The Race of the Gods

Traditionally artistic depictions convey deity in the ethnicity of the artist and his/her surrounding culture. Consequently, I’m not going to begrudge early Latter-day Saint art’s depiction of a European Heavenly Father any more than I would a Japanese depiction of Amaterasu looking Japanese. However, as a faith becomes more cosmopolitan it becomes all the more important for all its members to be able to see themselves in depictions of deity. 

As far as God’s actual “race,” race is a social construct in the here and now, so it’s a bit of misnomer to try to define God in terms of race and ethnicity. Still, as Latter-day Saints we have very much reified God’s biology. Half of the nucleotides in Jesus literally  came from God the Father because he has nucleotides and body parts himself, so as believers in a corporal God it raises the question of what ethnicity Heavenly Father would look like. However, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery’s description of the risen Savior sounds fairly a-racial, where his glory overrides any characteristics such as the type of hair or skin tone.  

His eyes were as a flame of fire; the hair of his head was white like the pure snow; his countenance shone above the brightness of the sun.

However, we still artistically depict God in our image, and I think that’s okay. In my last post I created an image of Heavenly Parents together, and one of the comments pointed out that they were quite European looking, so I went ahead and created a series of Heavenly Parents portraits from different race/ethnicities. I kept the Midjourney prompt the same, but added “Indian,” “Native American,” “Black,” “Asian,” and “Pacific Islander” right before “man” and “woman.” 

“wise, glowing, celestial, middle aged woman with white hair in a white robe with a wise, glowing, celestial, middle aged man in a white robe, photorealistic –v 5” 

Sometimes I included the detail of a white beard, sometimes not depending on the ethnicity. In terms of artistic conventions it’s a little different than we’re used to, but I think it gets the job done of depicting Heavenly Parents across a wider range of different racial/ethnic appearances.  

Indian Heavenly Parents

Native American Heavenly Parents

Black Heavenly Parents

Asian Heavenly Parents

Pacific Islander Heavenly Parents


17 comments for “The Race of the Gods

  1. I might have to look into AI art, just because I’ve got a specific idea in my head for a painting of Jesus that I still haven’t found. Namely an upper body or head and shoulders representation where he 1) has short, curly hair 2) looks Middle Eastern and 3) isn’t good-looking.

    There are some I’ve found that are 2 out of the 3 criteria (Jesus and the Accused by Arawn Billings is lovely and pretty close) but nothing yet.

  2. These are beautiful and thought-provoking. I agree with Kirkstall.

    When I imagine our Heavenly Parents being of a different race than me, it puts distance between me and them in my mind. That shouldn’t be true and is entirely my fault, but there it is. I presume “traditional” Church art does the same for non-White people, though maybe they’ve reckoned with it more successfully than I have so far.

    And no, this is not unique to us. I once visited a beautiful display of Buddhist statuary in a museum in Beijing. It was organized chronologically and, as the descriptions pointed out, they became more and more Chinese in appearance over time. (I can’t help but wonder if the Chinese government approved it because of the message “Religions practiced in China must become Chinese religions.”)

  3. That’s one of the reasons why I miss the live endowment at the Salt Lake and Manti Temples. Anybody of any race could play the different roles. During one session I attended, there was a Nigerian Peter, Hispanic James, and a Pacific Islander John.

  4. Maybe I am weird, but my all time favorite painting of Heavenly Mother is Native American. In that painting she is cradling a small earth in her hands. I just identify my Caucasian self more with that painting than any other one I have ever seen. And of the above AI generated ones, I like the Asian Heavenly Father best. I want *him* for my Heavenly Father. He looks wise. If I had to pick one picture that most “represents” what Heavenly Father would look like, that one is it. The above Heavenly Mothers, there isn’t one I relate to better than others. My favorite painting of Jesus is Caucasian, but one that would never show up in Mormon buildings because he is engaging in loud laughter. Next favorite Jesus painting, he has short curly hair, but blame that on my curly haired son.

    I wonder if I identify more with the emotion on their faces than their resemblance to myself.

    Anyone else out there like me?

  5. Oh, I would love to be able to get high res. versions of these to print and put in our primary room. Any idea if that’s a possibility?

  6. @Margot: I tried that out, and I just got a sad looking Jesus with an afro, but if you get into it it shouldn’t be hard to refine the prompts to get exactly what you want.

    @RLD: It puts a distance with me too, and like you I recognize that’s my problem and it forces us to think about all the little things we take for granted as people of European descent.

    @Tar Heel: I wondered if that’s one reason why they’re moving away from an image-based endowment and more towards an audio-based one. The race issue intersects with the Church’s openness towards different interpretations of Adam/Eve, so whatever race they’re depicted as it implicitly raises all sorts of questions about literalness and human descent as well as the social issue of race.

    @Anna: For me personally I envision deity and the Savior as having more of the “subtle wisdom” or subtle happiness look of the above images than a super gregarious feel, but maybe I’m off.

    @Sarah: I emailed the images to the email address attached to your comment.Also, with the prompt I published in the OP you should be able to get very similar images and modify them even more to your liking.

