Is Heavenly Mother Making a Comeback in Mormonism?

It’s a little-known fact: according to Mormon tradition, God is not an old man but rather a male-female couple: a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother. Yet for most of the twentieth century you could go a month of Sundays in most Mormon congregations without hearing Heavenly Mother so much as mentioned—a taboo that may finally be waning.

The Mormon doctrine of a Heavenly Mother was articulated in 1845 by the Mormon author and thinker Eliza R. Snow, in the lyrics to a hymn:

In the heavens are parents single? No, the thought makes reason stare!
Truth is reason, truth eternal Tells me I’ve a mother there.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, at the height of Mormon speculative theology, Heavenly Mother was referenced frequently by both male and female LDS Church leaders. Since that time, an agglomeration of folk tradition and anti-feminist retrenchment made talking about Mother in Heaven virtually taboo. Growing up, I heard various unsatisfying explanations for the absence of Heavenly Mother from Mormon discourse, including the canard that Heavenly Father didn’t want us to talk about Her lest someone sully Her name.

In the early 1990s, Mormon feminists challenged the taboo with an outpouring of creative and theological works dedicated to Heavenly Mother. In 1991, LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley responded to the heightened visibility of Heavenly Mother by cautioning Church members against praying to Her. President Hinckley’s cautionary address, along with excommunications and firings of prominent Mormon feminists, renewed the perception among mainstream conservative Mormons that Heavenly Mother should not be talked about. In 1996, Brigham Young University Professor Gail Houston was fired for publicly describing her personal relationship with her Mother in Heaven, including her use of “meditation” and “visualization” to deepen that relationship. Houston’s case brought BYU under censure from the American Association of University Professors.

But new evidence suggests that the taboo might finally be easing. Research funded by the BYU Women’s Research Institute and published this year in the journal BYU Studies reviewed more than 600 references to Heavenly Mother in Mormon discourse since 1844. ”Most Mormons believe that discourse about Heavenly Mother is forbidden or inappropriate,” write study authors David Paulson and Martin Pulido, a misperception the authors soundly dispel by demonstrating that it has no basis in Mormon history or doctrine.

LDS women’s advocacy groups are also making notable efforts to heighten awareness of the female divine, and some Mormons are reporting an uptick in Mother-in-Heaven references over the pulpit last weekend—it being Mother’s Day, and all.

Is Heavenly Mother making a comeback in Mormonism? Here’s hoping.

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Joanna Brooks is the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (Free Press / Simon & Schuster, 2012) and a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches.