Mormon Mary

Elder James E. Talmage has written: "That Child born of Mary was begotten of Elohim, the Eternal Father, not in violation of natural law but in accordance with a higher manifestation thereof; and the offspring from that association of supreme sanctity, celestial Sireship, and pure though mortal maternity, was of right to be called the 'Son of the Highest'" (Talmage, 81). Doctrines and Covenants Encyclopedia, Hoyt W. Brewster, 1996.

Something about Mary

By Peggy Fletcher Stack
The Salt Lake Tribune
Salt Lake Tribune


Mormons will drag Mary out of the shadows of their faith again this season and plop her into the annual Nativity scene. They'll gush about her beauty in the various crèches they've been collecting from Mexico, Poland and Nigeria. They'll read about her on Christmas Eve as the family gathers around the fire before bed.
    During December, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints celebrate the "fairest of all virgins" who they believe was chosen before this life to be the Messiah's mother. They herald her acceptance of that role and willingness to sacrifice herself and her reputation for the good of the world. To these believers, Mary is both noble and human, glorified but real. In some essential ways, she is just like them.
    For most of the year, though, Mary is largely tucked away - respected for her submissiveness, admired for her faithfulness, but largely invisible. She does not adorn their chapel walls, nor stare down from stained-glass windows. She is not part of their weekly worship or routinely mentioned in prayers.
    And she barely merits a mention in LDS books.
    True to the Faith, a recent compendium of Mormon teachings, moves from "marriage" to "Melchizedek Priesthood" without a line about Mary. Ditto for Preach My Gospel, the handbook of doctrine used by LDS missionaries worldwide, even in the section on Jesus' earthly ministry. She's nowhere to be found in Mormonism for Dummies, either.
    "There is next to nothing official about Mary from the modern LDS perspective, so we wanted to err on the side of caution rather than offering our own speculations that may not have been doctrinal," says Jana Riess, Dummies co-author with Christopher Bigelow. "When it does offer teaching about Mary, the church tends to emphasize her role in the fulfillment of prophecy, and particularly her being of the Davidic line."
    It could be that LDS leaders are uncomfortable with powerful female figures, as its ecclesiastical authority is limited to men. Or it could be an attempt to distance the church from more traditional brands of Christianity, especially Catholicism.
    After all, the LDS Church was founded in 19th-century America just as Roman Catholicism was codifying its enlarged views of Mary. In 1854, Pope Pius IX declared as dogma the "immaculate conception," the notion that Mary was born free of original sin that plagues all humanity.
    Mormons reject that idea as well as others. To them, she is not a mediator with Jesus. And she was not a perpetual virgin, but the mother of a growing brood.
    They do, however, believe she was a virgin when she conceived Jesus in her womb. The Book of Mormon, which Latter-day Saints believe was written some 600 years before Jesus' birth, predicts the Messiah will be born in Jerusalem of a "precious and chosen vessel." She would be "the most beautiful and fair above all other virgins," the LDS scripture says.
    But Mormons also believe that God has a body and that Jesus was his literal son. Early LDS leaders including Brigham Young speculated that Jesus was created in much the same way as every other child - in the marriage bed. But only one partner was human.
    "When Mary was in [God's] presence and he overshadowed her, he performed a sacred and holy function, with divine tenderness, love and respect," writes LDS author Bruce E. Dana, in Mary, Mother of Jesus. "He did not degrade or debase himself or Mary."
    Mary was probably "the greatest female spirit born on this Earth," Dana says. "She had to be equal in spiritual stature to her son to be worthy to be his mother. Her unique role was to provide for him and care for him. But how do you care and provide needs for a god?"
    Martha Moench, a former Sunday school teacher in her Salt Lake City LDS congregation, is amazed by Mary's emotional and spiritual strength.
    "The one thing I think is really important to remember is her age. We know she was no more than 16 and maybe as young as 13," says Moench. "In the age we live in, we probably would not give a lot of credibility to the thoughts and actions of a teenage girl in that situation. It makes [Mary's] story more believable for me."
    What informed everything about Mary was her willingness to accept a seemingly irrational assignment and buck the social order in the process.
    "She was a believer and God knew that," Moench says. "Angels bowed down to her."
    This courageous mother should be a role model for today's Mormon women, says Lisa Smith, who teaches a class on women in the scriptures at the LDS Institute of Religion adjacent to the University of Utah campus.
    "She's pure and obedient. She knows her life is going to be difficult yet she willingly takes it on," Smith says. And like Deborah and Elizabeth, Mary foretells the future, "under the influence of the [Holy] Spirit."
    Mary is "like us," she says, "a common woman having a religious experience."