This post, instead of being about gender dysphoria, focuses more on ‘truth.’ Specifically, I question the assumption of the existence of a Heavenly Mother. I know that this can be a very heated topic and my intent here is not to offend or cut down anyone’s beliefs. I am completely comfortable with the idea of having a Mother in Heaven – I’m not writing this to demean the place of women in the eternities. I fully believe that they will attain a level of glory or godhood no less than that of men. I am completely uncomfortable, however, with believing things to be true that aren’t necessarily so. Thus, in this post I’ll examine evidence to see if the belief in a Mother in Heaven is doctrinally sound or if it’s assumed.
It’s a widespread belief among Latter-Day Saints that we have a Mother in Heaven, the spouse and companion of our Heavenly Father that bore us as spirit children. With our thoughts turning naturally to our mothers around Mother’s Day, there have been some recent posts by the Mormon blogging community assuming the existence of God’s female companion.
I spent some time a few months ago trying to dig and find out what’s really known and doctrinally established about a Heavenly Mother. It turns out that there’s not much.
What Mormons believe
From my experience being raised in the church, it seems like the common belief is that we have a Mother in Heaven just like our Father in Heaven. She is as perfect and divine as her spouse, and the only reason we don’t hear about her more is to keep Her sacred and ‘unprofaned.’ I don’t remember exactly where or when I learned this, whether it was at home, in Sunday School, or Seminary, but I think it’s safe to say that many, if not most, members that are part of mainstream LDS culture would agree with this view.
It makes perfect sense to put the fact that we all have earthly mothers together with the belief that God was once as we were (also a common belief that may not be well-established doctrinally). Our thought process often goes something like this: IF God was once like us (and took the same path we’re taking to exaltation), AND God is male, AND we have to enter into the new and everlasting covenant of marriage to be exalted (see D&C 131:2-3), AND the only way to do that is to have a man and a woman sealed together, THEN clearly God has a woman at His side who is exalted with Him.
We typically project our understanding of physical procreation onto spiritual procreation as well, and imagine that a Heavenly Mother bore and birthed our spirits.
This reasoning is fine, but it does rest on some assumptions that simply haven’t been revealed to be true or not. I’ll discuss those assumptions in a moment.
What the church says
I started my investigation by researching what official church doctrine there was on the subject. First I went to the church website and did some searches. Searching for Heavenly Mother or Mother in Heaven brings up only a handful of references in conference talks and manuals.
I found out recently about a list of these references compiled by a certain Nathan Richardson. The list may be accessed here. There are about 30 references that refer specifically to a Mother in Heaven.* Of these, only 3 are from talks given in General Conference (or General Women’s meetings). The rest come from other sources on lower rungs on the authoritative ladder, such as the hymnbook, church magazines, and church manuals.
The most recent reference is Pres. Hinckley’s address given in the General Women’s meeting in October of 1991 entitled “Daughters of God.” At the end of his address, after discussing how he regards it inappropriate to pray to a Mother in Heaven, he states:
“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… to which I may add that none of us can add to or diminish the glory of her of whom we have no revealed knowledge.”
That’s a pretty clear statement, but not nearly as direct as it could be. There are two salient features in this brief quotation I want to highlight:
- President Hinckley avoids stating that we have a Heavenly Mother, but rather says that the idea makes sense and he’s comfortable with it.
- He states that we have no revealed knowledge of her.
Many of the other references to a Heavenly Mother on the church website from earlier conference addresses take a line of reasoning similar to Pres. Hinckley’s – instead of directly stating her existence, they skirt around the fact by stating that it makes sense or questioning how it could be otherwise, thereby ‘affirming’ their belief in her existence.
One exception to this is a statement originally found in the First Presidency-authored essay “The Origin of Man”, first published in the Nov. 1909 Improvement Era (the precursor to the modern church magazines) and republished in the Feb. 2002 Ensign. The relevant quote is:
“All men and women are in the similitude of the universal Father and Mother and are literally the sons and daughters of Deity.” (78)
So, even though Joseph F. Smith clearly implied the existence of a Heavenly Mother, more recent church leaders have vacillated on the topic, going so far as to ‘suppose’ that she exists. What about scripture? No luck there, either – there are no scriptural references on the existence or nature of a Heavenly Mother. President Hinckley’s 1991 address is the latest word we’ve had on the matter.
