“Latter-day Saints . . . do not pray to Heavenly Mother.”

The Church’s new gospel topics essay on Mother in Heaven says the following:

Latter-day Saints direct their worship to Heavenly Father, in the name of Christ, and do not pray to Heavenly Mother.

I think it’s interesting that this is a descriptive statement and not a prescriptive one. It doesn’t say that we should not pray or must not pray to Heavenly Mother. It doesn’t say that if we pray to Heavenly Mother, we’ll face Church discipline. It just says that we do not pray to her.

It’s descriptive and it’s false. I know Mormons who pray to Heavenly Mother. If you’re reading this blog, you probably do too. The statement reminds me of a couple of other similar descriptive but false statements made by people speaking for Church organizations in the past few years. First, there was the CES administrator who April Young Bennett interviewed for the Exponent back in 2012.

Question: What happens to a female seminary teacher who has a baby?  Can she continue teaching seminary?
She stops teaching seminary when she has a baby.

Question:  She is fired?
No. Female seminary teachers understand this when they are hired.  They know that they will only work as seminary teachers until they have children.

Question: Do they have the option of continuing to teach when they become mothers?
They do not want to keep working full-time after they have children.  They want to stay home with their children.

The CES administrator isn’t saying that mothers of young children cannot teach seminary. He’s saying that they don’t want to. Like with the statement about not praying to Heavenly Mother, it’s descriptive but it seems likely to be false. Surely some new mothers would rather continue to teach.

The other statement that came to mind was BYU spokesperson Carri Jenkins explaining in 2012 on why caffeinated soft drinks aren’t available on campus:

BYU Spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said the choice to not offer caffeinated beverages on campus is “not a university or Church decision, but one made by Dining Services. This decision has been based on what our customers want, and there has not been a demand for caffeinated beverages.”

She’s not saying caffeinated drinks aren’t allowed. She’s saying nobody wants them. It’s a descriptive statement, and it’s false. The very same article where she is quoted also quotes BYU students who do want caffeinated drinks on campus.

In all three cases, although these statements aren’t prescriptive on their face, it seems obvious that they’re trying to do prescriptive work with description. They’re not just articulating the way things are, but the way things should be. This is the norm, they say, with the clear implication that people should go along with it. Or if you prefer it phrased like it might be in a seminary movie, everybody’s doing it, a statement invariably used as an argument that therefore you should do it too.

Another way these statements reach from description to prescription is by defining a group for which the statement is true, and thereby implying that people for whom they aren’t true aren’t actually in the group. “Latter-day Saints . . . do not pray to Heavenly Mother,” the Church essay says, so anyone who does pray to Heavenly Mother must not be a true Latter-day Saint. Similarly, if there’s no demand for caffeine at BYU, then if you want caffeine, you must not belong at BYU.

Why use descriptive statements to do prescriptive work? Just to be clear, I think that in all of these cases, the statements are serving as both descriptions and prescriptions. The writers and speakers are describing things that are probably generally true, even if not universally true. Assuming they’re aware of the exceptions, they probably figure that it’s simpler to just state things as universals rather than to get into the details of exceptions. Getting back to the question, I think description is used because it’s subtler to use description to push a norm than to openly use prescription. If you tell people that they should do something, then an obvious response is for them to ask why. If you just tell them that everyone is already doing something, then they’re more likely to question themselves–What’s wrong with me that I do pray to Heavenly Mother?–than to question the norm that’s being pushed.

That being said, I was encouraged to see that the norm of not praying to Heavenly Mother was stated descriptively in the Church essay. I say this because I hope that this norm eventually changes, and I think it’s probably easier to change a descriptively stated norm than a prescriptively stated one. When a prescriptive norm is changed–when people are told that something they were forbidden to do is now permitted, for example–the obvious question that is raised is why. How can this thing that used to be wrong now be okay? This is especially true in the Church, where we have so much rhetoric about how the world around us is changing, but the Church is unchanging. When a descriptive norm is changed, by contrast, then talking about it is just a matter of observing change rather than making it. There’s less to explain. People used to do one thing, and now they do another thing. The CES policy of firing new mothers has already changed. Along the same lines, I hope that a future Church essay says, “Although it was uncommon in the past,  Latter-day Saints today generally pray to both Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father.”


  1. Thanks for a very interesting post about descriptive vs. prescriptive language.

    I’m not sure your two examples are on point. They are both talking about a church policy and trying to imply that it is not an institutional decision but instead a membership choice. We don’t fire mothers, they voluntarily resign. We don’t restrict caffeine, students just don’t want it. It’s disingenuous because there is a policy choice being made by the institution, and it’s not something that members have any power to change. Prior to the CES policy change, mothers could not choose to stay employed even if they wanted to. And students could not choose to buy caffeinated drinks on campus even if they wanted them made available.

