Richley Crapo – Gender Differences in Mormon “Mother in Heaven” Folklore

Gender Differences in Mormon “Mother in Heaven” Folklore

Richley Crapo, Utah State University

(undated)

As has been noted by Peggy Sanday (1981), creation myth symbolism is closely related to gender roles in society. The role of the feminine in divine symbolism is found in many of the world’s cultures, especially in those whose gender roles are among the more egalitarian. Where men’s and women’s roles are equal in everyday life, female deities are prominent in creation stories, and female symbolism predominates: The female creators usually originate from within something such as water or earth, and working alone or in conjunction with male deities, they bring forth humans from the earth, mold them from clay, transform them from plants or animals, or carve them from wood-images that symbolize birth, creativity, and progress. In contrast, where women’s roles are markedly subordinate to those of men, the religious symbolism of creation typically emphasizes male gods who come down from the sky, and themes of warfare, aggression, and sexuality. In these societies, humans are often created out of the god’s body, by acts of sexual intercourse or through self-fertilization by the god, or by being born.

In male-supremacist societies, characteristics that are associated in the local cultural symbolism with feminine characteristics are used as explanations for the origins of various forms of evil, such as sin, illness, and death. For instance, in the Judeo-Christian origins story, it is Eve who succumbs to the temptation of the serpent and commits the first sin, the cause of death and the curse of pain in childbirth. In Greek mythology, illness, greed, and death were released into the world through Pandora’s impulsiveness and uncontrolled curiosity. This use of feminine symbolism is particularly common in male-dominant societies. In these societies, symbols derived from women frequently have negative connotations. For instance, menstrual blood may be regarded as supernaturally dangerous, especially to men.

In societies that lack significant gender stratification, feminine symbolism often has a much more positive connotation. For instance, origin stories may rely on metaphors of childbirth, and women’s ability to bear children may be a source of symbolism in which feminine essence is the source of life and fertility. In these circumstances female deities or divine couples are typically the central actors in creation. Thus, among the matrilineal, matrilocal Iroquois the central characters of the creation myth are two females, the Ancient Bodied One and her daughter who gives birth to the first humans, and among the egalitarian Ituri Forest Pygmies the forest which provides food and the resources for all other needs is personified androgynously as a divine Parent.

The archaic civilizations also had a place for goddesses as well. The most prominent of these were, of course, the compassionate Mother Goddess Asherah, wife of An, and her daughter Ninlil, the Virgin and wife of the wargod Enlil, who under a variety of names were worshiped throughout the Middle East.

But, although it is most common in less patriarchal societies, a feminine manifestation of the Divine is not totally alien within the western tradition. In the Jewish tradition, the feminine attributes of God were sometimes personified as the Shehkinah, the manifestation of the presence of God on earth. In Catholicism, Mary, the mother of Jesus, was elevated to the status of the Queen of Heaven, a divine mediator for all the human family. Among the Shakers of early nineteenth century America, the Messiah took on the form of a woman, Mother Ann Lee, and today Christian Scientists may pray using the androgynous mode of address, “Father-Mother God”.

Mormonism, which was founded in 1824 in the eastern United States has its own distinctive manifestation of the divine Feminine: a heavenly companion of God the Father, known generally as “Mother in Heaven”. Appropriately, references to this divine Consort of God were first penned by a woman, Eliza R. Snow–a polygamous wife of the Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith, Jr., in a poem she titled “Invocation, or the Eternal Father and Mother” in 1845. Put to music, this poem remains a favorite Mormon hymn, now titled “Oh, My Father”. The last two versus read in part (1):

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?

Then, at length, when I’ve completed

All you sent me forth to do,

With your mutual approbation

Let me come and dwell with you.

