‘I wish we knew more’ – As LDS leaders warn against praying to Heavenly Mother, questions persist

Asking for more information is “not a bad thing,” apostle Dale Renlund says, “...but reason cannot replace revelation.”

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

All that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints need to know about Mother in Heaven, leaders say, is spelled out in the faith’s own essay about her.

“I wish we knew more and you may wish you knew more as well, but reason cannot replace revelation,” apostle Dale G. Renlund said in a recent video that is floating around on social media. “Wanting to know more, asking questions, is not a bad thing. But speculation can sometimes … divert us from what has been revealed.”

One thing is clear, the apostle said, Jesus instructed his disciples to pray to Heavenly Father alone so that is the pattern for all Christians, including Latter-day Saints.

In other words, no prayers should be addressed to Heavenly Mother.

It could be “wonderful to sit back and make up all kinds of comforting doctrines,” he said, “but latter-day prophets are constrained not to do that.”

Renlund’s words — and similar sentiments reportedly from several other apostles — have ricocheted around Mormonism’s social media universe, causing confusion and, in some cases, alarm.

The rumors included an edict to stop capitalizing “Heavenly Mother,” which seemed like, well, a demotion in her status (the term remains uppercase in the essay).

Church spokesperson Doug Andersen said Renlund’s statements do reflect the faith’s position but couldn’t confirm the other rumors.

As members prepare for the coming weekend’s General Conference, many worry that the message the apostles were sending was for women and men to stop talking about the divine feminine, to stop imagining her and to stop seeking her.

How the Heavenly Mother teaching began

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) "My Sisters Keeper," by Tshikamba, in the "Reflections on Mother in Heaven" exhibit, which showcased the work of female Latter-day Saint artists, at Anthony's Fine Art and Antiques, last fall.

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.”

Note the poem’s title, “Invocation,” which is another word for prayer.

In 2015, the church quoted Snow’s verse when it published a 623-word Gospel Topics’ essay, affirming Heavenly Mother’s existence as a “cherished and distinctive belief among Latter-day Saints.”

It is “rooted in scriptural and prophetic teachings about the nature of God, our relationship to deity, and the godly potential of men and women.”

Latter-day Saint prophets have taught that “heavenly parents work together for the salvation of the human family,” the essay says, while acknowledging not much is known about Mother God.

Four years later, the Young Women theme was updated to say, “I am a beloved daughter of heavenly parents, with a divine nature and eternal destiny.”

Amid the mystery, there has been an explosion of Latter-day Saint works about the divine feminine, celebrating her in poetry, song and art.

Some are not particularly bothered by the counsel to beware of speculation.

“Even if we focused only on what is taught in the Gospel Topics essay on Heavenly Mother, it would be revolutionary for girls and women,” says Bethany Brady Spalding, co-author of a “A Girl’s Guide to Heavenly Mother” and a “A Boy’s Guide to Heavenly Mother.”

After all, the document affirms that the church’s understanding of Heavenly Mother is rooted in scripture, Spalding says, that “she stands side by side with Heavenly Father; that she helped design the plan of salvation and works together with Heavenly Father for the salvation of the human family; that she is concerned about her children, can influence us, and is constantly trying to help us.”

Those are “big, beautiful, bold truths that can transform the way women see themselves now and in the eternities,” Spalding says. “If we continue to teach young women in lesson after lesson that earthly mothers are essential for their children’s spiritual well-being, then let’s use the essay to illuminate the truth that Heavenly Mother is essential for her children, too.”

McArthur Krishna, Spalding’s co-author, adds that Heavenly Mother matters to men, too.

“She is the Mother of their soul and Heavenly Parents make a ‘divine pattern,’” Krishna says. “If men — and all of us — are missing 50% of the pattern, we can’t build.”

How believers talk about God matters to all faiths, says Rachel Hunt Steenblik, who has published two books of poetry and helped research an academic paper on Heavenly Mother.

It matters “even more” for Latter-day Saint women and men, she says. “We are among the only ones who mean it more than metaphorically when we use gendered words for God — our family proclamation teaches that gender is an eternal characteristic, and we believe God has a body (albeit perfected).”

Joseph Smith declared that “if men do not understand the character of God, they do not understand themselves.” So if Latter-day Saint women “do not understand the character of God the Mother,” Steenblik wonders, “do they understand themselves? More significantly, if life eternal is to know the only true God, as John 17:3 states, is their salvation at stake? To me, it becomes a matter of identity and salvation.”

The writer says she has had “the strongest, most abiding feeling that Heavenly Mother wants to be known and that as we turn our heart to hers, she turns her heart to us — except it was already there, waiting.”

