Searching for Heavenly Mother: Toward an Imaginative Latter-day Saint Theology

May 30, 2022

By Gloria Gardner Rees & Bob Rees 

I

“Surely some revelation is at hand!”—Wm Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”

“Heavenly Mother’s emergence out of obscurity changes everything. Profoundly.”—Terryl and Fiona Given

It is important to say this at the outset: The truth that we have a Heavenly Mother is one of the most glorious and revolutionary revelations of the Restoration. The fact that we know so little about this feminine goddess and make so little of her divine position as the co-equal partner of the Father is, at the very least, a mystery and, at the most, something of a scandal! If she is a feminine being who became exalted through the same process by which Heavenly Father did, then she is equal with him in every significant way—in intelligence, power and glory—and especially in love and holiness. The big question: being so, how could she not be equally known, equally powerful, and equally present and involved in the lives of her mortal children? What explains her absence, her silence, her apparent abandonment of her children for millennia? And, further, isn’t it somehow inexplicable that her identity could have been revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith only to leave us tantalized for nearly two hundred years for more knowledge, more understanding and more revelations about her?

Something is wrong with this picture! As a co-equal partner with God the Father, isn’t she deserving of being in the godhead? And, as her children, aren’t we deserving of having her so? Some have speculated that the Holy Ghost, seen in some texts and traditions as feminine, is in fact Heavenly Mother. If she isn’t the Holy Ghost but a silent, invisible member of the godhead, then, to borrow a term from Whitman, might she not be included in a sort of “Square Deific”? If she is not in the godhead, where is she? If, as we are told, the Father knows of our loneliness and longing and sorrows over our broken hearts and weeps over our broken world, wouldn’t she (doesn’t she?) at least equally do the same? If faith and reason tell us we have a mother there, then both faith and reason, our hearts and our minds, should tell us we should also have her here, and now, when we need her so much. What in Heaven’s name are the heaven’s waiting for, for heaven’s sake?

If it is true that we have a divine mother and that an increasing number of us long for her, the reasons we give and the stories we tell about why she isn’t intimately and urgently present in our lives do not make sense. As the Divine Being at least partially responsible for our existence, why wouldn’t she insist on being here? Or is her absence during the long “eons/of amnesia” proof of her emotional distance—or nonexistence? This is a question explored by Emily Dickinson in relation to God the Father. Consider the first two stanzas of her poem, “I Know that He Exists” (with a simple change in pronouns):

I know that She exists.

Somewhere – in silence –

She has hid her rare life

From our gross eyes.

’Tis an instant’s play –

’Tis a fond Ambush –

Just to make Bliss

Earn her own surprise!

That is, Dickinson speculates, like a father playing hide-and-seek with a child, Heavenly Father is hiding and silent because he is going to make a sudden, dramatic appearance that will be so welcome it can only increase our surprise and bliss. 

But, this wry poet asks, what if God never comes? With characteristic irony, Dickinson poses that possibility in asking the disturbing ultimate question:

But – should the play

Prove piercing earnest –

Should the glee – glaze –

In Death’s – stiff – stare –

What if, when we die, there is no Heavenly Father (in Dickinson’s original, no God!)?

Would not the fun

Look too expensive!

Would not the jest –

Have crawled too far!

That is, adapting Dickenson’s logic in terms of Latter-day Saint theology, what if Heavenly Mother is a shadowy fiction in our theology, a ghost in our mythology? What if the paucity of information we have about her has a darker implication than the arguments we tend to hear (e.g., that, like a Victorian matron, she is too sensitive to hear her name taken in vain, too tender hearted to witness the blood and horror of mortality; or, that such a doctrine would be offensive to other Christians and would therefore be a stumbling block to conversion [although that seems not to have impeded our telling them of our other, and for them likely more scandalous, doctrines of the godhead, polygamy, and the plurality of gods!]). In other words, so our various arguments seem to suggest, she must be shielded from the darker, harsher realities of this world, and, therefore, other believers must be shielded from one of the most glorious revelations of the Restoration. Such logic might make Dickinson’s crawled (from the Old English creulen meaning to move slowly across the ground, like a crab!) connote her more subtle intentioned meaning of having one’s flesh crawl! 

