I just finished a biography of Eugene England called “Stretching the Heavens” by Dr. Terryl Givens. I loved it and felt a real kinship to Dr. England, despite having never met him. I’m excited to talk to Dr. Terryl Givens to discuss Gene’s life. I was surprised to learn that Terryl at first turned down the opportunity to write Gene’s biography but changed his mind a few decades later. Check out our conversation….
GT: But your latest book, Stretching the Heavens is about Eugene England. I know you actually turned that down. You mentioned that in the introduction. Tell us why you turned it down and why you decided to pick it up later.
Terryl: Well, I turned it down for a few reasons. Gene England died in 2001. It was very shortly thereafter that his widow, Charlotte, contacted me and asked if I’d be willing to write his biography. I hadn’t met her, and I had met Eugene passingly a couple of times. At that point, there were a few reasons why I didn’t want to take on that task. One, it just seemed like an awkward kind of undertaking for somebody who, at that point–for one thing, I was very junior in the profession. I was not of his generation. There were a lot of senior scholars in Latter-day Saints studies, who knew him, who knew the background, the era, and seemed to me would have been much better qualified. It also seemed awkward in the sense that Gene England elicited really strong responses from everybody who knew or interacted with him, either pro or con. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to engage in the controversies, at that point. And, I had other projects underway. So, I politely declined.
Terryl: I think first one person, and then another, and then a third, undertook to do the biography. None of them completed the task. So, around about, I don’t know, 2016, 2018, Charlotte approached me again. Maybe by that point in my life, I felt enough of a kinship with him, insofar as my life had come to parallel his in some fairly significant ways. I felt a deep affinity for his interpretations of Latter-day Saint theology. I share some of his frustrations that the culture had not always lived up to its potential and its promise. I think I also felt myself to be a kind of insider-outsider. I’d always lived outside the Mormon corridor. I didn’t associate with, didn’t know, wasn’t kind of in the mix of Latter-day Saint scholars, really.
Terryl: I had, as I said, a kind of relationship to the Church that was kind of inside, but on the peripheries, and suddenly it felt like the right thing to do. Enough had transpired in the last decade or more, that I thought, I hoped, at least it was my hope, that the Church, speaking of it as a people, had arrived at a point where they would be open, receptive to the lessons that we could learn from Eugene England’s life and legacy. It was a very vexed and troubled life and legacy. Yet, I thought that it had important lessons for us. At that period in Church history when he was most active as a scholar, there was not a great openness to self-criticism, or introspection, or asking hard questions.
GT: Is there now?
GT: Some people would say the Gospel Topics Essays are not uncensored.
Terryl: Well, I guess having been involved in the process, I would have to acknowledge that they did go through a great many layers of editorial interventions. So, that’s true. But at least they’re an attempt to merge the tough questions, the sticky wickets in our past. The Saints history, I think, is by far the most open and full, unapologetic history that we’ve seen and are likely to see for a while. So, yeah, I think we’ve attained a certain degree of maturity in that regard.
Have you read “Stretching the Heavens”? How much has the LDS Church improved with regards to talking about hard topics?
Following a stint at St. Olaf’s College in Minnesota, Eugene England sought employment at BYU. He also helped start a Mormon history magazine called Dialogue. Was that magazine a problem for his employment at BYU? Dr. Terryl Givens answers.
Terryl: [Gene] was desperate. He had a wife. He had several children by this point. He found two positions. One he found was part-time employment with the Church Educational System teaching Institute, back here in Utah. He also secured a position at the Church Historical department. Leonard Arrington felt a great friendship and affinity for him and appreciation of his scholarship and potential. So, he was hired as a researcher part-time in the Church History Department during those kind of Camelot years, in the 1970s. Most of his work there was with Mormon journals and diaries, and specifically on biographical materials for Brigham Young.
GT: I’m trying to remember when Dialogue started. Was that in the 60s?
Terryl: That was the late 60s.
GT: So he was part of that too, which kind of got him into trouble later.
Terryl: Well, certainly, that’s the recurrent–what do I want to say, kind of…
GT: Theme of his life?
Terryl: Theme of his life, his affiliation with Dialogue.`
GT: Now, didn’t Elder Oaks help start Dialogue, as well?
Terryl: I don’t know if he helped start it, but he was one of the early– I should know this, but I can’t remember, contributor or one of the editorial board, certainly supportive.
Terryl: There was just widespread enthusiasm for the project. This period of the mid to late 1960s was a kind of period of intellectual ferment in the Church. There was a great deal of discussion about where can we find a forum for the exploration of Latter-day Saint intellectuals and scholars, their ideas, that isn’t constrained by orthodoxy or by what would become Church correlation? So, he was one of the two or three primary founders of Dialogue.
GT: Elder Oaks?
Terryl: No, Gene England.
