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?
Terryl: We’ve certainly moved in that direction. In fact, we have, the uncensored, unabridged Joseph Smith Papers and the Gospel Topics Essays.
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?
I was elated when I read Elder Ballard’s address to CES. Quotes from it were used in the press release when the church announced CES would be dropping Scripture Mastery (the old scripture chase tradition in seminary).
When Teaching in the Savior’s Way was released my bishop asked me as the ward’s SS president to train our ward’s teachers on the new pedagogy. As I introduced the plan to our Ward Council, I included paragraphs from Elder Ballard’s talk. The ward’s high priest group leader rudely interrupted me at one point and said, “He didn’t really say that did he?!” I pressed on and read how the Gospel Topics Essays could be used in teaching. Again, the HP group leader interrupted me and went off on a monolog how he thought those were written only because the church had to do something to respond to the public, but that they weren’t supposed to be used in church, right? I asked him if he thought the church often lied about its purposes. He looked very frustrated and kept appealing to the bishop. The body language in the room told me many were uncomfortable with what I was sharing. My purpose was not to be disruptive, only to introduce the new teaching methods, of which Ballard’s talk provided a solid premise and my mentioning the essays were kind of like a footnote. I wasn’t prepared for the discomfort I saw. The bishop was supportive as was a counselor in the RS who was in attendance. Others looked at me like I had three heads.
Since then I’ve become discouraged because most of the ward classes I attend us the same didactic teaching methods we as a church have used for half a century, and I see no evidence that Elder Ballard’s talk had a significant impact on CES. I met with my youngest kids’ seminary teachers several times following his address and brought this up and the CES teachers more or less shrugged, not wanting a confrontation and not wanting to get into details. I don’t think one thing has changed in what we teach or how we teach, both in church classrooms or in seminary. My kids asked these hard questions, and were often told to pray more and how the teacher would love to get into a deeper discussions, but shucks there just isn’t enough time. My two youngest begged me to stop attending and by their senior year I granted that request.
It would have taken a prolonged campaign by the church to effect real change in my opinion, not just one talk by Elder Ballard. I agree with Givens, I also think its the most impactful talk of my lifetime. But it seems in retrospect like it was a shooting star and little more.
As for Eugene England, I was an undergraduate at BYU during the 1980’s. I came in as a well trained Mormon boy raised in an orthodox home, but I had the itch of curiosity. I had asked my YM president some hard questions as a 17-year-old, but was shut down hard. Then I came to BYU and discovered incredible teachers in the philosophy department who were honest and this man named Eugene England–Gene was like opening a window and breathing in fresh mountain air for the first time. My wife would take his Mormon literature course and had the same experience. His impact on us has never diminished. He was a saintly person who was not afraid to be honest and true to his conscience. (I used to wonder what it would be like to have a bishop like brother England.) When he was pushed out of BYU…that changed me too. I feel like that event helped me to grow up and for the first time I started to use my own voice with which to speak out. After Professor England died, Dialogue published a tribute issue and included his seminal essays in it (my favorite is The Weeping God of Mormonism) and some wonderful tributes to him. I have years of Dialogue issues in boxes in my basement, but this issue holds a place on the bookshelf next to my desk, and always will.
I’m interested in knowing more about the England/McConkie dynamic. What in Gene’s personality caused him to want to dialogue with a man who didn’t want a discussion? A man who thought he knew the “truth” and wanted to give orders. Why did Gene somehow want McConkie’s approval? Possible explanations would be nice. Even psychobabble would be of interest.
After reading about the conflict, I lost a lot of respect for Joseph Fielding McConkie, Bruce’s son and tactless defender.
Roger, your question goes to one of Gene England’s defining characteristics. He was interested in having a searching conversation with anyone. In his understanding of the gospel, that’s how we find truth, and that’s how we come together in Zion. He was one of the great bridge builders in Mormonism, even when people on the other side of the gap were busy trying to blow the bridge up.
Loursat, I understand that Gene wants “a searching conversation.” But there has to be something more to it than that. If he wanted a dialogue it was better with other members of the Q15. It’s almost like he craved McConkie’s approval. Given McConkie’s ego, he had to know that wasn’t going to happen.
Roger, England did have exchanges with many other general authorities. Those discussions were almost always rewarding and productive. His conflict with McConkie came because he understood that McConkie was reacting negatively to a theological position that England had taken in a lecture at BYU. England wrote to McConkie and asked for his reaction. McConkie responded by very heavily criticizing England. Some would say he bullied England.
I suppose England could have ignored McConkie by never writing to him in the first place, but that would have been foreign to several things in England’s character.
First, as I said earlier, he was committed to conversation. Given the choice of conversation or silence, he was inclined to choose conversation as a matter of principle.
Second, England was a believing Mormon. He believed in Elder McConkie’s divine calling and in the callings of the other apostles. England wanted to sustain Elder McConkie. He was uncomfortable with a situation in which he felt at odds with one of the Lord’s anointed. That did not mean that England craved McConkie’s approval; it meant he wanted to be right with God.
Third, England believed that discussion could resolve disagreement and clarify truth. Indeed, England had had at least one such earlier experience with an apostle, Joseph Fielding Smith. England asked Smith whether he must believe the doctrine that the priesthood was withheld from Blacks because they were less valiant in the pre-mortal life. Smith had written and spoken about this. After thoughtfully reviewing the scriptures on this subject, Smith told England that (to Smith’s own surprise) no, he did not have to believe that teaching, because it was not in the scriptures. Chad Nielsen refers to that story and gives references on it in a post at Times and Seasons:
I think that given the positive experiences England had had in conversation with other general authorities, he was surprised at McConkie’s hostility. England chose to remain publicly silent on the subject of his dispute with McConkie for many years, though he eventually did publish his essay on the nature of God. He was honestly conflicted between his theological convictions and his commitment to sustain the apostles.
An excellent article gives many details of the England-McConkie dispute and explains how England resolved that conflict in his own heart and mind:
BigSky, I remember Givens referred to Ballard’s talk as “watershed”, but without watershed results. I told him a seminary teacher in my stake felt that Givens and Paul Reeve were too edgy for seminary. I am reminded of Richard Bushman telling me that he could talk to CES employees but not CES students. I’m sorry to hear your experience, but I’m not surprised.
I took a class from Eugene England at BYU, and he was the real deal. I was so impressed, interested, and refreshed to see his approach to the gospel and the church, and felt he really cared about us. Lo those many years ago, he was preparing me to weather a faith crisis, but I didn’t get it then. I remember writing a short paper on the Book of Abraham having nothing to do with the papyri. My response was so predictable – it reads like apologists’ responses today. So I didn’t take full advantage of everything England had to offer because I was a super-orthodox, rule-following member and had little imagination.
I don’t know who is credited with saying, “everything that is true is part of the gospel,” but to me England exemplified that. He was trying to teach us how to seek out the truthful and profound.
Regarding Terryl Givens’s calling Elder Ballard’s talk being a watershed moment: Maybe someone will look back in fifty years and will say it was, but nothing much has changed where I am.
I took a BOM class at BYU from Joseph McConkie. I was a TBM back then but I was still offended by his utter arrogance.