Mother in Israelby Patricia Terry Holland
Every worthy woman who lives a virtuous life and who promotes righteousness in her family and in the Church and her family is entitled both to the designation "mother in Israel" and to the promises given to Sarah and other biblical mothers in Israel (see Abraham; Abrahamic Covenant; Israel; Sarah). These promises are open to all faithful women who teach others to love the Lord and keep his commandments. The title designates intelligent and faithful support of the Church and its leaders, and historically it has been applied most frequently to leaders among women. It is often found in patriarchal blessings and is a title and a promise with more than earthly significance. Motherhood is a God-given role vital to the exaltation of a woman and her family.
"Mother in Israel" first appears in the song of Deborah that describes the travail of the people under Jabin, the king of Canaan, until Deborah, a mother in Israel, arose to lead them out of bondage (Judg. 5:2-31; cf. 2 Sam. 20:19).
In Old Testament times, a woman's strength and authority were found in her mothering of faithful children, especially sons. Besides Eve, other outstanding examples of mothers who influenced Old Testament history include Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, Rachel, Hannah, and Naomi. Sarah, of course, figures indispensably in the blessing given to Abraham, and the Lord promised her explicitly that she would be "a mother of nations" (Gen. 17:16). That such a blessing was culturally significant is apparent in the admonition given to Rebekah by her family as she left to marry Isaac: "Be thou the mother of thousands of millions" (Gen. 24:60). Barrenness in biblical culture was often seen as a reproach to a woman and to her family, a matter of sorrow for a woman, and often a matter for sincere prayer to God, but not rejection (e.g., 1 Sam 1:4-8).
In the Christian era, after the death of the apostles, a tradition developed that gave precedent honor to women who offered themselves celibate to religious service. However, as the Protestant reformation emerged, motherhood again became a crowning glory and "the home, not the convent, became the center of woman's highest religious vocation" (Madsen, p. 184).
The expression "mother in Israel" can be found in writings of post-Reformation England and more prominently in Puritan New England. Among Latter-day Saints, who consciously identify with biblical themes and ancient Israel, the appellation appeared early, but was applied infrequently and then only to such outstanding women as Lucy Mack Smith and Eliza R. Snow. At the October 1845 general conference of the Church, a year following the deaths of her sons Joseph, Hyrum, and Samuel, Lucy Mack Smith "wished to know of the congregation, whether they considered her a mother in Israel." President Brigham Young put her question to those assembled, who answered with a resounding, "Yes" (CHC, 2:538-39).
In 1916 the Relief Society Magazine published a series of articles entitled "Mothers in Israel." One prominent woman honored was Eliza R. Snow. Though childless, she was called a "mother of mothers in Israel" and praised for her leadership among women, for her intelligence, and for her faithful support of the Church and its leaders (Gates, pp. 183-90).
As in New England, the phrase "mother in Israel" appeared in early Utah history in the obituaries of many faithful women who succored the Church and their families. Sometimes they were older women with large families and sometimes notable women in other circumstances. For example, Mary Fielding Smith had only two children of her own, both young enough when she died that no claim could be made of their future significance, yet at her death, evidently in recognition of her character and commitment, she was called a mother in Israel. A son and a grandson later became Presidents of the Church.
Currently the term is most often found in patriarchal blessings when a woman is promised in substance that she will stand "as a mother in Israel." President Joseph Fielding Smith said, "To be a mother in Israel in the full gospel sense is the highest reward that can come into the life of a woman" (p. 883). It is a promise open to all faithful sisters who love and serve the Lord and keep his commandments, including those who do not have the opportunity to bear children in this life.
The Book of Mormon recounts the history of 2,000 righteous stripling warriors who were able to accomplish great things and receive great blessings because they believed in what they had "been taught by their mothers" (Alma 56:47-48; 57:21). Modern mothers in Israel also have a responsibility to teach their childrenand others whom they are in a position to influenceto love the Lord and keep his commandments. The prophets of this dispensation have consistently stressed the importance of committed motherhood both by those who bear and those who care and have counseled that this is a divinely given role important to the salvation and exaltation of God's children.
Benson, Ezra Taft. To the Mothers in Zion. Salt Lake City, 1987.
Gates, Susa Young. "Mothers in Israel." Relief Society Magazine 3 (Jan. 1916):538-39.
Gates, Susa Young. "The Mothers of Mothers in Israel." Relief Society Magazine 3 (Apr. 1916):183-90.
Madsen, Carol Cornwall. "Mothers in Israel: Sarah's Legacy." In Women of Wisdom and Knowledge, ed. M. Cornwall and S. Howe, pp. 179-201. Salt Lake City, 1990.
Reynolds, Sydney Smith. "Wife and Mother: A Valid Career Option for the College-Educated Woman." Ensign 9 (Oct. 1979):67-70.
Smith, Joseph Fielding. "Mothers in Israel." Relief Society Magazine 57 (Dec. 1970):883-86