Heavenly Mother: Origin of the Mormon Doctrine of a Mother in Heaven
The doctrine of a heavenly mother is one of the most interesting and unusual elements of Mormon doctrine. This study examines the origin of the Mormon concept of a heavenly mother.
Heavenly Mother: An Official Mormon Doctrine
According to Mormon doctrine, all human beings, as its doctrinal manual Gospel Principles puts it, are “literally the sons and daughters” of “heavenly parents.”1 Belief in a heavenly mother, while not emphasized, is an official part of Mormon doctrine, as the reference to “heavenly parents” in Gospel Principles illustrates. A statement by the First Presidency in 1909 entitled “The Origin of Man” affirmed this belief as official LDS doctrine: “All men and women are in the similitude of the universal Father and Mother and are literally the sons and daughters of Deity.”2 This sentence was repeated in another official statement of the First Presidency in 1925 entitled “‘Mormon’ View of Evolution,”3 and the whole 1909 statement was re-published in 2002 in the LDS Church’s flagship magazine Ensign.4 Another official statement of the First Presidency, this one on “The Family,” affirmed in 1995 that every human being “is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents.”5 That same year, Mormon apostle Dallin H. Oaks stated, “Our theology begins with heavenly parents.”6
The idea of a heavenly mother continues to be an important though little-developed aspect of Mormon doctrine. An article that appeared on the LDS Church’s official website in February 2014 entitled “Becoming Like God” noted that Mormons believe “that their divine parentage includes a Heavenly Mother as well as a Heavenly Father.”7 An article on the same website entitled “Mother in Heaven” published in October 2015 affirmed, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that all human beings, male and female, are beloved spirit children of heavenly parents, a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother…. The doctrine of a Heavenly Mother is a cherished and distinctive belief among Latter-day Saints.”8 Thus, there is no question that belief in a Heavenly Mother is part of the official doctrine of the LDS Church.
Heavenly Mother: Not in the Mormon Scriptures
Neither the 66 books of the Bible nor any of the scriptures that are distinctive to the LDS Church ever mentions a heavenly mother. The term “heavenly parents” also never appears in any of the scriptures, nor does any other language that would expressly or clearly indicate the existence of a heavenly mother. This complete absence of any reference to a heavenly or divine Mother contrasts with the hundreds of references to God the Father in the Bible as well as in the Book of Mormon and Doctrine & Covenants.
Not only do the LDS scriptures never mention a heavenly mother, but they also say some things that point to the conclusion that we do not have literal heavenly parents. For example, the Book of Mormon refers ten times to Adam and Eve as “our first parents” (1 Nephi 5:11; 2 Nephi 2:15; 9:9; Mosiah 16:3; Alma 12:21, 26; 42:2, 7; Helaman 6:26; Ether 8:25). Since it never qualifies this description in any way (for example, by calling them “our first parents on earth”), the natural way to take these words is that Adam and Eve were literally our very first parents.
Joseph Fielding Smith acknowledged “the fact that there is no reference to a mother in heaven either in the Bible, Book of Mormon or Doctrine and Covenants,” though he argued that this fact did not disprove her existence.9 However, the lack of any reference to a heavenly mother in Scripture is puzzling, because this would seem to be a very important thing to know. Imagine you were separated from your parents at birth and then when you were an adult you met some people who knew them. Would it not be odd if they talked repeatedly about your father but never even mentioned your mother?
In an important article on the subject, David Paulsen and Martin Pulido review the history of Mormon teachings relating to the heavenly mother. They found that Mormon general authorities and other teachers and writers have taught that Heavenly Mother is “a procreator and parent, a divine person, a co-creator, a coframer of the plan of salvation, and is involved in this life and the next.” They also conclude that the concept of a heavenly mother touches on a number of “unquestionably important LDS doctrines,” including “divine embodiment, eternal families, divine relationality, the deification of women, the eternal nature and value of gender, and the shared lineage of Gods and humans.”10 The full significance of the doctrine in Mormon theology makes it all the more strange that there is not one reference to a heavenly mother in the thousands of pages of the “standard works” accepted by Mormons as scripture.