Eugene England at BYU
Terryl: He applied [to BYU,] the first time he was turned down. He was not shy about approaching the brethren and asking them for clarification or to fill in blanks in his understanding of what was transpiring. He spent quite a few afternoons just up there at the Church Administration Building, seeing who was in their office and who he could speak to. It was generally Elder Packer that he interacted with the most in regard to his pursuit of a BYU position. Elder Packer made it pretty clearly known to him early on that it was his affiliation with Dialogue. Gene would later complain to Elder Packer that, “Well, you didn’t tell me that I had to quit.”
Elder Packer would say, “Well, I think the implication was pretty clear.”
Gene would say, “Well, I’m not very good at reading signs. You have to be direct with me.” So, when it was made clear, then he did resign. A year later he was he was hired. He became a full-time employee of BYU. I think it was 1975.
GT: That was an English department?
Terryl: Yes, he started in the English Department. That ended up being kind of a perfect storm of wrong circumstances and timing for Gene England to become a professor at BYU. Because in the 1970s, moving into the 80s, that was kind of the high point of revolution in American English departments. I think it was Henry Kissinger who said, at least it’s attributed to him that the fights, the civil wars in American English departments are the most vicious ever seen, because the stakes are so low. That’s an accurate description of my own experience coming of age as an academic in the late 1980s, actually, in my case.
What are your thoughts on Dialogue magazine? Do you understand why it was a problem for Gene England?
Gene England was one who liked to ask the hard questions at Church. It definitely caused Gene trouble with Church leaders. Has it gotten any better since Gene died? Dr. Terryl Givens is going to answer.
Hard Questions at Church
GT: Is it okay to ask hard questions in the LDS Church?
Terryl: I think it is now. I think it is. I have had experience working as a consultant with the Church History Department on a number of projects. The very direct and explicit instructions and feedback that I was party to with the brethren was, unambiguously, “Be honest. Get it all out. There isn’t any topic which we are not comfortable addressing.” To my mind, there was a watershed talk. It didn’t precipitate a watershed change. But there was a watershed talk given in 2016 by Elder Ballard, President Ballard, to the CES educators. I think it was the most important talk given in my lifetime, which sounds like overstatement, but I don’t think it is. Because in that talk, he effectively said, “We have not succeeded as Church educators in preparing our young people for the challenges in this particular moment. We need to rethink how we engage those tough questions. He was very direct and very explicit. He said, “A testimony is not an answer to a question.” That in and of itself, is a revolutionary kind of recognition, an admonition, it seems to me, to Church educators to say we have to honor and dignify and validate genuine questions and not skirt them or avoid them. He also said [that] if you don’t have the answer to a question, then go to a Church historian, or an expert in the field, who does. So, this is the first time that I have heard the Church acknowledge that intellectuals are not the enemy of the Church, but they can be powerful assets to the Church and to a life of faith. I couldn’t have been happier to hear those words. They don’t seem to have filtered all the way throughout our culture and educational system.
GT: I’m glad you say that, because I had a conversation with a seminary teacher in my stake, and I asked him what he thought, specifically, of people like you, Paul Reeve, and he was like, “You know, they’re a little edgy.” So, you’re too edgy for–and, certainly, Eugene England was, too. I kind of want to tie that back. Because while I appreciate the Elder Ballard talk, one of the problems with it is, you know, we’ve heard about it, people in the Mormon history community have heard about it. But, as you said, it was to CES employees. It wasn’t to the general church. So, it’s kind of hidden a little bit. Even, I know Eugene England, he would give some talks, or some of his articles and things to Bruce R. McConkie and Elder Packer, and they pushed back pretty hard against it.
GT: So can you talk a little bit more about that?
Terryl: Well, there’s no question that arising out of a legacy of misrepresentation, and opposition and hostility by the government and by most cultural institutions in the United States, that the Church History Department began with a kind of fortress mentality. I don’t think anybody would deny that, that we were extremely protective. We sanitized our history in ways that avoided discussion of things like the Mountain Meadows Massacre, other aspects of our history that didn’t depict us in the best light. I think there were good historical explanations for that attitude, that defensiveness. I think that the Church has very deliberately and self-consciously and methodically brought us into a better engagement with our history in all of those ways that I’ve mentioned. Gene England was prescient in the sense that his principal concern was a reaction to his recognition, having worked in the Church Historical Department, his recognition that there are narratives in our past that come into conflict. There are doctrinal views that have been espoused by individual leaders that are in conflict. And that as we move forward into this data-rich information age, our young people are going to become more and more aware of these discontinuities and conflicts. His primary motivation was to think through some of these problems and complexities and work towards greater engagement and his favorite word, dialogue with these. The Church wasn’t ready to move in that direction in 1975 and 1980, and they have since.
Terryl: But his concerns, his alarm, turned out to be absolutely, as I said, prescient and has been validated, insofar as the Church has embraced exactly that course of action, which he was pleading for the Church to embrace, which was acknowledge, engage, dialogue, confront these questions and these problems. I think that, as I said, the kind of the formal manifesto of that new attitude would be Elder Ballard’s talk. Now, he gave it to the CES educators, and I think that that was the right audience.
Do you agree? Are CES employees the ones who need to hear this message, or should it be distributed more broadly? Is it ok to ask hard questions at church?