Eliza, Adam, and the Heavenly Mother

By February 5, 2008

Admin: This post is authored by occasional guest blogger and friend to JI, Bored in Vernal.

Eliza R. Snow holds a unique position in Mormon history.  She never had children or a husband of her “own,” though she was married to the first two LDS Prophets.  Eliza became extremely influential in the early Church for a variety of reasons.  Her situation with less family responsibility gave her free time to pursue her interests.  Her calling as General Relief Society President saw her travelling among the Saints and gave her an authoritative position.   Her proximity to Church leadership put her in firsthand touch with Church doctrine as it was developed.   Finally, her considerable talent in writing gave her a voice among men and women alike.

We are all aware of Eliza’s contribution to LDS belief through her poem, “The Eternal Father and Mother,” which became the popular hymn “O My Father.”  The poem was frequently reprinted, put to a number of musical settings, and sung at formal as well as informal Church settings.  Eliza popularized the concept of a mother God to such an extent that by 1873 Wilford Woodruff credited her poem as the source of the doctrine, identifying it as “a revelation, though it was given unto us by a woman–Sister Snow.” [1]

The female bard Eliza treated many other principles of the Church in her poetry.  One of her lesser-known poems, “The Ultimatum of a Human Life” [2] is of interest because it speaks of the Adam-God doctrine, once furiously debated, and now repudiated in the modern Church.  “The Ultimatum” begins in a familiar LDS setting.  The author is musing at twilight when a spirit guide appears to instruct her.  This scene vividly recalls Lehi’s dream in the Book of Mormon.  Lehi’s son Nephi likewise had the experience of entertaining an angel who had come to instruct him in religious principles. To a Mormon audience, this poetic convention gives the later instruction a powerful endorsement.

“What would’st thou me?” the seraph gently said:
“Tell me, and wherefore hast thou sought my aid?”

The author asks her spirit guide to explain the cause of suffering upon this earth and what will be the end result of human life–“its ultimatum in Eternity.” The angel tells her that it is not necessary for her to know the secrets of the worlds on high, the Councils, decrees, organizations, laws formed by the Gods on high.  These took place before her great Father came forth from their great courts to tread upon this new world and stand as it’s royal head.  Instead, the angel explains to her the ordeal and purpose of life.  But in various places in the poem we learn more about this behind-the-scenes view of Eternity:

Adam, your God, like you on earth, has been
Subject to sorrow in a world of sin:
Through long gradation he arose to be
Cloth’d with the Godhead’s might and majesty…
By his obedience he obtain’d the place
Of God and Father of this human race.

A second poem written by Eliza, “We Believe in Our God,” was also included in the LDS collection of hymns until the year 1912.  This poem described God as the “prince of his race,” and identified him simultaneously as Adam, the Ancient of Days, and Michael the archangel.

We believe in our God, the Prince of his race,
The archangel Michael, the Ancient of Days
Our own Father Adam, earth’s Lord as is plain,
Who’ll counsel and fight for His children again.
We believe in His Son, Jesus Christ who in love
To His brothers and sisters came down from above,
To die, to redeem them from death, and to teach
To mortals and spirits the gospel we preach. [3]

In another poem, titled “To Mrs. ___ ,” Eliza combines Adam-God with the couplet theology of godhood originated by her brother Lorenzo Snow:

…But now I’m but a child of dust;
Thanks, thanks to Him, in whom I trust,
I’m not without his wise direction,
His smiles, his guidance and protection.

Adam, our father–Eve, our mother,
And Jesus Christ, our elder brother,
Are to my understanding shown:
My heart responds, they are my own.

Perfection lifts them far from me,
But what they are, we yet may be,
If we, tho’ slowly, follow on,
We’ll reach the point to which they’ve gone. [4]

Clearly Eliza R. Snow agreed with and sought to promote the Adam-God doctrine preached by Brigham Young.  Because acceptance of Adam as our Father and God implies Eve as our Heavenly Mother, some have connected this theory with the equally speculative Mother in Heaven axiom. [5]  Why was the Heavenly Mother so readily absorbed into Mormon thought while Adam-God has died an ignomonious death?  Joseph Smith and Brigham Young defended the concept of speculation, pondering, theorizing, and seeking the mysteries far more than is common today.  Thus there were several speculative ideas preached by early Church leaders which were later refined or rejected outright by their successors.  Van Hale has pointed out that Brigham Young said that his views were not official doctrine, nor mandatory for the Saints to believe. [6]  Brigham and his supporters on Adam-God experienced great opposition among their colleagues in the Twelve concerning the idea. [7]  On the other hand, the Heavenly Mother idea was comforting, non-threatening and widely accepted.  Every latter-day prophet has reaffirmed the existence of a Mother in Heaven.  Indeed, the teaching has probably been challenged more in the past 5 years than in the 163 years since it was penned.


