Maxwell Institute Podcast #130: Stretching the Heavens with Eugene England
Eugene England was many things: a scholar, a theologian, an essayist, a husband, father, and teacher. But, above all, he defined himself as a disciple of Jesus Christ and a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Today, we speak with Terryl Givens, a Senior Research Fellow at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute, to discuss his biography of Gene England, entitled Stretching the Heavens: The Life of Eugene England and the Crisis of Modern Mormonism (UNC Press, 2021). We discuss Gene’s approach to discipleship, scholarship, and how he wouldn’t have separated his pursuit of knowledge and bridgebuilding from his very core beliefs in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.
Could you do us a favor and review, rate, and subscribe to the Maxwell Institute Podcast wherever you find podcasts? Thank you! Now, without any further do, let’s start our conversation with Terryl Givens.
Eugene England was many things: a scholar, a theologian, an essayist, a husband, father and teacher. But above all, he defined themselves as a disciple of Jesus Christ and a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Today we speak with Terryl Givens, a senior research fellow at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for religious scholarship at Brigham Young University, to discuss his new biography of Eugene England entitled, Stretching the Heavens; The Life of Eugene England and the Crisis of Modern Mormonism from the University of North Carolina Press. In our conversation, we discuss Eugene’s approach to discipleship, scholarship, and how he wouldn’t have separated his pursuit of knowledge and bridge building from his very core beliefs and the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and his desire to bring people together. Could you do us a favor and a review rate and subscribe to the Maxwell Institute podcast wherever you find podcasts? Thank you. Now, without any further ado, let’s start our conversation with Terryl Givens.
Joseph Stuart: Terryl Givens, welcome to the Maxwell Institute podcast.
Terryl Givens: Thank you, good to be here, Joey.
Joseph Stuart: When I first opened the mail and saw your book was entitled Stretching the Heavens; The Life of Eugene England and the Crisis of Modern Mormonism my first thought was, “what does he mean by the crisis of modern Mormonism?” Can you tell us about that?
Terryl Givens: Yeah, I don’t know if this is a universal experience of authors, but I find that I very seldom am able to select the title for the book that gets published. And in this case, they went with Stretching the Heavens then UNC added the subtitle, which I wasn’t terribly happy with for a few reasons, but they persisted. It could just as well have been called “The Life of Eugene England and the Crisis of Mormon Modernism”, because really, the problem isn’t the modernity. The problem is the modernism and, and what I mean by that is that modernism was a very specific development in religious studies in the early 20th century. And you know, we overuse the word crisis a good bit, but in this case, there really were crises in the Catholic and in the Protestant traditions precipitated by the rise of modernism. They played out in similar though slightly different ways in the cases of those religious traditions. And if I can just summarize: Well, the rise of Darwinism, and Lyle’s geology and the higher criticism, all of those 19th century developments. Then they culminate around the turn of the century in this broad recognition. The church’s scripture and institutions are undeniably influenced by culture; that there is a dawning historical consciousness that is full blown by the early 20th century. And it forces upon religious thinkers a need to reassess “well how much of a human element is there in the constituting of scriptures? How much of a human element is there in the unfolding of the Roman Catholic Church as an institution and as this factor becomes recognized, it’s hard to kind of put brakes on the extent to which religion becomes humanized. And so the Catholic and Protestant churches have their own way with of coping with the crisis and not entirely successful in either case, because you have splintering and offshoots and, and heretics and so forth. And the Latter-day Saint tradition largely manages to avoid those problems and those controversies for a whole set of reasons. Largely because Mormonism, speaking of the kind of total cultural phenomenon of Latter-day Saintsism, is culturally and intellectually isolated to a large degree. We don’t send our leaders to seminaries; we don’t pay a whole lot of attention to intellectual developments in the field of theology. There’s a kind of authoritarianism that is even more pronounced than in the Catholic Church. So we were pretty well insulated from those developments. And then by the 1970s, it says if all of those influences come flooding in through alternative sources, largely the internet, the opening of the church archives under Leonard Arrington, and so it’s as if we are now experiencing in the 1970s and 80s, the fractures and tensions that the rest of Christianity had dealt with generations ago.
Joseph Stuart: Thanks for that great summary, something that it makes me think of too. And these modernism debates, as they’re called, is that Latter-day Saints are able to turn to their prophet for religious direction. And so, the question of “Did something happen that we can prove empirically through history or archaeology or genealogy. As you say, Latter-day Saints are intellectually isolated in important ways, but also, they have a trust that the president of the church is going to lead them in matters of doctrine. It’s not the authority of scholars who are directing the church, it’s the authority of a prophet and apostles. Would you say that that’s correct?
Terryl Givens: Yeah.
Joseph Stuart: I’m interested in the way that Eugene England grew up and so I’m going to call him Gene because that is how his friends and family knew him growing up. And so as a child he’s both very smart and very mischievous. And his friend Ed Gary says that if Jean had an ounce of calculation, he would have avoided a lot of trouble. How did that play out in his early life?