II

“Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness.” 1 Tim 3:16

Is God the Father our sole divine parent willing to be present in our lives, the only parent apparently willing (or capable) of speaking to us, of identifying the Savior as his son and us as his sons and daughters? The thought makes not only reason stare, but sense, both common and uncommon, protest. In the modern church, at least until recently, not only has our reason been staring in relation to our Heavenly Mother, but it essentially has also been struck dumb. As Peggy Stack states, “Though she has been acknowledged by Mormon prophets and celebrated in LDS hymns, Mother in Heaven is absent from missionary materials, religious manuals, youth programs, and, for the most part, scriptural texts.” And, one might add, she is also almost entirely absent from our handbooks, our sacrament and conference addresses, and even our ordinances and temples.

In spite of her apparent absence and silence, an increasing number of Latter-day Saints insist that she does exist. Some—speculating that knowledge of her, along with other “plain and precious” truths, has been excised from scripture–have excavated our sacred texts to resurrect this divine goddess. Others, not content with occasionally singing a hymn about her or hearing her alluded to in the phrase, “heavenly parents,” have been searching our history for evidence that she resided in the hearts and minds of earlier generations of Latter-day Saints who sought her, although, echoing Paul’s assertion in Acts, “she is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27). 

In spite of what we understand were revelations to Joseph Smith, Eliza R. Snow and others in both the early and modern Church, in the contemporary church, we have accepted Heavenly Mother as the feminine deus absconditus (the hidden god), the mother who is removed (has removed herself?) from our consciousness, our presence, our world. But for an increasing number of Latter-day Saints, she has only been awaiting our poor eyes to see her. How tragic that this divine being, this Goddess of Light and Love, should have been kept in darkness. How sad that this voice of sun, moon, and stars, of universes and eternities, should be so silent, so voiceless, so absent. And yet she is present in the interstices of our history, in the white spaces of our texts, in our myths and legends, in our private dreams and visions, and, surprisingly, in even more of our declarations and revelations than we generally are aware. As David L. Poulsen and Martin Pulido summarize in their BYU Studies article, “‘A Mother there’: A Survey of Historical Teachings about Mother in Heaven,” she has been here all along, hiding in plain sight:

The Heavenly Mother portrayed in the teachings we have examined is a procreator and parent, a divine person, a co-creator, a co-framer of the plan of salvation, and is involved in this life and the next. Certainly, consideration of these points reinforces several unquestionably important LDS doctrines: divine embodiment, eternal families, divine relationality, the deification of women, the eternal nature and value of gender, and the shared lineage of Gods and humans.

Consider the following from their study:

  • “God is a married being, has a wife. . . . We are the offspring of Him and His wife.” (George Q. Cannon, 1884)
  • “All men and women are in the similitude of the universal Father and Mother and are literally the sons and daughters of Deity.” (The First Presidency, 1909)
  • Regarding the formation of Abraham’s character, “our great heavenly Mother was the greater molder.” ( Susa Young Gates, 1891)
  • “. . . the divine Mother, side by side with the divine Father, [has] the equal sharing of equal rights, privileges and responsibilities.” (Susa Young Gates, 1920) 
  • “The glorious vision of life hereafter . . . is given radiant warmth by the thought that . . . [we have] a mother who possesses the attributes of Godhood.” (John A. Widtsoe, 1928) 
  • “On a particularly difficult day, . . . what would this world’s inhabitants pay to know that heavenly parents are reaching across those same streams and mountains and deserts, anxious to hold them close?” (Jeffrey R. Holland, 1985)

This is our doctrine! This is what we believe! And yet how many in the contemporary Church are hearing such expressions for the first time! 

III

. . . Remember,

 in me also you live

and move and have

your being—my being

our being. Remember

you are.

We are.

I am.

The most profound realization we have as human beings is that we have being—that we exist, that we are someone. The second most profound awareness happens when, upon awakening from the womb, we look into the eyes of our earthly mother, into the face of love and see a reflection of ourselves, that mystical connection reflected in our mother’s face—in the seer stones of her eyes!—a mirror of ourselves. Looking into the love inscribed on the face of that being from whose body our bodies have come, our awareness, however primitive and limited, is that we are part of her, of the universe of her being, and are somehow deeply connected by an indelible affirmation of love. In some mysterious way, that awareness that we will forever be inarticulate to fully express, stems from our prenatal awareness of being nurtured in her womb for nine long months, fed physically through the umbilical connection between our bodies and spiritually through her spirit, including the words she has spoken and the lullabies and songs she has sung to us. However little we understand, we know by the profound experience of a newborn looking into their mother’s eyes that our being is affirmed by her being, by the mystical but nevertheless real interconnected bonding of unconditional love across a liminal space not larger than several feet, but also as expansive as eternity. 