[1] Wilford Woodruff quoted in Jill Mulvay Derr, “The Significance of ‘O My Father’ in the Personal Journey of Eliza R. Snow,” BYU Studies 36:85-126.

[2] “Poems, Religious, Historical, and Political by Eliza R(oxy) Snow. Vol. II, Compiled by the Author,” Latter-day Saints’ Printing and Publishing Establishment, 1877, 5-10; http://www.celestial-orb.com/ultimatum.htm .

[3] Sacred Hymns and Spiritual Songs for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 11th Edition, revised in Liverpool, 1856, by Franklin D. Richards, Apostle; p. 375. See also the 25th edition, 1912.

[4] citation needed

[5] Blake Ostler has opined, “I view the notion of the mother in heaven as originating in a cultural overbelief (a mere ball that got rolling with a misunderstanding of an authoritative statement), was first elucidated as part of BY’s and Eliza’s Adam God doctrine, and then got baptized by Joseph F. Smith.” Comment #10 at New Cool Thang blog. http://www.newcoolthang.com/index.php/2006/06/spirit-birth/258/

[6] “[The] subject … does not immediately concern yours or my welfare … I do not pretend to say that the items of doctrine and ideas I shall advance are necessary for the people to know.” (Brigham Young, Historical Department of the Church [HDC], Oct 8, 1854).  See this and other statements in “What About the Adam-God Theory?” by Van Hale at http://www.lightplanet.com/response/adam-god.htm

[7] Including, most notably, Orson Pratt.  Brigham allowed Orson his judgment on the matter and gave him the freedom to express his opinions publicly without sanction or punishment.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Hm. I think your characterization of Brigham and the Twelve’s position on Adam-God are somewhat softened. Brigham, especially in the School of the Prophets, was quite frank about the doctrine and its validity, but that the Saints were mostly unready to receive it. Also, if I am not mistaken, Orson Pratt was the only dissenter (in the Twelve) during Brigham’s lifetime (obviously, after he died is something else entirely).

    It has been a while, but I remember that the unedited Women of Mormondom had a lot of Eliza’s Adam-Godalliciousness.

    And it is true that most popular conceptions of Mother and Heaven were extricated from Brigham’s hyper-anthropomorphic Adam-God. True enough that Orson Pratt still held similar Mother in Heaven conceptions, which is one of the most important, I think, evidences for a pre-Brigham doctrine. Still, there are exactly zero sources contemporary to Joseph Smith for Mother in Heaven (close, but not quite contemporary).

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 5, 2008 @ 11:41 am

  2. The difficulty I find with the Eliza R. Snow passages from Women of Mormondom is that you can’t always tell whether the speaker is Eliza or Tullidge. The title of my forthcoming book is taken from what appears to be an Eliza R. Snow statement, but due to the punctuation, it could be Tullidge’s statement. (Either way, it’s an incredible quote!)

    Comment by Nick Literski — February 5, 2008 @ 12:29 pm

  3. Yeah, Women of Mormondom is great fun.
    So Phelps writing on Christmas Day 1844 in full explication is just too late for Stapley, eh? We may need to take this one up in BJMS as well. I gotta go look through my sources again, to meet the challenge.

    Comment by smb — February 5, 2008 @ 1:54 pm

  4. Oh, and I respect Blake and his work, but his assertions about the late provenance of Mother in Heaven seem to me historically inaccurate and primarily subserve his theological project. That is an entirely reasonable motivation to reject the doctrine, but I would be explicit that it is an exigency of systematizing theology that requires him to reject Mother in Heaven rather than the historical record.