Heavenly Mother: First References in W. W. Phelps
As will be discussed below, there are no documentable references to a heavenly mother from any of Joseph Smith’s numerous revelations, writings, and sermons. The earliest references to the idea come from others, around the time of Joseph’s death and especially within the first year or so afterward.
A likely first reference is found in a hymn written by W. W. Phelps, published in February 1844, less than five months before Joseph Smith was killed. The hymn, “A Song of Zion,” which unlike most of Phelps’s hymns was not published in a hymn book,11 contains the following enigmatic line:
’Tis like a little leaven
The woman hid for good,
When she, as queen of heaven,
In gold of Ophir stood.12
The reference to a woman who is “queen of heaven” sounds like a reference to the heavenly mother, since as will be shown below Phelps used this expression for a mother in heaven in other writings. The hymn rejoices over “the communion of saints” and praises its sweetness, echoing several passages in the Bible. It begins by comparing the sweetness of the communion of saints to the oil that anointed Aaron as priest and the dew on Mount Hermon (paraphrasing Psalm 133). The queen who stood in “gold of Ophir” is clearly an allusion to Psalm 45:9, part of a Messianic psalm applied to Jesus Christ in Hebrews 1:8-9:
Phelps, “A Song of Zion”
Psalm 45:6-9 KJV
’Tis like the precious ointment
’Tis like a little leaven
1 God… 2 hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things….
Psalm 45 is a coronation psalm celebrating the crowning of a Davidic king (perhaps Solomon13). Its lines about the king’s everlasting kingdom and divine approval (Ps. 45:6-7) are interpreted in Hebrews 1:8-9 typologically as fulfilled in Jesus, the Son of God, who was enthroned in heaven at his resurrection and ascension with a kingdom that really will be everlasting. Phelps understood Psalm 45 as referring literally to “Jesus Christ’s appointment” in heaven, and so he also apparently interpreted the “queen” in that Psalm as a literal queen in heaven.14
Although the reference in “A Song of Zion” to a heavenly mother is obscure and enigmatic, that Phelps was advancing the idea of a literal queen of heaven becomes clear from statements he made later that same year. Phelps composed another hymn, entitled “Come to Me,” that was published in January 1845, about seven months after Joseph’s death. This hymn refers explicitly to a heavenly Mother:
Come to me; here’s the myst’ry that man hath not seen;
Here’s our Father in heaven, and Mother, the Queen.15
The 2015 LDS.org article on the doctrine of a Mother in heaven cited Phelps’s hymn “Come to Me” as the earliest published such reference.16 About three weeks before Phelps’s hymn was published—around the same time as he wrote it—he also wrote a letter to Joseph Smith’s younger brother William Smith commenting in some detail on the idea of the Queen Mother of heaven:
O Mormonism! Thy father is God, thy mother is the Queen of heaven, and so thy whole history, from eternity to eternity, is the laws, ordinances and truth of the “Gods”—embracing the simple plan of salvation, sanctification, death, resurrection, glorification and exaltation of man, from infancy to age, from age to eternity, from simplicity to sublimity…. Christ hated sin, and loved righteousness, therefore he was anointed with holy oil in heaven and crowned in the midst of brothers and sisters, while his mother stood with approving virtue, and smiled upon a Son that kept the faith as the heir of all things! In fact the Jews thought so much of this coronation among Gods and Goddesses; Kings and Queens of heaven, that they broke over all restraints and actually began to worship the “Queen of heaven,” according to Jeremiah.17
Notice that Phelps here alludes again to Psalm 45, especially verses 7 and 9 (quoted above), as he understood it through Hebrews 1:8-9. This allusion confirms that in his earlier hymn “A Song of Zion” the “queen” of Psalm 45:9 was interpreted as referring to a divine queen in heaven.18
In short, W. W. Phelps is undoubtedly the author of the earliest references to a Mother in heaven. He seems to have expressed the idea in a veiled way a few months before Joseph’s death, but made it explicit in writings produced a few months afterward. David Paulsen thinks that Phelps “presented the doctrine matter-of-factly, as if commonplace, not novel,” implying that this points to Joseph Smith as the source of the doctrine.19 However, since Paulsen admits that there is absolutely no record of Joseph ever teaching the doctrine of a Mother in heaven, that idea clearly was not “commonplace” in 1844 or 1845. In actuality, Phelps did not present the doctrine in a matter-of-fact way. His first reference to the idea is an oblique, enigmatic statement in a poem. His second poetic mention of a heavenly Mother refers to the idea as “the myst’ry that man hath not seen,” indicating if anything the novelty of the claim. No doubt Phelps viewed Joseph’s teaching as the source of the ideas in his poems, and he even introduced his poem “Come to Me” with the words “A Voice from the Prophet.”20 This is not inconsistent with Phelps having extrapolated from Joseph’s teachings a conclusion Joseph himself had not articulated.
