Mormon Essays Heavenly Mother And Father

Women, young women and girls 8 years old and older gathered on Saturday, September 26, 2015, for the general women’s session of the 185th Semiannual General Conference in Salt Lake City, Utah. Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

I’m generally very pleased with the two new Gospel Topics essays on women and leadership in the LDS Church. Here are five significant takeaway points.

1. It’s officially official: There is a Mother in Heaven. Yay!

According to the Mother in Heaven essay, all people are “beloved spirit children of heavenly parents, a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother.” Belief in Heavenly Mother is referred to as “doctrine” in the LDS tradition.

Interestingly, both men and women are quoted as affirming this doctrine—prophets, yes, but also Eliza Snow and Susa Young Gates. The latter is called “a prominent leader in the Church.”

2. Folk beliefs about why Mormons don’t talk about or pray to Mother in Heaven are still not official, thank heavens.

I’m grateful that the essay did not try to speculate on this, other than saying that Jesus set an example of praying to God the Father.

For example, the essay never says, “We don’t pray to Heavenly Mother because she is a delicate flower whose feminine sensibilities would be crushed if anyone defamed her name like people sometimes dishonor God the Father!”

Which is just silly. If we believe she’s a GODDESS — someone who “side by side with the divine Father” works together “for the salvation of the human family” — then surely we realize she can handle it if some of her kids are ever less than appreciative.

And surely we know that for our part, the way to counteract other people’s false beliefs and mocking of Heavenly Mother would be to use that as an opportunity to testify of her goodness, power, and influence in our lives — not to lock her away so the rest of the world can never get to know her.

3. Joseph Smith authorized women to exercise priesthood authority, even using the language of ordination.

Understanding women and priesthood in the early LDS Church is given more ink than any other topic in the essay on women’s leadership, and with good reason. There’s a lot to discuss. Generally, the essay did a good job of acknowledging the considerable history of women’s leadership in the LDS Church, and it also went out of its way to acknowledge that Joseph Smith prepared both women and men to “receive and administer sacred priesthood ordinances in holy temples.”

Moreover, the essay makes clear that Joseph Smith had “something better” in mind for women than simply making the Relief Society a charitable organization. It was to be organized “in the Order of the Priesthood” and its female officers would be ordained to “preside over the Society.”

4. LDS understanding of priesthood has changed over time.

On the other hand, the essay takes great pains to note that the way Latter-day Saints used terms like “ordain” and “keys” in the nineteenth century is different from the way those are today associated with particular offices of the Melchizedek priesthood.

So while it’s clear from Mormon history that women exercised priesthood authority in some capacity, there is no evidence that they were ever ordained to priesthood office.

What the essay does not say here is revealing, too. It does not say that women have “access to all of the blessings of the priesthood,” and I am glad. Just because I can call my home teacher to come and lay hands on my head does not mean that I have “access to all of the blessings of the priesthood.” Many priesthood blessings come through the wisdom and spiritual maturity that are gained by being stretched in service and leadership, not by merely being the passive recipients of someone else’s words.

Instead, the essay focuses on female leadership and the exercising of gifts. It’s about women healing, serving, blessing, administering, and praying—and not about women being healed, served, blessed, administered to, or prayed for. To me, this is a welcome shift in tone.

5. Mormon women regularly performed blessings of healing until the 20th century.

Many contemporary Latter-day Saints may not be familiar with the scholarship documenting women’s extensive activities in laying their hands on the heads of fellow church members (including men) and healing them, so it’s wonderful to have this officially acknowledged by the Church.

But there are a couple of ways in which the essay oversimplifies things or downplays conflict, as Fara Anderson Sneddon, who has done more research on this history than anyone I know, points out in a post for Rational Faiths.

First, the essay makes it sound like the practice of women giving blessings suffered a natural “decline” in the early 20th century. That’s far from the case: many women fought tooth and nail for the preservation of this privilege (including general Relief Society president Bathsheba Smith and even Eliza R. Snow, who is actually quoted in the essay as an apologist for the other POV!).

Second, the essay presents women’s healings as being totally removed from the concept of ordination. If you had only this essay to go on, you would assume that Mormon women were giving blessings on an ad hoc basis only based on their faith in Jesus Christ, rather than in the name of the priesthood, and that no one had set them apart to be healers.

The historical reality is more complicated. Some women did invoke the power of the priesthood, which they had been taught they held in conjunction with their husbands, and they sealed their healing blessings accordingly. And in some cases, women were healers as an official calling in the ward. Women’s healing role wasn’t just the “emergency” scenario that’s sometimes tossed around (“You’re a mom stranded on a desert island with no priesthood holder in sight . . . HOW DO YOU CURE YOUR CHILD OF MALARIA?”).

So, the essays are not perfect, but I’m really pleased overall. Just to have official confirmation of the history of women performing healings and blessings is a huge step forward.

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RNS columns are direct-published opinion pieces. They are not always edited and reflect the views only of the author.

Click on the links below to read the entire essay on LDS.org.

