MotherHeavenSociologicalAccountJSSR1984 | The Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter Day Saints | Mormonism And Polygamy

The Mormon Concept of Mother in Heaven: A Sociological Account of Its Origins and Development


Among modern Western religions, Mormon belief is quite distinctive in its inclusion of a Heavenly Mother figure among its divine personages. This paper examines some of the historical and theological background of the Mormon "Mother in Heaven." We assess different explanations accounting for this belief and show its logical consistency with other aspects of Mormon doctrine. Further, we look at the pohtics associated with the Mother In Heaven belief which bear on feminist issues among Mormons. In recent times we find that the existence of a divine female has become a rallying symbol for some Mormon feminists within an incipient "grass roots" movement aimed at acquiring greater power and equality within the church. We note how this belief in a female deity has primarily functioned in conservative ways to sustain certain institutional ends rather than feminist concerns. Considering the prospects for change in Mormonism's position on the role of women, we conclude that the presence of a goddess in the pantheon is no guarantee of sexual equality in the real world.

.Among the various faiths within the Judeo-Christian tradition, belief in a female deity is rather uncommon. One important exception to this image of an exclusively male-occupied pantheon is found in the Mormon belief in a Heavenly Mother. This study is intended as a sociological analysis of this particular Mormon belief. We will consider the historical expressions of the belief, assess some explanatory models which are used to account for its origins, and discuss the contending interests involved in the spread of popularity of the belief. This should permit us to specify a variety of functions served by the belief for a number of past and present groups of Mormons. Through our analysis, we hope to shed light not only on Mormonism as an exceptional case within Christianity, but also on the explanation of the development of religious conceptions, particularly concepts of divine beings. This latter issue has been central to the sociological study of religion in the work of Durkheim (1965) and, more recently, Swanson (1960; 1967). The theological background of Mormonism's Mother in Heaven belief is worth noting. The religious innovations of Joseph Smith include the belief in multiple gods and the tenet that humans and gods merely represent different levels of spiritual development. A popular Mormon aphorism holds that, "As man is, God once was, and as God is, man may become." In order to become a god (i.e., exaltation or achieving the highest degree of glory possible in heaven), one must hold to certain essential moral teachings, including being married in an officially sanctioned marriage ceremony conducted only in Mormon temples. This rite of entering into the "new and everlasting covenent of celestial marriage" binds or
*John Heeren is Professor of Sociology at California State University, San Bernardino. Donald B. Lindsey is Associate Professor of Sociology at the same institution. Marylee Mason is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Chaffey College. © Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1984, 23 (4): 396-411 396



"seals" a married couple to each other "for time and eternity." Thus, as people can only be exalted as married pairs, then God, as an exalted man, must be married. SOME HISTORICAL BACKGROUND ON THE MORMON'S "MOTHER IN HEAVEN" The theological conceptions noted above suggest the logical necessity of a belief in a Mother in Heaven. The actual historical expressions of the idea affirm the strength and persistence of this belief among Mormons. As early as 1845, Eliza Snow, one of Joseph Smith's wives, penned the following lines:
In the heavens are parents single? No; the thought makes reason stare! Truth is reason, truth eternal Tells me I've a Mother there. When I leave this frail existence, When I lay this mortal by, Father, Mother, may I meet you In your royal courts on High? (McConkie, 1958: 468)

Although the available evidence supports the view that the concept of a Heavenly Mother originated with Joseph Smith (Wilcox, 1980:10), Eliza Snow's lines became a hymn and, as such, have been an important channel for diffusing the idea. Among the nineteenth century Mormon leaders who provided direct or indirect affirmations of the Mother in Heaven concept were Brigham Young (1862; 1865), Heber Kimball (Young, 1865), and Erastus Snow (1878; 1885). One of the most interesting expressions of the doctrine was made by Orson Pratt in a statement linking Mother in Heaven with the plural marriages entered into by God. Summarizing his argument, Pratt said: "We have now clearly shown that God the Father had a plurality of wives . . . by whom He begat our spirits" (Tanner & Tanner, 1972: 172). Although O'Dea (1957:127) argues that the existence of a female God is not an official teaching of the Mormon Church, we have been unable to find any authoritative source which forswears this belief. In fact, the belief in a Mother in Heaven appears to have become an official Church tenet with a statement made in 1909 by the First Presidency of the Mormon Church. Intended as a clarification of the Mormon position in opposition both to evolutionary theory and to the teachings of other churches, the statement makes note of the account of creation in Latter Day Saint (hereafter LDS) scripture which parallels that of Genesis. In Joseph Smith's inspired version of the Genesis account, God says to Moses that "I, God, created man in mine own image, . . . male and female created I them" (P of GP — Moses 2: 27; cf. Gen. 1: 27). From this passage, the Mormon leaders conclude, "All men and women are in the similitude of the universal Father and Mother, and are literally the sons and daughters of Deity." To be sure, this creation is to be understood as referring to the doctrine of pre-existence — the creation of human spirits prior to this mortal life. For "man, as a spirit, was begotten and born of heavenly parents" (Smith et al, 1954: 75-81). Since the first decade of this century there have been numerous affirmations by Mormon writers of the Mother in Heaven concept. In recent decades, two contemporary



Mormon commentators have made forthright espousals of it. Bruce McConkie (1966:516), a member of The Council of Twelve Apostles, reasons:
Implicit in the Christian verity that all men are the spirit children of an Eternal Father is the usually unspoken truth that they are also the offspring of an Eternal Mother. An exalted and glorified Man of Holiness . . . could not be a Father unless a Woman of like glory, perfection, and holiness was associated with him as a Mother.