The lack of scriptural evidence and the indirectness of statements like Pres. Hinckley’s are disconcerting to me. But even moreso, but why does he contradict the one or two earlier assertions or assumptions on the existence of a Mother in Heaven by saying that nothing has been revealed?
Other claims of her existence
Even though there is no scriptural basis and zero (or at least contradictory) modern revelation on the matter, that has not stopped members from taking the idea of a Mother in Heaven as valid and running with it. In particular, the Mormon feminist movement regularly assumes the existence of a Heavenly Mother. Many seek to know more about her and question why more isn’t revealed. Some church members also admit that they regularly pray to her.
In 2011 another study was published in the BYU Studies journal that surveyed references and teachings about a Heavenly Mother from 1832 to the present (“A Mother There”: A Survey of Historical Teachings about Mother in Heaven, by Paulsen and Pulido). This study comfortably assumes that the existence of a Heavenly Mother is doctrine, and goes on to report attributes and roles that can be inferred from a wide range of historical statements concerning her. From their own report, many references referring to such a being were found, showing that the idea of a Heavenly Mother is not a modern innovation.
This survey has been cited as showing the doctrinal basis for the existence of a Heavenly Mother. This is not the intent of the article, however. In fact, the authors are already assuming that she does exist. They have taken some measures to ensure the quality of the references by only including statements that were published by church presses, spoken in General Conference, or spoken by General Authorities (in presumably any context). However, they clearly state that they have not appraised their sources:
“In this paper, we will only report historical portrayals of Heavenly Mother’s roles. It is not our province to appraise this material… We have made every effort to act simply as surveyors of the available historical data.”
For their aim in the essay to survey how this topic has been treated, this is ideal. In our goals to determine whether or not a Mother in Heaven is a doctrine and truth it’s of little use. (Read another critical analysis on their report here).
Unfortunately, not all the sources are very trustworthy and many make the assumption that the phrase ‘heavenly parents’ refers to our Father in Heaven and His presumed wife. Certain sources also contradict each other, not only with Pres. Hinckley’s statement that nothing has been revealed by an earlier statement by George Q. Cannon that there was nothing to warrant a deification of her.
Time for the assumptions
So where do we go from here? Let’s take a look at what assumptions our belief in a Mother in Heaven is resting on if we don’t really have a scriptural or revelatory foundation.
The first assumption is that there is one way to exaltation and that the way that we’ll reach it is the way that our Heavenly Father reached it. This is the first half of Lorenzo Snow’s ubiquitous couplet “As man is God once was; as God is, man may be.” Pres. Hinckley has said in two different interviews that we don’t believe that God was once a man, that we don’t teach it, and that we don’t know much about it. So just because we may be required to have an spouse to be exalted, that doesn’t imply or necessitate that God had to as well.
This assumption could potentially hedge us up in at least two ways – we could assume that our Heavenly Father has an eternal companion when in fact that is not accurate. It could be possible that He has no eternal companion. It could be possible that He has more than one (polygamy, anyone?). Due to the many authoritative references to ‘Heavenly parents’, however, it seems safe to say that He has at least one eternal companion. Whether that is a single spouse or multiple spouses remains to be revealed. The second difficulty comes in the assumed gender of His companion(s).