Terryl Givens: Well, there are just a number of kind of humorous anecdotes from his childhood of where he and his friends were, you know, they were, as you said, they were mischievous and provocative and could be rabble rousers on a small scale. But his friends would later remark, “but Jean was the only one who seemed not to recognize that there are always consequences.
Joseph Stuart: Right? It is like, you know, you can actually get out of trouble if you do X, Y, or Z. And he just never thought that far through.
Terryl Givens: He never thought that far through. He was naive and idealistic. And he just always assumed that if your heart is good, that not too much damage can actually fall out as a consequence of your play. And that predisposition followed him to the very end of his life. Personally, political naivety is a virtue and not a vise. But at times, he could push naivete to the point of a kind of deliberate obliviousness to the obvious,
Joseph Stuart: Just to completely agree with you. I think that people are generally happier, the less that they think about how their actions are being interpreted and then used with or against them by others. But at the same time, we’re supposed to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves, right? We’re supposed to know what’s going on.
Terryl Givens: That’s right. That’s right. And you know, the gospel of Jesus Christ can be pure and uncontaminated in its essence, but it is sheathed in institutional forms and structures which have a political dimension to them. And Jean just refused to ever kind of recognize that dimension to the church.
Joseph Stuart: He certainly sees the gospel and his religious experience as deeply emotional, as you write about. So, he’s not seeing his membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as the 13 articles of faith and the four-standard works. He’s seeing it as a sense of being and as an inner sense of peace. Could you say more about how he viewed his religion emotionally?
Terryl Givens: Yeah, well, I think that it was to a very large degree shaped by his parents, and his father in particular. He would write often and allude to, or even quote, a poem that he had written about an experience he had when he was, I don’t know, in fact, eight years old, I guess he says he was and he’s walking through his father’s wheat fields with him. And his father stops and kneels down and spontaneously offers this prayer. And in fact, I have it here for us and could read it. It’s called it’s from his poem called “The Kinsmen”. And this is just a few stanzas. I’ll excerpt
“We drove from town just as the sun squinted down left fork into our eyes. We stopped the truck and crossed the swale to the highest ridge on the lower field. The stock still green, the heads just formed. Beards now turning silver Tam, still in moist in the windlass Dawn, closing calmly as we walked the rose, plucking random heads we counted and chewed the malt milky kernels. And then he knelt, still grasping the wheat and fierce repose, I stood and watched his face. He said, Thou art the prince who holds my heart and gives my body power to make the fruit is thine, this wheat, this boy, protect the yield, that we may live. And fear thrilled me on that hushed ground, so that I grew beyond the wheat and watched my father take his hold on what endures behind the veil.”
That is not just a kind of poetic nostalgia that he’s inventing. It’s clear that he was a mystic, in the sense that he had genuine spiritual experiences that he felt were communications from across the veil, they shaped him and nurtured him. And he never distanced himself, he never found any way or reason to intellectualize or rationalize away those experiences. So, he was first and foremost a genuine converted disciple of Jesus Christ. And that was always for grounded in his writing and in his thought, and in his life.
Joseph Stuart: I think it’s also significant that this first memory, this poem, “The Kinsmen”, he often refers back to this poem, and this experience as a “wheat field prayer”. It’s not taking place in the church. It’s not when He’s baptized. It’s not mediated through any other authority other than the one-to-one connection of a father and son.
Terryl Givens: Yeah, and like myself, he was a scholar of romanticism, and that’s what he did his doctoral work on a kind of an obscure American romance. But so, I think my both training disposition, right, he was drawn to many of those themes of romantic religion such as isolation and solitude and communing with God in a way that is unconditioned by institutional setting.
Joseph Stuart: He finds someone that he really looks up to when he goes to the University of Utah, in an institute instructor named Lowell Benyon, who similarly has these sorts of feelings about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that he’s deeply committed, but also has a sense of ethics or a sense of how the gospel should operate in the world that doesn’t always necessarily align with what the church is teaching. Can you tell us more about Brother Benyon?
Terryl Givens: Lowell Benyon was the closest thing that the Latter-day Saint tradition has had to its own saint. And that observation has been made by others. He had––I don’t know how unique but it was fairly close to being unique, I imagine––the opportunity to receive an invitation to speak in a general conference, even though he held no high ecclesiastical position that today would have to warrant that.
Joseph Stuart: And I think what’s interesting to think about this, too, is that he’s at the University of Utah, which has more Latter-day Saint Students at this point than BYU does. And so, he has an enormous sphere of influence. He is not just an institute teacher, he is the institute.
