Our Eternal Father and Mother: Prototypes for Living Better in the World
On April 7, 1844, Joseph Smith stood before a vast congregation who had gathered at a Church conference combined with the funeral service for Elder King Follett. During this climactic moment of his career, the Prophet lifted a corner of the veil and revealed a conception of God that showed general Christendom’s inadequacy as a means to salvation, that showed how misguided “many [supposedly] learned and wise men” were for misunderstanding God’s basic nature (9). After all, he said, “If [we] do not comprehend the character of God, [we] do not comprehend [our] own character” or, for that matter, “[our] own relationship to God.” And if we don’t understand these things, he continued, we are no better than the beast who instinctively knows how to survive from day to day but who knows nothing “about God or His existence” (6). So Joseph lifted the veil and showed his audience the “great secret” about God the Father (7): that He is an exalted man who “once dwelled on an earth” like we do and that, as His children, our relationship with Him “places us in a situation to advance in knowledge” and, by obedience to eternal laws, to follow His path and “be exalted with Him” (8).
This doctrine was, to say the least, controversial when Joseph first introduced it. Many sinners and Latter-day Saints alike thought the idea that humans could become Gods was blasphemous, “false,” and “damnable”; as such, these dissenters considered Joseph’s sermon “strong evidence that [he] had fallen as a prophet” (Hale 3). So they added it to the list of indiscretions they were keeping on him, a list that would lead to his death just over two months later.
Just as the King Follett Discourse (as the sermon has been labeled) drastically altered the course of the Prophet’s life, “Mormonism [itself] could never be the same thereafter” (Hale 2). In fact, the doctrines Joseph expounded in the sermon (and elsewhere) have become central to Latter-day Saint theology. Even Mormon kids know, for instance, that we are children of God and that, if we can “but endure” the challenges of life in an “earthly home” and “learn to do [God’s] will,” we’ll join our Father in the Celestial Kingdom: our Heavenly Home (Randall).
While Latter-day Saints readily acknowledge that we are, as the apostle Paul taught the Romans, the literal offspring of God the Father, and “if [we are His] children, then heirs” through Christ to all the Father has (Romans 8:16-17), we often keep needlessly silent about another vital Figure without whose power and influence we would be damned (as in cut off from progressing). I’m speaking, of course, about our Eternal Mother. When Joseph drew back the veil to reveal God’s basic nature, I’m convinced that She was there, too, standing by Father’s side.
The earliest reference we have in Mormonism to the concept of a Mother in Heaven is from 1839 when the Prophet used the concept to console a grieving daughter. Susa Young Gates, Brigham Young’s daughter, relates the experience:
One day, when [Zina Diantha Huntington] was speaking with the Prophet Joseph Smith concerning the loss of her mother and her intense grief, she asked the question:
“Will I know my mother as my mother when I get over on the Other Side?”
“Certainly you will,” was the instant reply of the Prophet. “More than that, you will meet and become acquainted with your eternal Mother, the wife of your Father in Heaven.”
“And have I then a Mother in Heaven?” exclaimed the astonished girl.
“You assuredly have[,” the Prophet said. “]How could a Father claim His title unless there were also a Mother to share that parenthood?” (Gates 16)
It was around this same time, Susa continued, that Eliza R. Snow “learned the same glorious truth from the same inspired lips.” Eliza later translated this concept into her poem, “Invocation, or the Eternal Father and Mother,” which was set to music and became our well-beloved hymn, “O, My Father”: “I had learned to call thee Father,” we sing,
Through thy Spirit from on high,
But until the key of knowledge
Was restored, I knew not why.
In the heavens are parents single?
No, the thought makes reason stare!
Truth is reason, truth eternal
Tells me I've a mother there.
But what does having a Mother there mean for our lives here? Well, to answer that, we need to consider two related questions: 1) what has been revealed about Her character—in other words, who is this exalted woman? And 2) how does understanding Her character help us to comprehend our own character—in other words, what demands does our knowledge of Her make on who we are, on what we do, on how we interact with others?
In response to the first question: who is this exalted woman? Since the 1840s, the concept of a Mother in Heaven “has been an important, although relatively obscure, part of the Latter-day Saint understanding of [our] premortal origins and [our] divine nature” (Paulsen and Pulido 71). Despite Her relative obscurity, however, She has often been referenced and much has been revealed about Her in the past 174 years. In their survey of historical teachings about Mother in Heaven, David L. Paulsen and Martin Pulido “share historical portrayals of Heavenly Mother” that shed light on six of Her specific traits. I only have time today to list them here: these teachings reveal Her “ as procreator and parent,  as a divine person,  as co-creator of worlds,  as coframer of the plan of salvation with the Father, [. . .]  as a concerned and loving parent involved in our mortal probation,” and  as a judge and continued mentor in the hereafter (76). To my mind, these portrayals cast God the Mother in a role that is radically equal with the role of God the Father in terms of power and authority.
With these aspects of Her character sketched out, I return to my second question: what demands does our knowledge of Her make on who we are, on what we do, on how we interact with others? I submit that this knowledge does at least three things for and to us:
First, it suggests, as Nephi points out, that all really are "alike unto God" (2 Nephi 26:33). We ought to—and we can—apply this same principle in our understanding of and approach to others.
Second, in line with the blessings extended to those received into the Celestial Kingdom (as outlined in D&C 132:19-20), this knowledge suggests that our most cherished relationships (which are also often our most cherished and purifying challenges) can, if sealed by proper authority, continue through the eternities.
Third, just as our Heavenly Parents share the burden of administering and ministering to their family kingdom, this knowledge suggests (as does the Family Proclamation) that husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, ought to be radically equal in how we administer and minister to the needs of our families.
In this light, by keeping in mind what has been revealed about the character of our Heavenly Parents and the relationship between Them—our Prototypes for Exaltation—we can transform our lives and relationships in ways that can help us to overcome (among other things) the damaging perceptions maintained by the world about men and women, their social and familial roles, and the relationship between the sexes.
In his April 1995 General Conference address, Dallin H. Oaks spoke about “some of the important additions” that Latter-day Saint doctrines make to general Christianity. One of these doctrines is exaltation: the potential we have to become like God. He speaks of this concept in terms of Mormonism’s “family-centered [. . .] doctrine and practices.” In his words: “Our understanding of the nature and purpose of God the Eternal Father explains our destiny and our relationship in his eternal family. Our theology begins with heavenly parents. Our highest aspiration is to be like them.” And through Christ we can be like Them, not only There and Then, but here and now.
Gates, Susa Young. History of the Young Ladies' Mutual Improvement Association of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from November 1869 to June 1910. Salt Lake City: General Board of the Y.L.M.I.A., 1911. Print.
Hale, Van. "The Doctrinal Impact of the of the King Follett Discourse." BYU Studies 18.2 (1978): 209-225. Print. [My citations are from the PDF document, which gives the article pages 1-16.]
Oaks, Dallin A. "Apostasy and Restoration." Ensign (May 1995). Web.
Paulsen, David L., and Martin Pulido. "'A Mother There': A Survey of Historical Teachings about Mother in Heaven." BYU Studies 50.1 (2011): 71-97. Print.
Randall, Naomi. "I am a Child of God." Hymns of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985. No. 301. Print.
Smith, Joseph. "The King Follett Discourse: A Newly Amalgamated Text." Ed. Stan Larson. BYU Studies 18.2 (1978): 193-208. Print. [My citations are from the PDF document, which gives the article pages 1-18.]
Snow, Eliza. R. "O, My Father." Hymns of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985. No. 292. Print.