"Review of Paulsen and Pulido's
'A Mother There,' BYU Studies 2011"

Reviewed by: V.H. Cassler

SquareTwo, Vol. 4 No. 1 (Spring 2011)





Note: Quotes without citation are quoted within the Paulsen/Pulido article; please see that article for full references.

                       David L. Paulsen, professor of philosophy at Brigham Young University and former Richard L. Evans Chair of Religious Understanding, and Martin Pulido, a former student of Paulsen’s, have published an article in the most recent edition of BYU Studies (Vol. 50 No. 1: 70-126, 2011), entitled, “A Mother There: Historical Teachings and Sacred Silence.”  Because the article is so path-breaking, and because the issue of women in LDS doctrine is both so revolutionary and also so culturally contested, we are pleased to acquaint SquareTwo readers with the article’s content through this review.  We also strongly encourage readers to examine the article itself ( it’s well worth the $2 fee to download it).

            The article’s primary contribution is an inventory of every saying by Church leaders from the founding to the present concerning our Heavenly Mother.  That the Latter-day Saint Church alone among all the Christianities asserts that just as we have a Father in Heaven, so we also have a Mother in Heaven, is well known.  Latter-day Saints do not believe that God is an old bachelor—we believe that all divinity is both male and female, such that our Heavenly Father could not be a god unless there was an equally yoked Heavenly Mother by his side who was also a god.

            However, it is also true that you will not find Latter-day Saints saying much about their Heavenly Mother besides acknowledging her existence.  Indeed, in LDS culture, you will sense that Latter-day Saints feel they are expected not to speak of her.  Furthermore, you may even begin to suspect that whether a Latter-day Saint speaks of their Heavenly Mother is some type of social marker for whether they are righteous, orthodox, and obedient—or not.  It is into this strange contradiction of doctrinal belief and cultural practice that Paulsen and Pulido wade, to our everlasting benefit.  I would argue their most important contribution is actually not their inventory per se, welcome as that is, but rather their very complete dispelling of the LDS cultural understanding that we have been asked not to speak of our Heavenly Mother in order to maintain some type of “sacred silence” about her.

The Significance of This Article Appearing in BYU Studies

            Before delving into the arguments made by Paulsen and Pulido, we must mention at the outset of this review that an important reason this article is path-breaking is because of the venue in which it was published.  BYU Studies, for those who are not acquainted with that journal, is an official publication of Brigham Young University, and its board includes general authorities of the Church.  In other words, it is in a league of its own, certainly no Sunstone or Dialogue, being scrupulously orthodox and formally affiliated with a Church institution, but also a different creature than the Ensign, being a peer-reviewed scholarly journal.  Articles on potentially contentious topics may undergo years of review, editing, and correlation until the article may become unrecognizable when compared to the original.  Indeed, articles on contentious issues may never ultimately be published in BYU Studies, even though authors have slogged through those years of revisions.  While BYU Studies prides itself on never propounding anything that might resemble new doctrine, it is open to in-depth, nay, Talmudic, exegesis of extant authoritative texts in order to suggest that conventional cultural understandings of a particular doctrinal point may be unjustified.

            It is in the latter sense that we must understand why BYU Studies published the Paulsen/Pulido piece.  The issue of Heavenly Mother, precisely because that issue is culturally contentious, would be expected to be one BYU Studies would normally shy away from.  That BYU Studies published the article suggests that Paulsen and Pulido found a way to speak on the topic that could not be assailed for breaking new doctrinal ground per se.  By using that form of detailed Talmudic exegesis of authoritative texts, and by the liberal (to the point of ubiquitous) use of phrases indicating that the authors are not saying anything of themselves or prescribing any interpretation of the texts, and by virtue of Paulsen’s impeccable credentials as a faithful and honored (male) LDS scholar teaching at Brigham Young University, Paulsen and Pulido have pulled off an amazing feat.

            And what is that amazing feat?  Paulsen and Pulido persuasively argue that the conventional LDS cultural notion that we are not to speak of Heavenly Mother is, in fact, wrong.  They are quick to add that speaking of Heavenly Mother should not be taken to include acts such as praying to Heavenly Mother.  Nevertheless, Paulsen and Pulido have “restored the paths to walk in”—that is, by the very act of publishing this article in BYU Studies, they have opened a door for the membership of the Church to speak openly of their belief in a Heavenly Mother, and to assert that silence about Heavenly Mother is not “sacred,” but a cultural artifact which is not supported by the General Authorities of the Church.  Concomitantly, if silence about Heavenly Mother is not mandated for some higher ecclesiastical reason, then speaking about our belief in a Heavenly Mother is not subversive, un-orthodox, unrighteous, or rebellious.  Bottom line: thanks to Paulsen and Pulido and BYU Studies, it is now possible for you to be a good, faithful Mormon and talk openly and in public about the fact that you believe in a Heavenly Mother.