Terryl Givens: That’s right. That’s right. And he is one of the most beloved teachers, institute teachers, and just literary teachers in our whole tradition. He was pure of heart, of course, he founded the boy’s home that so many people still remember. But he seemed to have this belief, this way of forming his discipleship that he saw himself––in what I think is actually a healthy and admirable way of being––first and foremost, a disciple of Christ. And the church existed as the institutional form given to that gospel in this dispensation that provides a set of resources. But he didn’t see the church is mediating his relationship to Christ. And so, if he thought at times, there was a tension or some kind of a contest between the imperatives regarding those two respective ideals, he was going to speak truth to power as he saw it, honestly and openly and meekly. So he was beloved for that, but in ways that were really quite eerie and haunting. His life foreshadowed in all of its tragic dimensions, the precise trajectory of Eugene England’s own life, because as beloved and uncontroversial as Lowell Benyon was, he was eventually forced out, pressured out of his position in the church educational system, because some of his positions were seen to be just a little bit too far to the left of the religious culture of the leadership of that era.
Joseph Stuart: We’re speaking with Terryl Givens here on the Maxwell Institute podcast about his book Stretching the Heavens, the life of Eugene, England and the Crisis of Modern Mormonism. Now, while at the University of Utah, Jean begins to date Charlotte Hawkins. Could you tell us more about his early relationship with Charlotte?
Terryl Givens: There’s a couple of really comical dimensions to it, in part because she was originally dating his best friend. And he would go out with him on double dates providing the transportation, and she was just remarkably attractive and popular. And so, it definitely was not love at first sight on her part. But when he actually turned his attention to her after she had broken off with his friend, it didn’t take long at all, before he was smitten. And he decided very early on, this was the girl for him.
Joseph Stuart: What I think is sort of funny about this is that she understands how it could be a little bit awkward for her to start dating him after she had dated his best friend. But he does not care at all. He doesn’t give it a second thought.
Terryl Givens: That’s right. That’s right. He’s indifferent to that. So, their relationship progressed fairly quickly and solidly. And so, he proposed, and he proposed thinking that they would get married shortly thereafter, and then he would embark on a mission. And so probably the most delightful surprise in both of their lives was the moment when he opened his mission call. And to both of their astonishment they were called jointly to serve a mission in Samoa. That was almost unheard of anywhere, except in some of the island missions. And I’m not sure why. Maybe the brethren thought that would be a particularly romantic setting for newlyweds and made that concession. But I haven’t been able to find any other examples from that era of young marrieds who are called jointly to serve their missions.
Joseph Stuart: So that’s fascinating. So they arrive in Samoa and Eugene has a really hard time picking up the language as I think anyone who has tried to acquire a second language has figured out and Charlotte or Sholly, as Jean calls her, is also trying to figure out what she is supposed to do. She’s easily the youngest woman with official power as a missionary there. How did they adapt to life in Samoa?
Terryl Givens: Well, mostly they were doing educative work. They ran schools and primaries as well as teaching in the auxiliaries in the local branches where they travel. It was definitely a trial from both of them. They both had lived fairly sheltered lives living just locally. And so this is their first trip abroad. And it’s a foreign culture. They don’t have missionary training in the way that we do today. So yeah, they are thrown kind of without much direction or preparations. Jean had an especially difficult time because he found that the discipline in the mission was exceedingly lacks. He could sense and he bristled at the kind of colonialist mentality that pervaded the mission, what he thought was a kind of inherent and pervasive racism against Native cultures, peoples.
Joseph Stuart: So maybe put another way, he saw how these white American missionaries would come into Samoa and say, “You’re not doing things correctly”, because Samoans weren’t acting like white Americans. Is that fair?
Terryl Givens: Yeah, that’s exactly right. And there was just a kind of privileged position that the white missionaries occupied and exploited. He would acknowledge, by the end of his mission, and later in life, that part of the problem was that he could be a little self-righteous, and a little overzealous and over critical. And so, at times, he needed to just relax a little and go with the flow. But the mission was most formative, probably long range for a couple of reasons. One was because by the very end of his mission, he became particularly convinced in a very personal experiential way, of the centrality and efficacy of the Atonement. And he would write about that and remark upon the transformative power of the gospel, but that only seem to come to him in the very last stages of his of his mission. And the second way in which it was formative was that he had been an outstanding science student in his first year of college. And he made the shift to the humanities because he said he, he just determined that human stories and the human experience and human interaction was so much more meaningful to him than the scientific disciplines.
Joseph Stuart: That’s very relatable as someone who was planning to be a child psychologist, and then ended up being a historian, I can certainly relate to that. And so, when he comes back to the University of Utah, he again is interacting with Lowell Benyon, he decides to go to graduate school, and you write that he learn from Lowell Benyon and others about the idea of “costly loyalty” to the church. Could you tell us more about that and what you meant by it?
