A Mother There or Multiple Mothers There? A look at whether GA statements about Heavenly Mother leave the door open for polygamy

I’ve always thought that a big positive of the Proclamation on the Family is that it mentions Heavenly Mother. Or to be more precise, it mentions Heavenly Parents. Here’s a quote from the section where they’re brought up:

All human beings—male and female—are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny.

I have always read “heavenly parents” here to mean a heavenly couple: Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother. But I was part of an online discussion recently in which Nancy Ross (who you might know from the papers she has co-written on Mormon feminism) pointed out that the wording here is completely compatible with the possibility of a polygamous Heavenly Father married to many Heavenly Mothers. “Heavenly parents” could be two (as I’ve always read it) or it could be 50 or 10001. Another participant in the discussion, Melissa Mayhew (who you may know from her blogging as Rune at Feminist Mormon Housewives), suggested that it would be interesting to look at other statements GAs have made about Heavenly Mother to see if they’re also compatible with a multiple-Heavenly Mother reading. I thought that was a great idea, so that’s what I’ll be doing in this post.

Fortunately, there is a great data source for GA statements on Heavenly Mother. A few years ago, David L. Paulsen and Martin Pulido published an article on this very topic in BYU Studies. As part of their research, they searched numerous Mormon sources for statements on Heavenly Mother (see their Note 16). Of course they didn’t have space to report every single one in the article, but at least with the ones they did quote, they gave me a sample to work with. Note that not all of their statements come from GAs; some come from other sources that might be considered to have some authority (e.g., hymns). I looked at all statements in their article, regardless of the source.

I classified each quote in the body of the Paulsen and Pulido article (I didn’t check the footnotes) into one of four categories: not compatible with a multiple-Heavenly Mother reading, somewhat compatible, very compatible, or not enough information. The last category applied only to a few quotes where the way the authors chose to excerpt meant that the words actually mentioning Heavenly Mother or Heavenly Parents were excluded. For some references, the authors paraphrased or summarized and didn’t quote directly at all; I excluded these references.

I’ll give you examples of quotes I put into each category so you can hopefully get a better sense of what I was doing. Here’s one from Gordon B. Hinckley (on p. 84 of the article) that I classified as “not compatible”:

I regard it as inappropriate for anyone in the Church to pray to our Mother in Heaven.

By saying “our” Mother in Heaven, referring to one Mother we all share, Hinckley makes clear that he is referring to just one divine being.

Next, here’s a familiar one from Eliza R. Snow (on p. 71 of the article) that I classified as “somewhat compatible”:

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.
When I leave this frail existence—
When I lay this mortal by
Father, mother, may I meet you
In your royal courts on high?

Snow mentions “a” mother, and plans on greeting her after this life ends, but her phrasing doesn’t rule out the possibility that other people might have other mothers there that they also might plan to greet in the next life. That being said, it seems like the one-Mother reading is much more natural for this quote, so I only classified it as being somewhat compatible.

Finally, here’s one from M. Russell Ballard (on p. 80-81 of the article) that I classified as “very compatible”:

We are part of a divine plan designed by Heavenly Parents who love us.

Just like with the Family Proclamation, saying “Heavenly Parents” leaves open the possibility that there could be any number.

Here’s a graph showing how many of the quotes fell into each of the first three categories (excluding the “not enough info” category):heavenly mother ref compatibility with multiple hmThe quotes were about evenly split between those that could be read with multiple Heavenly Mothers and those that couldn’t. You can see I classified very few as “somewhat.” Most were about evenly split between “not” and “very.” Almost all the quotes that I classified as “very compatible” I put in that category because they mentioned Heavenly Parents but didn’t explicitly describe a Heavenly Couple.

One important thing to clarify is that I’m not making any assumptions about intent. I’m not assuming that speakers making statements that are compatible with a multiple-Heavenly Mother reading are doing so to intentionally suggest a polygamous Heavenly Father. I’m just classifying the content of what they’ve said to see if it could be read in that way, regardless of what their intent might have been. If I had to guess, I would say that in general, I don’t think they’re doing it intentionally. The existence of quotes that go both ways suggests that this might not be an issue GAs are even thinking about.

Intentional or not, though, I wish that they would stop referring to Heavenly Mother in ways that leave the door open for celestial polygamy. I think polygamy was harmful and wrong, and I think it’s a painful message to send to women in particular that polygamy is part of heaven. Even if they’re not intending to send this message, it does matter when GAs say things that can be read this way. And as all the quotes that aren’t open to a multiple-Heavenly Mother reading illustrate, it’s possible to talk about her in a way that excludes the possibility of polygamy. Unfortunately, given the influence of the Family Proclamation, speakers will likely take cues from it and talk about “heavenly parents,” and thus leave open the possibility of a polygamous Heavenly Father, for a long time to come.

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1. For that matter, it could just as well refer to multiple heavenly couples, or many other kinds of arrangements, but given our history of polygamy and the many ways it persists in the Church today, I think the polygamous reading is more interesting than these other possibilities.

14 comments

  1. Interesting analysis as always Ziff. I had never read the Proclamation on the Family under that possible interpretation either. Though I think the response to your closing request is a challenging one. Since we don’t have a clear answer on whether or not polygamy persists in the heavens nor do we have a a clear understanding that Joseph stepped out of bounds on the question of polygamy, I think it’s unlikely leaders will step away from leaving that door open. At least not until further revelation tells us otherwise.




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  2. I would take issue with your stated “not compatible” example (from Hinckley); because you seem to take Hinckley’s condemnation of a practice as some sort of affirmation that the practice itself somehow accurately describes a particular underlying reality. If Hinckley had said “I regard it as inappropriate for anyone in the Church to pray to Baal”, surely no one would ever suggest that Hinckley was in fact affirming the existence of Baal. And if he had said “I regard it as inappropriate for anyone in the Church to pray to Brigham Young’s wife Miriam Works”, I doubt anyone would conclude that Hinckley was proclaiming that Young was *only* ever married to Miriam Works.