In another recent volume which attempts to clarify the Church's position on the changing role of women, Rodney Turner (1972:3-4) openly attacks the traditional Christian position of the independent male God. Referring to it as a "pagan-Christian notion," he sees it as "scripturally unsupportable and theologically incorrect/' Moreover, it is the typical Christian failure to recognize God as a He and to accept the existence of a heavenly mother at His side that leads to images of the divinity as "incomprehensible and indefinable." As with all other life forms, humans are created in accordance with the law of biogenesis. Thus, any reasonable person should recognize that the material existence of divine beings implies their complementary sexuality. EXPLAINING THE MOTHER IN HEAVEN CONCEPT Any attempt at explaining the development of a religious belief or other cultural product must begin by distinguishing between the origination of the idea and its diffusion or spread to wider circles. Though there may be some overlap between the factors which account for the initial appearance of a concept and those which account for its popularity, the analytic separation must be kept in mind. In this section we examine some approaches to the origin of the Heavenly Mother belief. In the next section we consider the sociopolitical interests at work in the successive public expressions diffusing the belief. It seems that there are three fairly distinct explanations of the origin of this Mormon concept of the existence of a heavenly mother. For convenience, we can classify these as the theological, the socio-historical, and the social-psychological explanations. Theologically, the Mormon belief in a feminine deity is regarded as an outgrowth of their "active-mystical" orientation toward their religion and the world. The socio-historical explanation relates Mormon understandings of the sexuality of divine beings to the social situation in which the religion emerged, particularly its roots in "enthusiasm." The socialpsychological approach argues that Mormon conceptions of the divine result from the typical literalistic reasoning patterns of this group of people. With respect to these three approaches, a couple of qualifications should be noted. First, as explanations, these three approaches are not entirely distinct. Each overlaps to some extent with the others. Secondly, there are certainly other conceivable explanations which could be advanced. Marxist and Freudian arguments come readily to mind. However, these other explanations have gained little or no currency and seem to leave too much unexplained. Let us examine the three types of explanations. A Theological Explanation Albanese (1980: 54) argues that the male-female God in Mormonism is associated



with the mystical orientation of this religion. Citing evidence from several historical periods, she claims that "the underside of Western religion — its mystical and metaphysical alternative — pondered the divine mystery by using male and female sexual language." The mystic has traditionally sought the religious experience of total union with God, a union so overwhelming that normal everyday consciousness may disappear. Mysticism aspires to divinity. One of the common ways in which the joining or fusion of opposites in the divine-human encounter has been symbolized is in "the sexual union of male and female fused mysteriously into one" (Albanese, 1980: 55). The male-female god symbolizes completeness to the mystic seeking union with the divine. Albanese acknowledges that the orientation of mysticism had taken some radically new turns with its appearances in nineteenth-century America. Instead of the usual individual withdrawal from worldly concerns one typically associates with mysticism, one sees in Mormon mysticism an active communal orientation. Unlike traditional mysticism, this more active mysticism does not entail the denial of self or of the material world. Rather, Mormons are expected to cultivate the self and are encouraged to participate in the world. It is difficult in short compass to do justice to the complex argument Albanese offers. She sets forth her argument for a mystical explanation of the Mormon conception of a female God tentatively and with important qualifications. Nevertheless, this explanation has certain difficulties that are perhaps inherent in any theological approach to the investigation of religious concepts. In the first place, there are problems in the analysis of theology. Even if we accept Albanese's very inclusive definition of mysticism, it is not clear to us how Mormonism fits that mold. Most importantly, we do not see evidence of the kinds'of mystical unity Albanesefindsin Mormonism. The believer does not achieve either substantive or metaphysical unity with the Godhead. Exalted Mormons become distinct Gods and Goddesses in their own right. This occurs only after a lengthy period of spiritual development and after the Resurrection. Nor is Mother in Heaven mystically fused with God the Father.1 She is a separate divine personage whose role it is to be wife and helpmeet of the Heavenly Father and mother of His spiritual offspring. Her separateness is affirmed by the fact that She is not part of the Godhead. The fundamental problem here is that Albanese does not clearly demonstrate the substantial identity of Mormonism and mysticism. Theological analysis which attempts to assimilate a belief to a larger category of apparently similar beliefs (or, in the present instance, assimilate a religion to a broader type of religious orientation) should consider whether the particular belief and the category are essentially identical. This would include examining whether the belief has the same or similar functions in the religious systems in which it is found. Albanese says that Mother in Heaven has a symbolic function in representing the unity of the believer with God. As indicated above, we see insufficient warrant for such an interpretation of Mother in Heaven's function. As we proceed, we will indicate what we regard as the more logical functions of the belief within Mormon theology. A second problem with Albanese's argument is that she provides only limited historical evidence to support her theological insights. Mormonism certainly developed syncretistically. We readily recognize, for example, its borrowings from Masonry in the
1. Erastus Snow seems to come closest to the notion of a God comprised of male and female parts. However, we agree with Wilcox (1980: 11) that Snow's view of God is distinct from that of other Mormon leaders.