            (Note: At this point, the author of this review is tempted to break out into a rousing rendition of the “Hallelujah Chorus,”—and that aside is meant in complete sincerity and gratitude to Paulsen, Pulido, and yes, even Jack Welch.  This is truly a step forward for which all should be honestly grateful.)

            So how do Paulsen and Pulido defend their assertion that the notion that we are “supposed” to be silent about Heavenly Mother is an unsupportable cultural convention that is not at all doctrinal?

The Case for Asserting that Silence is Not Mandated

            Paulsen and Pulido advance their case that silence concerning our belief in Heavenly Mother is not mandated or doctrinal in three ways.  First, they inventory all General Authority statements that indicate such a belief, and note that a) such statements have been uttered across the lifespan of the LDS Church, up to and including this very day, and b) none of these statements by general authorities indicate that we are to maintain silence about our belief in Heavenly Mother.  Second, they note—always as asides—how this silence has wrought mischief amongst the membership of the Church.  Third, Paulsen and Pulido assert that we do know quite a few things about Heavenly Mother from statements made by general authorities, and thus the LDS are not confined to statements that we believe she exists but know nothing else about her.

            Inventory of General Authority Statements.  One of the most useful elements of the Paulsen/Pulido article is an extensive inventory of all statements made by general authorities on the subject of Heavenly Mother from the earliest days to the Church (1844) all the way to 2010, when the article was finalized for review.  In a sidebar to the article, a citation list of over 600 such statements is presented, and Paulsen and Pulido do not believe they have yet found every statement made.

            This list makes abundantly plain that to suggest the leadership of the Church never really speaks about Heavenly Mother, or that perhaps in the early days of the Church She was spoken of, but not now, are both wrong.  While in the body of their article, they cannot present every one of these 600 statements, the authors present enough for us to know that the general authorities of the Church have never wavered in their conviction of the doctrine that there is a Heavenly Mother.  Our own favorite quotations span the centuries; first in 1878 by Erastus Snow, and then in 2010 by Glenn L. Pace:

            Erastus Snow (Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, 1849-1888):

“What,” says one, “do you mean we should understand that Deity consists of man and woman?” Most certainly I do. If I believe anything that God has ever said about himself . . . I must believe that deity consists of man and woman . . . there can be no God except he is composed of the man and woman united, and there is not in all the eternities that exist, or ever will be a God in any other way.”   (Erastus Snow, Journal of Discourses, 19:269–70, March 3, 1878.)

            Glenn L. Pace (First Quorum of the Seventy), 1992-2010):

“Sisters, I testify that when you stand in front of your heavenly parents in those royal courts on high and you look into Her eyes and behold Her countenance, any question you ever had about the role of women in the kingdom will evaporate into the rich celestial air, because at that moment you will see standing directly in front of you, your divine nature and destiny.” (Glenn L. Pace, “The Divine Nature and Destiny of Women” (devotional address, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, March 9, 2010), available at http://speeches.byu.edu )

            Next, Paulsen and Pulido carefully examine their inventory of statements about Heavenly Mother, and can find no evidence that any general authority has asked that we not speak of Her.  It is true that during the 1991 General Women’s Meeting, President Gordon B. Hinckley stated that the LDS do not pray to Heavenly Mother, but nowhere even in that statement can be found any injunction not to speak of her in other contexts.  What statements they do find that urge us to keep a “sacred silence” are, in fact, statements by persons who were/are not general authorities.  Whether we speak of Danny L. Jorgensen, Carrie Miles, Susanna Morrill, Barbara MacHaffie, Martha Pierce, Grant Tucker Smith, or Hoyt J, Brewster, Jr., none of these individuals claiming that the LDS have been told to keep silent on the subject of Heavenly Mother are or were general authorities.  One of the most persuasive and important take-aways from the careful research of Paulsen and Pulido is that the general authorities of the LDS Church have never asked anyone to keep a “sacred silence” about Heavenly Mother.

            The Mischief Wrought by Unjustified Silence.  The second element that Paulsen and Pulido bring to bear on the topic is the mischief that has been wrought among the membership of the Church by this false idea that we have been asked to be silent on the topic of Heavenly Mother.  This analysis was not a central part of the text, and one must hunt for it in the footnotes.  That indicates to this reviewer that what mattered to the journal’s editor was the in-depth Talmudic exegesis of authoritative statements, and not the feelings of depression, or alternatively, the feelings of male superiority caused by the erroneous cultural understanding that we are not to speak of Heavenly Mother. 