Latter-day Saint theology leads us to imagine that the kind of experience we have as newborn infants gazing into the face of our earthly mother is a mirror of similar experiences we had in the preexistent world with our Heavenly Mother. That is, it stands to reason that, however we were begotten or came to be the eternal beings we are, in the preexistent world one of our first experiences was looking into the faces of those who “organized,” engendered or somehow brought us into being and having our first indelible experience of being loved. We speculate that such experiences were frequent in that world before our world and that somewhere in our deepest subconsciousness we hold memories of those gazes between us and our Heavenly Mother. We further speculate that, in a pattern repeated in this world when we leave our earthly parents to go to college, serve a mission or start lives on our own, when it was time for us to cross the veil between the worlds, Heavenly Father and Mother called us into their presence, blessed and embraced us, and promised their love would be with us—a farewell which Orson F. Whitney and Harold B. Lee referred to as  “a bittersweet occasion.”  Such memories too are part of our history, even if we can’t recall them. 

IV

“When the last days come, I will give my Spirit to everyone. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your young men [and young women] will see visions, and your old men [and old women] will have dreams. “ Acts 2:17, Contemporary English Version

Latter-day Saints believe in continuing revelation. Since the Restoration is a process not an event or series of events that took place in nineteenth-century America, we can rejoice in our radical theology of the heavens being always open. We know from scripture and Church history that such revelation is both vertical and horizontal; that it is given to and received by ordinary saints as well as by prophets, seers and revelators; and that it flows both from prophets to ordinary saints—and sometimes the other way. Joseph Smith welcomed both kinds of revelation and in fact welcomed all truth, no matter its source. There seems to be no other way to explain why almost from the beginning of the Restoration Latter-day Saint men and women have had dreams, visions, intuitions, impressions and intimations of immortality related to our Heavenly Mother. 

Emily Dickinson suggested that the absence of revelation is not revelation of absence, that lack of communication is not due to God’s parsimoniousness, but rather our unreadiness to receive it:  “Not “Revelation” — tis — that waits/But our unfurnished eyes.” “Unfurnished” as in unprepared. 

It is interesting to contemplate that an increasing number of Latter-day Saints have had dreams and even auditory and visionary visitations from our Heavenly Mother. Here is one example from Maxine Hanks:

My encounter with the divine feminine began in dreams, when I was a teen; yet, a sense of Her was there before, in the love of my mother and the lyrics of my favorite Primary song:  “our lilac tree” and “butterfly wings” and “the magical sound of things,” resonated Her presence. My first dream of Her came in 1972; a female figure led me to our Chapel, where a crystal bowl of pristine water waited on the sacrament table, for me to partake.

After recounting other dreams, intuitions, impressions and unfoldings, Hanks concludes, “She was there long before I knew Her, before I could even conceive of Her. And She abides with us today, whether we see Her or not.  She simply IS, so She waits, to be seen and known.”

In her Women in Authority: Reemerging Mormon Feminism, Hanks chronicles the experiences of a number of modern Latter-day Saint women who have had revelatory experiences with our Heavenly Mother. Speaking of the opening of such experiences in her “Finding Our Bodies, Hearts, Voices—A Three-Part Invention,” Martha Dickey Esplin writes:

Possibly my finding and accepting the Mother came about because of a small tear in the veil. . . .  the tear has become a rending. Maybe all of the earnest striving for the feminine in the divine results from glimmerings through the opening in the veil, from rays of light shining and reflecting on those souls who have felt the pull that now is the time to open the veil enough to let the Mother through. . . . Maybe the time has come for men—the patriarchs—to accommodate the feminine power, to be ready to work together to save our planet, our church, maybe even our souls.

If we were to “unfurnish” our eyes and ears, our hearts and minds, we might be surprised not only by revelation, but also by joy.

V

“As women now are, Heavenly Mother once was;

As Heavenly Mother now is, women may become.”