form of LDS temple rites. The confirming historical link is in our judgment the fact that Joseph Smith and other church leaders were members of the Masonic order. Or, we could point to the adoption by Mormonism of a communitarian ethic which doubtless had its origin with Sidney Rigdon, a close associate of Joseph Smith's, who was involved in a socialistic community prior to converting to Mormonism (O'Dea, 1957: 41-42). Albanese, however, shows no such solid connections between Smith or other Mormon leaders and Boehme, Swedenborg, or other more conventional mystics. The analysis of ideas without showing their ties to historical realities remains an intriguing but unconfirmed hypothesis. Finally, there is the problem of imputing views to believers even when those views are specifically repudiated by the believers. Albanese's contention about Mormonismmysticism has a social-psychological weakness in that very few Mormons seem to regard themselves as mystics. This is supported by recent research on the religiosity of Latter Day Saints. In a factor analytic study of Mormon commitment, Cardwell and Lindsey (1980), using a principal components solution, included measurement of such experiential variables as "a sense of union with the divine" as indicators of a mystical component in Mormons' religious orientation. An experiential dimension was the last of five factors extracted for LDS males and only the third of five factors extracted for females. No substantial factor loadings were derived to indicate that Mormons incorporate any significant aspects of mysticism as a part of their religiosity. Nor is mysticism encouraged by Church officials. One representative authority on Church doctrine describes mystics rather unfavorably as those "seeking union with God through their own mental abberations and outside the true gospel framework" (McConkie, 1958: 475). While the expressions of believers should not be accepted naively at face value, neither can these expressions be ignored. Beliefs provide a basis for self-definitions and, ultimately, behavior (Vernon, 1972). In light of the evidence indicating the faintness of any mystical orientation among Mormons,2 we feel that Albanese should have shown how her thesis is consistent with the everyday reality of Mormons. A Socio-historical Explanation A second kind of explanation, the socio-historical, would relate the Mormon conception of the Heavenly Mother back to the social context out of which it emerged. Specifically, Mormonism was one of several contemporary religions to spring forth from an area in Western New York State, known as the Burned-Over District, in the first half of the nineteenth century. These religions were generally regarded as enthusiastic. Enthusiasm refers to knowing religious truths through the emotional experiences of conversion, revelation, gifts of the Holy Spirit, and so forth (Knox, 1961: Ch. 1). Both throughout Western history and in the Burned-Over District, women played very important roles in the spread of enthusiasm (Knox, 1961; Cross, 1965). As Cross (1965: 84) says, "Properly, [women] should dominate a history of enthusiastic movements, for their influence was paramount." The dominance of women in enthusiasm is attributed to their being "less educated, more superstitious, and more zealous than men" (Cross, 1965: 178). Whatever the reason, in comparison to institutional churches, the representation, equal participation, and even leadership of women was stronger in enthusiastic sects. This enhancement of
2. The novelty of mysticism among Mormons is evidenced by Clark (1980).



the role of women would presumably serve to raise feminine prestige. A second channel of enthusiastic influence on the Mormon idea of a female god is through the movement for women's rights. Enthusiasm in early 19th century America gave rise in subsequent decades to numerous movements for moral reform. Not the least of these was the political assertion of women's equality. Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and other future leaders of the "women's rights movement served apprenticeship in the reforms which flourished in Western New York" (Cross, 1965: 237). It is worth pointing out that in those sects where women were most dominant — in particular, spiritualism — there was apparently the greatest sensitivity to the whole range of women's inequality. The clearest expression of this argument can be found in Zikmund (1979), who sees a feminist thrust in the sectarian movements of the first half of the nineteenth century. According to her (Zikmund, 1979: 207), "Long before female leadership, female imagery, or community life sympathetic to women emerged in dominant American Christianity, sectarian Christians honored and followed women." Evidence of this feminist thrust is found in the greater prominence of women in the theological conceptions, leadership, and life-styles of sectarians. Among the sectarians discussed, Zikmund singles out Mormons as evincing the feminization of American religion in their concept of Mother in Heaven. Moreover, she (1979: 214) even feels that "the Mormons' practice of polygamy fulfilled certain feminist goals." Specifically, she suggests that polygamy was popular with Mormon women because each household "became a small commune of shared responsibilities and freedoms" (Zikmund, 1979: 215). This socio-historical explanation also has problems. While it may in general be true of enthusiastic sects that women play prominant roles in the group, it is more to the point to look at the Mormon position on women's participation. Mormons would seem to be an exception to Cross' generalization, in that women have never played a dominant part in the religious affairs of the Church. In the first place, Mormon women are not given priesthood authority and thus are deprived of significant decision-making and leadership responsibilities. Although women are permitted extensive participation in numerous Church affairs and eyen leadership in certain auxiliary organizations, their activities have been more or less circumscribed by their not holding the priesthood. With regard to Zikmund's argument, it is our feeling that she has misread the historical evidence. Rather than seeing Mormonism as revealing feminist concerns, we would claim that LDS beliefs and practices in the mid-nineteenth century had important anti-feminist implications. By itself, a belief in a Heavenly Mother does not indicate any feminist commitments. Nor can we agree with Zikmund that plural marriage is a confirming expression of Mormonism's feminist values. Such an interpretation ignores the substantial evidence that this family organization entailed considerable conflict and emotional costs for women (Warenski, 1978:143-80). It must be kept in mind that the Mormon wife was constrained to participate in the system of plural marriage for, according to Joseph Smith's revelation, it was commanded by God (D. & C, 132). A Social-Psychological Explanation The final explanation of the female god to be discussed is social-psychological in nature.