           Paulsen and Pulido cite, for example, Kathryn H. Shirts who spoke of a Primary class, “in which someone asked the teacher, “If we have a Mother in Heaven, how come we never hear about her?” The teacher’s reply was that God was protecting her name from the kinds of slander that human beings direct toward the names of the Father and the Son.” Shirts continued: “It was a clever reply, and, at the time, we all thought it was quite satisfying. None of us realized then that this answer described a lady not quite up to taking care of herself in a tough world, an image drawn purely from certain human conventions and not from divine reality.” (Kathryn H. Shirts, “Women in the Image of the Son: Being Female and Being Like Christ,” in Women Steadfast in Christ: Talks Selected from the 1991 Women’s Conference Co-sponsored by Brigham Young University and the Relief Society, ed. Dawn Hall Anderson and Marie Cornwall (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992), 95.) (Paulsen and Pulido note that Shirts earned a Master of Theological Studies degree at the Harvard Divinity School and is an author and a reviewer for BYU Studies.)

            Paulsen and Pulido also cite Robert A. Rees, who complained, “What we are left with is an image of our Heavenly Mother staying at home having billions of children while the men—the Father and his sons—go off to create worlds, spin galaxies, take business trips to outer space.” (“Our Mother in Heaven,” Sunstone 15, no. 1 (1991): 49–50.)

            Some have also wondered why it is Heavenly Mother, if really divine and really the co-equal of her spouse Heavenly Father, is not part of the Godhead, which is all-male.  They have wondered if this indicates that Heavenly Mother’s divinity does not extend to having any “cosmic authority,” in contrast to divine males.

            What we see, then, is that the mistaken notion of the need to maintain “sacred silence” has engendered a whole host of unpleasant suppositions about Heavenly Mother and her role in the celestial realm—and by extension, her daughters and their role here and in the hereafter.  This mischief is certainly not of divine origin, and we are tempted to ask whose cause it is that really benefits from the persistent and erroneous idea of “sacred silence.”

            We Know More About Her Than We Say We Do. Another significant element of Paulsen and Pulido’s work is to point out that we really do know a lot more about Heavenly Mother than we say we do.  They imply that the unjustified notion we are to remain silent about Her has caused what we do know about Her to be lost from faithful discussion among the LDS.  As they point out, that is truly a pity, and it need not be.  The authors then point out some of what we know about Heavenly Mother, and it is clear she is much more than a “divine womb.”

            Paulsen and Pulido point out that we know that Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father both reared us in our premortal heavenly home, which indicates a divine teaching and guidance of our spirits.  We know, with John A. Widtsoe (Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, 1921-1952) that she possesses all the attributes of Godhood—which we would normally take to include omniscience, omnipotence, etc.  President Rudger Clawson (Quorum of the Twelve, 1929-1943) suggested that we are to “adore” her.  Brigham Young taught that she helped frame the earth, and other general authorities have taught that exalted men and women share the power to create and organize worlds.  Elder Russell M. Ballard taught that the very Plan of Happiness was designed by both of our Heavenly Parents, and the 1978 Gospel Principles manual taught that Jesus was the beloved son of both our Heavenly Parents.  President George F. Richards (Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, 1906-1950) taught that the commandment to honor thy father and mother also applied to our Heavenly Parents, as well. 

           We have been told by our general authorities that Heavenly Mother can even guide and direct us here in mortality: for example, President Harold B. Lee spoke of Heavenly Mother’s influence “from beyond” and recounted the story of William Dudley Pelley, who as he reached for his pack of cigarettes, “heard a voice as gently as any worried mother might caution a careless son, ‘Oh, Bill, give up your cigarettes!’  President Lee explained that this was the influence of Heavenly Mother on Pelley.  Likewise, President Kimball stated, “[K]nowing how profoundly our mortal mothers have shaped us here, do we suppose her [that is, Heavenly Mother’s] influence on us as individuals to be less if we live so as to return [to heaven]?”

            Some of the most beautiful statements regarding Heavenly Mother concern our reception when we return to our heavenly home after facing mortality’s trials.  General Authority statements indicate that our Heavenly Mother will ask for an account of our labors on earth, but also that the personalized details of our homecoming will be arranged by her.  For example, Elder Neal A. Maxwell (Quorum of the Twelve), suggested “such a regal homecoming could not be possible without the anticipatory arrangements of a Heavenly Mother.”  (Neal A. Maxwell, “The Women of God,” Ensign 8 (May 1978): 10.)