Terryl Givens: Lowell Benyon was a questioner of church dogma and practice, as I think Joseph Smith and Brigham Young encouraged early members to be, right. I mean, the famous quotations of Brigham Young that he feared more that people would just kind of acquiesce automatically to anything that was said rather than seeking their own understanding and in spiritual witness. And so, Lowell Benyon was quite uncomfortable with what today we would call “folk theological explanations” of the priesthood ban in particular. And so one of the life changing moments in Gene’s experience was when he was in an institute class taught by Lowell Benyon. And the question of “why is there the priesthood ban in the first place?” And Gene just parroted the kind of standard line that was common in the 1960s, which was, oh, well, that race was neutral or inferior in the preexistence, and so Lowell Benyon, immediately challenged him on that. And that was probably one of the first times that Jean had been challenged. He wasn’t used to being challenged as a student. But it was also a moment when he recognized that there was not actually any doctrinal or scriptural grounding for that idea. So, I think that moment, awakened him to the possibility––not being a dissident, because he never would have qualified for that term––but it opened his mind to the possibility of being a questioning disciple. And I think that asking questions to vigorously at that place in time and within a dominant kind of authoritarian culture of that moment in church history, was not a safe course, as Lowell Benyon found out.
Joseph Stuart: I think, especially for something that is as sensitive to the church at that time as the racial restriction in the church. Also, that is a remarkable way of thinking and I really want to call attention to the point that he’s not a dissident. He is a fully committed Christian, a fully committed a Latter-day Saint. But that does not mean that he is entirely satisfied with everything that’s happening within his religious community within his religious culture.
Terryl Givens: Yeah, that’s right. And I think he’s one of those Latter-day Saints, and there have been many then and now, who look to Joseph Smith and say, “well, the church was launched because he asked tough questions, because he interrogated his own spiritual standing, as well as the commonly taught truths of the day.” And so, Gene England really believed in as, as elder Maxwell taught, right, that study, academic rigor, and questioning are forms of worship. And so, Gene England believed that in order to create more space for the intellectuals of his era, that it would be advisable to create a journal that wasn’t an organ of the institutional church. Neither was it a dissenting journal. But that would create a space for faithful Latter-day Saints to engage in conversation about issues of concern. And so, he chose the name dialog and co-founded that journal in the late 60s.
Joseph Stuart: Yeah, which he founds at Stanford while he’s in graduate school. And this is just sort of mind boggling to me to think about how busy graduate school is: he’s a father, he’s teaching Institute, he’s a husband, he has all of these concerns on his mind. And yet, he just has this internal need to foster dialogue, to build bridges to give a lot of Latter-day Saints an opportunity to speak about their feelings.
Terryl Givens: That’s right. And, and it does come at very personal cost of that time, because he is several years right in Palo Alto, several years at Stanford, and even after he’s accepted his first academic position at St. Olaf in Minnesota, he still has not finished his dissertation. And it seems clear to me looking back to his letters and journals of the period, it’s because he was giving so much time both to teaching part time and Institute but also to the work of, of the dialog magazine.
Joseph Stuart: Well, and what I also just find fascinating is that as he is going forward, although Elder Maxwell has not yet given the address that is on the wall, at the meal, Neil A. Maxwell Institute, the building that we’re in, that academic study can be a form of Christian discipleship, that he sees this as his sort of unofficial mission to fulfill this. And so, with dialog, they’re inviting all sorts of interesting articles, and for people to talk back and forth to each other across political and theological lines. So conservative and progressive, or conservative and liberal can mean very different things to different people. But he always saw himself as very orthodox as the editor of dialogue. Is that correct?
Terryl Givens: That’s absolutely correct. Yeah, he never wavered in what he believed or the fundamental faith commitments his religion called him to make. What he did believe, and I think we have a whole course of the brethren who now reaffirm this basic principle, that Mormon culture, Latter-day Saint culture is not the same as the Latter-day Saint gospel. But nobody was talking really in the 1960s about pulling those things apart. And he very deliberately and self-consciously made that an endeavor. So, for example, he believed that the gospel was unambiguous about the need to be accepting and loving of all races, and to see them and treat them as equals. And the priesthood ban brought in its wake a kind of cultural racism, right, that was a consequence or manifest in all of these folk theologies that explained it in terms of spiritual inferiority. And so, he’s saying, well, that’s not part of the gospel. But it was so much a part of Mormon cultural understanding that it seemed to be a challenge to the church. And the same was true with his opposition to the Vietnam War. He’d say, “well the Book of Mormon tells us and the Doctrine and Covenants, right, teach us to proclaim peace, not war, and yet we are a warlike nation. And later we’d hear President Kimball espousing that same critique that we have become a war like people. And so Gene England thinks I’m trying to preach the pure gospel of the restoration here. But this was at a time of hyper patriotism, in the church and outside the church. So, to publicly take a position against the Vietnam War, again, was construed at the time, as being unfaithful to the church.
Joseph Stuart: There are some great photos and special collections at BYU of BYU students holding pro Vietnam rallies, at the same time, that Gene is leading rallies against the war in Palo Alto.