It relates to seemingly typical thought patterns found among Mormon thinkers and especially early Mormon leaders. Specifically, Mormons seem inclined toward accepting the simplest, most literal interpretations of religious ideas (Cummings, 1982). "Literalism," according to O'Dea (1957: 226), is *'characteristic of the Mormon approach to the text of modern revelation." O'Dea attributes this literalism primarily to the very proximity of the revealed word of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Whereas fundamentalist sects often interpret the Old or New Testaments quite literally, Mormons have the advantage of a concrete gospel so recently revealed that it has not been obscured by centuries of (mis)translation, (mis)interpretation, and sophistry. Hansen (1981: 169-70) also regards Mormons as *'literal-minded" in the extreme. Latter-Day Saints believe that the divine realm is merely an elevated form of the human sphere. Accordingly, there must be a sexual dimension in divine relationships. The logical conclusion from this is that God the Father must have a wife. Whether due to the nearness in time to God's revelations or to a kind of this-worldly orientation, it seems incontrovertible to us that official Mormon writings tend toward the most simplistic and literal understandings of religious matters. For instance, in discussing the interpretation of prophecy, one of Mormonism's most learned Apostles (Widtsoe, 1960: 94-5) wrote of the wisdom of believing only that which is "clear and understandable." One who attempts to go beyond the sure and simple interpretation of revelation "is impelled by a spirit not of God." Also revealing of the literalism, simplicity and concreteness of Mormon thought is this comment by Joseph Fielding Smith (1953: 43), recent President of the LDS Church: "There are no mysteries pertaining to the Gospel.... The Gospel is very simple so that even children at the age of accountability [8 years] may understand it." As with the two previous explanations, there are some evident problems with this explanation of the Mormons' female god. While literalism may be characteristic of their thought, it is certainly not universal. Furthermore, literalism has more than one meaning. It implies, for instance, a great respect for original texts. Yet, even though The Book of Mormon is seen as the "revealed word" and was described by Joseph Smith as "the most correct of any book on earth," it has undergone more than 2000 textual revisions since its original version of 1830 (Whalen, 1964: 49). Emendations of any sort, even correction for the purpose of clarification, would seem to be inconsistent with literalism. A particularly relevant instance of Mormon departures from literalism can be found in the treatment of the "Adam's rib" account of creation in Genesis. According to McConkie (1958: 224), "She |Eve] was placed on earth in the same manner as was Adam, the Mosaic account of the Lord creating her from Adam's rib being merely figurative" (P. of G.P.; Moses 3: 20-25). A second sense of literalism is the use of simple and concrete notions in understanding reality. With respect to the understanding of beings, this connotation of literalism implies anthropomorphism, the imputation of human qualities to these beings. In the Mormon case, while literal interpretation of scripture is inconsistently expressed, it does appear that Saints continually interpret the divine in human terms. Joseph Fielding Smith (1960: 142-3) shows this in his discussion of the Heavenly Mother belief:
The fact there there is no reference to a mother in heaven either in the Bible, Book of Mormon or

THE MORMON CONCEPT OF MOTHER IN HEAVEN Doctrine and Covenants, is not sufficient proof that no such thing as a mother did exist there. If we had a Father . . . , then does not good common sense tell us that we must have had a mother there also? . . . If we are the [Father's] offspring, then how did we become such, if we had no mother to give us spirit birth? . . . How can we be the offspring of God, how can he be the Father of our spirits, unless we had a mother and were born?


