Latter-day Saints are talking more about Heavenly Mother, and that’s where the debates and divisions begin

She remains a God of mystery. Some believers want to keep her that way. Others crave more answers. Meanwhile, LGBTQ and single members ask: Where do we fit?

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Malachi Wilson, curatorial assistant at Writ & Vision bookstore and fine art store, hangs a new exhibit titled "Visions of Heavenly Mother" in gallery space along Center Street in Provo on Tuesday, May 4, 2021.

Mormonism’s Heavenly Mother has gone mainstream.

She is the topic of a number of books on sale at Deseret Book, which is owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She has spawned essays (including an official one from the faith), poetry, a one-woman play, hymns, art shows, even academic debates.

She has been embraced as part of the church’s Young Women theme, which was updated in 2019 to say: “I am a beloved daughter of Heavenly Parents, with a divine nature and eternal destiny.”

There is a tidal wave of interest in this divine feminine among Latter-day Saints, observers say. It has become almost a movement.

Yet, with this tsunami has come pushback from critics on the right and left in the church, who argue proponents read too much or too little into the religious record.

In some quarters, she has become domesticated as God the Father’s wife, with no identity beyond birthing spirit children, or as a “heavenly housewife,” they complain. She may be seen as too white, too middle class, too Victorian for an eternal realm. Her marriage status leaves out singles and LGBTQ members.

She should be more mysterious, some say. Others want less ambiguity. However, attempts to define her more broadly or speculate about a possible identity — is she the Holy Ghost? — can be seen as going beyond, or against, church authority.

Just as this weekend’s Mother’s Day is fraught with tensions, “Heavenly Mother never is home free,” says Mormon scholar Margaret Toscano, who was excommunicated from the church decades ago in part for her writings about God the Mother. “She never gets a break.”

The invisible Mrs. God

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Malachi Wilson, curatorial assistant at Writ & Vision in Provo, hangs a new exhibit titled "Visions of Heavenly Mother" in gallery space along Center Street on Tuesday, May 4, 2021. Pictured in foreground is “Crafting the Universe,” by Lisa Aerin Collett.

Talk of a Mother God emerged in Mormonism’s 19th-century beginnings, when church founder Joseph Smith declared that God is a literal father of Jesus and all human spirits. It made sense to Smith and subsequent church leaders that Heavenly Father must have a wife.

“In the heavens are parents single? No, the thought makes reason stare! Truth is reason; truth eternal, tells me I’ve a mother there,” early Mormon women’s leader Eliza Snow penned in the poem “Invocation, or the Eternal Father and Mother,” which became the hymn “O My Father.”

In 2011, Brigham Young University professor David L. Paulsen and his student Martin Pulido found some 600 references to Heavenly Mother in Latter-day Saint and academic discourse since 1844.

She is depicted, they write in their BYU Studies article, “‘A Mother There’: A Survey of Historical Teachings About Mother in Heaven,” as “procreator and parent, as a divine person, as co-creator of worlds, as co-framer of the plan of salvation with the Father, and as a concerned and loving parent involved in our mortal probation.”

These days, the church’s view of Mother God has become most frequently entwined with the earthly roles for women spelled out in the faith’s family proclamation, with men as presiders and women as nurturers.

That leaves women like Kerry Spencer Pray feeling alienated.

“I’m a mother and a queer Mormon, married to a woman,” says Pray, who taught writing at BYU for 15 years. “For me, the rhetoric about Heavenly Mother is a little bit tricky because she has a husband and children. My life doesn’t fit.”

Trying to live the church’s “traditional” model of husband and wife “brought nothing but pain and a lot of anguish,” she says, so why would she want to embrace that in deity?

Besides, Heavenly Mother “doesn’t talk to us, and we don’t talk to her [as members are instructed],” says Pray, who now teaches at Stevenson University in Maryland. “In that sense, it feels like how the women in the church are supposed to be — to let their husbands preside over the family.”

Toscano fully understands the dilemma for LGBTQ members but believes the problem is the narrow definition, not with the divine feminine herself.

Embodiment is key

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) “Mother Divine,” by Courtney Vander Veur Matz, is part of a new exhibit at Writ & Vision in Provo titled "Visions of Heavenly Mother" on Tuesday, May 4, 2021.

Though the existence of Mother in Heaven “has achieved legitimacy in Mormon theology and culture, she is still absent in worship and everyday practice,” argues Toscano, who teaches world languages and cultures at the University of Utah, “and mostly referenced not as an individual deity but as one of the Heavenly Parents, a vague designation that subsumes her into a divine patriarchal family.”