In short, although the point cannot be proved definitively, the evidence strongly suggests that W. W. Phelps was the Mormon thinker who originated the idea of a Mother in heaven.
Heavenly Mother: Eliza Snow’s Famous Poem
The best-known early reference to a heavenly mother comes from a poem written by Eliza R. Snow, one of Joseph Smith’s plural wives (she later became one of Brigham Young’s numerous wives). The poem, which later was set to music as a hymn and retitled “O My Father,” was written in October 1845 and originally published in November 1845 under the title “My Father in Heaven.”21 The poem includes the following lines:
I had learned to call thee father
Through thy spirit from on high;
But until the key of knowledge
Was restor’d, I knew not why.
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 court on high?
Paulsen and Pulido call Snow’s hymn “the best-known reference in Latter-day Saint literature to a Mother in heaven.”22 The question is, however, where this idea originated.
Curiously, virtually no attention has been given to the basis for the idea in the thought of W. W. Phelps, whose hymn published in January 1845 was the first explicit reference to a Mother in heaven. Instead, attention has focused on the source of the idea in Eliza Snow’s hymn. In 1893, six years after Eliza had passed away, Wilford Woodruff (at the time the fourth president and “living prophet” of the LDS Church) indicated that she had received the hymn as a revelation:
That hymn is a revelation, though it was given unto us by a woman—Sister Snow. There are a great many sisters who have the spirit of revelation. There is no reason why they should not be as inspired as men.23
Two years later, Joseph F. Smith insisted that although Eliza may have been inspired to produce the hymn, the idea of a heavenly mother that it expressed must have originated as a revelation to Joseph Smith, not to Eliza:
Our Heavenly Father has never yet to my knowledge revealed to this Church any great principle through a woman…. God revealed that principle [of a mother in heaven] to Joseph Smith; Joseph Smith revealed it to Eliza Snow Smith, his wife; and Eliza Snow was inspired, being a poet, to put it into verse. If we give anybody on earth credit for that, we give it to the Prophet Joseph Smith. But first of all we give it to God, who revealed it to His servant the Prophet.24
Joseph F. Smith’s assertion does not appear to have been based on historical knowledge, since he offered no information on how, when, or where Joseph Smith first articulated the doctrine. (Joseph F. Smith was five years old when his father Hyrum and his uncle Joseph Smith were killed in 1844.) Rather, Joseph F. Smith’s assertion was based on the dogmatic principle, generally accepted in Mormonism, that God does not reveal important new doctrinal truths to women (who do not even hold the LDS priesthood). Since he made this claim fifty years after Snow wrote her hymn, and since his claim appears to have been based on a dogmatic understanding of how doctrine is revealed, no weight can be placed on it.