In this passage Smith explicitly notes the lack of scriptural support for the Heavenly Mother idea. In spite of this, he resorts readily to common sense to justify his belief. His thinking neatly echoes Eliza Snow: "In the heavens are parents single? No, the thought makes reason stare!" Toward An Integrated Explanation A definitive explanation of the existence of a belief in a female deity probably awaits systematic comparative studies of various religions. Nevertheless, it does seem possible to point out what appears to be the most adequate path for understanding the distinctive Mormon innovation of a Mother in Heaven. In doing so, it is necessary to consider the kind of issues raised by all three of the approaches discussed above. At the theological level, we regard the Mormons' Mother in Heaven belief as substantially different from the conceptions of a female god found among the Shakers or Christian Scientists. It seems to us that in the latter instances, the female god serves the function of elevating the feminine principle into essential equality with the masculine. This is not the case with Mormonism. Instead, for Mormons, Mother in Heaven is properly seen as elevating the conjugal relationship into the eternal realm. This deification of the family allows for spiritual birth which essentially corresponds to the reproductive process among mortals. The original expressions of the Mother in Heaven belief provided divine warrant not for equality, but for patriarchal (and plural) marriage. In our view, then, it is the anthropomorphic conception of God which is central to explaining the appearance of the Mormon Mother in Heaven belief. This anthropomorphism is not only an essential feature of the Mormon viewpoint, but seems to differentiate Mormon belief from superficially similar beliefs of Shakers and others. Indeed, Hardy (1976:187-88) has even claimed that "the tangible likeness of God to man remains the foremost claim of Mormon revelation." It is worth noting, too, that contemporary Mormons do not tend to deny that they hold an anthropomorphic conception of God. McConkie (1958: 37), for instance, says, "... it may be agreed that the true God is an anthropomorphic Being." (See also Turner, 1972.) This anthropomorphic conception of God, in turn, seems to emerge out of, or at least coincide with, the concrete, practical, common-sense reasoning often found among early Mormon thinkers. We see this kind of mental outlook or world view as the esential socialpsychological condition of the Mother in Heaven belief. The socio-historical conditions conducive to this kind of mental outlook would likely involve the frontier experience of believers, and perhaps especially their participation in revivalistic religion. Williams (1980: 86,129*30) remarks on the consistency between the rural and small town origins of early Mormon leaders and their preference for concrete, literalistic and highly specific religious accounts. His reasoning would lead us to expect Mormons to espouse a folk conception of God rather than a rationalistic or abstract conception. Confirming evidence can be found



in Bruce's (1974) study of the comparable situation of camp-meeting religion in the American South in the early 19th century. He (Bruce, 1974:105) notes, for example, that "plain-folk beliefs about God followed very closely their conception of the world." The immediately preceding discussion has pointed out the fundamental elements — theological, historical, and social-psychological — which we feel contributed to the appearance of the Mother in Heaven concept in Mormonism. It is important to note the logical coherence which exists between these three kinds of elements. That is, the anthropomorphic conception of God is consistent with the concrete, simplistic, common sense tenor of Mormon theology which, in turn, is consistent with the practicality of frontier life and the immediacy of enthusiastic religion. We have attempted to arrive at our explanatory position through the use of a comparative perspective. This involves a simple assessment of the similarities and differences between the corpus of Mormon doctrine and that of mysticism, feminist sectarianism, frontier religions, etc. This constitutes the "empirical" portion of our discussion. In spite of the importance we attribute to the three kinds of conditions mentioned, we are not convinced that this exhausts the need for explanation. The reason for this is simply that the conditions indicated do not sufficiently differentiate Mormonism from the Millerites, Campbellites or any number of other enthusiastic sects. In the end a portion of the explanation of the origin of the belief must have reference to the radical theological innovations of the charismatic prophet, Joseph Smith.3 One possible point of departure in examining Smith's personal reality would be to look into the dynamics of his family relationships. Though not brought to bear on the Mother in Heaven issue, Brodie (1971) has probed some of these kin relations in painting a psychological portrait of Smith (Cf. Brink, 1976). A full discussion of this potential source of the Mother in Heaven concept, however, is beyond the present investigation.

Having offered an account of the origin of the Mother in Heaven belief, we can now turn our attention to the socio-political interests at work in the various expressions and invocations of the belief over the years. The theoretical framework for our discussion is provided by Max Weber's work in the sociology of religion. In his treatment of the social psychology of the world religions, Weber (1958: 270) tells us that each successive generation of believers may reinterpret the basic "annunciations and promises" of the faith in order to meet the needs of the religious community. Warner (1976) has shown in an exemplary fashion how this perspective applies to changes over the centuries in the Catholic Church's view of the Virgin Mary. Let us look, then, at the development and current status of the Mormons' Heavenly Mother, focusing in particular on the political context in which the image has been expressed.
3. Smith's status as a charismatic figure is the source of a curious contradiction in Weber's discussion of the topic. On the one hand, charisma is defined strictly in terms of the way "followers" regard the authority of the charismatic leader. Ethical considerations are seen by Weber as irrelevant (Weber, 1964: 359). On the other hand, Weber says he cannot with "absolute certainty" categorize Joseph Smith as a charismatic, because the founder of Mormonism may have been a "deliberate swindler." Contrary to Weber's admonition, ethical judgment appears to have reared its head; it is very unlikely that Smith's followers saw him as a "swindler."