Heavenly Mother is better viewed as a much grander and more multifaceted figure than that, the professor writes in an unpublished essay, “In Defense of the Heavenly Mother.” “Her many roles suggest a polymorphous divinity that makes room for non-gender-conforming individuals.”

Toscano understands the impulse to “eliminate any trace of an embodied, gendered God with physical characteristics such as skin color or sex on grounds that those who share those specifics with God are privileged over those who do not.”

But believing that God was “totally other, totally transcendent, totally beyond human attributes,” Toscano writes, “resulted in the denigration of the physical realm, including the earth, the human body, especially the female body.”

A new art exhibit, titled “Visions of Heavenly Mother,” is on display at Writ & Vision, 274 W. Center St., Provo, throughout May by appointment only.

Smith’s insight was to “put the physical creation on an equal footing with the spiritual, to see body and spirit, matter and mind,” she writes, “as inextricably connected and equally necessary for a fullness of joy.”

Thus, key to Mormon theology is that Mother God is “embodied,” the scholar insists in an interview. Latter-day Saints “can’t reject the mothering part of Mother in Heaven. We need more images, not fewer.”

If you throw out an embodied Heavenly Mother because of bad definitions, she says, “you are left with only a male God.”

And that is “not going to help LGBTQ people — it will just hurt women more.”

A nurturing counterpart

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A new art exhibit goes up in the gallery space at Writ & Vision in Provo titled "Visions of Heavenly Mother" on Tuesday, May 4, 2021.

The feminine divine is “a beautiful concept,” says Kimberly Applewhite Teitter, a psychologist in Salt Lake City. “Sometimes I feel disconnected from the way it is presented in the Latter-day Saint tradition, because either Heavenly Mother is a throwaway reference in a talk for appeasement without the satisfaction of elaboration, or she has been wielded as the model for white feminists in the church, who sometimes do not validate and see me as perfectly as a heavenly being would.”

Teitter likes the idea of “a nurturing counterpart to a divine provider, where I could emulate the archetypal forms of my divine heritage to be the best I can be,” she writes in an email. “I wish that we saw more of her. I wish we did not have to strain to hear her influence. But when I feel myself connecting to something higher than myself, I can see her there.”

So much of the discussion around Heavenly Mother is “dictated by a white feminist elite,” says Teitter, who is a Black Latter-day Saint. “Even the common complaint that the concept of Heavenly Mother is too gender binary (which I agree with) feels too much like a white feminists’ argument for me to fully co-opt it.”

(Photo courtesy of Kimberly Applewhite Teitter) Kimberly Applewhite Teitter

For her part, Teitter doesn’t need the church “to create multicultural images of Heavenly Mother, especially if they’re manufactured,” she says. “I don’t think I need an image of God to worship. I understand Jesus to be a person who lived on this Earth and has a bodily form of this Earth, but I actually prefer the image of my Heavenly Parents to remain abstract. It makes it less likely for worldly concepts of who we want God to be to interfere with who they are.”

But the psychologist does yearn for more connection to the female deity.

When the faith’s message for earthly mothers is to stay as close to their children as possible, Teitter says, “I have never liked the notion that Heavenly Mother is too sacred to know.”

Too much speculation, though, can carry consequences.

A pillar of light

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Latter-day Saint authors Fiona and Terryl Givens, shown in 2012. After giving a fireside address about Heavenly Mother, Fiona Givens is no longer employed by BYU's Maxwell Institute for Religious Studies.

In March, Fiona Givens, co-author with husband Terryl of “The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life,” was invited to give a fireside address to members in a Latter-day Saint young single adult ward in Harlem.

More than 200 people signed on to Givens’ Zoom presentation, according to Delaney Plant, who was among them.

Givens shared her studies and research into Heavenly Mother, including multiple biblical accounts in which she believes a female deity is depicted as a pillar of light, Plant reports in an email. “She then made the connection that during the ‘First Vision,’ when Joseph Smith was visited by God the Father and Jesus Christ, he first mentions seeing a pillar of light.”

That shows that “Heavenly Mother was also present during the First Vision,” Plant says Givens concluded.

In answer to a question, Givens discussed whether the Mother God might be synonymous with the Holy Spirit. In the past, the writer has addressed this possibility.

“Is she part of the Godhead? One assumes she is,” Givens told The Salt Lake Tribune in 2013. “So, is she the Holy Spirit? The [scriptural] record is silent on this and so much else that we fall into the sticky quagmire of speculation.”

After her recent remarks, several attendees complained and now Givens is no longer employed by BYU’s Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, and is turning down invitations to all speaking engagements.

Givens initially declined to comment on the fireside or its aftermath, and, though BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins confirmed Givens’ departure, she would not detail reasons why, citing personnel policies.