    So while I admire and respect the work you’ve done here, I’m not sure how useful your bottom-line figures are as long as you’re including statements like Hinckley’s in the “not compatible” category.




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  3. That’s a good point, JimD. But I think his use of “our” before “Heavenly Mother” indicates that he does think he’s describing someone real.

    But on the bright side, if you think my results are utter bunk, the article I’m referring to isn’t that long. You can always go and classify the statements in it yourself!

    https://byustudies.byu.edu/showtitle.aspx?title=8669




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  4. According to Adam-God, Adam was the God of multiple worlds, but Eve was his wife assigned to this world. So in that sense, Eve is our heavenly Mother. We can call her “our heavenly mother” because she is the only heavenly mother we have anything to do. But that doesn’t mean that God our father doesn’t have other wives on other worlds, or that their are other Gods with their own wives. That was why someone with more polygymous wives was in a higher kingdom, because they would be populating more worlds. This is our historical theology that the church doesn’t like to talk about, which is why the church doesn’t allow us to talk about her or pray to her.




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  5. This is the most rational reason of why we don’t talk about her. We’d have to confront, and either refute or affirm, our beliefs in a polygamous God and afterlife. And I’m not sure I ever see our leaders being willing to do that.

    Which suuuuuucks. But also a small part of me is glad bc if we pushed our current leaders to address it I wouldn’t be happy with the answer they’d give, methinks.




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  6. FWIW I’ll type in my comment on this from pp. 143-44, n. 33 of my article “How to Worthip Our Mother in Heaven”:

    Second, is God the Mother one or many? One could make an argument for a plurality of Mothers. In the Canaanite pantheon, El had multiple consorts; and in nineteenth-century Mormonism when polygamy was actively practiced and defended, having plural wives may have seemed like the more natural arrangement. In my conception, however, there is only one Mother in Heaven to match our Father in Heaven. Such uniqueness is consistent with the Israelite evidence, which worships only Asherah in contradistinction to the multiple consorts of the Canaanite pantheon. Further, in my view a single Mother in Heaven is more consonant with contemporary Mormon thought.




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  7. As much as I would like to write off and foreswear polygamy forever, the recent church essays on polygamy defended both the practice in the early church and the doctrine. Compare and contrast with the race and the priesthood essay which clearly paints Brigham Young and successive church presidents as products of their time. Several early church leaders clearly stated that polygamy would be required to enter the highest level of the Celestial kingdom, and to my knowledge, no recent church leader has refuted that assertion.




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  8. In my recent research for my recent Mother’s Day talk on Heavenly Mother, I came across a YouTube video with snippets of GAs and general officers “talking about Her”. In almost every instance they used Heavenly Parents. I believe it was Elder Perry who almost said, Heavenly Mother, but then quickly corrected himself to Heavenly Parents. Hmmmmmm I’m sorry I don’t have a link, but a smart guy like you can probably find it.




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  9. “I didn’t check the footnotes.” That’s okay. You didn’t need to. We have student interns at BYU Studies who do a thorough source check on all articles. In fact, BYU Studies Quarterly is becoming unique in that regard. Very few journals check sources any more, and this is unfortunate. I can tell you from long experience that I have never yet seen an article, by any author, that did not have errors in the footnotes. Sometimes it’s a wrong page number, sometimes inaccurately copied punctuation, sometimes missing words, and sometimes, unfortunately, the source doesn’t say at all what the author claims it says. But you can be reasonably sure that all the quotes in the Paulsen-Pulido article are accurate. We’re not perfect, but at least we are careful.

    The one thing that stood out for me, though, as I proofread this article, is that nobody has ever claimed to have a revelation about Mother(s) in Heaven. Which means that even some of the more authoritative-sounding statements are probably more speculation and supposition than anything else. The most sobering and perhaps concrete quote of the bunch is the contrarian statement by George Q. Cannon (p. 78). And that’s not going to comfort anybody. But such is the state of our knowledge about a Heavenly Mother. We know nothing. And that’s why a post such as this one is even possible.




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  10. It would seem logical IF the number of females exceeds the numbers of males in the Celestial Kingdom. Obviously, a logical flaw ensues if the reverse becomes true (else, is HF ‘gaming it’ so that He gets more daughters than sons in the hereafter with Him?) as no one seems to envision polyandry.

    Regardless of the demographics of the Celestial kingdom, IF for some reason polygamy won’t be practiced there, then there would ensue a significant problem of members being ‘left out’ due to circumstances beyond their control..e.g., faithlessness of their earthly spouse that they’d been sealed to, inability in spite of sincere effort to find a worthy partner, etc. It seems even more incredulous to think that somehow the genders would be perfectly balanced.




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  11. My take is that by using the term Heavenly Parents, they are skirting the issue of Heavenly Mother. Since the church does not apologize according to Elder Oak then they can address it by not addressing it directly. They let us work out the details on an individual basis and then they can’t be quoted as supporting Heavenly Mother as doctrine. Sorry September Six.
    Since our canonized scriptures, aside from our hymnal, do not mention a Heavenly Mother, then maybe they don’t want to bring forth anything else radical that would separate us from the mainstream Christianity. We’ve already struggled to have them to adopt us anyway. We’ve brushed enough into the closet already.
    As I have thought about this issue over the last few months, I don’t think the current leadership is ready for it. It doesn’t have the same significance to them that it does to others. I also wonder if it just not on their radar screen since they’ve “dealt” with it already.
    I second Kristine A’s post. I think it will come up again, but I want the ones ready for the answer to redress the issue.




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