Though the earliest references to Mother in Heaven actually occur a few years earlier (Wilcox, 1980: 10), it is interesting to note that much of the theological framework for this belief was contained in Joseph Smith's 1843 revelation on celestial marriage (D. & C: 132). What is intriguing here is that the revelation provided a heavenly justification for the practice of plural marriage, yet did so by implying that women can achieve divine status. Thus, one could see the revelation as carrying both demeaning and glorifying implications for women. The relevation contains a commandment (regarding plural marriage) accompanied by both a threat and a promise. The threat was that those who did not obey would "be destroyed." The promise was that the obedient, particularly women, would be rewarded with exaltation. Those who marry by the new covenant "shall pass... to their exaltation and glory in all things,... which glory shall be... a continuation of the seeds forever and ever" (D. & C. 132: 19). Later, the revelation says that women are given to men in the new covenent "for their [women's] exaltation in the eternal worlds, that they may bear the souls of men" (D. & C, 132: 63). The immediate political function of the goddess belief within the revelation, then, was to try to win the support of women (and men) who were reluctant to accept the doctrine of plural wives. It served to legitimate new commandments to be borne by the Mormon faithful. Perhaps the most immediate embodiment of the opposition the Prophet knew he would encounter with his revelation was his wife, Emma (Taylor, 1971; Brodie, 1971; Tanner & Tanner, 1972: 204, 209-11). However, Mormon women in general seem to have needed some sweetener in order to swallow the bitter pill of plural wives. Eliza Snow said that at first she found the doctrine of plural wives to be "repugnant to my educated feelings" (Warenski, 1978: 148). Ultimately, she embraced the doctrine because it was commanded by God and, of course, sang the praises of Mother in Heaven. The clarification and refinement of the Heavenly Mother belief in 1909 also had a primarily conservative purpose. The statement by the First Presidency, as mentioned, was intended to counter the spreading secular belief in biological evolution.4 Titled "The Origin of Man," this article criticizes the view that humans developed "from the lower orders of the animal creation." These "theories of men" are contrasted with "the word of the Lord" (Smith, et al, 1954: 354), which says that God made man in His image. God did not create a single-cell life form out of which man eventually evolved. The various historical expressions of the Mother in Heaven doctrine by Church authorities have had an additional conservative purpose, that of defining a woman's earthly role. For Mormons, Mother in Heaven is idealized as the ultimate standard of womanhood. The focus of all that has been revealed about Her divine role centers on Her functions of bearing and nurturing spiritual offspring. Therefore, it is the religious duty of Mormon women to marry and to bear and nurture children. In contrast to these conservative purposes, in recent years there has been an attempt on the part of some Mormons, particularly women, to use the Mother in Heaven image for more liberal ends. Specifically, there has been a "grass roots" movement by Mormon feminists to overcome male domination. Mother in Heaven has served as the most visible symbol in this liberating process. Let us examine the conservative interpretation of Heavenly Mother offered in the
4. Although this 1909 statement by the First Presidency runs counter to evolutionary theory, it appears the Church has never taken a definitive official position on Darwin's doctrine. See, e.g., Sherlock (1978).



official rhetoric of Church authorities and contrast it in turn with that being proffered by more liberal Church members. The orthodox position cannot be understood without reference to the role of patriarchy in the Mormon scheme of things.5 At the same time that they expouse equality for women, the leaders of the Church make it clear that religion and family affairs are to be governed patriarchally. Though Mormons feel that men and women share equally in the blessings of the Priesthood, only men are permitted priesthood authority. This custom is of divine origin. Since Adam's fall, men have acted as priests and mediated the relationship of women with God (McConkie, 1958: 433). Given the Mormon blending of religion and family, this also makes a man the rightful head of the household. Woman's primary responsibility is in the home as a mother. Only if motherhood is impossible, or the child-rearing years are completed, should public careers be pursued. Although Mormon authorities claim that the negative effects of these patriarchal pronouncements on women are limited, it seems clear that they are, in fact, far-reaching. This priest-led family organization certainly inhibits women from seeking careers outside the home. It also seems to affect some Mormon women's view of their personal and spiritual worth. With respect to personal worth, there has been some recent concern that Mormon women suffer considerable guilt over not living up to the Church's motherhood image (KSL-TV, 1979). Even LDS training manuals appear to imply that Mormon women need "help in learning to feel good about themselves" {Crapo, 1982:12). Moreover, certain of women's religious experiences are less likely to be valued as highly as men's. For instance, one of the important elements of Mormon faith is the restoration of gifts of the Holy Spirit, especially revelations. All Mormons can and should receive revelations. But the significance of the revelation depends on one's position in the church. "Revelations for the guidance of the Church are given to officers of the Church, but only within the limits of their official jurisdiction" (Widtsoe, 1960:98). Only the First President and current Prophet can receive revelations for the Church as a whole; the Bishop's revelations guide him only in the affairs of his ward. At the lower levels, an Elder's revelations extend to his official duties and to guidance of the affairs of his family. The average Mormon wife can only gam personal comfort or guidance for her children from her revelations. In this connection» it is interesting to note that President Woodruff said that Eliza Snow's hymn "is a revelation, though it was given unto us by a woman" (Wilcox, 1980: 10). From the point of view of Church authorities, then, Mother in Heaven seems to provide a role model for Mormon women. Patriarchy among Mormons is seen as justified by the order of Heaven. Heavenly Father plays a more prominent role in Heavenly matters than does the Mother (perhaps Mothers) of his spirit children. Thus should it be on earth. Some Mormon feminists seek to expand the role of Mother in Heaven simultaneously with the expansion of the role of women in Church affairs. Carol Pearson (1982), for instance, notes that the Mother in Heaven belief could be developed by the Church as a theological support for bringing about greater equality and meeting the needs of Mormon women. Poetry by Pearson and other Mormon women has brought Mother in Heaven
δ. This discussion of the patriarchal values of Mormonism acknowledges that the reality of male-female relations can be much different, Historically, Foster {1979) and Beecher (1982) have documented the extended roles actually played at least by a group of leading Mormon women in the nineteenth century. On the contemporary scene, Bahr U982) has shown that the reality of sex roles played by Mormon women is not that different from other groups of women. It is, of course, the gap between official rhetoric and reality that can be very problematic for women.