Mormonism of today is an ecclesiastical religion with a rather patriarchal structure. Its priesthood, which is held only by male members of the church, is organized into a complex hierarchy, presided over by a president. The president of the church is also referred to as the Prophet, Seer, and Revelator of the church. As the presiding official of the church, the Prophet is believed to receive direct guidance from God whenever this is necessary for the work of directing the church. Below the Prophet is the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, which is presided over by its own president and two counselors. Below this level are intermediary officers down to the local congregations, called wards. The presiding official of the ward is the bishop. The bishop is a nonpaid minister, as are all local members of the priesthood. His responsibilities are not to deliver weekly sermons, but to organize and preside over each Sunday’s worship services and all other business of the ward. In this work he is aided by his own counselors and a series of priesthood quorums within the ward. The local priesthood quorums are themselves organized into an age-graded system which is divided into two major components, the lower, or Aaronic Priesthood and the higher, or Melchizedek Priesthood. Boys are typically inducted into the Aaronic Priesthood at the age of 12 as Deacons. Their assignments include passing the Sacrament to members of the ward during the Sacrament meeting each Sunday. At 14 years of age, boys are ordained Teachers and are permitted to prepare the sacramental bread and water used in the service. Sixteen-year-olds become Priests, at which time they receive the authority to bless the Sacrament and to baptize. Eighteen-year-olds receive the full authority of the Melchizedek Priesthood as Elders, including the authority to confirm a baptized person as a member of the church and, by the laying on of hands, to give that person the right to receive direct and personal guidance through the Holy Ghost. At this time, it is expected that worthy males will spend a two-year period as unpaid, full-time missionaries for the church. For most, the next major change occurs at age 45, when men are inducted into a High priest’s quorum.

This recurring theme of Ecclesiastical authority wielded by a presiding male figure and two counselors is, appropriately enough, paralleled by Mormon concepts of a godhead of three distinct personages: a presiding figure, God the Father, and two supporting beings who carry out His work, God the Son, or Jesus, and the Holy Ghost. Thus, the recurring pattern of presidents and two counselors within the church structure mirrors Mormon theology, which includes a divine pantheon of many gods presided over by God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost. Jesus, the firstborn spirit child of God, and the Holy Ghost, another spirit son of God, are believed to be fully separate individuals from the Father. Their role in the Godhead is much like that of the counselors to the earthly Prophet of the church. Thus, church organizational structure reproduces forms that Mormons think of as divine in origin and that reinforce the value of a presiding role for males.

Within the Church, the women’s organization is an auxiliary program, since all policy-making and governing authority is vested in the priesthood. The men’s and women’s organizations are structurally equivalent, but they differ in authority and responsibility, with the women specializing in supportive service roles. Mormon ecclesiastical values reflect the secular differentiation of male and female roles. According to Shepherd and Shepherd (1984), Mormons are taught to idealize a family pattern in which the husband, as the family’s sole source of income, plays a presiding role and in which the wife, as counselor to her husband, specializes in domestic responsibilities.

In a neat correspondence of symbolic form that would have been greatly appreciated by Emile Durkheim for whom all things in heaven are a symbolic statement of things on earth, Mormonism’s Mother in heaven has taken her appropriate place somewhere in the background of the more outgoing male-dominated Godhead. Her role in Mormon theology is an auxiliary one, like that of the women’s organization within the church or of the wife within the idealized Mormon family. She is never explicitly mentioned in Mormon scriptures, She has no governing authority within the Godhead, and She is not approached in worship in any rituals of the church. Indeed, since the emergence of a feminist consciousness among some Mormon women, beginning in the 1980s, members of the Church have been explicitly warned by male General Authorities that prayer to the Mother in heaven is not approved. Indeed, a number of women have been excommunicated from the Church for their advocacy of a more central and active role for the Mother in Heaven within Mormon theology.

Nevertheless, ideas about the Mother in Heaven figure have found fertile soil within grassroots Mormonism in the 1980s and 90s. And the theme has blossomed forth in a variety of ways that avoid official sanctions. For instance, in 1980 Lisa Bolin Hawkins’s poem, “Another Prayer”, appeared in Exponent II, a Mormon feminist publication. Notice its prayerful supplicatory message (1):

Why are you silent, Mother? How can I

Become a goddess when the patterns here

Are those of gods? I struggle, and I try

To mold my womanself to something near

Their goodness. I nee you, who gave me birth

In your own image, to reveal your ways:

A rich example of thy daughters’ worth;

Pillar of Womanhood to guide our days;

Fire of power and grace to guide my night

When I am lost.

