The first time I ever heard someone talking about Joseph Smith the Mormon Prophet, as a High School Freshman, I mistook their comments for overzealousness for John Smith, the English colonist, and noted that I thought she’d seen Disney’s Pocahontas one too many times.
The funny part is, as ignorant as I was about Joseph Smith the Prophet, I was only a little less ignorant about the earlier Smith. My education at that point had come solely from Disney’s film. From that, I know who John Smith basically was, that he played a role in early American Settlement, and that he had beneficial contact with the Natives.
I’m sure my Junior Year American History 101 History course later mentioned something about Smith, Jamestown, and the Virginia company. But nothing that was said stuck with me more than the Disney film, and I don’t even have a vague memory of its coverage in the class.
This is pretty typical of much of my education concerning history – American in particular, and World in general. I have severe gaps in my own historical narrative. In the past years, I only learned the significance and context of some MAJOR world events through finally looking them up on Wikipedia. I can’t even tell you what some of those were, due to the sheer shame and embarrassment that would ensue from having an almost 30 year old just now come to a recognition of some major epoch-changing events that occurred in his own lifetime.
While I’d been fascinated with exploring the development and details of religious history and tradition, I hadn’t applied that to secular and governmental history.
Fueled in many ways by the watching of the extraordinary (and extraordinarily eye-opening for me) John Adams miniseries, in the last few years, I have had a powerful desire to fill in many of those gaps. I’m doing a lot of that by reading history and biography.
I recently finished reading a book called Savage Kingdom: The True Story of Jamestown, 1607, and the Settlement of America. I also finished a second read of Richard Bushman’s Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling.
Both made me think about approaches to finding meaning in the past, and the relationship between history, myth, and truth – and our responsibility when it comes to educating others.
As I pondered this, I thought of three particular approaches to history, and gave them the Mormonized titles of Telestial, Terrestrial, and Celestial.
What follows are ways I might define them:
Telestial History is history as it happens. It is the raw data, interpreted in light of the understandings of the moment and culture in which it occurs. Telestial History is objectively true. I might even call it a “Physical” History. This is the history that critical and documentary historians attempt to uncover and express. Savage Kingdom approaches an example of a Telestial History.
Terrestrial History is the stage of Sacralizing, or Mythologizing the Telestial History. It is a didactic history, where straightforward teachings of current relevant topics/doctrines deemed important by the presenters are emphasized in the retelling of the story for practical purposes, and more nuanced or difficult areas are removed from the picture to lessen confusion, and to emphasize the Core Essentials as determined by the presenter. The principles understood as True are taught using the symbols of history whether or not it has any relation to the initial meaning and cultural context.. Details of actual history are sacrificed for the moral and/or spiritual development of those being taught. Terrestrial History is subjectively true, and assists in important ways in one’s personal development. It is shorthand. I might even call it a “Spiritual History”. Disney’s Pocahontas might be an example of a Terrestrial History. It is great for consumption by Children, and does contribute to their knowledge base.
Celestial History is probably a more complicated and nuanced. where the fact of Telestial History and the desires of teaching Truth from the presentation of Terrestrial history are perfected and uniting. I might even call it a “Resurrected History” – it is where Spiritual and sacred meaning is granted to and elevates the objective history without sacrificing the objective historical details. All aspects of the story are Sacralized, and are Didactic, as all contribute to a greater understanding of how the world actually works. All has been consecrated, without reservation. Difficulties and areas of grey are not ignored, but are allowed to be used to enhance understanding. I don’t think it is possible to present a static published and nuanced Celestial History. It is something that needs to be experienced, personalized, participated in, and be , of all things, living.
Progression Through The Kingdoms
For most, unless they have lived through an event, the first encounter with aspects of history is the ‘’Terrestrial’ version. It is embraced, learned from, memorized, and repeated. It becomes liturgical, and is often used as interpretive cornerstones.
In many cases, individuals go their whole life without having any desire to learn of any other approaches. It really is impossible to go directly from a Terrestrial History to a Celestial History. One needs to dive deep (Fall?) into the Telestial, break down and make sense of previous misconceptions and views of Truth. This can be disorienting, even devastating.
Some prefer to stay there and get jaded, become offended at the Terrestrial History, and, noting that they’ve been deceived, wage all out war on all purveyors of such “histories”.
Others find that the Terrestrial history was an important starting point that gave them anchors, and filled in some general blanks when they were needed at a proper stage in their development. That without the Terrestrial, they never would have thought to yearn for more.
Some are content to stay put at this point, content with the Telestial. A little disillusioned, but not bitter.
Others will continue their original quest, readjusting their paradigm, and pressing forward through a far more difficult journey.
Questions for the Fallen
My question comes to the fallen: What is our role in presenting history? Are we to be unsolicited dispensers of the Forbidden Fruit, letting our brothers know that such will “make them wise”? Or should we sit and wait for Authorized Messengers to be the ones to provide that information?
And if so, what is the alternative? To be silent? To teach the Terrestrial History knowing its beneficial preparatory purpose, even while others use it for purposes we may view as destructive and in opposition to or as obstacles in achieving the ultimate end Goal?
In many cases, our brothers and sisters have been warned by their leaders – our loved and respected leaders - telling them that by partaking of the Telestial History, they will “surely die”.
But doesn’t one have to die before they are Resurrected? Isn’t that part of the plan?
If the manual says that John Smith returned to England as a result of being nobly injured defending the Indians, while we know that in reality he just blew off his junk in a gunpowder accident, do we raise our hands, or remain silent?
What if we’re assigned to teach a class from that manual?
How do we know if we’re the ones offering the Forbidden Fruit, or if we’re the True Messengers they’ve been waiting for?