    Comment by smb — February 5, 2008 @ 1:57 pm

  5. I thought it was even earlier, smb – November I thought. But yeah, there aren’t any while Joseph was alive. I do however think that there is a compelling case for Joseph believing it, but it is all circumstantial and logical inferences. I think it would be an important aspect of the anthropology argument. That said, I think we are probably closer than would be feasible in a dueling papers situation, but I am still game.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 5, 2008 @ 2:21 pm

  6. I believe that was a glove a-pinking my cheeks, sir. (Of course I have to finish those 2 papers and the book manuscript first, but I could see us sparring in about 6 mos. so count on it. who will be our seconds?)
    As for the date, I don’t have access to my files at work, but I think it’s his response to William, which was written Christmas day.

    Comment by smb — February 5, 2008 @ 2:33 pm

  7. Yep. You are right. I was thinking of Phelps’s hymn for Dedication of the Seventies Hall which was in late December.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 5, 2008 @ 2:48 pm

  8. PS, just found a source that Sidney Rigdon quoted from that cites a Protestant group that Rigdon admired as teaching that the good God (many gnostics had a good and bad deity) had two wives, “Collant and Collibant.”

    Comment by smb — February 5, 2008 @ 3:40 pm

  9. In the same vein as smb and Stapley, I think it is pretty clear that the doctrine of Mother in Heaven predates Adam-God doctrine. There are multiple people from Joseph’s inner circle who said that they learned the doctrine of MiH from Joseph. It seems to me that Eliza integrated everything together into a single view when she later accepted Adam-God when Brigham started advancing it in the 1850s, but all the ideas didn’t originate together.

    I think today’s church is much happier with MiH than with A-G because the MiH doctrine gives women an equal place in heaven with men. It fits very nicely with our ideas of deification and eternal marriage, whereas, Adam-God mostly turns various standard theology on its head. So, we have much more incentive to keep MiH than A-G.

    Comment by Jacob J — February 5, 2008 @ 6:06 pm

  10. My opinion is that MiH will receive more of a challenge from modern-day feminists in the Church than ever before. So far Mormon women have been satisfied with the idea that “the MiH doctrine gives women an equal place in heaven with men,” but today’s feminist is disturbed by the ringing silence coming from the Heavens on her role and lack of interaction with her children. We will see.

    Jacob J–I’m not sure that it is “clear” that MiH predates Adam-God.

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — February 6, 2008 @ 12:38 am

  11. 10, MiH clearly predates Adam-God. MiH is well documented at the very latest by December 1844, while Adam-God comes later. (Bearing in mind that the central role of Adam as the “Ancient of Days” or “Michael” is older, and the hierarchical family with Adam the father of humanity is also older.

    I agree that what to do with the Divine Feminine is a complicated issue for modern LDS. Catherine Albanese has analyzed this from a dyadic perspective as a non-Mormon observer of Eliza Snow and crew. A Sunstone paper 20yrs ago maybe and her recent Republic of Mind and Spirit.

    Comment by smb — February 6, 2008 @ 1:47 am

  12. Some questions for the esteemed panel:
    What was the consensus of religious thinkers in Joseph’s milieu on the identity of the Ancient of Days?
    By identifying Adam with the Ancient of Days, was he breaking with Christian thought, or associating Adam with Deity?
    Did MiH originate with Eliza, and if so, was the Divine Feminine inextricably linked in her writings with Adam-God?
    Did MiH originate earlier than Eliza (Joseph?), if so in what context did he teach the concept?

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — February 6, 2008 @ 6:38 am

  13. BiV. I’ll take a swipe at your questions.

    – The interpretation of the Ancient of Days as Adam/Michael is well attested in Joseph’s sermonizing and Church periodicals as early as 1835.

    – This interpretation was not an association of Adam with God the Father.

    – Eliza was not the first to publicly mention Mother in Heaven. That would be Phelps. Woodruff’s odd categorization of Eliza’s hymn as a revelation, could mean that he simply believed the words were inspired, or that he forgot about Phelps, or that he didn’t remember Joseph teaching it, or something else entirely.

    – MiH did not originate with Adam-God, but most of the twentieth-century perspectives on MiH are the remnants of Adam-God.

