Heavenly Mother (HM) has proven to be a very potent and productive figure in the history of Mormonism. She has been put to use for all sorts of theological and political agendas. Even the silence about her functions to promote a certain political agenda. I want to briefly review some reflections on the history of HM, and offer a theory for why I think she will play a more prominent role in Mormon discourse over the next few decades.
The appearance of HM on the Mormon theological scene cannot be separated from the doctrines about human divinization and polygamy. Eliza R. Snow and others were reportedly taught about the doctrine by Joseph Smith in the Nauvoo period when these two doctrines were being developed. Further, the interrelatedness of divinization, polygamy, and HM cannot be overstated. Indeed, it may even be more accurate to speak of Heavenly Mothers in this early period since divinity and polygamy were contingent on one another for early Mormons. Celestial Marriage was patterned after the divine model.
As polygamy receded theologically from Mormonism, HM was conceived more in terms of a member of a divine pair. This divine pairing became crucial for reimagining Celestial Marriage as monogamous. Here, HM served to legitimate monogamous marriage but also to legitimate a certain kind of partnership which still supported divine (although benevolent) patriarchy.
As Mormon feminism began to develop this doctrine, they emphasized the active role of HM in the creation. HM’s divinity itself became significant and the divine feminine was mobilized as a theological justification for the resignification of women in the workplace, society, and even in the LDS priesthood.
The reaction to Mormon feminism’s invocation of HM was to essentially chill any discussion about her. HM became a dangerous doctrine to think and talk about. The justification for this move was that HM was a “private” figure and her “public” discussion was somehow offensive. Such a view was predicated on an alternative use of HM for different political purposes. HM was thus the ideal housewife, who existed in the private sphere and left the public sphere to men. Like a dutiful child, not only did she not speak, but she didn’t even speak when spoken to! Lynette at ZD has a very clear critique of this version of HM.
Interestingly, Mormon feminism mostly survived in spite of the Church’s overwhelmingly successful campaign to undercut the feminists’ theological and political uses of HM. Feminism among Mormons succeeded in that Mormon women work outside the home at the same rate as non-LDS women, fathers are (mostly) considered to be equally responsible for housework, and women’s voices have increasingly been heard and taken seriously. Where Mormon feminists clearly failed was in their campaign for the priesthood, and arguably the Church’s image of a private HM was crucial in this defeat.
Though the silence about HM has been useful for producing a certain idealized model for the silent housewife, I think that this political agenda has largely run its course in Mormonism both because the Church has mostly failed to convincingly promote this ideal to the majority of its members (and many leaders) and because the salient political issues have shifted away from the working-mother debates of the 1970’s and 80’s to the issue of homosexuality in the church.
My prediction is that HM will play an increasingly important role in Mormon discourse over the next few decades as the church faces an increased need to theologically justify its opposition to homosexuality, both to internal and external critics. The image of HM that will emerge will not be that of the silent housewife confined to the private sphere, but a fertile and productive partner in a heterosexual marriage. Here, Mormon biological literalism in divine reproduction will function to explain why homosexual relationships must be excluded from the divine realm. Celestial heterosexuality will be the new normative understanding of HM.