This guest post comes to us from Christian Anderson.
It’s always nice to hear how the old folks at home are doing. It seems like we’ve been hearing more and more about Them recently.
Back in April 2013, Ziff (http://zelophehadsdaughters.com/2013/04/29/heavenly-parents-are-we-really-talking-about-you-more/ and references therein) noted that there seemed to be an increasing number of references to “Heavenly Parents” in General Conference and more widely in church materials. This post discusses three aspects of that trend: 1) It has not only continued but accelerated over the last three years, 2) there has been a shift in which authorities are mentioning Them, and 3) the fraught issue of capitalization.
An accelerating trend
Few speakers mentioned Heavenly Parents in the decades before 1995, with an average of 0.48 references per year (that’s both April and October conferences combined). That all changed with “The Family: A Proclamation to the World”, which affirms in its third sentence that each human being is “a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents”, triggering seven references to Heavenly Parents that year. In the years 1996-2012, references to “Heavenly Parents” nearly tripled to 1.41 references per year (p=0.0057), but never more than three in any one year. 2013 saw a spike to a record nine references, followed by a fall back to one reference in 2014, a return to nine references in 2015, and finally a grand total of 15 references this year. Exactly half of the 56 talks that mention Heavenly Parents have been delivered in the last four years.
Can you get a number that high just by luck? It is very unlikely. The counts from 1974-2012 are statistically indistinguishable from a geometric distribution with a mean of 1.05 (Kolmogorov-Smirnov test, p=0.258). The expected wait time to get 15 from such a distribution is 44,000 years. Clearly, something new is going on.
Who’s talking about Them?
There has been a remarkable shift in the speakers who are discussing Heavenly Parents. At first glance, the leaderboard seems dominated by conservatives:
|Dallin H. Oaks||7|
|M. Russell Ballard||7|
|Boyd K. Packer||6|
|Carole M. Stephens||6|
|Dieter F. Uchtdorf||5|
|Russell M. Nelson||5|
However this is slightly misleading. Seventeen of the twenty-five references by Oaks, Ballard, Packer, and Nelson occurred prior to the 2013 surge, while 9 of the 11 references from Stephens and Uchtdorf happened in the surge, which also included progressive talks by Renlund, Hallstrom, and Marriott. It is worth noting that Oct 2015 and Apr 2016 marked the only two times since Hinckley’s 1993 quasi-denunciation of publically discussing Heavenly Mother that she has been referenced in General Conference (by Jeffery R. Holland and the aforementioned Neill Marriott, respectively).
Of course, the FamProc has had a wide influence in LDS rhetoric since 1995. Speakers have referred to the document explicitly 230 times since 1995, or 147% more than the most used verse of scripture over that time period (Moses 1:39), and also more than 1,562 of the 1,582 chapters in the LDS standard works. Unsurprisingly, references to Heavenly Parents and the FamProc co-occur frequently: of the 1,340 talks given between Oct 1995 and the end of 2012, 8.5% (134) mention the FamProc, 3.5% (56) mention Heavenly Parents, and 1.7% (27) mention both, though one would expect only 0.3% (4.75) by chance (p<.0001). Put another way, of the 3.5% of talks that mention Heavenly Parents, 48% (not the expected 8.5%) also mention the FamProc. Conversely, 20% of the FamProc talks mention Heavenly Parents.
However, like the conservative to liberal shift noted above, the FamProc – HP welding is on the decline. Since 2013, FamProc references rose to 9.3% of talks, but HP talks shot up to 10.4%, and talks mentioning both went up to 4.1% above an expected 0.97%. This represents a decline from 7.0x to 4.6x above null expectations, and a decrease in the chi-squared value of 85 to 32.
There is some debate among the leading English grammar guides (MLA, Chicago, AP) about when to capitalize God, titles referring to God, and pronouns referring to God. The LDS church put out its own style guide to resolve these vital issues, currently 100 pages long and in its fourth edition. Chapter 8 of this guide deals with capitalization, and while the first three overarching guidelines all quote The Chicago Manual of Style, as well as 8.29 regarding names of God, the LDS church breaks with Chicago to insist on capitalizing pronouns (8.31). Lavina Fielding Anderson, erstwhile editor of the Ensign, claims this is a direct result of Boyd K. Packer insisting on publishing all of his talks in this non-standard way. Similarly, she traces the Church’s insistence on using the archaic (capitalized) pronouns “Thou” and “Thee” in prayers to Bruce R. McConkie’s insistence that their use demonstrates formality and respect, despite the uncontested fact that they were traditionally informal pronouns used among intimate friends in English (and almost every other European language).
Thus, the LDS church has an unusual and decades-old tradition of using capitalization to signal respect for divinity. This respect, unsurprisingly, is not extended to non-Christian deities (rule 8.33) or “heavenly beings other than members of the Godhead” (rule 8.35); but shockingly this specifically excludes “heavenly parents” (ibid) who are apparently in the same class as “the destroying angel”. Consider that capitalization is so important that rule 8.29 lists no fewer than 57 examples of names or titles of God which must be capitalized, as soon as he (or rather He, sensu Packer) is paired with a Heavenly Mother, that respect no longer needs to be proffered.
The guide, which offers 61 capitalization rules and hundreds of examples, is uncharacteristically silent about whether Heavenly Mother requires capitalization or not. Rule 8.27, however, provides the example that when a woman is referred to by her kinship than it should be capitalized, as in “I received a letter from Mother.”
Despite these published rules, “Heavenly Parents” was capitalized in seven instances in October 2016; Uchtdorf is the only conference speaker to use the construction “Parents in Heaven” in talks available at lds.org, and capitalized it. Prior to October 2016, the only speaker to break this rule was (who else) Sister Chieko Okazaki in October 1994.
So: Heavenly Parents are being discussed more frequently, more often by the less conservative leaders, more often without reference to the FamProc, and apparently are now being extended the same typographical courtesy the Heavenly Father has been receiving since the 1960s.
These are all steps in the right direction, but there is a very long way to go, still. For example, the 74 references to Heavenly Parents (and two to Heavenly Mother) are dwarfed by the 4,415 references to Heavenly Father over the same period (see also: http://www.dovesandserpents.org/wp/2013/11/equality-is-not-a-feeling-6-0/).
Other writers have worried including Heavenly Mother more broadly in LDS theology and ritual under this leadership might do more harm than good. Some have pointed out that the arguments for Heavenly Mother are similar to the arguments against gay marriage (e.g., http://zelophehadsdaughters.com/2015/10/24/heavenly-mother-and-gay-marriage/). Marina and I have pushed back against this opinion (“Why I Don’t Need Heavenly Mother”, Sunstone 2015, https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/audio/SL15224.mp3). We agree that claiming women—even Divine Women—are fundamentally different in essential ways from men is a dangerous move, and one that the current leadership would almost certainly take if forced to. However, there are excellent reasons for a more gender-inclusive theology that don’t rely on complementarianism or gender essentialism. The second-wave feminist argument (women’s unique feminine abilities and predilections mandate they have a voice in representative organizations) is not an ideal way forward. The third-wave feminist argument (that men, women, intersex, and gender non-conforming individuals are only superficially different, and should be able to agree on fundamental religious issues) seems like a stronger position as the Church makes the leap from monochromatic and parochial to pluralistic and global. The analysis above suggests that the church is already evolving slowly (but evolution is always slow) towards a more enlightened position on these topics. But it is still early days; where it ends up only time will tell.