A great many Latter-day Saint congregations will no doubt sing the old Mormon hymn “O My Father” in their Mother’s Day services despite the irony of its being a hymn addressed to a masculine deity.
Penned by Eliza R. Snow, a plural wife of the faith’s founder, Joseph Smith, and sister of future church President Lorenzo Snow, the 1845 hymn’s third stanza declares:
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.
The hymn ends with the plea that when this mortal life is over,
Father, Mother, may I meet you
In your royal courts on high?
With your mutual approbation
Let me come and dwell with you.
Latter-day Saint leaders have repeatedly endorsed the existence of a Heavenly Mother, although in recent years they have tended to speak about “Heavenly Parents” rather than speaking of a Mother individually. Widespread interest in such a divine Mother among Latter-day Saints in the pews, however, has led to a flowering of poetry, visual arts and personal essays expressing a longing to know more about such a figure — to the point that apostle Dale G. Renlund of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints attempted to rein in speculation in his April 2022 General Conference address, that “Very little has been revealed about Mother in Heaven ... Seeking greater understanding is an important part of our spiritual development, but please be cautious. Reason cannot replace revelation.”
Of earthly and heavenly mothers
I confess I am one who longs to know more about a Mother in Heaven. Much of the discussion in recent years focuses on a Mother who reflects the stage of life of many of those, chiefly women, who publish their thoughts: Many are young mothers, and picture a Heavenly Mother who understands and sustains them in their pregnancies, births and child rearing.
My own thoughts have a different focus. I do not have children and so do not share those intimate concerns. Rather, I long for knowledge about a Heavenly Mother reflecting the relationship I had with my own earthly mother: a woman-to-woman, adult relationship. I was close to my mother, who died an impossibly long 23 years ago. While I did not consciously pattern my life’s course after hers, I still followed her path: taking up the same means of earning a living in early adulthood, and finding comfort in knowing that she did not marry until age 34, and was past age 38 when I was born. There was still time, I thought, for my own expectations of a family to come to pass. I knew the exact day I was the same age my mother was when she married and when I was born. It was a disorienting feeling to strike out on my own, without her model ahead of me.
Regardless, I still leaned on my mother for advice and inspiration. We could talk about anything (except politics). She was a wonderful counselor and cheerleader for my life’s path, and at least once I returned the favor when my family history research relieved her of a burden she had carried for 70 years by correcting a falsehood she had believed about her father. She, who dreamed in youth of being a journalist, would have been so proud, so happy, to have lived to see the 2005 publication of my first column in The Salt Tribune.
Without speculating on what has not been revealed, I long for a Heavenly Mother who shares my earthly mother’s understanding and forgiveness and pride — the kind of Heavenly Mother another poet wrote about in 1892.
A ‘Companion Poem’
That was the year William Chase Harrison (1852-1936), of Spanish Fork most of his adult life, contributed a poem to the Juvenile Instructor, then the magazine of Latter-day Saint Sunday schools. Modeled closely after Snow’s “O My Father” — he subtitled it a “Companion Poem” to hers — his poem spoke of a divine Mother who taught her children to obey God’s law even before they were born, who saw her children leave their heavenly home to accept a mortal one, and whose approval the poet longed for, and whom he hoped to greet again when life was over:
O My Mother, thou that dwellest,
In thy mansions up on high,
Oft I think that I remember
How you bade your child goodbye.
How you pressed me to your bosom,
Bade me a true son to be,
Ere I left my home eternal,
To accept mortality.
How you gave me words of counsel,
Guides to help my straying feet:
How you taught by true example
All of Father’s laws to keep.
While I strive in this probation,
Well to live the gospel truth,
May I merit your approval
As I did in early youth.
When of evil I’ve repented,
And my work on earth is done,
Dearest Mother, loving Father,
Pray forgive your erring son.
When my pilgrimage is ended,
And the victor’s wreath I’ve won,
Dearest Mother, to your bosom,
Will you welcome back your son?
Apostle George Q. Cannon, editor of the Juvenile Instructor and a member of the faith’s governing First Presidency, had not known of the publication of Harrison’s hymn to a Heavenly Mother before it was published in 1892. Three years later, he published a warning much longer and stronger than Renlund’s 2022 caution, warning against the “worship of female deities” and saying that had he known of the poem’s pending publication, he would have removed any suggestion of a “mother ... placed side by side and on an equality with the Father.”
Nevertheless, the conviction that “I’ve a Mother there” is a stubborn facet of Latter-day Saint doctrine and culture, a conviction that comes to the fore on Mother’s Day.
Ardis E. Parshall is an independent research historian who can be found on social media as @Keepapitchinin and at Keepapitchinin.org. She occasionally takes breaks from transcribing historical documents to promote the aims of the Mormon History Association’s Ardis E. Parshall Public History Award.
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