Terryl Givens: That’s right, and one of the brethren that he most loved and admired was Marion D. Hanks. And of course, Marian D. Hanks, at this time, is the servicemen’s representative of the church. And so, his whole position and task is to provide kind of moral and spiritual support for the servicemen serving in Vietnam, while Gene England is undermining support for that war. And so that created tensions from the very beginning in that relationship with Elder Hanks.
Joseph Stuart: And they are writing back and forth. This is something that comes out in the book over and over again, is that Gene reaches out seemingly to every general authority who is ever called and does his best to create relationships and share what he’s reading and thinking about. And Elder Hanks or Duff Hanks, as he was called, but Neal Maxwell is another leader that he’s constantly corresponding with, and he was the church commissioner of education.
Terryl Givens: Yeah, that’s right. One can see this as a foible. One can construe this in various ways, but it is in fact the case that almost as an automatic response to any new person being called on to the quorum, or to be an assistant to the 12. Gene would fire off a letter, immediately. Introduce himself, usually send along a few poems, or a couple of his essays. And one could see this as a longing for affirmation, right? A longing to be connected to and recognized by the brethren. That may have been a part of it. But I think also there was a genuine feeling on England’s part, that he had intellectual academic gifts to offer that could be put in the service of the church and building the kingdom. He wanted the brethren to know of his qualifications and his availability. So, that I think is certainly how he would have seen his efforts to do that. But if one goes to the University of Utah Special Collections today, one will find over 200 boxes of the Gene England papers and a huge proportion of those are files of correspondence with the various brethren, he wrote to.
Joseph Stuart: But because he reaches out to others, he also gets on the radar of people who maybe wouldn’t have known him and certainly would not have known him as a rabble rouser.
Terryl Givens: Yes, that’s right. And this, again, I think, is in some ways a reflection of his naivety, that he was quite happy to send the brethren copies of his most controversial, and at times, inflammatory writings. So, he wrote two articles on race. He wrote another article of speculative theology in which he insisted that plural marriage was of temporal duration only and had no standing in the future, issues of dialogue in which there were round tables contesting the validity of the of the Vietnam War. And he was, he just assumed that the brethren would agree that these were all faith promoting or faith affirming works. And clearly, they did not always go down that way.
Joseph Stuart: Pro tip for listeners don’t send your most controversial theological takes to others, much less of their general authorities. It also reminds me of something at this time, because this is when the church is really opening up in important ways, like you said, to academic study and inspection in ways that it hadn’t before.
Terryl Givens: Yeah, and this is one reason why, actually, Gene England had much more intellectual authority than most people would recognize at this era. Because you’d say, well, and you know, when one famed scholar said to one time “Gene, why don’t you just get back to what you’re supposed to be doing, which is teaching your English classes?” But the fact is, he was employed in the church historical department under of course, Leonard Arrington, and so he had firsthand extensive experience in archival research in the Church Historical Department. So, he knew whereof he spoke when he would invoke tensions, problems, conflicts inconsistencies in in the Mormon past. He researched, especially extensively in the field of early Mormon journals, diaries, and letters, and in the life of Brigham Young. Those tended to be the focus points of his research as a historian.
Joseph Stuart: Yeah, something that I think about is actually something that Jonathan Stapley wrote once, which is that in this time period, General Authorities in the church desperately wanted the knowledge that scholars had, and scholars desperately wanted the cultural authority, not the priesthood authority, but the cultural authority that General Authorities had. And so, I’ve thought about this in the case of Leonard Arrington, but it seems like it’s true for Eugene England, too. And it actually prevents him from being hired full time at BYU.
Terryl Givens: That’s absolutely true. And this is one of the reasons why I think that this biography, Stretching the Heavens, not the book, as much as the life it depicts, is almost frighteningly relevant suddenly in a way that I thought might no longer be the case. Because we see, right, we went through the Camelot phase, we went through the opening of the archives, we went through this the flowering of Mormon studies. And then we went through, what I thought was the most conspicuous landmark addressed by an Apostle in my adult lifetime, which was elder Ballard’s address to this worldwide CES, in which he said, “If you don’t know the answer to a question, go to the church historians. We need to recognize the resource that they are. And bearing your testimony is not an appropriate answer to a question. So, it seemed like we had arrived at that moment where the church leadership fully recognized that the intellectuals are not the problem. They are a resource and that if you combine prophetic leadership and authority with the cultural learning authority background, so to speak, of those well trained and well versed in the LDS tradition and theological history, then what a powerful synthesis that could be. But it’s not clear that that golden day has yet fully arrived.
Joseph Stuart: Again, we’re speaking with Terryl Givens about his book Stretching the Heavens: The Life of Eugene England and the Crisis of Modern Mormonism. Now, when he is finally hired at BYU, he is instantly very popular as a professor and as a speaker, and he and Charlotte open up their home to many students. But was there a danger for that according to some Gene’s colleagues?