The record continued to be confused as to whether Joseph Smith had privately spoken to Eliza about a Mother in heaven. In 1911, Susa Young Gates stated that Eliza had never commented on how she came up with the ideas in her poem: “no one thought to ask Sister Snow in life to recount the incidents connected with the composition of the famous and inspired hymn.”25 However, five years later in 1916, a Mormon leader named David McKay (father of David O. McKay, who became the President of the LDS Church in 1951) reportedly wrote a letter to a Mrs. James Hood in which he claimed that he had asked Eliza about it. According to McKay, she replied, “I got my inspiration from the Prophets teachings[;] all that I was required to do was to use my Poetical gift and give that Eternal principal in Poetry.”26 This letter would have been written some 29 years after Eliza’s death, an unknown number of years after the alleged conversation between McKay and Eliza, and 71 years after Eliza wrote her poem. Thus, McKay’s account (assuming the authenticity of the letter27) is a very late, third-hand account of what Joseph might have said on the subject. Moreover, the statement that McKay attributes to Eliza is ambiguous as to whether she was saying that Joseph had actually articulated to her the idea of a Mother in heaven. Indeed, the fact that McKay apparently reported Eliza saying she based her poem on Joseph’s “teachings” and not some private communication militates against the idea that she was referring to a doctrine disclosed only privately to her.
We do not know the source for Eliza Snow’s idea of a Mother in heaven. However, since she was a poet, she might very well have picked up the idea from the poetry of W. W. Phelps. As explained below, the idea would have fit with what Phelps and Snow knew of Joseph’s public teachings, even if he did not himself refer to a heavenly Mother. This explanation seems more likely than the supposition that Eliza heard the idea privately from Joseph Smith.
Heavenly Mother: Not Taught by Joseph Smith
LDS scholar Kevin Barney has written, “Aside from all doctrinal and scriptural inferences, the primary reason we believe in a Mother in Heaven is that her existence was revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith.”28 In fact, however, the concept of a heavenly mother was never part of the teaching of Joseph Smith. As one LDS scholar acknowledges, “In the writing and recorded discourses of Joseph Smith, there is no mention of Mother of Heaven.”29 Similarly, the 2015 LDS.org article on the subject acknowledges that “there is no record of a formal revelation to Joseph Smith on this doctrine.” There is no dispute on this point. However, the 2015 LDS.org article goes on to assert that “some early Latter-day Saint women recalled that he personally taught them about a Mother in Heaven.”30 Even the evidence for this claim is quite thin, since it derives not from “some” early LDS women but from at most one such woman—and her testimony comes third hand.
In 1911, Susa Young Gates (daughter of Lucy Bigelow Young, Brigham Young’s 22nd wife) wrote about something that she said she (and others) had heard from Zina Diantha Huntington Jacobs Young. Zina was one of Joseph Smith’s plural wives and later was Brigham’s 33rd wife. According to Susa, Zina (who had died ten years earlier in 1901) told about a conversation she had with Joseph Smith after her mother, Zina Baker Huntington, had died in 1839. In that conversation, Joseph had told Zina Diantha that she would be reunited not only with her earthly mother after death but also with her heavenly Mother:
“More than that, you will meet and become acquainted with your eternal Mother, the wife of your Father in Heaven.”
“And have I then a Mother in Heaven?” exclaimed the astonished girl.
“You assuredly have. How could a Father claim His title unless there were also a Mother to share that parenthood?”31
This testimony comes 72 years after the supposed event and is third-hand testimony (from Joseph Smith to Zina Young to Susa Young Gates). The best one can say is that Susa’s testimony is possible though very weak evidence for the claim that Joseph Smith privately held to the idea of a heavenly mother.
In the nature of the case, it is all but impossible to prove the negative claim that Joseph Smith did not express to a few people privately that there is a Mother in heaven. However, the burden of proof is on the claim that he did express this view. As LDS scholar Blake Ostler has stated, “All sources attributing the idea of a heavenly Mother to Joseph Smith are late and probably unreliable.”32 We know he did not publicly teach this idea. On the other hand, we also know that associates of his were articulating this idea within a year of his death (and possibly, in the case of W. W. Phelps, a few months before).