–Variation on a revelation to John Taylor

Our official theology informs us that not only do we have a divine mother there, but that she, the mother of all creation as we know it, was also once here (or some similar world), as a mortal woman. According to Orson F. Whitney, “There was a time when that being whom we now worship—. . . our eternal Father and Mother[,] were once man and woman in mortality.” If Heavenly Father passed through a mortal probation similar to ours, then his eternal companion had to do the same. Understanding the implications and extensions of our theology, unraveling the promises and possibilities of our revealed religion, we see Heavenly Mother in an eternal context. Looking back far enough, pealing back the layers of time and eternity, we see her first as unorganized intelligence and then as a spirit daughter of her heavenly parents. Next, we see her as participant in a pre-mortal council, raising her hand in support of venturing into the treacherous terrain of mortality and later actually passing through the veil into the mortal world as a newborn infant sired of mortal parents charged with loving and nurturing her in the same way we love and nurture our children. 

In this mortal sphere, she would have lived in a particular place–a desert, a plain, a land of lakes and forests or among mountains and rivers. She may have come of age in a village or a large city. Her parents may have been peasants or professionals. She likely had siblings and a large extended family. As a child, she would have learned songs, perhaps played a lute, read scrolls or books. From her mother she may have learned how to weave and cook, to study scripture and to tell stories. Undoubtedly, like most young girls, she dreamed of a world beyond her own.

Next, we imagine her blossoming into young womanhood, passing through adolescence, experiencing all the natural processes of mortal maturing, developing physically, emotionally, and spiritually, evolving through the redemptive process toward holiness similar to that known to us. Looking into the future before our future, we see her as an exalted, glorified woman, beautiful beyond all telling and lovely beyond all singing. Eons later, we see her in partnership with our Heavenly Father, organizing us out of intelligence and making it possible for us to follow the same path she has traversed from intelligence to mortality to the glory of godhood.

Although she is essentially absent from the pages of our sacred history, we imagine her participating in the creation of the world her children would inhabit and then being concerned about them throughout the period of their mortal probation.

Taking the bare bones of what has been revealed, the shards of allusion and light, the fragments of scripture and story, the particles of poetry and prophesy, we exclaim, I have a Mother there–and here!”

VI

“I would like to suggest that as individuals and as a church we open our hearts and minds, awaken our imaginations to the possibilities that our Heavenly Mother holds for us. Let us celebrate her elevated place in our theology and teach others about her. Surely many men and women in this godless world might find their way back to the light through this goddess of all the worlds.”—Robert Rees

We posit that imagination constitutes a kind of revelation, one that opens our views not only through an opening in the veil, but through an expansive opening into the heavens through the imagination’s exploration, inventiveness, and fecundity. One could argue that the most underdeveloped and underused gift of the spirit is the imagination, one of the greatest gifts and endowments given us by deity. We know that before anything came into being, including our individual beings and the entire world as we know it, the Gods—Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother—together, first imagined, then created and finally revealed to us, their children, what they had done, so that such revelations could inspire our imaginations, and in turn our imaginations could call forth new revelations. Nothing else makes sense, even though we pretend it does. 

It is through the imagination that contemporary Latter-day Saints are clothing the Divine Mother in the richness she deserves, in the silks and velvets, the jacquards and brocades; in the blues and golds, the purples and greens; in the diamonds and diadems, the sapphires and pearls of her queenly status. 

Consider the marvelous flood of light and delight that has inspired such works as Carol Lynn Pearson’s Mother Wove the Morning (1989) and her more recent Finding Mother God (2020); Rachael Hunt Steenblick’s Mother’s Milk: Poems in Search of Heavenly Mother (2017), the cornucopia of Dove Song: Heavenly Mother in Mormon Poetry (2018), an anthology of poetic renderings spanning 175 years of Latter-day Saint creative expression; and a multitude of other compositions appearing in a variety of publications and internet sites during the first two decades of the twenty-first century. The following are illustrative of how contemporary Latter-day Saint poets yearn for and celebrate the awakening of this divine goddess.

“I thought I was a Motherless child

in an always motherless house

and then your little surprises began to come.”—Carol Lynn Pearson

 

“I sit a queen lost in the wilderness of men’s hearts.”

“When will ‘shh’ become ‘She?’”–S. E. Page

“But when nothing is known

The human mind scatters seeds

Of speculation and gardens of stories

Crop up to fill our emptiness.