Terryl Givens: Yeah, there was. There’s always been a tendency toward suspicion in the church for anybody who becomes too popular, and some of that is because it can be seen as conflicting with a church based on authoritarian models. Some of it also is just the natural human tendency to pull others down if they’re climbing too far on top of the ant heap. And the fact is, he was undoubtedly one of the most popular professors at BYU during his years here, in part, that’s because he was just a dynamic, bright, intellectual presence, in part is because he was willing to ask questions and invite guests that were sometimes well outside of the cultural mainstream. And so, I think students experienced him as a breath of fresh air. He designed and built their home in Provo, just over near the stadium. And they designed it specifically to accommodate large numbers of people who would come for soirees, which they would hold on a weekly basis. And so, if you or anybody at all, in LDS intellectual or literary culture usually got an invitation to go there. And so, the place was just kind of renowned as the closest thing that Mormonism ever had to a 19th century salon. And it was a place where ideas could be transmitted and debated and contested. And in the English department, he received some very emphatic protests and criticisms for what he was doing. And so eventually, those kind of tapered out because I think both of them just felt hurt and dismayed that efforts that were so well intentioned, had been supposedly received by so many.
Joseph Stuart: Yeah, I want to be clear here that there was never any accusation of impropriety of a professor having students at his home, this is always an England family get together, where Charlotte would be there, but also the children and eventually grandchildren would be at the home with these BYU students coming over. And one of the ways that Gene sees himself as building community and reaching out to “the one” as we might say, is by having people in his home and discussing topics that really matter to students that maybe they weren’t able to discuss anywhere else. As a BYU, Professor Gene, and Elder, Bruce R. McConkey get into a disagreement about several doctrinal matters. Could you give us a brief rundown of what they disagreed about and how it came about?
Terryl Givens: I frame this dispute as a kind of Greek tragedy, because I try to emphasize as a narrator of the story, that there’s no bad guy and they’re two good guys both operating under what they see as the most imperative that they faced as individuals. So it all begins when Gene England becomes aware that in the way Latter-day Saint authorities have spoken about the nature of God, there have been two separate strands. One that is kind of the King Fallet strand that emphasizes God as a progressive being. He was a human, he becomes divine, he continues to grow in dominion, and majesty as his creatures climb the kind of celestial ladder with him. And then there’s the other view that is sometimes attributed to Hyrum Smith that I would not have faith in a God who didn’t have all power and all knowledge. And so kind of a more classically theistic conception of omnipotence and omniscience. And so, Gene England insisted, and I think very credibly, that students were sometimes aware of these contradictions and conflicts and it shook them because they thought well, with inspired leadership, there should be one voice and one teaching. And so, he gave a talk on the subject in which he tried to show that both views were consistent, and one of Bruce R. McConkey’s family members became aware of this talk, Joseph Fielding McConkey, and let it be known that he vehemently protested Gene England’s interpretation. And Gene, what I thought was the single greatest demonstration of spiritual and intellectual magnanimity, invited Joseph Fielding McConkey to come and respond to his remarks the next time he gave that talk, which would was in the varsity theatre. And so, his colleague accepted the invitation. But instead of engaging in a kind of civil, polite discourse,
Joseph Stuart: Well and what is accepted in academia…academics disagree all the time. You’re just supposed to say why you disagree, citing evidence.
Terryl Givens: Exactly. And instead, he effectively called Gene England out as an apostate and unfaithful and he invoked his own prophetic blood and insisted that there was no grounds whatsoever and his language was very insulting and demeaning, unfortunately. Then all of this information, obviously, was relayed to Elder McConkey. And so, in a subsequent visit, to Brigham Young University, Elder McConkie, gave his famous address on the “Seven Deadly Heresies of Mormonism” as he called them. And prominent among these was the belief that God is a progressive being. So, anybody in the audience, practically, or anybody who knew anything of the background of this talk knew that this was a direct reference of course, to Gene England. And so, it was quite a devastating and humiliating kind of rebuke. Gene wrote to Elder McConkie a letter within a within an edited version of his remarks, again trying to insist that he was saying nothing that was unfaithful or contrary to doctrine. Elder McConkie was not in the least bit interested in engaging him in a conversation. He just indicated that it was not Gene’s province to declare doctrine but to listen when an apostle declared a doctrine. So again, we have here, what seems to my mind, as a kind of cultural problem and misunderstanding that any attempt to pursue theological investigations is a challenge to doctrine, right? And those are two very separate enterprises. And so subsequently Elder McConkie in General Conference revisited his condemnation of Gene England’s teachings in a way that again was just entirely humiliating and devastating to Gene England didn’t mention him by name, but again, it was apparent that he was the object of his rebuke. The letter that Elder McConkie had written to Gene England was leaked, not by Gene England, it’s clear from the dating that Gene England hadn’t even received the letter yet. And so that went as today we would say it went viral, by mimeograph rather than Internet. And so, it became probably the most famous or infamous episode in Gene England’s conflicted history of relationship with General Authorities and the church. I think one of the most important and touching takeaways from this whole story is that in Gene’s journal, his private journal, he continued to refer to Elder McConkey and others as his heroes and never spoke a word of rebuke. His family members attest that even in the home, he never once criticized either the brethren or his treatment at their hands in this episode, so it was just all together a sad affair.