About 1988 or so the Wasatch chapter of Affirmation, an LGBTQ support group for Latter-day Saints, “began including Heavenly Mother (or ‘Heavenly Parents’) in prayers,” says Connell O’Donovan. “I found it personally very moving and healing to acknowledge the divine feminine. I had always really struggled with the image of a benevolent ‘father’ (my own father being a prime example of toxic masculinity) but my maternal grandmother had always been so unconditionally loving toward me. That love from her I found could easily be writ large as the benevolent love of a Heavenly Mother.”

If it’s so comforting to so many, why are church leaders — and the essay — telling members not to pray to her?

Would praying to Heavenly Mother do any harm?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) "Utah," by Cindy Lewis Clark, in the "Reflections on Mother in Heaven" exhibit, which showcased the work of female Latter-day Saint artists at Anthony's Fine Art and Antiques, last fall.

Given the example for how to pray that Jesus set, encouraging or even just allowing prayers to a female deity would seem to be un-Christian to those outside the faith, at a time when the Utah-based church is already looked upon as outside the umbrella of Christianity.

“The only harm I can imagine is that it would separate us even more from traditional Christian religions,” says Lori LeVar Pierce in Columbus, Miss. “We have spent years trying to become more mainstream Christian in our language and practices. Acknowledging a Heavenly Mother and allowing prayer to her would definitely move us in the opposite direction.”

Still, Pierce asks, “should that matter?”

The church probably sees it as harmful, tweets a woman who goes by “friend shape,” because “1) it makes us look polytheistic to other churches, 2) it establishes feminine authority & they have reasons for not ordaining non-men; 3) it forces them to confront the complex history of polygamy in church doctrine.”

The danger of praying to a Heavenly Mother “is that it is praying to a figure who is almost entirely the creation of the one praying, not a goddess known and taught and revealed to the church at large,” says Latter-day Saint historian Ardis Parshall. “Without the consensus that can only come from prophetic leadership, the ‘harm’ is that our most basic reason for worship — our dim but shared understanding of a God — fragments, with all the consequences of a center that does not hold.”

Indeed, “the risk is always that we use Heavenly Mother as an idol, fashioned in our image,” says Daniel Ellsworth, a business consultant in Charlottesville, Va., and one of the organizers of the “Radical Orthodoxy” movement in the church, “And then we use her as a vehicle to validate our personal religion, which in the West is expressive individualism.”

If church leaders let women pray to Heavenly Mother, “that would [legitimize] questions about why she is silent, invisible and irrelevant in current LDS theology — and she is irrelevant; Latter-day Saints don’t need to know anything at all about her to get baptized, go to the temple or anything else,” says Holly Welker, author of “Baring Witness: 36 Mormon Women Talk Candidly About Love, Sex, and Marriage.” “The leadership would have to start seeking revelation about her…. And would also have to make good on its claims that women and men form equal partnerships when they marry.”

Was Heavenly Mother present at the ‘First Vision’?

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Joseph Smith's "First Vision" is depicted.

Speaking in 2014, Sharon Eubank, head of Latter-day Saint Charities and now also the first counselor in the Relief Society’s general presidency, spoke passionately about the place of women in the church, including the Mother God.

“I have divine parents and so that means that I belong to their household of God, and I have rights and privileges and blessings that are associated with being their child,” Eubank said. “And one of those rights and blessings is that nothing can separate me from my communication with them. There is no intermediary. I have the right, as their daughter, to communicate with them through prayer and revelation and the Holy Ghost. They don’t put anybody in between.”

Maxine Hanks, a researcher who has explored gender studies, biblical scholarship and Mormon history, says the divine feminine is present in the Bible, the Book of Mormon and Smith’s “First Vision.”

The Holy Spirit is “equated with wisdom,” Hanks says. “Wisdom was the catalyst and guide for Joseph’s First Vision. His appeal for wisdom was an appeal to the divine feminine. Did he know that? I see evidence that he did.”

His family Bible had references to “wisdom as female,” she says. “If Joseph received wisdom in the grove, then [Heavenly Mother] was present there. He also saw a ‘pillar of light’ and ‘many angels,’ and he refers to ‘personages’ of unspecified gender.”

Hanks, who gave a paper on the divine feminine’s link to the First Vision at a 2020 Church History Symposium, says Smith referred to “wisdom” as “she” or “her” in his journals.

As to contemporary Latter-day Saints praying to their female deity, personal “searching, experience, sharing in wards is no threat to official discourse or doctrine, and a personal relationship with God is central to LDS restoration and religion,” Hanks says. “A relationship with our Heavenly Mother is doctrinal, not heretical or apostate.”

If members avoid making doctrinal claims about Mother in Heaven “from the pulpit” and primarily speak about their personal experience, the researcher says, that should allay leaders’ concerns.

And such prayerful Latter-day Saints might stay within limits set by church leaders — until they receive more prophetic light to unveil the Heavenly Mother mystery.

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