I recently purchased a children’s story at Deseret Book called Heavenly Parents. On the first page, it reads “Heavenly Father” with a drawing of Heavenly Father. On the next page, it reads “Heavenly Mother” with a drawing of Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father, as if Her standing alone threatened the sovereignty of a male God.
Doctrinal and systemic tokenization of Heavenly Mother is evident not just in some childrens’ book images, but also in our perfunctory efforts to include Her in our theology. This gives an air of gender inclusiveness within the Church but falls flat in practice. The Gospel Topics essay Mother in Heaven1 admits that “our present knowledge about a Mother in Heaven is limited,” but that “we have been given sufficient [emphasis added] knowledge to appreciate the sacredness of this doctrine and to comprehend the divine pattern established for us as children of heavenly parents.” It seems there is a missed opportunity for the Church to highlight the unique doctrine of Heavenly Mother and expound upon it. Instead, they draw the line, attempting to assuage the discontent with the word “sufficient.” In a Church whose existence lies in continuing revelation, it is disingenuous to consider any knowledge sufficient.
If our homes are patterned after the world where we used to live, then how does the way women are treated within the Church inform our hopes for eternity? What does that say about our heavenly home? Eternal life as promised by loving Heavenly Parents would not be a life worth living without self-actualized, emancipated women. So I have been making a concerted effort to detokenize Heavenly Mother in my own life and spiritual practices, and by extension, identify a more significant role for women in the Church today.
Overcome spiritual risk aversion.
I remember the first time I whispered “Dear Heavenly Parents” in personal prayer. I felt a little uncertain initially but gained conviction as I continued to pray. I had been grappling with the idea of praying to Heavenly Parents because I was afraid I would be “misguided,” as President Hinckley warned in an address2 in 1991.
I felt as Joseph Smith had felt.3 “In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?” Like Joseph, it seemed I was best off seeking Wisdom on my own. Using the words of the Bible Dictionary entry on Prayer, “As soon as I learn[ed] the true relationship in which we stand toward God (namely, God is our [Mother and] Father, and we are [Their] children), then at once prayer [became] natural and instinctive on [my] part.”
Refer to Her.
I remember once, while I was waiting to do baptisms in the temple, a temple worker asked me about the names I brought. She said, “Every time I go through the temple for someone, I think about the last time her name was spoken aloud. For some, it might be the first time in centuries. I wonder how she feels hearing her name after so long.”
There is a power in remembrance, a sacredness in a name. Remembering is not passive, but an active choice that strengthens our spiritual sensitivities. It is a sign of respect to not only mention our Heavenly Mother in conversation, but to learn Her names and speak of Her not as if She is a superficial emblem, but a glorified being with perfected personhood. According to Biblical scholars, She is Asherah, Wisdom, Elat, Eloah. She is the Lady, the Weaver, El Shaddai, the Great Mother, Queen of Heaven. To others, she is Mother Earth or Mother Nature. She is the Tree. As we say Heavenly Mother’s name with more regularity, Her presence in our lives will revitalize. Others will take notice and their hearts will turn to Her.
Connect with Her.
I have had the most rewarding experiences connecting with Heavenly Mother in nature. From mountaintops to meadows, I can feel Her presence and see Her work. I recently visited Anthony Chapel in Hot Springs, Arkansas. The chapel is made primarily of wood and glass, showcasing the gorgeous forest that blankets the region. While sitting there, my mind kept returning to Asherah, a mother goddess who was represented with a tree and worshipped anciently in the temple, and Her trees.5 Traditionally, there are few windows in LDS chapels to keep us from outside distractions, but maybe it’s the lack of windows that distracts us from Her.
There are other ways to connect with Heavenly Mother. We are in Her likeness when we give birth and raise children, but also when we have ideas and execute them, when we develop talents and skills. When we learn, when we share, or when — by our very influence — we take something resigned to entropy and help it fulfill the measure of its creation. That is a part of us we all inherited from our Mother.
While Elohim is translated as the plural “Gods” and not the singular “God,” only one person, a man, represents Elohim in the temple. If She wasn’t there during the creation, then where was She? In the kitchen? In the celestial birthing center? When I think of God, I think of plural Elohim. I picture my Mother and Father, sitting next to me, listening; discussing my ideas, my desires, my heartaches. One way to remember our Heavenly Mother is to stop using “He” when referring to God and begin to use more inclusive pronouns. A friend of mine, instead of gendering God, avoids using any pronoun at all. Personally, when I talk about God, I use They/Them pronouns.
Find Her in scripture.
Another place to find Her is in the New Testament. There are countless feminine metaphors Christ uses, but I can also see Her in Him. Jesus was the first to switch gendered language when He called a woman a “daughter of Abraham” publicly in a synagogue.6 A great talk to try this with is “The Grandeur of God” by Jeffrey R. Holland.“…The Prophet Joseph Smith taught:… ‘I want you all to know [Her],’ and ‘be familiar with [Her].’ ‘We must have ‘a correct idea of [Her]… perfections, and attributes,’ an admiration for ‘the excellency of [Her] character.’ Thus the first phrase we utter in the declaration of our faith is, ‘We believe in God, the Eternal [Mother].’”