Joseph Stuart: Yeah, I think this is something that most listeners will be able to relate to: two smart, committed people who desperately agree on the overall goal of something that needs to be accomplished, but disagree on how it should be approached, or the best way to obtain results that will be the longest lasting, and unfortunately, them speaking past each other in ways that prevent them from working in a way that would benefit.
Terryl Givens: That’s right. Yeah, there’s just no question, I think, that any reasonable person could ask about Eugene England’s motives in this case. He wanted to build faith among the young people and it was prescient, and so far as he recognized that coming down the pipe was this growing deluge of information that was going to be made available through the opening in the archives and the Internet alike, in which the narrative of church history would suddenly be complicated in new ways. And he wanted to prepare faithful young students to be able to process this growing complexity of a narrative that until that time had been fairly sanitized and simple.
Joseph Stuart: This isn’t the last time that Gene find himself in hot water over the last decade of his career because he continues to teach at BYU after this. This is not what ultimately led to his dismissal at BYU. Could you tell us about the last decade or 12 years that he spent in Provo?
Terryl Givens: Yeah. And one of my principal, I guess, motivations, as a writer of this biography was to uncover where is the smoking gun? What was the episode of conflict that finally precipitated his departure? And there wasn’t one, there were several and it was just kind of a critical mass that eventually was achieved. So, it dates back to the first public expressions of criticism toward a church culture that is militaristic and racist. That the next major episode that I think is probably the least widely recognized is his essay that he wrote on the atonement: That All Might Not Suffer. And it’s a beautiful piece. It’s an attempt to resurrect Abellard’s theology of Atonement, as moral influence.
Joseph Stuart: Is Abellard a Catholic thinker?
Terryl Givens: He’s a Catholic medieval thinker who was responding to Anselm. So, I’ll try to simplify this because I don’t want anyone to get lost in the weeds here. But atonement theology has gone through various stages in mainstream Christian thought, right? You have the ransom theory, which is kind of the earliest most primitive, which is that God kind of baits the hook with Jesus. And when Satan tries to take them then, right, he finds that he’s got an innocent victim and he has no hold over him. Then it becomes a satisfaction theory, where we’ve offended God’s majesty and so he demands some kind of recompense or punishment because of his offended majesty. And that’s about the time at which Abellard is responding to this, cause he’s saying, “No, that’s not the God I believe, and I don’t believe in a God who is jealous or vindictive or gets angry. I believe he offered his son as the most infinite, inexpressible demonstration of love, and we see what pure innocence was willing to suffer on our behalf. We are moved by it, emulate that example.” So that’s the moral influence theory. And so later in the Reformation, we progress to the henal 40:00 substitution, which is a kind of further development of satisfaction theory with a more legalistic, vindictive bent to it, at least in the way that I read it and see it. But it’s there, that God is a judge a law has been broken, there has to be a punishment that is inflicted, and suffering has to occur to zero out the evil that was perpetrated. And Gene England just resisted that he thought that that didn’t have any appeal. It couldn’t move us, and it wasn’t compatible with the nature of God or Christ. And so, He resurrects Abellard’s theory and argues once again that we are moved, we are broken, we are shattered in heart at the spectacle of Christ’s willing sacrifice for us. So, it’s a beautiful theology. I think, my personal feeling is theologically would be that it is certainly a true part of any meaningful understanding of the Atonement. The Book of Mormon talks about being drawn to Christ by the spectacle, his suffering. So, I think there is certainly a valid theological principle there, but he sent it to Elder Maxwell and he sent it to Elder Packer. He received, I think, one of the most comically understated replies in epistolary history back from Elder Maxwell, who said, if I can paraphrase, “Love, your article! It was very beautiful. The only fault I could find with it is that it was not true.” And Elder Packer responded, and we don’t have the correspondence from Elder Packer, except that we know that he criticized it––protested that it was not consistent with LDS teachings. But Gene continued to teach it. He reprinted it. He gave it in fireside addresses. He consistently taught it as a Sunday school teacher all the way up to the last years of his life. And we know there is a very well documented incident where a member of his ward complained to the stake president who at that time, well, he was the future BYU president, President Bateman. And so, he became aware as a stake president, that this doctrine was being taught. And he very, I think, wisely, insisted that that Gene and the offended party sort out their differences, but he was not going to take ecclesiastical action. But then later, when he becomes president of BYU, Gene England comes in to introduce themselves something clicks in the mind of President Bateman, because his last question to Gene on that occasion is, “so what exactly do you believe about the Atonement?” And Gene does not make the connection with his earlier involvement, which is almost hard to believe. But Gene writes in his journal about that day, “What an odd question. Why would he ask me that?”
