To Mormons, Heavenly Mother is the ultimate, but unknown

The Salt Lake Tribune/May 10, 2013

Salt Lake City - On Sundays, 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 hymns of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 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.

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 plans 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, the 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.

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's 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.

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.

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.

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