    – We have no extant contemporary teachings of Joseph Smith on the matter (e.g., the famous Zina quote was actually written by Susa Young Gates in the early twentieth-century). Any argument that Joseph believed in Mother in Heaven is therefor based on circumstantial and logical inference.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 6, 2008 @ 11:34 am

  14. J.,

    It is true we don’t have a contemporary teaching of Joseph Smith on the matter; I can appreciate your care in making this clear. It is important to note that the earliest mentions of MiH come within the first year following the death of Joseph, so they are very early and from multiple people in the inner circle. We also have the testimony of a couple of those people who mentioned it early on that they learned it from Joseph Smith. I don’t think these evidences are accurately described as “circumstantial inference.” It is more like “testimony given after the death of Joseph from first hand witnesses.”


    was the Divine Feminine inextricably linked in her writings with Adam-God?

    You will find no mention of Adam-God in “O My Father,” so it is certainly extricable.

    today?s feminist is disturbed by the ringing silence coming from the Heavens on her role and lack of interaction with her children.

    That is true, but it doesn’t seem to get any better if we throw the idea of MiH out wholesale. So, even if it is not enough to satisfy modern feminism I think it is better than having nothing to say at all. Keep in mind that there are a lot of people disturbed by the ringing silence coming from either gender in the Heavens, so reasons to be disturbed abound.

    Comment by Jacob J — February 6, 2008 @ 12:58 pm

  15. It is more like ?testimony given after the death of Joseph from first hand witnesses.?

    I should say, we get the most important of these witnesses second hand, so it is not quite as good as I make it sound above.

    Comment by Jacob J — February 6, 2008 @ 2:47 pm

  16. BiV, Stapley and I are going to have to take our argument to BJMS (if the editors agree).

    1. AoD was God according to most Protestants. Various mystical thinkers speculated about who he might be; he is central to Daniel’s Apocalypse, the main OT competitor with Revelation for millenarian imagination. Smith was well outside the mainstream on this point, but not alone.

    2. He was not thereby transitively making Adam God. He WAS establishing Adam as the first human father and the grand patriarch of the whole human family. In his eschatology Adam was the father of humanity and would preside at the council of humanity ready to meet Jesus at the parousia. In this model, Adam was like a “father” and God was thus the “grandfather” even though God was the “Father.” This is importantly different from later Adam-God but is recognizable as the source of the later Youngian speculations.

    3. MiH did not originate with Eliza RS Smith. Stapley is afraid of the truth. Once I get time to attack the question in a more rigorous way, will demonstrate that Stapley is unduly timid about the Smithian provenance of MiH. Phelps, Smith’s ghostwriter and primary assistant on the Egyptian work (which is concerned with immortalized queens, a ready antecedent for MiH), quite clearly invoked MiH five months after Smith died, in a venue reviewed by all of Smith’s closest advisors and family. This is a truly first-hand witness from someone intimately involved in Smith’s mystical eschatology/divine anthropology.
    3a. Eliza did associate MiH with Adam-God, but it was really part of the much bigger package of the divine anthropology and the familialization of God. MiH can easily stand without AG for ERSS, though she would have protested their separation.

    4. I feel that the best evidence strongly supports (distinct from “unequivocally proves”) the origination of MiH with Joseph Smith. The best source on this should be a chapter in my death book, which I hope to have out to academic publishers by Summer 2008. In one sentence, Joseph Smith familialized Deity.

    Comment by smb — February 6, 2008 @ 3:57 pm

  17. will demonstrate that Stapley is unduly timid about the Smithian provenance of MiH

    Hee hee.

    I agree that Joseph believed it. I will however, call a spade a spade.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 6, 2008 @ 5:02 pm

  18. Now you’re seeming equivocal and timid. Better strap on your armor, you spade-wielder.
    Hey does any one have the references for Ostler’s rejection of MiH? I need some printed sources for bibliography.
    You inspired me to go to work on the chapter today.

    Comment by smb — February 6, 2008 @ 5:42 pm

  19. This will prove that I am hopelessly out of the loop, but pray tell, what or where is BJMS and will the promised clash be open to interested observers?

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — February 7, 2008 @ 12:59 am

  20. BiV,
    I think they are referring to the new BRITISH JOURNAL OF MORMON STUDIES. There is a recent post on BCC about it.

    Comment by SC Taysom — February 7, 2008 @ 8:56 am


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