Joseph Stuart: Well, and again, it just points back to this tragic naivete, that he just…again, it’s understandable. And it seems natural to him that he refuses to play politics. But at the same time, if you are going to be involved with so many different people who hold power, you need to know the stakes of what you are talking about.
Terryl Givens: That’s exactly right. And so, this is one of the last encounters he has with the administration at BYU officially before he is pressured out. So he is not actually fired, but his situation there is made intolerable. He’s specifically told that the brethren want him out or some of the brethren do, his teaching load is reduced. And he’s not allowed to teach in a religion department. He is not allowed to teach anymore in the Honors Program, and he is not allowed to teach anymore in the study abroad, until the situation becomes intolerable, and he resigns.
Joseph Stuart: And he ultimately ends up at, what is now, Utah Valley University, and he founds what could be called the first Mormon studies program in the world.
Terryl Givens: That’s right. That’s why this legacy of this man is just phenomenal. I mean, he co-founds arguably the most important, certainly one of the two most important intellectual journals in the church. He almost single-handedly pioneers, the creation of Mormon literature as a kind of subcategory. He is the main inspiration behind the foundation of the Association of Mormon Letters. And then he goes to UVU. And he gets this grant from the NIH and creates a Mormon Studies program at a time when lots of people are starting to think about it, but he actually brings it about. You know, there are other important contributions he makes, I think. I think he remains the greatest practitioner of the personal essay that we have in our history. So, his influence and legacy really just goes on and on.
Joseph Stuart: Oh, and thinking about his legacy, what do you think that it is for Latter-day Saints today? When the average Latter-day Saint thinks of Eugene England, what should we take away from his life?
Terryl Givens: I think, and this is one of my motivations behind writing this book. Look, I, I’m a research scholar, I can sit down and write about anything, right. I’m not hemmed in very much. But I won’t write a book unless I believe that ultimately, it’s got a story that is edifying and is going to build faith. Faith in the restoration specifically, or in just good values, generally. And I think his life does. It’s a life of exemplary discipleship that is particularly relevant for the present moment, because ever since the 70s, we’ve had all of these debates and books and articles and colloquium symposia about maintaining personal integrity in the face of authority, right. My take on Gene England is that he saw that at times we can make an idol of our own integrity. In other words, there can be a kind of quest for intellectual martyrdom, where we show ourselves as the bold Luthor facing down the Catholic Church. And Gene could be provocative at times. He could be willful and stubborn, but there is no question that he never, never felt a conflict between his discipleship, his faithfulness to Christ, and his membership in a church. And so, I think he’s just a great example of that kind of discipleship that is always struggling to reconcile the life of the mind and life of the Spirit and knows that that is never going to be without some kind of costs.
Joseph Stuart: Alright, one final question to get you out on what are three books that you would recommend to our audience to read in any time period or genre?
Terryl Givens: That’s such a broad question. And I would probably never recommend the same three books to two different people. But if I had to just take a shot at it in terms of just great contemporary literature, I would recommend Marilyn Robinson’s Gilead, which I think is the most beautiful example of sacramental fiction, I mean, it’s an act of worship to read and ponder that book. So, you can’t go wrong there. My personal favorite work of devotional literature is a fairly obscure poet and essayist by the name of Thomas Traherne, and you can get a collection of his meditations called centuries of meditation.
Joseph Stuart: You’re also going to talk about Thomas Traherne in a forthcoming book, you have with the Maxwell Institute called Doors of Faith. So, everyone should be on the lookout.
Terryl Givens: Oh, that’s right. That’s right. Yeah, thank you for that. So, I just you know, he’s also the man that if I could sit down to lunch with anybody who’s ever lived in Iraq, it would be Thomas Trahern. His biographers refer to him as a deliriously happy man, he just lived kind of in his own mystical universe where he could remember the pre-existence, he could remember what it was like coming… Any how, beautiful man, lovely meditations. And then third, my favorite book on Ecclesiastical History was written by a great Anglican scholar, Kenneth Kirk, and it was written in the 1950s. And it’s called The Vision of God. As of now it is out of print, except in horribly abridged editions. But if you can get an unabridged edition of the vision of God it is just a marvelous retelling of the Christian legacy and where it has occasionally gone off the rails from the time of Christ to the present.
Joseph Stuart: Terryl Givens, thank you so much for joining us on the Maxwell Institute podcast.
Terryl Givens: Good to be here.
Joseph Stuart: Thank you for listening to the Maxwell Institute podcast. Could you do us a favor and recommend this show to others, review and rate the podcast on Apple podcast or other podcast providers or share the episode on social media? Thanks so much and have a blessed week y’all
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)