  7. Stephen, and maybe I am just bored with the somber look almost all portrayals of God have. Can’t God smile? Most of the depictions I relate to are smiling more that the supper serious and almost disapproving faces of so many portrayals. Maybe I am looking for a God who will love me and approve of my best efforts, instead of looking like the principal when I got sent to the office for running away from kindergarten. In my defense, it was because the teacher was blatantly unfair in her punishment of my best friend and didn’t punish me for the same transgression. You maybe need wisdom more than kindness, while I need kindness even more than wisdom.

    Anyway, it is interesting that we relate to different things in identifying with an image that represents God. It kind of proves your point that different people need different things in an image of God, whether it is racial or emotional.

  8. I feel there is a doctrinal gap on the subject of Heavenly Parents. The Man’s model of becoming like the heavenly father is clear, but I feel that a lot is missing about what the woman aspires to be in eternity. These pictures remind me of that. the eternal family and beings exalted as family.

  9. This is so fascinating, because I (again – apparently I’m just contrary on this topic) had the opposite experience. The 2 male Gods that resonated the most for me were the Indian and Pacific Islsnder. The female God was the African.

    I think the reason why is because I don’t see Gods as being like me. They are fundamentally different and that difference is valuable and some how part of my personal faith. A Euro depiction makes me to aware of turning God into a self image or something.

    All of this is so fun. Thank you for posting!

  10. Obviously these renditions and comments are all very interesting and thought provoking. But, the reality “probably” is that there is no race in heaven. I could totally be wrong, but I don’t think so. Why would there be? All of mankind were born spirit children of God the Father, and a Heavenly Mother. So, we are all of the same lineage. The closes we can get to a description is from Joseph Smith when he first saw the Father. “When the light rested upon me, I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory Defy All Description”. So, I get from that statement that we mortals in our present state just aren’t capable of knowing. One more comment. I have in my possession a painting of Jesus by an women artist who in 1974 had suffered a cardiac arrest. She said she had died, met Jesus, was told to go back, and was brought back to life by a Doctor pounding on her chest. Later in life and after many paintings of various sorts, she was impressed to paint a picture of the Jesus she had seen. In 21/2 hours she paiinted an extraordinary picture of Jesus with blue eyes. I love the painting and it brings me peace. No intention to cause any negativety, just some other things to think upon.

  11. Regarding the race of the God’s, Elder Petersen taught BYU students:

    Then came the time for the creation of man; the time for the crowning act of creation. Why was it the crowning act? Why was it so important?—God was placing His own race upon the earth; His own children. God knew that He was to perpetuate His own race; that we were His offspring; that we were to come to the earth and that we were to have experience in mortality. So He placed us here and the record says that man was made in the exact image and likeness of God. Why?—because we are of the race of God. We are His children. Is it at all unusual that a child should resemble its parent? He was our Father; we, His children. The first of our race to enter mortality was placed on the earth. They [Adam and Eve] were in the exact image and likeness of God—just as the cows that were placed upon the earth and reproduced after their kind had more cows that were in the exact likeness and image of the parent cows. Just as was the case with the horse, and with the sheep, and with the trees and the birds and the bees and the flowers. Each one bringing forth after its own kind. Then God brought His own race upon the earth and commanded that they should reproduce after their own kind; in their own likeness and image. And they in turn were in the likeness and image of God. Therefore, as they reproduced, they reproduced the race of God; each one being in the exact likeness and image of God. Wasn’t it a marvelous creation? He, our Father; we, His children; we, of the race of God. After He had made man, male and female, in His own likeness and image, He surveyed His work. This time He did not say it was only “good.” This time He said “It is very good.” It was a great act. Having made man and woman after His own likeness, He introduced something that had not been introduced in creation before. Not with the animals, not with the birds nor the bees nor the fish nor the vegetation. Something different was now being introduced—because there was a different species—here was the race of God. The animals and the birds and the bees were His creations, yes. They had life in themselves; He gave them the right and the power of reproduction after their own kind. But now with man, who was of the race of God, something else had to be introduced before He could give them the commandment. That something else was marriage. So God brought the woman whom He had made to the man whom He had made. They twain became one flesh; she, his helpmeet. Having given her, in the bonds of holy matrimony, to the man, the Father in heaven stood before those two and gave them a commandment: to bring forth after their own kind. To multiply and fill up the earth with more of the race of God. . . . It [sex] is holy. It is part of the function of Almighty God.”
    Mark E. Petersen, “Chastity,” (also titled, “The Sacredness of Procreation,” BYU Speeches, February 3, 1953; (4 mins to 15 mins):

  12. Hermoso trabajo.
    Lo podrías enviar a mi correo.
    Gracias, David de Chile

  13. Dennis, it seems to me that Elder Peterson used the word race as interchangeable with species (i.e., God is the same species as us). I don’t see any clear statement of race there in the sense that this post discusses. Am I missing something?

  14. No you are not missing anything. The point of the quotation from Elder Petersen is that we are all ultimately the children of God (of His race) thru Adam and Eve, and this is the most important race and it continues with us. Nothing else meant.

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