Early feminists talked about a Heavenly Mother — and not all of them were Latter-day Saints

(Photo illustration by Amy Lewis | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Nineteenth-century Latter-day Saint feminists were not alone in their belief in a Heavenly Mother.

There are hints of a feminine deity in ancient Hebrew scriptures and stories as well as in writings of early Christian fathers, scholar Fiona Givens argued Thursday at a “Women of Mormondom” conference at Orem’s Utah Valley University.

Givens was a keynote speaker at the two-day symposium, exploring themes of polygamy, political polarization, marriage, family and gender and publishing female voices.

The Eugene England Lecture to be given Thursday night by Laurie Maffly-Kipp, professor of religion and politics and Washington University in St. Louis was titled “‘This is a Woman’s Church’: Prophetesses, Domestics, and Rangatira in Mormon History.”

In her lecture, Givens, co-author of “The God Who Weeps,” said 19th-century women in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints likely were encouraged in their ideas about a Mother God by American suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Stanton and a committee of other women published The Woman’s Bible, in which they interpreted the Genesis story, Givens told a packed audience, to include “a plurality of gods” indicated by the “let us” references to the creators.

“‘A Heavenly Father, Mother, and Son would seem more rational,’ more than three male personages,” the scholar quotes Stanton as saying.

The Shakers, an 18th-century faith, “also posed an unusual challenge to divine patriarchy,” Givens said, “positing as they did a female incarnation of Jesus in [founder] Ann Lee.”

In her prepared remarks, Givens concluded that “Mormonism has already achieved two feminist landmarks toward which Cady Stanton could only wistfully aspire, and which no other Christian tradition has yet to accomplish.”

It has “a scripturally warranted dogma that places Eve at the forefront, as the initiator and bold champion of the entire human family’s sojourn on earth,” she said, “and a theological affirmation of a feminine counterpart to God the Father, equal in glory and divinity.”

What remains is for Latter-day Saints, Givens said, “to tap more deeply the potential of a theological framework that has dared to challenge the model of unequivocal patriarchy, both on earth and in heaven.”

Kristine Haglund, former editor of Dialogue A Journal of Mormon Thought, spoke on anger in Mormon doctrine and culture at the conference, and was present for Givens’ speech.

Heavenly Mother scholarship is “a little more accepted by mainstream Latter-day Saints,” Haglund said, “since the first publications in the 1980s and 1970s by scholars Linda Wilcox, Margaret Toscano, Janice Allred and Maxine Hanks.”

The church itself “has assimilated some of this scholarship into its own essay,” said Haglund, a Boston-based writer and editor. “And general authorities are referring to ‘heavenly parents’ more frequently over the pulpit these days.”

The conference took its name, “Women of Mormondom,” from an 1877 volume by the same name, which included hundreds of profiles of Latter-day Saint women.

“While written by Edward Tullidge, Eliza R. Snow solicited material for the book, worked extensively on the manuscript, and promoted it among LDS women,” UVU organizers wrote in the symposium description. “It was … the story Mormon women wanted told of themselves.”

What stories do LDS women “want told about their lives today?” they wondered. “What shape do their lives reflect in contemporary American culture?”

The conference, sponsored by the school’s Center for the Study of Ethics, continues Friday.