Probably the best explanation for the facts available is that Joseph Smith had laid the groundwork for the doctrine of a heavenly mother but had not “connected the dots” by articulating a revelation of her supposed existence. Certainly, Joseph’s teaching in the King Follett Discourse and in the Sermon at the Grove, his two most famous speeches toward the end of his life in 1844, furnished much of the doctrinal basis for the idea. Joseph taught in the King Follett Discourse that God the Father had been a mortal man, that he had become exalted to Godhood, and that human beings were meant to follow the same path as Heavenly Father had and to become Gods themselves. In the Sermon at the Grove, Joseph further taught that Heavenly Father himself had a Father who was his God. In that speech Joseph asked rhetorically, “Where was there ever a son without a father? And where was there ever a father without first being a son?”33 By this same reasoning, of course, one might well imagine early Mormons reasoning that since there has never been a son without a father and a mother, it follows that we must have a Heavenly Mother as well as a Heavenly Father. And indeed this is precisely what Mormons argued very soon after Joseph’s death. This line of reasoning is also reflected in Susa Young’s report of Zina hearing from Joseph that the Father could not be a Father without a Mother. Mormon leaders continued to use this same reasoning to validate belief in a heavenly mother. As Harold B. Lee put it, “We had a Heavenly Mother—can you think of having a father without a mother?”34
In addition, Joseph’s teaching in his revelation on plural “celestial” marriage may have encouraged the idea of a heavenly Mother. In that revelation, issued in 1843 and known to his close associates but not published until well after his death, Joseph taught that those who marry “by the new and everlasting covenant” and attain “exaltation…which glory shall be a fulness and a continuation of the seeds forever and ever. Then they shall be gods, because they have no end…” (D&C 132:19-20). LDS scholar Terryl Givens explains why this revelation might have led Mormons to infer the existence of a Mother in heaven:
If Smith in this revelation and thereafter linked the bearing of souls, or a continuing progeny (seed) in the eternal worlds, with the condition and status of “gods,” the implication is present that humans were themselves conceived and created as the spirit progeny of just such a Heavenly Mother.35
Mormons have long made this very connection, as for example Joseph Fielding Smith, the tenth President of the LDS Church.36
Thus, Phelps and Snow may have sincerely thought that their belief in a Mother in heaven was based on the revelations Joseph Smith had delivered in the final months before he was killed. It appears that Phelps was the first to articulate the idea of a heavenly Mother.
Heavenly Mother: A Doctrinal Deduction, Not a Revelation
Whatever the precise details of the origin of the doctrine, it is certainly puzzling that an essential element of Mormon doctrine, the belief in a heavenly mother, cannot be found articulated anywhere in the Bible, the Mormon scriptures, or in the teachings of Joseph Smith. The reason for this puzzling state of affairs is that LDS belief in a heavenly mother comes not from Mormon sources of divine revelation but from Mormons reasoning from what those sources say that she must exist. This is true even if we accept dubious late, third-hand testimony that Joseph himself engaged in this reasoning.
The Encyclopedia of Mormonism admits that “the scriptures contain only hints” at her existence, and even these supposed “hints” are nothing more than inferences from the doctrine that humans were literally the offspring of Heavenly Father: “Latter-day Saints infer from authoritative sources of scripture and modern prophecy that there is a Heavenly Mother as well as a Heavenly Father.”37 If Heavenly Father is the literal father of our spirits—procreating us as spirit beings like an earthly father procreates his children—Mormons argue that it would follow logically that we also have a “heavenly mother.” This Mother in heaven, of course, would be God’s wife. LDS scholar Charles Harrell makes this point when he says that “it took only a little inspired reasoning to realize that individuals began their career as spirit offspring of heavenly parents.”38
Eliza Snow’s 1845 hymn states quite explicitly that the belief depends on an inference from LDS revelation, not from any revelation that actually refers to her existence:
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.
Note the repeated appeal to “reason” as the basis on which Snow concludes that she has a mother in heaven. This statement confirms the likelihood that belief in a Mother in heaven was inferred from Joseph’s teachings rather than an idea delivered by Joseph explicitly. Likewise, Joseph Fielding Smith acknowledges that the scriptures never mention a heavenly mother but argues that “reason” or “common sense” tells us she must exist:
In answer to your question about a mother in heaven, let us use reason…. The fact that there is no reference to a mother in heaven either in the Bible, Book of Mormon or Doctrine and Covenants, is not sufficient proof that no such thing as a mother did exist there. If we had a Father, which we did, for all of these records speak of him, then does not good common sense tell us that we must have had a mother there also?”39
This answer does not explain why the scriptures never even once mention a mother in heaven. The appeal to reason shows that the idea of a heavenly mother is simply inferred to be true on the assumption that God is our father in the literal sense that he procreated us as his literal offspring. “The Mother in Heaven concept was a logical and natural extension of a theology which posited both an anthropomorphic god, who had once been a man, and the possibility of eternal procreation of spirit children.”40
Other Mormon leaders have repeated this idea that the doctrine of a heavenly Mother is to be accepted because it is a reasonable inference from the belief in a literal heavenly Father. For example, Gordon B. Hinckley, speaking in general conference, asserted, “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.”41
To the contrary, reason would suggest that if we had a Heavenly Mother, if it were as important for us to know about her as Mormon doctrine indicates, and if our Heavenly Father revealed himself to us and inspired thousands of pages of scriptural texts, then he would also reveal to us something about Heavenly Mother as well. Yet although God the Father has revealed himself and inspired the Bible (and Mormons would add their additional scriptures), he has told us absolutely nothing about a heavenly mother. The reasonable conclusion is that there is no Mother in heaven.
Heavenly Mother: A Nineteenth-Century Idea
So far we have shown that the doctrine of a heavenly mother is found nowhere in the Bible, in the Mormon scriptures, or in the teachings of Joseph Smith, and that its advocates routinely appeal to reason to justify the doctrine as an inference from other things Joseph did teach. One might suppose that the Mormon belief in a heavenly mother is so unusual and distinctive that it is plausibly explained as stemming from latter-day revelation. After all, who else believes in a heavenly mother besides the Latter-day Saints?
As it turns out, Mormons were neither alone nor the first to come up with the idea of a divine, heavenly mother. In fact, the idea was characteristic of a wide array of unorthodox movements and sects in the nineteenth-century Christian world and was a natural development in the context of the changing culture. As Linda Wilcox has noted, “The early nineteenth-century American milieu from which Mormonism sprang had some prototypes for a female deity as well.”42 Several of the more notable examples (most of which are mentioned also by Wilcox) will be cited here.
- LDS scholar Harrell has commented, “Even the Heavenly Mother and Father concept of later Mormonism was to be found in the esoteric teachings of the Kabbalah, which intrigued Christian mystics at the time of Joseph Smith.”43
- The Shakers were a sect that established communities in various places in the American Northeast, including three in the state of New York at Watervliet (1776), New Lebanon (1785), and Groveland (1826), some 48 miles southwest of Joseph Smith’s home town of Palmyra. Givens observes that “another principal Shaker community, North Union, was close to Kirtland,” the Ohio city where the Mormons settled for much of the 1830s. Jesse Gauss, the First Counselor in the LDS Church hierarchy under Joseph Smith, had been a Shaker, and Parley Pratt’s extended family included a number of Shakers. The “close connections” between the Shakers and the Mormons were such that “the Mormons explicitly condemned Shaker beliefs as heresy”44 (see especially Joseph’s revelation about the Shakers in Doctrine & Covenants 49). The Shakers taught a doctrine of “Heavenly Parents” that included both a Father and Mother. According to an advocate of the Shakers in the mid-nineteenth century, “An all-important, sublime, and foundational doctrine of the Shakers is the Existence of an Eternal Father and an Eternal Mother in Deity — the Heavenly Parents of all angelical and human beings.”45
- The 1840s, when the Mormon doctrine of a heavenly mother originated, was also the decade in which feminism emerged. Though as with any movement feminism had roots going back much further, the modern feminist movement attained formal definition at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, the first women’s rights convention. Seneca Falls was a city in the state of New York, located only about 25 miles southeast of Palmyra. One of the leaders at Seneca Falls, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, toward the end of the century published with other feminists The Woman’s Bible, a commentary on the Bible in which the Trinity was reinterpreted as Father, Mother, and Son.46 According to Stanton, men and women were “created alike in the image of God—the Heavenly Mother and Father.”47
- The mid-nineteenth century also was a period of exploding religious devotion to Mary in Catholicism, seen for example in the establishment of the Immaculate Conception as dogma by Pope Pius IX in 1854 and the famous apparitions of Mary at Lourdes in 1858.
