In a Sunstone presentation entitled ‘A Return to Logic’, which discusses Blake Ostler’s work, he was asked about the Heavenly Mother. As a fan of Blake’s work I wanted to discuss his answer a little here, recognising that it was not a fully formulated or prepared response. The major points of his answer seem to be: firstly, that he does not believe Joseph Smith taught this doctrine, secondly, he does believe that it is true, thirdly, we can have a relationship with her and fourthly, we should not talk about her or that relationship in explicit ways because it is sacred.
Firstly, there has been some discussion of Blake’s views on NCT a week or so ago but I wanted to discuss his views in more detail here, if possible. Blake has said “I don’t deny the existence of a Mother in Heaven” but “I don’t believe that Joseph Smith ever taught the notion. I don’t believe he had the notion. I believe what Eliza Snow said about Joseph teaching the notion, she made up. Its clear to me that during Joseph Smith’s life time… there simply are no statements that would indicate that anybody during that time period believed in a Mother in Heaven”
The poem of the hymn ‘O My Father’ was published in Nov 1845 in the Times and Seasons  and seems to have been written in Nauvoo in Oct 1845 . It at least does not appear in Snow’s 1842-4 notebook, which implies an 1845 composition . Therefore it may be an over-statement to say that it was not in the minds of the saints, at that time. I acknowledge that this was after Joseph’s death, but it was only shortly after. It is possible that the poem was about her earthly parents being in heaven especially as Eliza’s father died mid-October. What is unclear is when she became aware of her Father’s death because he lived some distance from her. In addition, Eliza’s account of the doctrine being taught is a very late recollection . This may all support Ostler’s contention. Contrastingly, there is at least one other reference to the Mother in Heaven in December 1844, prior to Eliza’s, from a W. W. Phelps poem .
What seems unclear from this is how Ostler can believe the doctrine but not accept it’s historical origin. Moreover, that Snow’s and Phelp’s poems were written around the mid-1840’s suggests that there was some awareness of this idea. To me then it is unclear upon what premise Ostler accepts the Mother in Heaven as a reality but not as doctrine. If it is derived from the First Presidency statement , then it would seem that this is based upon Eliza R. Snow (which he suggests is untenable); whereas if it is implied from the doctrine of celestial marriage then the foundation for that doctrine were laid during Joseph’s life-time. Therefore I would argue the notion was present (perhaps implicitly).
When questioned about the Heavenly Mother, Blake hestitates and says “I am contemplating the sacred silence by which I am bound”. He continues by asking “how could I discourse with you about her about what I know, and how could I say more without being disloyal to that relationship… People have taken my silence about the Mother in Heaven to be a complete disregard; it is not. It is a very thoughtful decision on my part because of the relationships that I have”.
Here there is a sense that he rejects the current discourse on the Mother in Heaven as illegitimate, as without authority, and he therefore does not want to engage with that discourse. Especially because it lacks scriptural backing. His silence though becomes a discourse in its own right, one that attempts to further undermine the ‘illegitimate’ discourse. Moreover, he shares a witness of his relationship with the Mother in Heaven and therefore sets up another discourse of ‘Sacred Silence’ which suggests that people who ask the question do not really know what they are asking. It seems therefore that Ostler wants to deligitmize the ‘illegitimate’ discourse on the Heavenly Mother and set-up his own ‘Sacred Silence’ as the legitimate discourse. However, there is a ‘legitimate’ discourse on the Heavenly Mother which Ostler does not engage with. For example, during the 1970’s there were a few references to Her and Her attributes by Prophets and Apostles during General Conference .
He compares his silence on the Heavenly Mother to his silence about the Temple, however this does not hold for me. This is primarily because we have a very strong legitimate discourse around the temple which speaks of its blessings and also how to prepare for it. I find Ostler’s exhortation (“If you want to know about her, I suggest that you know her; don’t ask me about her”) to be something I want to follow but feel unsure about how to proceed. The temple is not the same, it is clear and not esoteric. He does not sugget how we can come to know her and experience the relationship that he hints at.
As a result, this post is more a personal lament. For I would have loved to have thought more about Blake’s position and yet I respect his silence and understand, to some extent, why he has talked in this way. My only hope is that as a Church we do find a way to speak of our Mother in Heaven in ways that encourage all people to have that relationship with her and also with God but without betraying anything that is sacred. As a result I have really appreciated the work of Kevin Barney  and Dan Petersen  on the connections they make between Asherah and the Heavenly Mother and in so doing finding ways that we can talk about her. Even though Blake Ostler seems to disagree with their view of Asherah.
Ostler has said “I believe what we have to say about our Mother in Heaven is remarkably minimal”. I agree, but also wish it were different. Moreover I think it can be. The ‘doctrine’ of the Church is hard to pin down, and as a result we have many para-doctrines. President Hinckley has spoken of the reality of the Heavenly Mother, while also counseling people not to pray in public to her . It would be a positive step if others could speak in semi-official ways of her and start to create a legitimate discourse.
Do you agree with Ostler’s sacred silence?
1. Karen Lynn Davidson, Our Latter-day Hymns: The Stories and the Messages [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1988], 279.
2. Poetry, Times and Seasons, vol. 6 (January 15, 1845-February, No. 17. Nauvoo, Illinois, Nov. 15, 1845. Whole No. 126.
3. Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, The Eliza Enigma: The Life and Legend of Eliza R. Snow in Charles Redd Monographs on Western History, vol. 6 (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1976): 34.
4. Jill Mulvay Derr, The Significance of “O My Father” in the Personal Journey of Eliza R. Snow in BYU Studies, vol. 36 (1996-97), Number 1,
5. Charles R. Harrell, The Development of the Doctrine of Preexistence, 1830-1844 in BYU Studies, vol. 28 (1988), Number 2 – Spring 1988), pp. 75-91.
6. First Presidency, The Origin of Man in Improvement Era, vol. 13, Nov 1909, p. 80.
7. Linda P. Wilcox, The Mormon Concept of a Mother in Heaven in Sisters in Spirit: Mormon Women in Historical and Cultural Perspective, edited by Maureen Ursenbach Beecher and Lavina Fielding Anderson (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 64-77. Available here.
8. Kevin L. Barney, How to Worship the Heavenly Mother (Without getting Excommunicated) in Dialogue, vol. 41, no. 4 (Salt Lake City: Dialogue Foundation 2008), p. 121-46.
9. Daniel C. Peterson, Nephi and His Asherah: A Note on 1 Nephi 11:8-23 in Mormons, Scripture and the Ancient World: Studies in Honor of John L. Sorenson, edited by Davis Bitton (Provo, Ut.: FARMS 1998) pp. 191-243.
10. Gordon B. Hinckley, Daughters of God in Ensign, Nov 1991, p. 100.