My brothers question me,

And wonder why I seek this added light.

No one can answer all my pain but Thee,

Ordain me to my womanhood, and share

The light that Queens and Priestesses must bear.

Besides prayer transformed into poetry, Mormon folklore of a Mother in Heaven has found other outlets: presentations at gatherings such as the Sunstone Symposia, articles exploring theological implications in liberal Mormon publications, and lately informal discussions on the internet. I will discuss a few examples from this last source, with particular attention to an interesting gendered difference in the ways in which the concepts are discussed.

Many Mormon women who express an interest in ideas about a Mother in Heaven do so in a way that emphasizes the personal importance of the nurturing symbolism that she embodies for them. At the same time, such women are careful to avoid direct conflict with the patriarchal injunction against Her direct worship. In so doing, one cannot help but note a passive-aggressive attempt to flirt with the edges of this injunction. As one woman put it, “Personally, when I am feeling a bit lonely for a female god (sometimes as a woman, it is just plain hard to relate to a male god), when I am saying my prayers, I will say something like, “tell Heavenly Mother that I said hi and that I’m thinking about her. And could you tell her that I’m currently struggling with (fill in the blank),and if she wants to pass on some info thru you or the Holy Ghost, that would be nice.” This example has a typical characteristic of women’s ways of seeking a relationship to the feminine aspects of the divine–a non-direct approach that seems to be a response to the fact that the male leaders of the Church have made it clear that directly addressing the Mother in Heaven is not an acceptable religious practice.

Women have creatively found other indirect approaches–a variety of prayer substitutes–that permit a sense of relating to an important religious image without challenging the taboo on prayer. One woman reported: “I have a friend who does not pray to Heavenly Mother, but will write letters to her (not written prayers).” Notice how careful women who are interested in the Mother in Heaven are to explicitly disavow any actual violation of the official taboo. Another less direct approach to relating to a Heavenly Mother figure is the use of journal entries or poetry writing as a prayer substitute. Consider the following journal entry of one woman (2):

Oh, my Mother are you there?

Can you hear me? Can you help me?

Do you stand beside my Father and wish to hold me again?

Are you busy in Celestial regions with your own sacred work?

Can you hear me? Can you help me?

Will you have compassion for me?

Mercy is your name–Endless, Eternal Woman.

Wrap me in your shining robe of Faith

And sing to me of your love.

Oh, my Mother–can you hear me?

I think I hurt too much for this life.

Will it make me more like you?

Beautiful is your glowing face.

Sometimes, I know you are close.

Oh, my Mother–can you hear me?

Will you help me?

Men, on the other hand, are much more likely to take an orthodox position of a Mother in Heaven who should be left in the divine Kitchen, so to peak. One LDS male reacted to the subject as follows: “I have a testimony that our Heavenly Mother wants us to pray to Father as Jesus has counseled us. She wants us to honor and revere the patriarchal Priesthood. She wants us to love the Twelve because the Son loves them. In fact, she wants everything that Father wants because she is a Good Wife, just as he is a Good Husband. We cannot please Heavenly Mother by offending the Twelve whom the Son has chosen. This is my testimony. I know these things because she is my mother too.”

On the other hand, this does not mean that men don’t speculate about the Mormon Mother in Heaven. But their speculation follows very different paths from that of the women.

The role of the Mother in Heaven as an important symbol for Mormon women of divine nurturance, love, mercy, and other positive qualities that Mormons attribute to their ideals of feminine gender roles is the aspect that has been most explored in various publications by Mormon feminists. Since this area is already being widely discussed, I wish to turn my focus on the ways in which the Mother in Heaven is discussed among men, for whom the emphasized symbolism is rather different–Mother in Heaven as seen through the lenses of male sexuality and aggression.

Although sexuality is rarely addressed in LDS sermons, and then only in strikingly Victorian euphemistic style, speculation about a Mother in Heaven, or even the possibility of Plural Heavenly Wives, can serve as a topic for the vicarious exploration of male sexual concerns. One male discussant, for instance, raised the question: “Has anyone ever considered that our Father in Heaven has more than one wife, and that we may have different spiritual mothers? Or, if we have the same mother, maybe there are other wives of our Father helping with other worlds. Just a thought, What does anyone think?”

