“Bring beach gear because we’re going on a trip.”
It had to be the best announcement for a mutual activity I’d heard up to that point in my life. Living in Fresno, CA the beach was always close enough to be a nice day trip, but far enough that we rarely went. However, we didn’t have any permission slips to complete which seemed odd since we’d be traveling for hours both ways. This made me and the rest of the teens suspicious.
So we came to the church with our swimsuits and towels, assuming that we were going to have a beach party at some member’s home with a big swimming pool. We were told that we were meeting in the overflow area between the chapel and the gym. This was really bizarre. Additionally weird was that the chairs were facing the side of the overflow area instead the usual orientation facing the chapel. The leaders are all being ‘hush-hush’ about where we were going, but finally after everyone showed up the leaders were ready to talk.
“Welcome to flight 409. We’ll be your stewardesses for the flight.”
“What the… ?!” some of the youth said aloud. Whose idea was this? Were our leaders so clueless as to think that a bunch of teens would enjoy traveling to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, especially after being told they were getting a beach party?
Thankfully after just a couple minutes of our leaders pretending to take food orders from us someone cut the lights and some sounds of crashing and screaming came from a small, cheap boom box. Our leaders then made an announcement that the plane had crashed and everyone had died. We all had to get up from our seats, and follow the leaders to some other room.
So we walk across the hallway into a classroom. In it we find a couple of the “cooler” young single adults dressed in the current fashion, playing some awesome brand new N64 games, and listening to Jimi Hendrix. As a Mormon teen, I’m not sure that it would have been possible to make that room any more awesome and inviting. “This does seem like heaven” was what I thought (maybe I said it aloud, I’m not sure). Turns out that one leader is explaining to us that this is the Telestial Kingdom and then proceeds to read a few verses about it from section 76 of the D&C.
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Telestial? Well, I suppose Joseph Smith did say that if we could “get one little glimpse into the telestial glory even, the glory is so great that we would be tempted to commit suicide to get there.”  I should perhaps say here that I love Hendrix, and really most of the rock that came out in the late 60s and early 70s. At home, my taste in music was not entirely tolerated. So the thought of awesome music continuing in the next life was great.
Obviously at this point the bar has been set high. How would the Terrestrial Kingdom be? Well, we were guided into the neighboring room and I grudgingly left Hendrix behind.
In this room we also have some young single adults dressed as I recall like preps. Think polo shirt with khakis (maybe the sweater draped over the shoulders, but I might be imposing that on my memory). I think they were reading some books and there was some classical music playing. Now you need to understand that really the clothing repelled me more than anything else. I played piano for years and loved classical music. I also loved reading. But I was a teenager. It’s not hard to guess which room I preferred. Honestly, how did the leaders not realize that all teens would think this room sucked compared to the previous one?
At this point I’m thinking “Is it wrong that I like Telestial way more? Am I supposed to view Hendrix, video games, and popular clothes as evil?” Frankly given how my music was treated at home, I was being pushed to think that it was evil.
After hearing more verses from section 76, we move across the hallway and onto the stage. In it we see a few of our leaders all dressed in total white. I’ve been trying to recall if there were hymns playing, or if it was just silent. In either case we were required to be silent (even attempts to whisper to the person next to you earned you a disapproving shhhh). Now for a temple-going Mormon, I can understand how seeing people all dressed in white can be an inspiring thought. It would bring to mind memories of Temple rituals and sacred connections with loved ones. However, having gone to the Temple maybe twice to do baptisms for the dead, being dressed in all white didn’t bring to mind the same type of connotations. Really my primary reaction/emotion was that they looked really weird. Really weird. I was even less comfortable here than in the Terrestrial kingdom. I also still had Hendrix’s version of “All along the watchtower” playing in my head.
Ultimately, this activity furthered my teenage contemplation of our Mormon Soteriology. I usually try to explore the boundaries to get a feel for something. I was taught my seminary teacher that Telestial & Terrestrial were like hell because we would know that we could have done better. However, by that metric, won’t every living person except for Jesus be in some level of hell?
I heard several times in conference (surprisingly this quote was used a lot in the 90s and 00s, but now seems to be less used) that if parents were faithful to their covenants, that their wayward children would eventually return to them. If parents are faithful to their covenants, then by definition they’re in the Celestial Kingdom. Mormons consider Adam and Eve to have entered into those covenants and to have been faithful to them. What does this mean for Cain (aka Perdition)? This began my shift to being a Mormon Universalist. As a teenager is wont to do, I grossly oversimplified these two examples. My takeaway was: “Well, either we’re all gonna be in hell, or we’ll all eventually be in the Celestial Kingdom.”
We clearly had no real idea of what the Kingdoms were like (by which I mean what we will be doing, what would a day or eon be like there?), so how do we know if it is punishment or reward? What if my ward activity was more or less accurate? What if by conforming to all specified requirements you became blank/bland/silent and thus the Celestial was for you? What if the Telestial really was awesome? Do we really lose our families outside of the Celestial Kingdom if the “same sociality exists among us there?” If the “same sociality” is only the same in the Celestial, what sociality will there be elsewhere? As a teenager, given the choice between an eternity of games, friends, and Hendrix or an eternity with my family, the Telestial was looking really great. I still accepted the Mormon teaching that the Celestial was better/preferred, however this experience more or less marked the end of my concern about what Kingdoms there are in the next life and the lists of things a person does to qualify for one or the other. In my mind I just needed to worry about loving my fellow man and receiving the ordinances.
I thought that this activity was common throughout the US church at that time, so I’ve recently done some searching. My best friend from my ward growing up also helped me search for this stuff. Turns out this was a common thing. Also, the flight number was a real flight. Flight 409 was a flight headed to SLC but crashed in WY. Apparently some members of the MoTab were on that flight.
I would later in life be reminded of this experience and just how weird some people can be about music. I was in the MTC. My companion and I were recently called to be Zone Leaders (which was great for the dynamics in our district because our District Leader was quite anal retentive prior to this power shift). We had to attend a weekly meeting in which a member of the MTC Presidency would speak to us about whatever they felt like talking to us about. Well, one week, the counselor in the Presidency decided to talk to us about the evils of Rock ‘N’ Roll music. Rock ‘N’ Roll leads people to sin. His example: bestiality.
Yes, you read that correctly.
He shared a story about a man who lived in his ward when he was a bishop. This guy listened to Rock ‘N’ Roll, and eventually he was sleeping with his farm animals. No joke.
Thankfully I’d already learned to largely ignore what my leaders thought about the holiness/evilness of music.
So, did you ever have weird lessons/activities in your youth regarding what happens after death? Anything that really influenced your personal view? Or, if not, then do you have any experiences with church leaders designating a particular genre of music as evil? Let’s share.
- Eldred G. Smith, “Exaltation,” BYU Speeches of the Year, March 10, 1964
- Orson F. Whitney, in Conference Report, Apr. 1929, 110 “The Prophet Joseph Smith declared—and he never taught a more comforting doctrine—that the eternal sealings of faithful parents and the divine promises made to them for valiant service in the Cause of Truth, would save not only themselves, but likewise their posterity. Though some of the sheep may wander, the eye of the Shepherd is upon them, and sooner or later they will feel the tentacles of Divine Providence reaching out after them and drawing them back to the fold. Either in this life or the life to come, they will return. They will have to pay their debt to justice; they will suffer for their sins; and may tread a thorny path; but if it leads them at last, like the penitent Prodigal, to a loving and forgiving father’s heart and home, the painful experience will not have been in vain. Pray for your careless and disobedient children; hold on to them with your faith. Hope on, trust on, till you see the salvation of God”