Elder Renlund: Heavenly Mother is Not a Weapon
In recent weeks there have been reports of several LDS apostles and auxiliary leaders giving regional trainings and speaking about their concerns of “doctrinal drift.” They’ve sought to limit what ought to be said and written publicly about Heavenly Mother. Tonight at the women’s session of general conference, Elder Renlund addressed the topic, though in perhaps softer terms than what was shared on social media from previous meetings.
Renlund began by talking about the Young Women’s theme, which starts with the line, “I am a beloved daughter of heavenly parents, with a divine nature and eternal destiny.” This line was a welcome change introduced by Young Women’s General President Bonnie Cordon and her counselors in 2019 that came after years of women writing and asking for Heavenly Mother to be included (including here, here and here).
Renlund then spoke more broadly about Heavenly Mother. He said that everything we know about Her is in the gospel topics essay, “Mother in Heaven.” He cautioned against speculating about Heavenly Mother, suggesting it will not lead to greater spiritual knowledge and may lead to deception or shift our focus away from what has been revealed. He said that “demanding revelation” is “arrogant and unproductive.” He reiterated the argument that we should not pray to Heavenly Mother.
I want to address some of the concerns raised, and in doing so, I want to be as generous as I can to Elder Renlund. I want to assume good intentions, but I have a well-founded worry that his words will be weaponized by church leaders and members alike to shame, ostracize, and attempt to silence those who love, seek, and share what they believe about Heavenly Mother.
Heavenly Mother is not a weapon. Not against Elder Renlund, and not against those who seek Her.
I was glad to hear Elder Renlund discuss the “Mother in Heaven” gospel topics essay in general conference. I’m glad more people will read the essay and learn about Her as a result. While I disagree that everything we know about Her is contained in those six short paragraphs— the essay’s references to additional sources and the BYU Studies article “A Mother There: A Survey of Historical Teachings about Mother in Heaven” would suggest otherwise—I agree that is it an important distillation of the LDS doctrine of Heavenly Mother.
In addition to stating that our belief in a Heavenly Mother is important in understanding “the nature of God, our relationship to Deity, and the godly potential of men and women,” the gospel topics essay offers other meaningful lessons. It shows us that even without a written revelation from a male prophet, Eliza R. Snow wrote what she knew through reason and revelation in her classic poem-turned-hymn, “O My Father.” From this, we learn that poetry and creative expression is a valuable and enduring way to share what we know about Her. We also learn that both revelation and our understanding of that revelation about Heavenly Mother has been written by men and women alike, including members of the first presidency and female leaders like Susa Young Gates.
And at the end of the essay, we learn from Elder Oaks that “our theology starts with heavenly parents.” Theology is the study of the nature of God and religion—it is a discipline demanding study, questions, discussion, debate, and analysis. Some theologians undergo extensive academic training, but popular theologians have always existed, engaging this work in writing, speech, and art. LDS theology begins with engaging in questions about the nature of heavenly parents. One does not have to go beyond the gospel topics essay to know that men and women alike, with or without particular offices or titles, can reveal new truths, write and share what they believe, and engage in the holy wrestle of theology.
I can sympathize with Elder Renlund’s concern with speculation and how it can lead to deception or shift our focus away from what has been revealed. I see the damage of this kind of speculation when it shows up in artistic representations of Jesus Christ that exclusively depict Him as white with seemingly European features when we know that is not the case. This kind of speculation reifies whiteness and makes God in the image of white men, contributing to institutional racism. It would worry me if creative representations of Heavenly Mother were to limit Her to one race or human culture or enforce a rigid gender binary or sexual identity based on 20th-century American understandings. Whether in art, writing, or speech, this kind of speculation could shift our focus away from a God in whom all are made in Their image and who invites all to come unto Them.
So while I understand the need for caution in speculating about the nature of God and making God in man’s image as is so often done, I look forward to seeing more creative expressions about Heavenly Mother. We have millennia of creative expression about Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ—of poetry, art, music, essay, history, and scripture recording interpretations of human interactions with God. We hang these creative expressions on our walls, fill our shelves with them, and quote particularly poignant examples in general conference, like the words of John Milton and C. S. Lewis. We don’t celebrate these creative expressions because every image or every word is capital “T” Truth, but because they are beautiful and can inspire us to seek more. Creative engagement with theology creates fertile ground for revelation. Seeking out the best books and teaching one another diligently opens our minds and deepens our understanding.
Elder Renlund cautioned against “demanding revelation” as “arrogant and unproductive.” I agree that simply demanding revelation would be unproductive—Oliver Cowdery was told similarly in the Doctrine & Covenants: “You have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind, and then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.” Oliver needed to put work in. He was told also that he must “apply unto” his spiritual gift. Like the parable of the talents, we have to use and increase our spiritual gifts or we will lose what we already have.
It would be arrogant to demand someone else receive revelation on our behalf, but it is also arrogant to believe oneself to be above asking. I hope for the courage of Jacob, who wrestled an angel until he prevailed in getting the blessing he demanded. For the wisdom of Hagar who gave God a name. For the faith of Emma Smith, who asked Joseph for a blessing shortly before his death and he when he told her to write her own blessing, she did. For the trust of Joseph to believe that we can ask in faith, nothing wavering, and get an answer. And always, for the faith to believe Jesus Christ when he says that every one who asks will be given, who seeks will find, who knocks will have it open unto them. I do not believe we can leave the work of seeking God to other people.