- Finally, one might note that in Mary Baker Eddy’s 1875 book Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, God is called “Father-Mother God.”48
These various examples involve different views about how the feminine is related to the divine, but they all illustrate a definite emphasis on making some correlation of the feminine to God in nineteenth-century religious movements. They show that the Mormon concept of a heavenly mother did not arise in a vacuum, but reflected religious trends and developments of the time.
Heavenly Mother: False Doctrine “Begets” More False Doctrine
One lesson to be learned from the development of the Mormon doctrine of Heavenly Mother is that false doctrine tends to grow and to get worse over time. At first Joseph Smith taught that God had a spirit body that looked like ours but was not flesh and bones. He affirmed that there was only one God and that all things were created by God alone. But Joseph’s theology changed. Human beings went from created physical beings to created spiritual beings and then to uncreated spiritual intelligences. The Father went from a personage of spirit to a personage of flesh and bones to an exalted Man. God the Father went from being God from all eternity to being a mortal man who attained Godhood by his exaltation. The number of Gods went from one to two, from two to three, and at the end of Joseph’s life to an uncountable number of Gods, including Gods before Heavenly Father.
The Mormon doctrine of a Heavenly Mother is simply one result of that doctrinal development. Once God the Father had been conceptualized as a male human being with a flesh-and-bone body like ours with his own divine Father, and humans had been conceptualized as the Father’s children in heaven, it was a natural next step to conclude that our spirits had a Mother in heaven. Joseph Smith’s logic by which a father who has a son must also himself have a father led to the conclusion that where there is a father there must also be a mother. The doctrine of a Heavenly Mother is false, but the real problem lies in the Mormon doctrine of God. Having made the Gods in man’s image as literally beings of the same kind, Mormonism was bound to make the Gods male and female.
1. Gospel Principles (2009), 9. All LDS publications cited are published by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints unless otherwise noted.
2. Joseph F. Smith, John R. Winder, and Anthon H. Lund, “Origin of Man,” Improvement Era, Nov. 1909, 75-81; reprinted, for example, in Ensign, Feb. 2002.
3. Heber J. Grant, Anthony W. Ivins, and Charles W. Nibley, “‘Mormon View of Evolution,” Improvement Era, Sept. 1925.
4. Joseph F. Smith, John R. Winder, and Anthon H. Lund, “Origin of Man,” Ensign, Feb. 2002.
5. First Presidency and Council of the Twelve Apostles, “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” Ensign, Nov. 1995, 102.
6. Dallin H. Oaks, “Apostasy and Restoration,” Ensign, May 1995, 84.
9. Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions (1960), 3:142.
10. David L. Paulsen and Martin Pulido, “‘A Mother There’: A Survey of Historical Teachings about Mother in Heaven,” BYU Studies 50, 1 (2011): 85.
11. Peter Crawley, A Descriptive Bibliography of the Mormon Church, Volume 1 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, BYU, 1997), entry no. 196.
12. W. W. Phelps, “A Song of Zion,” Times and Seasons 5/3 (1 Feb. 1844): 431.
13. The “gold of Ophir” is associated in the Old Testament especially with Solomon (1 Kings 9:28; 10:11; 1 Chron. 29:1-4; 2 Chron. 8:18; 9:10).
14. Part of Phelps’s comparison is also drawn from Jesus’ parable comparing the kingdom of God to leaven that a woman hid in three measures of flour in order to make the bread rise (Matt. 13:33; Luke 13:21).
15. W. W. Phelps, “A Voice from the Prophet: ‘Come to Me,’” Times and Seasons 6/1 (15 Jan. 1845): 783.
16. “Mother in Heaven,” LDS.org.
17. W. W. Phelps, “The Answer,” letter in response to William Smith, 25 Dec. 1844, in Times and Seasons 5/24 (1 Jan. 1845 [misprinted as 1844]): 758.
18. The influence of Hebrews 1 is confirmed by Phelps’s reference to Jesus as “a Son that kept the faith as the heir of all things” (cf. “by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things,” Heb. 1:2 KJV).