Still, Plant wants answers.

“I find the whole situation quite confusing and upsetting,” she writes. “I feel that BYU is now silencing a very important voice in regards to a doctrinal topic that is not wrong to speak on.”

On Sunday, in the wake of this story’s original publication, Givens wrote on Facebook that “after almost two years of employment, I voluntarily made the decision to leave the Maxwell Institute to focus on my own study, writing and other personal endeavors. I maintain the highest regard and warmest relations with the Maxwell Institute and its wonderful faculty.”

Too much definition?

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rachel Hunt Steenblik, shown in 2018, has written books of poems about Heavenly Mother.

Some feminists don’t want to be handed Heavenly Mother from church leaders but would prefer to have members, mostly women, “find her ourselves,” says Rachel Hunt Steenblik, author of several books of verse on the topic. “They’re really nervous that if she becomes more canonized or taught more explicitly about in places like [General] Conference, then the only thing that will be emphasized is her motherhood, not her Godhood, power, influence or other creations. This doesn’t resonate with what they need or what they believe.”

Likewise, some feel that progressive members “are not any better at including single people or people without children in these types of conversations,” the poet says, “and feel that they also highly privileged women who are married and have children.”

One woman on Twitter said that she “gravitates more towards thinking of Heavenly Mother as the broader divine feminine from older traditions rather than the often more-narrow conception of her as mother,” Steenblik says. “Many agreed.”

These are conversations that female members should be having, says Latter-day Saint historian and theologian Maxine Hanks, instead of waiting for the church’s male leaders to offer the last word on Heavenly Mother.

Smith “didn’t articulate much about female orders or offices or theology of the Mother, because he left those tasks to the women themselves,” Hanks states in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. “Joseph turned the key of revelation over to female leaders to receive their own direction from God.”

It might be “the ultimate patriarchal act,” she says, “if men claimed revelation from the Mother to define female theology.”

It shows “great wisdom,” Hanks says, that they have not done that.

The next generation

(Courtesy photo) Bethany Brady Spalding

Bethany Brady Spalding and McArthur Krishna, authors of a “A Girl’s Guide to Heavenly Mother” and a “A Boy’s Guide to Heavenly Mother” (the latter with Martin Pulido), are among those delighted to discuss the divine feminine.

The idea that Mother God is “too sacred to talk about” is, they say, cultural bunk.

“Prophets and apostles have never advised this, not to speak of Heavenly Mother,” Spalding says on The Salt Lake Tribune’s “Mormon Land” podcast.

Spalding has lived around the world and when anyone asks her why she is a Latter-day Saint, she says that “Heavenly Mother is one of the top [reasons].”

It is this “fabulous, gorgeous truth that we have, that God is not just male but is also female,” she says. “And this is a revolutionary, expansive idea that just resonates deeply with me.”

The writers wrote their guides for youngsters because they wanted “to invest our energies in creating a new generation of Mormons to embrace these truths,” Spalding says. “These are just integrated and interweaved into their faith. And we just think it’s exciting to write for children and for young people.”

Both Spalding and Krishna have three daughters.

(Courtesy photo) McArthur Krishna.

Heavenly Parents “sent us Christ so we could have a model to know how to follow,” Krishna says on the podcast. “Not to take away anything from Heavenly Father or Christ, but girls are wondering how they fit.”

More than 90% of the quotes in their books come from church leaders and figures, she says. “When you’re teaching your children about Heavenly Mother, it is nice to know that this is a place that you can go to with these trusted sources.”

They also insisted that the books’ depictions of Mother God be “as expansive as possible,” Krishna says. “We wanted to make sure that people all over the world can see Heavenly Mother and be able to relate to her.”

They hope this divine feminine will become increasingly part of Latter-day Saint preaching and practice.

“We Mormons speak so much about the fullness of the gospel. But to me, it really feels like we’re wrestling with just half,” Spalding says in a forthcoming Dialogue interview. “The splendid poet Carol Lynn Pearson comments that we can’t have holiness without wholeness. And to me, wholeness is only found as we embrace Heavenly Mother and welcome her into our collective and personal worship and spiritual lives.”

What if girls knew that Mother God had breasts and hips and curves, Spalding asks, and that she was part of the creative process and a powerhouse worker?

Instead of a “heavenly hush” surrounding Heavenly Mother, the writer wonders, what if there were a “heavenly hallelujah”?

Editor’s note • May 9, 4:40 p.m.: This story has been updated with a statement from Fiona Givens about her exit from the Maxwell Institute.

(Image courtesy of McArthur Krishna) An image from one of McArthur Krishna and Bethany Brady Spalding's children's books about Heavenly Mother.