As Gerald Lund once put it, many members simply assume that “the Church teaches many principles which are accepted as doctrines but which the First Presidency has seen no need to declare in an official pronouncement.” (“I Have a Question,” Ensign, Feb. 1982, 38) While there is no reference to a Heavenly Mother within the standard works (canon) of Mormonism, it is a commonly held belief and an integral part of the traditional Mormon worldview.
One of the most modern explicit teachings on the matter comes from the Achieving a Celestial Marriage Manual:
“By definition, exaltation includes the ability to procreate the family unit throughout eternity. This our Father in heaven has the power to do. His marriage partner is our mother in heaven. We are their spirit children, born to them in the bonds of celestial marriage.” (p. 129)
The hymn “O My Father” (Hymns, no. 139) written by Eliza R. Snow in Nauvoo in 1843, includes the following:
When I leave this frail existence,
When I lay this mortal by,
Father, Mother, may I meet you
In your royal courts on high?
Then, at length, when I’ve completed
All you sent me forth to do,
With your mutual approbation
Let me come and dwell with you.
W. Phelps wrote the following letter to William Smith on December 25, 1844:
A heap of dust alone remains of thee, ‘Tis all thou art and all the proud shall be,” while Mormonism, from an Abel, though dead, yet speaketh; from an Elijah though translated in a fiery chariot to heaven, yet, returns in glory with Moses, and blesses Jesus at the transfiguration on the mount! O Mormonism! Thy father is God, thy mother is the Queen of heaven, and so thy whole history, from eternity to eternity, is the laws, ordinances and truth of the “Gods”-embracing the simple plan of salvation, sanctification, death, resurrection, glorification and exaltation of man, from infancy to age, from age to eternity, from simplicity to sublimity: from faith, repentance, baptism, reception of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of the hands, to washing, anointing, presence of angels, the general assembly and church of the first born; to the unspeakable glory of seeing God and the Lamb, and to spirits of just men, made perfect, and to be ordained unto eternal life! (W. W. Phelps, “The Answer,” letter to William Smith, December 25, 1844, Nauvoo, Il, Times and Seasons 5 (January 1): 758.
Mormon apostle Bruce McConkie wrote,
“This doctrine that there is a Mother in Heaven was affirmed in plainness by the First Presidency of the Church (Joseph F. Smith, John R. Winder, and Anthon H. Lund) when, in speaking of pre-existence and the origin of man, they said that ‘man, as a spirit, was begotten and born of heavenly parents, and reared to maturity in the eternal mansions of the Father,’ that man is the ‘offspring of celestial parentage,’ and that ‘all men and women are in the similitude of the universal Father and Mother and are literally the sons and daughters of Deity.’ (Man: His Origin and Destiny, pp.348-355.)” (Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 1966, p. 516)
Then apostle Gordon B. Hinckley reasoned the following in General Conference:
“Logic and reason would certainly suggest that if we have a Father in Heaven, we have a Mother in Heaven. That doctrine rests well with me. However, in light of the instruction we have received from the Lord Himself, I regard it as inappropriate for anyone in the Church to pray to our Mother in Heaven” (Gordon Hinckley, “Daughters of God,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 1991, p.100. See also The Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley, p.257 [which came out when he was president]).
The Encyclopedia of Mormonism includes the following about the “doctrine” of a “Mother in Heaven”:
“LDS doctrine teaches that there is a Mother in Heaven as well as a Father, that Eve’s eating of the forbidden fruit furthered God’s plan of salvation.” (Encyclopedia of Mormonism 2:490).
“Latter-day Saints infer from authoritative sources of scripture and modern prophecy that there is a Heavenly Mother as well as a Heavenly Father… Today the belief in a living Mother in Heaven is implicit in Latter-day Saint thought. Though the scriptures contain only hints, statements from presidents of the church over the years indicate that human beings have a Heavenly Mother as well as a Heavenly Father.” (Encyclopedia of Mormonism 2:961)
Orson F. Whitney taught,
“We are taught that men and women, the sons and daughters of God, who were spirits in his presence, were sent here to take mortal tabernacles and undergo experiences that would in due time exalt them to the plane occupied by their Father and Mother in heaven.” (Brian H. Stuy, ed., Collected Discourses 4:131)
Heavenly Mother in the Bible?