  • Plural Marriage (Polygamy) in Kirtland and Nauvoo

    When God commands a difficult task, He sometimes sends additional messengers to encourage His people to obey. Consistent with this pattern, Joseph told associates that an angel appeared to him three times between 1834 and 1842 and commanded him to proceed with plural marriage when he hesitated to move forward. During the third and final appearance, the angel came with a drawn sword, threatening Joseph with destruction unless he went forward and obeyed the commandment fully.

    Published on October 22, 2014 | Read on LDS.org
    Available Translations: Español | Português | Deutsch | Italiano | Français | 中国

  • First Vision Accounts

    Joseph’s First Vision accounts describe the heavenly beings with greater detail over time. The 1832 account says, “The Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord.” His 1838 account states, “I saw two Personages,” one of whom introduced the other as “My Beloved Son."

    Published on November 20, 2013 | Read on LDS.org
    Available Translations: Español | Português | Deutsch | Italiano | Français | 中国

  • Book of Mormon Translation

    Joseph placed either the interpreters or the seer stone in a hat, pressed his face into the hat to block out extraneous light, and read aloud the English words that appeared on the instrument. The process as described brings to mind a passage from the Book of Mormon that speaks of God preparing “a stone, which shall shine forth in darkness unto light.”

    Published on December 30, 2013 | Read on LDS.org
    Available Translations: Español | Português | Deutsch | Italiano | Français | 中国

  • Book of Mormon and DNA Studies

    Although the primary purpose of the Book of Mormon is more spiritual than historical, some people have wondered whether the migrations it describes are compatible with scientific studies of ancient America. The discussion has centered on the field of population genetics and developments in DNA science.

    Published on January 31, 2014 | Read on LDS.org
    Available Translations: Español | Português | Deutsch | Italiano | Français | 中国

  • Race and the Priesthood

    Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.

    Published on December 6, 2013 | Read on LDS.org
    Available Translations: Español | Português | Deutsch | Italiano | Français | 中国

  • Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham

    Joseph’s translation was not a literal rendering of the papyri as a conventional translation would be. Rather, the physical artifacts provided an occasion for meditation, reflection, and revelation. They catalyzed a process whereby God gave to Joseph Smith a revelation about the life of Abraham, even if that revelation did not directly correlate to the characters on the papyri.

    Published on July 8, 2014 | Read on LDS.org
    Available Translations: Español | Português | Deutsch | Italiano | Français | 中国

  • Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah

    Accounts left by men and women who practiced plural marriage attest to the challenges and difficulties they experienced, such as financial difficulty, interpersonal strife, and some wives’ longing for the sustained companionship of their husbands. But accounts also record the love and joy many found within their families.

    Published on December 16, 2013 | Read on LDS.org
    Available Translations: Español | Português | Deutsch | Italiano | Français | 中国

  • Are Mormons Christian?

    Latter-day Saints believe the melding of early Christian theology with Greek philosophy was a grave error. Chief among the doctrines lost in this process was the nature of the Godhead. The true nature of God the Father, His Son, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost was restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith.

    Published on November 20, 2013 | Read on LDS.org
    Available Translations: Español | Português | Deutsch | Italiano | Français | 中国

  • Becoming Like God

    God “was once as one of us” and “all the spirits that God ever sent into the world” were likewise “susceptible of enlargement.” Joseph Smith preached that long before the world was formed, God found “himself in the midst” of these beings and “saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could have a privilege to advance like himself” and be “exalted” with Him.

    Published on February 24, 2014 | Read on LDS.org
    Available Translations: Español | Português | Deutsch | Italiano | Français | 中国

  • Peace and Violence among 19th-Century Latter-day Saints

    [The Latter-day Saints] were persecuted, often violently, for their beliefs. And, tragically, at some points in the 19th century, most notably in the Mountain Meadows Massacre, some Church members participated in deplorable violence against people they perceived to be their enemies.

    Published on May 13, 2014 | Read on LDS.org
    Available Translations: Español | Português | Deutsch | Italiano | Français | 中国

  • The Manifesto and the End of Plural Marriage (Polygamy)

    The end of plural marriage required great faith and sometimes complicated, painful—and intensely personal—decisions on the part of individual members and Church leaders. Like the beginning of plural marriage in the Church, the end of the practice was a process rather than a single event.

    Published on October 22, 2014 | Read on LDS.org
    Available Translations: Español | Português | Deutsch | Italiano | Français | 中国

  • Joseph Smith’s Teachings about Priesthood, Temple, and Women

    During the 19th century, women frequently blessed the sick by the prayer of faith, and many women received priesthood blessings promising that they would have the gift of healing. “I have seen many demonstrations of the power and blessing of God through the administration of the sisters,” testified Elizabeth Ann Smith Whitney, who was, by her own account, blessed by Joseph Smith to exercise this gift. In reference to these healing blessings, Relief Society general president Eliza R. Snow explained in 1883, “Women can administer in the name of JESUS, but not by virtue of the Priesthood.”

    Published on October 23, 2015 | Read on LDS.org

  • Mother in Heaven

    The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that all human beings, male and female, are beloved spirit children of heavenly parents, a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother. This understanding is rooted in scriptural and prophetic teachings about the nature of God, our relationship to Deity, and the godly potential of men and women. The doctrine of a Heavenly Mother is a cherished and distinctive belief among Latter-day Saints.

    Published on October 23, 2015 | Read on LDS.org

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