    But in the case of prayer to Heavenly Mother, it seems more like a statement of doctrine, belief, and practice. It’s not saying, Latter-day Saints choose not to pray to Heavenly Mother. Rather it is describing LDS practice.

    I’m thinking about other instances where the Church might use descriptive language, even though there are obvious exceptions. How about, “Latter-day Saints pay a tithe on ten percent of their income to the church,” or “Latter-day Saints fast once a month.” In those instances, those statements are probably not even true of the majority of LDS. But they don’t seem problematic to me. If it was a statement about a practice where there is a great deal of uncertainty as to the official position, I think it would be more problematic. But praying to Heavenly Mother is something that has been explicitly counseled against by the leadership, it is essentially never done in any public worship services, and advocating doing so could result in excommunication, so I think they are justified in stating descriptively what the practice of Latter-day Saints is without explicitly stating that some Latter-day Saints choose to deviate from the prescribed practice. Later in the same paragraph they do use prescriptive language: “Latter-day Saints are taught to pray to Heavenly Father, but as President Gordon B. Hinckley said, ‘The fact that we do not pray to our Mother in Heaven in no way belittles or denigrates her.'”

    That said, I’m all for praying to Heavenly Mother.

  2. Ah, that’s a great point, Joel. Your comparisons to tithing and fasting are great examples to show where the statement about not praying to Heavenly Mother really fits in better.

  3. Descriptive: These aren’t the prayers you’re looking for.

    Prescriptive: You can go about your business. Move along.

  4. This reminds me of how I talk to my 3 year old. I always tell her “We don’t hit.” I rarely if ever say, “we shouldn’t hit,” or “we mustn’t hit.” I wonder if I do it for the same reason the Church does – to avoid the explanation. There is no why, it’s just the way it is.

  5. This reminds me of when changes to the initiatory were announced some 10+ years ago. The temple matron said, “We don’t speculate about these changes.” I took that to mean that she and her husband didn’t speculate, because believe me, I did.

  6. The interview about the female seminary teachers reminded me of something. I had a female friend years ago who was adjunct faculty at BYU Provo. She was a fantastic relief society president and I learned later she has a church famous dad, GA. She quietly related a story to me about how she was up for a good permanent position in her department, another teacher up for the same position came to her and said that “as a bishop” (not her bishop) he was “inspired” to tell her she needed to stay at home with her children, that is where God wanted her. Reminds me of a Ezra Taft Benson quote: something about women aren’t supposed to be competing with men for jobs.

  7. Great insight, Ziff. As soon as you made your case, I thought, “Oh, like the seminary thing!” and as soon as you addressed that, I though, “And the caffeine thing.” You snagged that, too. so
    I can’t even pretend to add anything.

    I agree on your conclusion, too, but I get frustrated with these descriptions. When Jenkins (with whom I’ve had ongoing disagreements for 30 years) made that statement it was so obviously absurd I wondered how she kept a straight face. It was pretty funny when a few Y vending machines were accidentally filled with caffeinated stock, there was a rush on sales, and it as quickly restocked with decaf. Hello?

  8. The whole talking to fill in the emotions for other people is also very NPD. And since my Mom is NPD, it feels totally familiar to me and causes my mom to feel very very cozy and most of all Right-and-if-you-disagree-you-are-wrong and Powerful at church.

    NPD description: http://www.halcyon.com/jmashmun/npd/traits.html (sorry I don’t know how to make a pleasant link)

  9. The descriptions of the doctrine, the openness and candor, itself functions to change norms, and I think its a much bigger deal than we think (though being a gigantic baggaged institution, change will be slow). One reason for the ridiculous folk notions and taboos around Heavenly Mother is official silence. As members hear more about her from SLC — even simply articulated expressions of our belief like Elder Holland’s recent talk or the new Gospel Topics essay — discomfort gets dispelled. It licenses us to bear testimony of Her at the pulpit (as happened this past Sunday in my ward). Given the absence of formal barriers, once we’re comfortable, I suspect it will become more natural for Mormons to “organically” pray to our Heavenly Parents, which will lead to the sort of shift in description that you mention: we used to do x, now its more common to hear Mormons doing y. At least I hope so.

  10. Just another take on the essay. Could they be implying that a “prayer” to Heavenly Mother is just not really a prayer? There are scriptural examples of real prayers to Heavenly Father and to Jesus, but no other righteous examples. This clearly is something that holds great weight with the current church leaders who try to follow the righteous examples of the Savior, His disciples and previous saints.
    I agree with Joel#2 above, in official public worship, the statement is correct; the LDS do not pray to Heavenly Mother. I think that church leaders do not want to kick off the personal prayer inquisition, but want a strongly worded statement that cannot be misconstrued to allow such public prayers.


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