Let me emphasize how strongly this contrasts with the relationship and feeling emphasis given to Mother in Heaven talk by Mormon women. For instance, the first woman to respond wasn’t very happy with the very question: “I don’t imagine my Heavenly Mother as one of a herd of cows to be bred for populating this or other worlds. And yes, I interpret ‘helping with other worlds’ in the context of polygamy as breeding. I would be glad to hear why other multiple wives of a god or a man are necessary.” She was not alone. The next woman to respond: “This anyone once walked in on a Gospel Speculation class one Sunday and heard a debate about this, and thought then that it was a pretty inappropriate topic, and still thinks so. Those who have had sacred experiences regarding Heavenly Mother shouldn’t feel compelled to recount them here, any more than many other sacred experiences belong in this public forum. (Pearls before swine, etc.). And those who haven’t had such experiences shouldn’t be speculating with cavalier nonchalance about the nature of deity. Just my personal opinion, but a rather heartfelt one.”

Nevertheless, among men, the question of heavenly reproduction just won’t go away. Another brother speculates that considering the many billions of humans who have been born, which Mormons regard as originally having been spirits born of the divine Parents, “…if a woman had sex, conceived, nurtured the spirit until it was born…and the process only took one day instead of 9 months, she would require 300 million years to have all those children by herself.” To reduce the gargantuan effort involved he bypasses the question of heavenly polygamy without explaining why, but one might speculate that (were it not for the rather Victorian sensibilities of 1990s Mormon morality) he might have argued that although it would reduce the labors of any one Heavenly Mother it would still involve a rather heavy preoccupation with effort of siring those billions by a single divine Father. his solution, does at any rate reduce the reproductive labors among the gods, for he suggests the possibility that we each may have not only different Heavenly Mothers but different Heavenly Fathers as well: “Let us suppose that 200 million people make it through the [earthly] testing process and are resurrected as Gods, then it would only require that each woman have a few children in order to have enough at one time [i.e., in a short time] to begin the earth creation process – under this arrangement it wouldn’t matter if a man had one or many wives (or even the unthinkable that everyone was married or sealed to everyone) – I think we as yet don’t even have a clue bout what love is all about.” Since, in Mormon thought the future estate of the elect is to become like God, this statement can be understood as a possible typification of deity. In direct words, he is suggesting that God the Father is simply the presiding Person among a large number of gods, the last generation to have undergone the process we mortals are now only halfway through. I should note that this idea that there might actually be many divine parents is not as alien to Mormon thought as it is to mainstream Judeo-Christian theology, since Mormonism has, from the days of its founder, espoused a monolatrous form of monotheism that does not reject the existence of many gods, but rather simply defines God the Father as the Supreme God: (Abraham 3:19).

Now I don’t wish to give the impression that Mormons, men or women, are any more homogeneous in their thinking than is any other group united by a common culture or subculture. I wish rather merely to assert that I see evidence in this grassroots theological speculation of a lively use of the Mother in Heaven as a vehicle of important concerns that play themselves out in common gender differences.

This somewhat Durkheimian notion that ideas about the Mormon Mother in Heaven are seen through the lens of gender can be illustrated by an examination of other variant streams of gender-related issues within Mormondom. For instance, gay and lesbian LDS participants on the internet (where the potential anonymity of the medium makes it easier to abandon the closet that mainstream Mormon values otherwise impose) are much less likely to separate the creation of human spirits from the symbolism of sexual intercourse among the Gods. Whereas heterosexual Mormon men assert, as one did, that “The Gods have children the same way we have children”, gay LDS discussants of Heavenly Mother repeatedly raised the possibility that the divine creation of spirit children might be through other means–adoption, surrogacy, or as one gay LDS man reacted to the last assertion: “Why do you think this? The reasons we have children in the way we do are quite clearly tied to our mammalhood. Within the next 100 years, I suspect we will be able to technologically do away with the necessities of the woman carrying the fetus. Why do you suppose the Gods still do it? Sentiment?”