Elder Renlund’s instructions not to pray to Heavenly Mother concern me the most because of the history of this caution bring previously shared at general conference. While the “sacred silence” around Heavenly Mother was never official doctrine, I grew up in what I have come to think of as the “unholy freeze.” I’ve learned from my friend and Heavenly Mother scholar and poet, Rachel Hunt Steenblik, that after President Gordon B. Hinckley’s 1991 talk “Daughters of God” where he said, “I regard it as inappropriate for anyone in the Church to pray to our Mother in Heaven,” that it was twenty-four years until “Mother in Heaven” was uttered again in general conference. The freeze was thawed with Elder Holland’s talk 2015 talk “Behold Thy Mother.” So while the “sacred silence” was not doctrine, it was my experience in Primary and Young Women’s to almost never hear about Heavenly Mother. President Hinckley’s counsel not to pray to the Mother had such a ripple effect that an entire generation would pass before members of the Church could look to general conference for Heavenly Mother to even be acknowledged.
If history serves, Elder Renlund’s words, even if well-intentioned, may have a chilling effect on the open acknowledgment of Heavenly Mother in official church settings. Perhaps it will not be as extreme this time—we now have the Young Women’s theme, the gospel topics essay, and a flourishing of incredible, inspired work by poets, writers, and artists over the last decade encouraged by art contests and even at times shared by the Church or added to the shelves of Deseret Book. But I have already seen men on the internet using Elder Renlund’s words from recent trainings to shame women and call them “apostates” for writing about Heavenly Mother.
I was encouraged by Carol Lynn Pearson’s words when she recognized the significance of male leaders even acknowledging that there are people who want to pray to Heavenly Mother. The longings of those who seek the Mother are rarely acknowledged. It’s important to understand that we don’t have a record of all the words that Jesus prayed. Should our incomplete records be used to cut people off from communicating with their Mother? I take heart in Sister Sharon Eubank’s words from 2014: “nothing can separate me from my communication with [my Divine Parents]. There is no intermediary. I have the right, as their daughter, to communicate with them through prayer and revelation and the Holy Ghost. They don’t put anybody in-between.”
Heavenly Mother is not a weapon, and no one can interfere with our communication with our Heavenly Parents.
In Renlund’s cautions against seeking Heavenly Mother and instead focusing on Heavenly Father, I hear echoes of salvific coverture. This term, coined by historian Brooke LeFevre in a recent article in the Journal of Mormon History, has two main parts. “Salvific” means something that leads to salvation, and “coverture” refers to the old common law practice in which the legal existence of a married woman is suspended and consolidated into that of her husband. Thus in LeFevre’s analysis of nineteenth-century public speeches of Brigham Young and his contemporaries, “salvific coverture” refers to “the tendency within Mormonism to believe that female salvation came through the husband to whom she was sealed, that husbands were salvifically responsible for their wife or wives, and/or that a woman could rely on her husband for salvation.”
While Brigham Young taught, “Let our wives be the weaker vessels, and the men be men, and show the women by their superior ability that God gives husbands wisdom and ability to lead their wives into his presence,” Eliza R. Snow wasn’t having it. As Eliza traveled the Utah Territory training women in the female auxiliaries, she taught, “Remember, you have to work out your own salvation: neither father, brother, or husband can do it for you. Your eternal existence depends on how you spend your life.” The idea that women’s salvation and identity could be eternally subsumed into the existence of her husband has been preached since at least Nauvoo and has been challenged since at least the 1870s. However, I see the concept still showing up in modern LDS temple practice, and again in Renlund’s suggestion that seeking Heavenly Mother amounts to speculation with an entirely different standard than what leaders encourage in seeking Heavenly Father.
It’s is as though for male LDS leaders, the Father is God, and the Mother is subsumed in His identity and does not retain Her own identity or potential for a direct relationship with Her children. It is unlikely that Elder Renlund is conscious of the term salvific coverture or possibly even the long history of LDS leaders diminishing the eternal nature and destiny of women by subsuming their personhood to that of their husbands. But it is not enough to declare from the pulpit whether something does or does not diminish the Mother or women generally. We have to look further. When ideas of salvific coverture and the erasure of women’s personhood in the eternities is taught in the temple or in general conference, it hurts people now. It hurts marriages where husbands believe they preside rather than actually partner with their wives. It hurts women and gender minorities who see their eternal destiny as one of invisibility and silence.
When leaders caution church members against seeking the Mother, particularly in ways they do not caution them against seeking the Father, they reinforce institutional sexism. When they diminish the holy process of seeking Her as an unproductive demand that distracts members, they mock the invitation that Jesus gave to all people to knock, seek, and ask. When in regional trainings they repeatedly caution leaders against open discussion of the Mother while simultaneously claiming Mother in Heaven as essential to understanding our eternal nature and destiny, they create a system ripe for ecclesiastical abuse. It creates a culture of fear around Heavenly Mother and makes those who love and speak about Her more vulnerable to leadership roulette as local leaders take up the charge to “correct” supposed overreach in seeking God the Mother.
I hope Elder Renlund’s words won’t inspire more people to use Heavenly Mother as a weapon and enforce another generation of unholy freeze. I have to trust that he meant it when he said that Heavenly Mother is a cherished doctrine of our Church. I hope Elder Renlund and all church leaders will take more time to learn from the reason *paired* with the revelation that is moving among those who seek Her. I hope they will have the humility to learn what they do not already know. Perhaps not every essay, painting, poem, or Instagram post will endure as a beloved, eternal truth. But reaching for God and landing upon a beautiful and comforting stepping stone in the process is far better than staying in the dark.
Heavenly Mother is not a weapon. And She wants to be known.
This post is part of a series, Contemplating Heavenly Mother. Find more from this series here.