19. David L. Paulsen, “Response to Professor Pinnock,” in Mormonism in Dialogue with Contemporary Christian Theologies, ed. David L. Paulsen and Donald W. Musser (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2007), 538.
20. As observed by Terryl L. Givens, Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 109.
21. Miss Eliza R. Snow, “My Father in Heaven,” Times and Seasons 6/17 (15 Nov. 1845): 1039.
22. Paulsen and Pulido, “A Mother There,” 71.
23. President Wilford Woodruff, “The Power of Faith,” general conference address, 8 Oct. 1893, in Collected Discourses Delivered by President Wilford Woodruff, His Two Counselors, the Twelve Apostles, and Others, comp. Brian H. Stuy (Burbank, CA: Brian H. Stuy Publishers, 1989), 3:410-11.
24. Joseph F. Smith, “Discourse,” Oneida Stake Conference, Franklin, ID, 20 Jan. 1895, published in The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star 58/12 (19 March 1896): 180.
25. Susa Young Gates, “Eliza R. Snow Smith,” in History of the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from November 1869 to June 1910 (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1911), 15 n.
26. As quoted in Linda P. Wilcox, “Mormon Concept of a Mother in Heaven,” in Women and Authority: Re-emerging Mormon Feminism, ed. Maxine Hanks (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992), 5. A slightly different version of this essay appears in Sisters in Spirit: Mormon Women in Historical and Cultural Perspective, ed. Maureen Ursenbach Beecher (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 64-77.
27. An endnote in Wilcox’s article gives the following citation for this quotation: “David McKay to Mrs. James Hood, 16 Mar. 1916, photocopy of holograph in possession of Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, courtesy of Shirley Bailey” (n. 12). It would be an interesting research project to track down this document and determine its chain of custody!
29. Jill Mulvay Derr, “The Significance of ‘O My Father’ in the Personal Journey of Eliza R. Snow,” BYU Studies 36/1 (1996): 98. So also Paulsen, “Response to Professor Pinnock,” 536.
30. “Mother in Heaven,” LDS.org.
31. Gates, “Eliza R. Snow Smith,” 16 n.
32. Blake T. Ostler, “The Idea of Pre-existence in the Development of Mormon Thought,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15 (Spring 1982): 76 n. 28.
33. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, ed. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1976), 373.
34. The Teachings of Harold B. Lee, ed. Clyde J. Williams (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1996), 22.
35. Givens, Wrestling the Angel, 108.
36. Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1960), 3:143-44.
37. Elaine Anderson Cannon, “Mother in Heaven,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 2:961, emphasis added.
38. Charles R. Harrell, “The Development of the Doctrine of Preexistence, 1830-1844,” BYU Studies 28/2 (Spring 1988): 89.
39. Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions (1960), 3:142.
40. Wilcox, “Mormon Concept of a Mother in Heaven,” in Women and Authority, ed. Hanks, 4.
41. Gordon Hinckley, “Daughters of God,” Ensign, Nov. 1991, 100.
42. Wilcox, “Mormon Concept of a Mother in Heaven,” in Women and Authority, ed. Hanks, 4.
43. Charles R. Harrell, “This Is My Doctrine”: The Development of Mormon Theology (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2011), 207.
44. Givens, Wrestling the Angel, 107.
45. Frederick W. Evans, Shakers: Compendium of the Origin, History, Principles, Rules and Regulations, Government, and Doctrines of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing (New York: D. Appleton, 1859), 103-104.
46. Cited in Paulsen and Pulido, “A Mother There,” 90 n. 38. The authors note that “Stanton was in close association with Sister Emmeline B. Wells (general secretary of the Relief Society; 1888–1910), who worked as editor for the Woman’s Exponent, an LDS-themed publication,” which even published an excerpt from The Woman’s Bible referring to the Trinity as Father, Mother, and Son.
47. Elizabeth Cady Stanton (ed.), The Woman’s Bible, Part I: Comments on Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy (New York: European Publishing Co., 1898), 1:21.
48. Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures (Boston: Trustees under the Will of Mary Baker Eddy, 1903 [orig. 1875]), 16.