Some would argue that a reference to female deity is in the Bible, namely references to the “queen of heaven” by Jeremiah. The problem of course is that such references (Jeremiah 7:18; 44:17-19, 25) are negative. Mormon apologist Kevin Barney responds to this matter with the following:
Your complaint about undermining the authority of reform prophets [like Jeremiah] is where the rubber really hits the road, and I think it’s your strongest point. I knew this was going to be tough for rank and file Mormons to accept. We tend to want to read the scriptures as being univocal, without development, and if one prophet was negative on a practice then it’s a bad practice and all prophets would agree.
Just recently I had to counsel with a man in another state who used to be in my ward, because his BYU attending son had learned of Adam-God. His son said in effect, Look, this isn’t a trifle, it’s on the nature of God. It’s something as important as can be. And BY as prophet taught this. So it either has to be true and the Church is in apostasy for not teaching it, or the prophets are wrong altogether and they have no authority. We’ve raised a whole generation of Saints with such linear thinking about prophetic infallibility that we can’t handle the nuances, and there really are a lot of them beyond the obvious A-G example.
The truth is that the winners get to write the history, and it was those who rejected Asherah who largely redacted or wrote the OT as we have it today. There is, quite frankly, a lot of political spin in the OT. I recognize that we get really nervous when we start talking about spin in the scriptures. So I don’t blame anyone, including you, for not wanting to follow me there.
Fringe Views of Some Academics and Apologists
The degree to which some academic Mormons are willing to kick against basic Mormon tradition can be surprising. Paul Owen, a non-Mormon, writes:
Some Mormons understand our “heavenly parents” in terms of the Father and the Holy Spirit for example… I wasn’t denying that the doctrine of a Heavenly Mother is officially taught. However it has never been officially defined or interpreted in terms of God the Father having a wife (though that is commonly assumed). Some Mormons understand Heavenly Mother as the Holy Ghost, others as a reference to a feminine aspect within the being of God, and I have even seen it suggested that Jesus is the Mother figure, as the one through whom mankind was created in the image of God (”let us make man in our image” being applied to the Father and the Son)… The LDS Church has never defined the Heavenly Mother language in a prescriptive manner [note: this is not true; see the first quote given above]. It is not an official teaching that God has a wife. The view that the “Heavenly Mother” actually refers to the feminine aspect of the being of God was advocated by Erastus Snow, himself an apostle. The language used in the statements of the First Presidency on the Origin of Man and Evolution (which vaguely speak of “the universal Father and Mother”) are ambiguous enough to allow for this alternative interpretation…
I know for a fact that Roger Keller, who teaches religion at BYU, does not believe God has a wife. At least that’s what he told me a few years ago. Nor does Blake Ostler (a very well-known and respected Mormon theologian). It was Richard Sherlock (an LDS philosophy professor at Utah State University) whom I believe I first heard suggest the possibility that Jesus could be our heavenly mother, given his co-participation with the Father in creation (”let us make man in our image . . . So God created man in his own image . . . male and female he created them”). It is interesting for instance, that in 1 Corinthians 11:3, Paul grounds the ordering of the genders in the relationality within the Trinity between the Father and the Son.
There is a strain of piety within Western Christianity that has long conceptualized Jesus as a nurturing heavenly mother figure. This is especially evident in Anselm and Julian of Norwich. So it’s not like such theological moves are lacking in precedent. And yes, before someone asks, many Mormon theologians do want to be in conversation with the wider Christian theological tradition, so voices like Anselm do matter in these discussions.
As for views that would relate Heavenly Mother to the Holy Ghost, or a feminine aspect within the divine being, see Bergera, Line Upon Line, pp. 98, 106.
I don’t deny that the language of Heavenly Parents and the Universal Father and Mother suggests that God has a wife. Likewise, the fact that (they teach) God the Father has a physical body suggests that he was once a man like us. But suggestions and prescribed teachings with official definitions are not exactly the same thing. When a doctrine is not officially defined, it allows LDS theology considerable room for creative engagement with the wider theological tradition. When you participate in forums like the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology (as I do most every year), and enter into open conversation with those sorts of people, who are very much insiders (not liberal LDS apostates), it becomes apparent that the boundaries of “official” Mormon doctrine are a lot more fluid and flexible than evangelical apologetic literature would convey.”