And heal our loneliness”—Will Reger

“Wherever we are

she is what

is missing.”—Terresa Wellborn

“A mother’s pain

needs a Mother’s comfort”–Taylor Rouanzion

I need you  . . . 

. . . to reveal your ways

. . . to guide my light

When I am lost.–Lisa Bolin Hawkins

I want to know you, mother.

I want to know you Mother.

I want to see your face–Janice Allred

She who has no name

looks just like you remember her.–Joanna Brooks

“Yet, you were there all along, I recall the night my  soul

awoke inside a dream. . . .

You were here the whole time.”–Maxine Hanks

“. . . .Remember,

in me you also live

and move and have

your being—my being,

our being. Remember

you are,

We are,

I am.–Robert Rees

“What if that Holy Heav’ly Three

Is Godly Him and Him and She?”–Jonathon Penny

“She is your face in the mirror.”–Melody Newly Johnson

“O you who no one names . . .

The earth is yours and every living thing says your name.”–Emma Jay

“These are windows through which shines her grace.”–Martin Pulido

“The Mother woke at every sound . . .
I hear Her everywhere.”–Rachael Hunt Steenblik

“I think of her in a place of dreaming . . .

I offer the stone of my heart to her touch.”–Tara Timpson

O my daughters, my sons

how often would I have gathered you as an eagle

feeds her fledglings –Susan Elizabeth Howe

“Her thousand branches adorning the long climb

 into the milky stars . . . 

hosts and hosts and hosts and hosts.”—Kathryn Knight Sonntag

GLORIA GARDNER REES is an educator, nutritionist, and has training in gerontology, cultural communication, and integral adult development. She has taught in Alaska, Utah, China, India, and Nepal. Currently, she lives in Marin County, California, where she is involved in interfaith, prison ministry, and humanitarian work with her husband, Bob. She is the mother of six and grandmother of eleven.

BOB REES is Director of Latter-day Saint/Mormon Studies at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. He is the co-founder of the Bountiful Children’s Foundation, a nonprofit that addresses malnutrition among Latter-day Saint and other children in the developing world. His most recent publications are, A New Witness to the World: Reading and Re-reading the Book of Mormon and volume two of Why I Stay: The Challenges of Discipleship for Contemporary Latter-day Saints.

 

***

 Terryl Givens and Fiona Givens, All Things New: Sin, Salvation, and Everything In Between (Faith Matters: Meridian, ID, 2020), 25.

 Janice Allred, “Toward a Mormon Theology of God the Mother,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 27:2, https://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V27N02_27.pdf. While the word for Holy Spirit in Greek is masculine, in Hebrew and in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, it is feminine.  

Ann Gardner Stone, “Mother,” in Dove Song: Heavenly Mother in Mormon Poetry, ed. Tyler Chadwick et al., (El Cerrito, CA: Peculiar Pages, 2018), 110. 

 Thomas H. Johnson, ed., The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (Little Brown: Boston, 1960), 160.

 Peggy Fletcher Stack,”A Mormon mystery returns: Who is Heavenly Mother?” Salt Lake Tribune, 6 May 2013, https://archive.sltrib.com/article.php?id=56282764&itype=cmsid

David Paulson and Martin Pulido, “‘A Mother there’: A Survey of Historical Teachings about Mother in Heaven,” Brigham University Studies (2010).  https://byustudies.byu.edu/article/a-mother-there-a-survey-of-historical-teachings-about-mother-in-heaven. 

All of the bulleted quotes in this section are cited with full documentation in Paulson and Pulido, “‘A Mother there’: A Survey of Historical Teachings about Mother in Heaven.” 

Robert A. Rees, “Mother,” Dove Song, 175-76.

 Paulson and Pulido, “A Mother There.”

 The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, 339.

 Maxine Hanks, ”Heavenly Mother’s Day: Dreaming of the Divine Feminine,” https://www.the-exponent.com/heavenly-mothers-day-dreaming-of-the-divine-feminine/

Maxine Hanks, ed. Women and Authority: Re-Emerging Mormon Feminism (Signature Books, 1992), 261-62.

 Orson F. Whitney, “Bishop O. F. Whitney,” Woman’s Exponent 24 (June 15, 1895), as cited by Paulson and Pulido.

 Robert A. Rees, “Our Mother In Heaven,” Sunstone (April 1991), https://sunstonemagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/081-49-51.pdf