to public attention. While some authors have envisioned her as representing nurturing motherhood, others have fashioned a fuller image, involving nontraditional roles as well as motherhood (see Wilcox, 1980). Whatever qualities are attributed to Her, it seems to be important to feminists to see their nature reflected in a goddessfigure.The self-respect that accrues from this reflection should not be underestimated (Johnson, 1981: 374-82). The "liberation" and eventual excommunication of Sonia Johnson appears to demonstrate the most radical implications of the Mother in Heaven belief. Johnson (1981) seems to have taken very seriously the Church's doctrine that Heavenly Mother is equal in "glory, perfection, and holiness" to Father. She reasonsfromthis equality to an equality of power. Heavenly Mother is seen by Johnson (1981: 254) as "an authority in her own right, as powerful, as wise and independent as [Father]." Seeing that the Church does not recognize this divine symmetry, Johnson (1981: 378-79) proposes that heaven be reorganized, presumably to reflect earthly realities. In Johnson's account, Mother in Heaven became a key symbol in the conflict, both for her and for the Church. Johnson not only prayed to Mother for guidance, but supported the use of slogans referring to Mother in Heaven on banners at feminist rallies. She (Johnson, 1981:158) felt these slogans were most revolutionary in striking at patriarchy. According to Johnson (1981: 239-46), the Church thought she was culpable in good part for her public worship of Mother in Heaven. At one point, she says Mormon authorities suspected her of trying to form a Heavenly Mother cult among Mormon women. Our survey has brought out the contending positions and underlying interests of church authorities and Mormon feminists in their respective expressions of the belief in a Heavenly Mother. The advent of the belief seems to have been almost incidental in the early history of the Church to the establishment of the religious community and development of guiding doctrines. In spite of this official neglect and the failure to generate a full and unambiguous theology regarding Mother in Heaven, she has become something of a symbol of devotion by members (Johnson, 1981) and leaders (Wilcox, 1980) in the Church. Church authorities, in Johnson's (1981) report of their conflict, have shown resistance to attempts by feminists to adapt this divine female symbol to their own ends and especially to associate Heavenly Mother with such contemporary causes as the Equal Eights Amendment. CONCLUSIONS We would like to summarize by pointing out a range of functions fulfilled by the Mother in Heaven belief within Mormonism (Merton, 1967). First, the theological function of the belief can be seen in the fact that Heavenly Mother provides a completeness, or rounding out, of divine personages. This completeness is not of a mystical or metaphysical kind; it represents, instead, complementary sexuality which is necessary in the Mormon view for spiritual birth to occur. The need for complementary sexuality derives from the Mormons' anthropomorphic conceptions of God. Just as male mortals need females to provide tabernacles for waiting spirits, so Heavenly Father, being of "body, parts, and passions," requires a Mother for spirit procreation. From a social-psychological perspective we can note the functions served by Heavenly Mother for various groups of Mormons at different times in LDS church history. Among