            In short, while we probably all would appreciate knowing more about our Heavenly Mother’s activities—and given the 9th Article of Faith, we can hope this will be part of the greater light and knowledge that is promised for the future—we know enough about her to doubt that she is a cipher in her personality, demeanor, or doings.  Indeed, given the LDS women who surround us as mother, sisters, wives, and daughters, how could we possibly imagine her as wholly unlike those strong, capable, intelligent, wise, active, powerful women?

So What?

            Why does this matter?  In the twenty-first century, some have opined that Western culture is now “post-sex”—that is, that sexual distinction is now as outdated as gender distinctions concerning what “men” and “women” did in their lives.  Just as now a person gendered “female” can be the CEO of a top corporation, a Nobel Prize winner, an Olympic weight lifting champion, and a person gendered “male” can be a primary caregiver, or a kindergarten teacher, or a nurse, some have argued that sexual distinctions are also becoming passé.  Maybe to have XX or XY in one’s DNA has as little meaning as having a gene for blue eyes in terms of one’s life course.  In this view, whom one marries or how one reproduces may no longer be  experiences that should be linked in our minds to sex.  For example, one’s sex may no longer bear an integral connection to one’s experience of reproduction, given new artificial reproductive methods.

            The LDS stand in firm opposition to “post-sexualism.”  Sex still has great meaning for the LDS (though we would be quick to add that the LDS community still struggles with non-doctrinal cultural notions of gender roles for men and women that are neither doctrinal nor compassionate).  Why does sex still have great meaning for the LDS?  I would argue it is precisely because we do not believe that in the heavens parents are single.  We believe divinity is sexed, and that there are both gods and goddesses in the heavens, and that they live together in an absolute equal partnership that we call the new and everlasting covenant of marriage.  Since the LDS believe we are to become like our heavenly parents, then sex will always have great meaning both here in mortality as well as in the hereafter.

            One of the most important ways to counter the slide to a “post-sexual” society, then, is to speak of our Heavenly Mother—and to speak of her openly and widely.  I do not believe it is by chance that the Paulsen and Pulido article has been published by BYU Studies in the early twenty-first century: the stubborn and unreasonable cultural belief that the LDS were expected to maintain silence about our belief in Heavenly Mother would otherwise continue to handicap our ability to articulate why sex has meaning to societies that are beginning to lose their way.  Paulsen and Pulido have “made straight the paths” that we need to walk in at this time in human history; they have “unloosed our tongue” at the precise time when it was critical that we no longer fumble for the words to express why we hold the positions we do about sex, marriage, and procreation.  All these things continue to have meaning because there is in fact, “a Mother there.”

            David Paulsen and Martin Pulido, we extend our gratitude to you for all you have done for your faith community in endeavoring—and succeeding--to have this path-breaking article published in BYU Studies.  God bless you.


Full Citation for This Article: Cassler, V.H. (2011) "Review of Paulsen and Pulido's 'A Mother There,' BYU Studies, 2011," SquareTwo, Vol. 4 No. 1 (Spring), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleCasslerPaulsenPulido.html, accessed [give access date].

Would you like to comment on this article? Thoughtful, faithful comments of at least 300 words are welcome. Please submit to SquareTwo.

COMMENTS: 5 Comments

1) William L. Knecht

I was delighted to find and read the report about our Mother in Heaven. I did not see any mention of the note by W. W. Phelps, in the Times and Seasons, 5 (24) 758, I Jan 1844 [sic] wherein he wrote to William Smith, brother of the recently martyred Joseph that "Christ was anointed [in the pre-existent ] world with holy oil in heaven, and crowned in the midst of brothers and sisters, while his mother stood with approving virtue and smiled upon a Son that kept the faith as the heir of all things."

Nor did I see any note (confessing that my 83 year old eyes aren't as good as they used to be) any reference to the long essay written by my Grandfather S. Norman Lee while he was assistant editor of "The Latter-day Saints Millennial Star", published Thursday, 20 September 1910, titled "Our Mother In Heaven" ( 616-620 ).

"As showing the orthodox Protestant view of this really sublime subject, we are pleased to append an extract from a pamphlet setting forth Elder B. H. Roberts' answer to the Ministerial Association's review of the First Presidency's 'Address to the World.'".

