Heavenly Parents at Conference

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
 (6 speakers)  2

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.

famproc_hpHowever, 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.

The Point

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.

12 thoughts on “Heavenly Parents at Conference

  1. 1

    You seem to suggest that it is a Mormon peculiarity to capitalize pronouns referring to deity and that we’ve only been doing that in the recent past (“… the same typographical courtesy the Heavenly Father has been receiving since the 1960s.”) But that isn’t a recent Mormon innovation. Rather, Mormons are conservative in retaining that capitalization that goes back a couple of centuries in general Christendom, which has been dropped in recent decades. Merely FYI.

  2. 2

    The scriptures, including unique LDS scriptures, do not capitalize pronouns referring to Deity. This creates odd-looking sentences in Church publications where you have a speaker or writer both referring to Deity and quoting scripture that refers to Deity. In the same sentence, you could have both an uppercase and a lowercase pronoun referring to God. This looks bizarre, which is why BYU Studies does not follow Church style on this (and a few other) matters.

  3. 3

    Hi Ardis,
    I can see how what I wrote would be read that way. What I meant to say was that the Ensign decided to modernize and follow the Chicago convention of not capitalizing pronouns in the 1970s, but Packer threw a fit over the perceived disrespect. The point being that Heavenly Father deserved a capital, but heavenly parents did not (until last month, apparently). I’m reading this as a theological statement (Heavenly Mother is NOT part of The Godhead officially), not just a typographical one.

  4. 4

    Thanks for putting this analysis together, Christian! Of course I would love this type of stuff, but I especially appreciate your statistical expertise.

    Regarding the capitalization issue, this was tenth hand before it even reached me, but FWIW, I heard when I worked for the Church briefly back during President Hinckley’s tenure that he preferred not to capitalize pronouns referring to Deity, but that President Monson did, and President Hinckley figured the decision would be President Monson’s pretty soon anyway, so he just left it the way President Monson liked for purposes of the Church style guide. Given even a low probability of distortion with each passing along of this rumor, it’s unlikely to be exactly right, but I thought it might be interesting.

  5. 5

    Looking at a broader time frame, using http://www.lds-general-conference.org/ (search string “heavenly parent|parents|mother|father”) it looks like the trend was well underway in the 1970’s, both in the overall number and by number of speakers. Has the proclamation on the family influenced it, or it it part of the broader trend? Anyhow, interesting analysis.

  6. 6

    A couple questions about your analysis, typically a geometric random variable is used to count the number of trials until the occurrence of an event (eg, number of rolls of dice until a one comes up, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geometric_distribution), so I don’t see how this is being applied to the number of talks containing a phrase (this seems more like “number of dice rolls landing on a one out of k dice rolls”).

  7. 7

    Human beings and other sentient beings do not use capitalization or punctuation when they speak. Written language is just an attempt to standardize and record the words that our cultures have evolved over the millennia. There is no right or wrong way to write language, only commonly accepted usage.

  8. 8

    Hi Seth,

    Great questions. First off, I will grant you that the nine “Heavenly Parents” in the decade of the 1970s was something of a step up from previous decades, but from 1855 to 1969 a linear model explains a non-significant 15% of the increase in HPs (p=.11), and the increase from the 1850s-1940s to the 1950s-60s is also not significant (p=.72). So perhaps there was a block from 1855-1969 that can be described by one average, another block from 1970-FamProc, and a third from FamProc-2012. In any case, there is a clear difference before and after the FamProc. Of course the FamProc and the increase were probably both caused by the same broader cultural trend: the LDS Church’s enthusiastic entry into anti-gay marriage politics.

    Second: I’m delighted to see someone asking about the details of probability distributions! Your confusion comes from conflating “distribution X describes situation Y accurately” with “distribution X can be used to describe situation Y AND ONLY SITUATION Y accurately.” Zipf distributions, for example, provide remarkably accurate descriptions of everything from earthquake severity to word frequency in human language to the length of phone calls to the frequency of SNP mutations across the fruit fly genome. As I said, I am not arguing that the data actually was generated by geometic random number generator (it was generated by human beings writing talks), but that the data STATISTICALLY INDISTINGUISHABLE from a geometric distribution.

    You could model the data as a Poisson distribution (which is often used to describe the number of events occurring in a set amount of time), or a binomial (number of successes in n trials). In the case of the binomial distribution, it wasn’t clear to me that I could define “n” in a way that wouldn’t be controversial (the number of talks? the number of speakers? the number of two-word phrases?). And besides, the data were distinguishable from Poisson and binomial distributions in both cases.

  9. 9

    Hi Gordon,
    What you say is true, but I fear you miss the point. In the 1970s, church leaders made an arbitrary but self-conscious decision to use capitalization to signal respect for deity, even though most style guides were suggesting to drop this convention because, as you say, it makes little sense. This respect, by arbitrary rule, applies to Heavenly Father (and 57 other synonyms) but NOT Heavenly Parents. That distinction has meaning not because capitalization is inherently meaningful, but because church leaders assigned meaning to it self-consciously.

  10. 10

    I was raised catholic and was told that we pray to our heavenly mother but that heavenly mother was mary the mother of Jesus. I never thought about it until I joined the Baptist church and went through many churches before I decided to become LDS. in all my years which are many now …I have come to realize God would never ask us to do something He hasn’t done. we have mothers and fathers ..we are mothers and fathers and as I see it ..we are in training. I feel that our mother in heaven is part of the God head…but we don’t know her name or call on her as I was told because God wouldn’t want her name defamed as God’s is here on earth. this isn’t in gospel but a sort of speculation. also scriptures say to pray unto the Father no one else and through the son Jesus Christ Himself.

  11. 11

    Christian, thank you for your reply. In my opinion, statistics need to describe something. Being able to describe the distribution as “the average number of speakers that mention a phrase” is much more useful than “parameter M of a distribution Y”. In any case, it’s a fairly difficult problem with very little data and a changing distribution.

  12. 12

    Very interesting data you have kept track of. I strongly feel that it is a sign of the times that Heavenly Parents are being discussed so often! We are getting closer and closer to the time where we will see even more dramatic changes on the face of the earth! Most importantly is for us all to stay close to God and be as much like Jesus Christ as we can. The last days will be fraught with the adversary trying to pull us away to misery! Thank you for this amazing insight!

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