We assume that God has a single, female spouse based on our current expectations in mortality and the eternities – monogamous heterosexual relationships. (As opposed to homosexual or polygamous relationship which are not allowed.) With polygamy, it is unclear as to whether it will be practiced in the Celestial Kingdom. The church has not spoken much recently on this (possibly because it seems a little at odds with the focus on the one man, one woman, children family model that is so promoted). Though I don’t have any authoritative sources at the moment, I’ve read that some early church leaders believed that polygamy would exist, but like the whole existence of a Heavenly Mother, this is significant contradiction from modern church leaders on the topic. Bruce R. McConkie said that “obviously” it would continue in his Mormon Doctrine. President Hinckley later said that he didn’t know. Regardless, men may still be sealed to multiple wives in the case of death or divorce of the first spouse.**
With homosexuality it’s a little different. The church opposes homosexuality and I’m not aware of any clear historical evidence of this having ever been different. That doesn’t mean that we have all the information, however. Some large, unanswered question remain – what do homosexual individuals have to look forward to in the eternities? Life alone? A reversal of their sexual orientation? Maybe they just won’t be as satisfied as heterosexuals? Rather than answering these questions, the church just reiterates the commandment that sexual relations are only proper within marriage (which is also assumed to be heterosexual).*** It’s for this reason that I think the door isn’t quite shut on homosexuality yet and that the way it’s handled by the church is subject to some (perhaps significant) change.
A heterosexual person would naturally assume that the spouse of a male God is female. A homosexual person would probably assume otherwise. Would any of us assume that God has multiple wives? In the absence of revelation on the nature of God’s companion, how do we know?
What are the right questions?
Wanting to know more about our Heavenly Father’s eternal companion is a well-motivated endeavor. If we’re going to be like Him some day, it is reasonable to want to know more about how His relationship with His spouse translates into the eternities. Women, in particular marginalized by role models in authoritative and leadership positions, would like to know more about what exaltation might mean for them if our Heavenly Father’s companion is female. Obviously, knowing the particulars about Heavenly Father’s spouse is not critical to our salvation, or we’d know more. But why is authoritative revelation on the matter so sparse and contradictory?
One strong point of the Paulsen and Pulido article is an effective dispelling of the myth that we purposefully don’t know more about our Mother in Heaven because she’s too sacred and Heavenly Father doesn’t want us to profane her (also called ‘sacred silence‘). They establish that authorities have not taught this principle. But if this isn’t true (or at least was never taught through the appropriate channels), then the question reopens as to why don’t we know more about our Heavenly Father’s eternal companion?
The scriptures and modern revelation place great emphasis on the requirement that we have to enter into the new and everlasting covenant of marriage in order to obtain the highest degree of glory in the Celestial Kingdom (D&C 131:2-3 again). Regardless of whatever requirements God had to fulfill to be God, we know that we have to enter into this marital covenant and then live worthy of it if we hope to be gods.
Why then, when these eternal companionships are such a critical part of our mortal experience and eternal salvation, do we know nothing about the companionships of those who we are trying to be like?
Do we have a Heavenly Mother? Quite possibly – it certainly makes sense and seems like it could be. Could there possibly be a different alternative, one that perhaps you or I haven’t imagined yet? Yes, I think so. In the absence of specific, revealed details, all we really have established is that God has at least one eternal companion. More than that we really don’t know.
It’s my belief that God loves His daughters no less than His sons, and that women will have the opportunity to become gods no differently than men. So it seems safe to assume that Heavenly Mothers exist or at least will at some point. But whether we have one or not seems much less clear.
Perhaps, we know little about our Heavenly Father’s eternal companion because we have blinded ourselves with our own assumptions. Maybe by recognizing (and removing) our assumptions we’ll be able to better see what is actually there to be seen, and not what we want or expect to see. Truth needs a place to settle, and if we already ‘know’ something, then the truth of that matter will find no place in us.
Of course, we can’t answer these questions on our own – more information concerning the nature of our Heavenly Father’s spouse can only come to us through revelation.
May we be open to that revelation when it comes.
* For my purposes, all references to ‘heavenly parents’ are useless given that it assumes opposite genders and doesn’t actually implicitly show the existence of a female counterpart. It assumes that spiritual procreation mimics physical procreation and requires male and female. This very well may be true, but as far as I know nothing has been revealed on this and we just project our own limited understanding (i.e. make more unfounded assumptions).
** Of course, if God is polygamous, then it’s true that we have a Heavenly Mother, my Heavenly Mother just may not be the same as yours…
*** Based on the Law of Chastity as given in the temple, two same-gender persons that are legally married are not breaking the commandment. If opposite genders are necessary to keep this law, why is it not explicitly mentioned there, where all the limits are laid out? This is an interesting topic that I’ll delve more into in the future.