Grandpa noted the words of the poet Wordsworth in his "Intimations of Immortality" about the boy who drifts further from the east and then notes: "And yet, while it may be true, that man drifts farther and farther away from the influences and impression of that 'imperial palace whence he came,' there is something, if faith and indefinable, that calls out for such a being in the eternities as he knew in the days of his infancy when heaven shone around him.

"Who taught my infant lips to pray.
To love that word and holy day,
And walk in wisdom's pleasant way!
My Mother."

I think it worth noting, too, that the Rev. Dr. Margaret Barker, well liked and respected by many of our people, is in the process of preparing another of her great expositions, this time about our Mother in Heaven. At the end of March 2011, she wrote to me "I am half way through writing a very big book on this. I hope to finish in about 12 months time."

I just looked again at the reprint of the essay in BYU Studies https://byustudies.byu.edu/PDFLibrary/50.1PaulsenPulidoMother-5ff69b7d-ee2f-47d4-94ff-3669578597b1.pdf
and saw end notes 42 and 42 which note the assumption that Rudger Clawson, the "editor" wrote the article about our mother in Heaven. My copy of the Star, which came to me from Grandpa Lee, has his notes about the articles which he authored. Such a mark appears directly under the date line of the essay.

Grandpa was called to be assistant to Elder Clawson directly and the Church made special arrangements at the request of Elder Clawson, to support grandpa's growing family in Brigham City while he was laboring in Liverpool. I have no doubt that the expressed assumption [in the BYU Studies footnote--ed.] is wrong.

Respectfully yours

William ( ich dien ) Knecht


2) Kaylie Clark

You readers may wish to be aware that in the April 15, 1894 issue of The Juvenile Instructor, a hymn by William C. Harrison (music by A. Hardy), entitled "Our Mother in Heaven," was published. Here is a scan of the hymn.


3). Anonymous reader

I recently read, and was greatly inspired by, your article concerning the BYU Studies article on Heavenly Mother. My wife and I and our daughters are currently overseas and, as it turned out, I was asked to speak on Mothers Day. The branch here is quite small, but on that particular day, a large group of students was visiting the country and came to sacrament meeting. I spoke at length of the article, which I had known about only because of your blog. It was clear that they were touched by the substance of the ideas; many thanked me afterward and asked for the specific citation. Most remarkably, the senior missionary couple (whom I would have guessed to be very much by-the-book types) approached me afterward and the wife, of all people, exclaimed, "It's about time!"

So thank you for bringing my attention to this work, and for helping me to appreciate its significance. I sense that great things are afoot in the gospel and the church; that decisions have been made, and perhaps revelations received, at the highest levels; and that the lives and understandings of our daughters may well be impacted in profound and historic ways.


4) Kevin Ellsworth

Comment (a far cry short of suggested 300 word-minimum—sorry) on V.H. Cassler’s "Review of Paulsen and Pulido's 'A Mother There,' BYU Studies 2011":

Thank you for this enlightening and inspiring review! And thank you for the cultural contexts: (explicitly) post-sexualism and (implicitly) post-sexism—sexual difference is meaningful, especially in the context of an equal, divine, eternal partnership.


5) Alan Jensen

Hallelujah indeed. I very much enjoyed your article and the comments that followed. I hope the following comment will not be provocative or fall short of being "faithful."

As activists so often are, feminists tend to be thrown into a single box, and identified with the most provocative and misguided among them--though I hasten to add that I am not implying that you are doing this. My point is that feminism, in the best sense, is still an important cause, both in and out of the church. What has sometimes been called "differnce feminism" has been sidelined in recent years, and it's no wonder, considering the immense difficulty inherent in creating institutions that take into account differences between men and women, while at the same time providing real equality in terms of respect, power, and the disposition of resources. As you seem to suggest in your review, we have come a long way in that direction, but we're certainly not there yet.

The second and very much related point is a little more awkward. There is in your review a strong suggestion that a new willingness to talk about our Mother in Heaven will, or at least should, reaffirm the supremely important value of the complementarity of the sexes, at a time when it is being directly or indirectly challenged by the gay rights movement. If we could have institutions perfectly adapted to imperfect people, I suppose I would like to see civil unions given all the respect the honorable words "civil" and "union" should imply--both within and outside of the church. This would not be a mere word game, since its purpose would be to affirm and preserve the priciple of complementarity of the sexes--as well as the even greater priciple of opposition and meaning so eleoquently taught in second Nephi.

But we seem to be past any hope of that now. Still, let's not loose sight of the fact that our gay brothers and sisters, with very rare exceptions, have no opportunity to participate--either with or without a life conpanion--as social equals in the church,