teaching of a Mother in Heaven:
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.
When I leave this frail existence,
When I lay this mortal by,
Father, Mother, may I meet you
In your royal courts on high?