It is not surprising that heterosexual members were not very taken with this view of reproduction. As woman put it: “We may be tied to mammalhood in mortality, and perhaps capable of manipulating mortal procreation, but we were formed in the likeness of God, male and female. They are personages with bodies, parts and passions. By definition, Godhood is eternal increase, meaning the begetting of spirit offspring and requires both male and female Gods. Whatever differences there may be between the processes of procreation for celestial bodies and mortal bodies, we’ve been given the closest simulation possible in this life. . . . I don’t think we’ve been given a ‘bait and switch’ example of procreation in this life. Marriage, children and family ARE the closest thing to our celestial family as we can recreate in mortality. Whatever differences we will find between mortal and celestial procreation on the other side, will be logical and prudent. Myself, after giving birth to seven children, am sort of counting on Eve’s curse pertaining only to this life so we won’t have to bring forth ‘eternal increase’ in pain and sorrow.”

Male aggression is also connected to ideas, at least rhetorical ones, about a Mother in Heaven. To another male, the idea of plural Mothers in Heaven had another appeal, an interesting way of “othering” someone: “A friend of mine . . . said when in conflict with another member: ‘We may have the same Heavenly Father but he (the other person) must have had a different Heavenly Mother'”

The emphasis on the need to relate personally to the Mother in Heaven and the focus on Her as an embodiment of love, mercy, and nurturance that one finds in discussions by Mormon women for whom the concept is important contrasts markedly with Mormon men’s tendencies to regard women’s desire of relating to Her as evidence of unorthodoxy and to shift from issues of relating to her toward thinking about her role. And these thoughts demonstrate a preoccupation with issues of a more male sort–issues such as the nature of procreation and the possibility of multiple consorts both for God the Father and, potentially for themselves in the future.

Now, this is not to say that all men and women differed in this way. One man, for instance, responded to the direct question of whether any men felt a need for a sense of connection with the Heavenly Mother by saying “I feel that need, for that connection. Although I know that it is not orthodox doctrine. Could one not feel that, when one knows She exists?” But even the direct question yielded only this one response, and no men spontaneously discussed such a personal need. Only women spoke of having prayed to Her, even before such acts were forbidden, and only women acknowledged practicing any kinds of indirect ways of relating to Her, such as writing letters, poetry, or journal entries. On the other hand, some women did not express an emotional longing for a sense of the feminine in their concepts of God, but conformed to the masculine pattern of talking about the concept as an issue of theological fact with personal implications. For example, recall the woman already quoted concerning eternal childbirth.

REFERENCES CITED

Sanday, Peggy. (1981). Female Power and Male Dominance: On the Origins of Sexual Inequality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

(1) Oh, My Father (Eliza R. Snow)

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?

All you sent me forth to do,

With your mutual approbation

Let me come and dwell with you.

(2) Another Prayer (Lisa Bolin Hawkins)

Why are you silent, Mother? How can I

Become a goddess when the patterns here

Are those of gods? I struggle, and I try

To mold my womanself to something near

Their goodness. I nee you, who gave me birth

In your own image, to reveal your ways:

A rich example of thy daughters’ worth;

Pillar of Womanhood to guide our days;

Fire of power and grave to guide my night

When I am lost.

My brothers question me,

And wonder why I seek this added light.

Ordain me to my womanhood, and share

The light that Queens and Priestesses must bear.

(3) Untitled Journal Entry

Oh, my Mother are you there?

Can you hear me? Can you help me?

Do you stand beside my Father and wish to hold me again?

Are you busy in Celestial regions with your own sacred work?

Can you hear me? Can you help me?

Will you have compassion for me?

Mercy is your name–Endless, Eternal Woman.

Wrap me in your shining robe of Faith

And sing to me of your love.

Oh, my Mother–can you hear me?

I think I hurt too much for this life.

Will it make me more like you?

Beautiful is your glowing face.

Sometimes, I know you are close.

Oh, my Mother–can you hear me?

Will you help me?

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