these, one can point to the elevation accruing to polygamous and other Mormon women whose faithfulness to Mormonism would be rewarded by their becoming goddesses (Cardwell & Lindsey, 1980:128-9,137). In recent years this has taken on a new dimension as some Mormon feminists have been able to regard themselves as a step ahead of nonMormon feminists by virtue of Mother in Heaven (Johnson, 1981:119, 247, 375-382). NonMormon feminists are actively uncovering and creating goddess beliefs; Mormon feminists have the symbol ready-made and backed by many decades of tradition. Heavenly Mother becomes for them a fertile ground for creative theology. Also, for Mormon men and women alike, Mother in Heaven has served as a comforting conception, a consolation about the home awaiting the believer beyond this mortal existence. (See Wilcox, 1980: 10, 12, 13.) In addition to her social-psychological functions, Mother in Heaven has also served socio-political functions for Church authorities and some recent dissidents. From the earliest period on, Mother in Heaven helped to foster women's allegiance to the Church, insofar as these women believed in the promise of their ultimate exaltation. This function is particularly important in the context of plural marriage and other divisive issues affecting the Church. More recently, of course, Heavenly Mother has functioned as a role model for Mormon women. As her image has been developed by the Church, she is preoccupied with birth and the nurturance of her children. Her function as a divine public figure in this world is very limited and she remains largely in the shadow of an all-male Godhead in overseeing worldly affairs and as an object of organized worship. Mormon feminists have also put Mother in Heaven to political uses. As we have shown, they have attempted to expand her function so that she might serve as a rallying symbol for those Mormons who would like to see the Church relax its adherence to patriarchy. In light of this configuration of functions, what are the prospects for alteration or expansion of the Mother in Heaven belief in the future? Contrary to the hopes of some Mormon feminists, we feel the probability of any such pro-feminist expansion is very slight. There seems to be an assumption among certain of these feminists that the Mother in Heaven belief is of such importance to Mormon faith that it could be effectively utilized as a legitimating symbol for changing women's role. We would agree that the doctrine is important in filling out Mormonism's overall cosmology; it complements such beliefs as those in eternal progression, everlasting marriage, and the bearing of spirit children. However, it seems to us that the Heavenly Mother doctrine has always been rather peripheral to Church theology. After all, it is not scriptural. It was not even a central concern, as we have shown, in the 1909 statement by the First Presidency which effectively legitimized the belief in her existence. Moreover, given the negative publicity associated with the Johnson/LDS Church affair, it may be that any political use of the Mother in Heaven doctrine stirs more negative than positive reactions among Church authorities and membership. Finally, although a case study such as this can offer no clear-cut statement regarding the origins of beliefs about divine beings, it seems worthwhile to indicate how the present study might tie in to other work on this issue. Perhaps the central contribution of Durkheim (1965) to the sociology of religion was his insistence that religious conceptions mirrored an underlying social reality. The awe and reverence humans attributed to sacred objects and supernatural beings was merely a reflection of their dependence on, and respect for, the supra-individual entity, society. In contemporary social science, Swanson (1960) has



carried this conception further by showing that the spiritual beings worshipped in a society expressed the underlying socio-political structure of that society. Not merely "society" in general, then, as in Durkheim, but specific constitutional structures were the reality underlying religious beliefs. Although later work by Swanson (1967) applied this basic theory to Catholic and Protestant divisions during the Reformation, it is his work on primitive religions which best illuminates our Mother in Heaven theme. According to Swanson (1960: 82), a single high god (monotheism) may coexist in a given society with one or more superior gods (polytheism). These superior gods "affect the lives of all men [or women] engaged in activities relevant to the gods' interests in all times and places" (Swanson, 1960: 83). The underlying structural condition for superior gods is the existence of social class divisions or specialized occupational groups. Although Swanson's formulations are intended to explain primitive beliefs, we do not feel it stretches his conceptions too far to see Mother in Heaven as a superior god. She is, after all, responsible for giving birth to spirits whose mortal existence will later be provided by an earthly mother. What, then, is the structural basis of the Mormon belief in Mother in Heaven? We see its source in the system of patriarchy itself. Patriarchal authority among Latter Day Saints provides for an extreme separation or division of labor between men and women. Only men hold priesthood authority; only women bear children. By nature and by religious doctrine, Mormon authorities feel that men and women are radically different from one another. It is this sharp differentiation, using Swanson's concepts, which leads to the appearance of Heavenly Mother as a superior god for women's specific functions. Thus, we arrive at the ironic conclusion that patriarchy and belief in a goddess go hand-in-hand in the Mormon case.

REFERENCES Albanese, Catherine 1980 "Mormonism and the male-female god: An exploration in active mysticism." Sunstone 5/3: 52-58. Bahr, Howard 1982 "Religious contrasts in family role definitions and performance: Utah Mormons, Catholics, Protestants, and others." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 21: 200-217. Beecher, Maureen U. 1982 "The 'leading sisters': A female hierarchy in nineteenth century Mormon society." Journal of Mormon History 9: 25-39. Brink, T. L. 1976 "Joseph Smith: The verdict of depth psychology." Journal of Mormon History 3: 73-83. Brodie, Fawn M. 1971 No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet. Second Edition: New York: Knopf. Bruce, Dickson D., Jr. 1974 And They All Sang Hallelujah: Plain-Folk Camp-Meeting Religion, 1800-1845. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press. Cardwell, Jerry D. and Donald B. Lindsey 1980 "A factor-analytic study of male-female differences in Mormon religiosity." Pp. 111-43 in Jerry Cardwell (Ed.), The Social Context of Religiosity. Lanham, MD: University Press of America. Clark, M arden 1980 "The new Mormon mysticism." Sunstone 5/2: 24-29. Crapo, Richly H. 1982 "LDS (Mormon) sex role values as revealed by a content analysis of official teaching materials: A comparison." Paper presented at the Pacific Sociological Association, San Diego. Cross, Whitney 1965 The Burned-Over District. New York: Harper Torchbooks.


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