Amplify female voices.
Women need to be regarded as theologians, teaching doctrine and not simply quoting men. Growing acquainted with the feminine voice speaking with power and authority attunes us to Her voice. Sue Monk Kidd said that growing up, “…I’d lost the voice of my native soul… I had learned instead to speak the father tongue, the dominant cultural language.” As we work to amplify women’s voices, we open our ears to hear Her voice again. “[They] who hath ears to hear, let [them] hear.”
Acknowledge the shoulders we stand on.
I enjoy reading Carol Lynn Pearson and Rachel Hunt Steenblick’s poetry, Maxine Hanks, Claudia Lauper Bushman, and Maureen Ursenbach Beecher’s essays, Mary Daly and Sue Monk Kidd’s books, Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s foundational work, Margaret Barker’s research, and so many others who have explored the nature of the feminine divine. Supporting their work and discussing it increases the interest of others and builds on what has already been established.
Facilitate and advocate for ongoing work.
Susa Young Gates wrote, “The divine Mother, side by side with the divine Father, [has] the equal sharing of equal rights, privileges, and responsibilities.” We can model on earth the egalitarian relationship presumed to exist in Heaven between our Heavenly Parents. We can encourage local leaders to increase the number of women present at leadership councils. We can give them the data gathered from Church-sponsored studies7 that show that women will not share equal speaking time with men, thus proffering fewer ideas and less inspiration, unless they are a supermajority of the group or decisions are made unanimously.
We can address female leaders as “president” instead of “sister.” We can take counsel received from female leaders seriously and testify of their leadership. We can have women be concluding speakers in church, or give them substantial speaking assignments. We can change the titles, roles, and responsibilities of callings such as a mission president’s wife, Relief Society, Primary, or Young Women presidents, the wives of general authorities and officers, general board members to be less ornamental and more authoritative. We can include women in high councils, especially disciplinary councils, so when an accused woman stands and beholds her judges, she sees a few faces who may understand her context a little better. We can write letters to Church Headquarters for international and local women councils to be created for issues like women’s temple garments, education, humanitarian concerns, health, missionaries, business, etc. Women in leadership positions making important decisions parallels leadership structures in the eternities.
Explore Her roles.
When it comes to nature versus nurture, She exemplifies both. There are times when She is in the raw and messy parts of my life, like childbirth. In most moments of any given day, I am usually creating chaos. However, there are a few transcendent moments in which I transform matter that was unorganized and purposeless into something organized and purposeful. That is a gift of divine nature inherited from my Mother.
Heavenly Mother nurtures me through prayer. When I give my children blessings8 and pray specifically for Her to be with them, I feel my anxiety ease, my children’s little heartbeats slow, and their breathing steady.
I know She worked alongside Heavenly Father to create a perfect world. I know She took special time and attention to even the smallest of details, so that all life could have joy and fulfill the measure of its creation. It’s a tragic irony that the Master Nurturer has been cut off from Her children by our ignorance of Her.
Celebrate womanhood outside of motherhood.
As we work to acknowledge and support women as successes in all situations — single, married, childless, trans, etc. — we celebrate female empowerment and equality. There is more to Heavenly Mother than motherhood and more to a woman than a uterus. We can celebrate ambition, passion, and love in all its forms as iterations of the Mother’s influence within us.
Detokenizing Heavenly Mother is essential. To paraphrase Lorenzo Snow, “As woman is, God once was. As God is, woman may become.” If She is the epitome of what I can become, a lot of what I have been taught makes my celestial potential seem lackluster. I am hopeful that as we detokenize Heavenly Mother and restore Her to our worship where She belongs, clarity and respect for women and our roles will follow.
There are still questions. Non-binary and non-gendered folks still have an unclear place in the Godhead. There is still so much to learn and understand, but there is a place for all of us in the encircling arms of our Mother. As Nephi says9, “I know God loveth [Their] children, nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.” ⋑
Erika Koth Barrett (she/her) currently lives in Boston with her husband and three children. She loves writing, camping, and ecofeminism.
- “Mother in Heaven.” Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Gospel Topics Essays (2016). churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics-essays/mother-in-heaven.
- Hinkley, Gordon B.“Daughters of God.” General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (1991, October).
- Smith, Joseph. “Joseph Smith—History 1:10.” Pearl of Great Price (2006).
- “Prayer.” Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Bible Dictionary (2006).
- Barker, Margaret. “Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? (Job:28:12)”. (2001).
- Luke 13:16. The Bible: Authorized King James version (2006). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Rogers, Brittany Karford “When Women Don’t Speak” BYU Magazine (Spring 2020).
- Lindsey, Betina “Women as Healers in the Modern Church” Women and Authority Edited by Maxine Hanks (2013).
- 1 Nephi 11:17. The Book of Mormon (2006). Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.