Terryl Givens on Eugene England

In general, the people who are in a position to be most influential in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been official Church leaders.  That’s not always the case, however, since there are a number of members of the Church who have proven influential and important in different ways—Truman Madsen, Hugh Nibley, Leonard Arrington, and Eugene England to name a few.  Among these, England was a notable figure in the rise of Mormon Studies due to his role in founding Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, founding The Association for Mormon Letters, participating in founding the first official university Mormon studies program, and for his many essays exploring Latter-day Saint culture, belief, and life.  At times, however, his efforts proved controversial and brought the ire of Church leaders.  Terryl Givens recently discussed the life and legacy of Eugene England with Kurt Manwaring in an interview about his new biography, “Stretching the Heavens: The Life of Eugene England and the Crisis of Modern Mormonism” (University of North Carolina Press, 2021).  What follows here is a co-post to the full interview, with excerpts and some discussion.  For those who want to read the full interview, follow the link here.

Eugene England is shown as a flawed figure by Givens, functioning both as a “unrealized ideal” and a “cautionary tale”.  As stated in the interview:

Many thousands of Latter-day Saints—and Christians generally—struggle with the tensions between personal discipleship and institutional loyalty. A story of a flawed individual who struggles valiantly to reconcile the two is one we can all identify with.

My favorite Founding Father is John Adams, because in his writings he acknowledges and confronts so honestly his character weaknesses. Eugene England was aware of his personal proclivities that impeded both his own spiritual progress and his ability to function effectively as a force for good in the church. Those are crucial elements of the story.

Givens added that: “If he had learned to forbear a bit more, sacrifice more of his willfulness, he would have been viewed in less antagonistic ways. His manner could undermine the very ideal his life revolved around.”  Yet, his idealism and intellect served him well as he served the Church. “He was an old fashioned Christian mystic who had personally experienced contacts with something divine. He found Latter-day Saint theology intellectually satisfying in addressing most of the big religious questions. … And he found immersion in service to his community the most important path to discipleship.” This enabled him to serve his religious community well in many ways.

A core theme of England’s life was his efforts to delve into understanding Mormonism more deeply through both modern scholarship and the words of Church leaders throughout our history.  At times, that proved problematic to his career.  As Givens stated in the interview:

The Latter-day Saint tradition has not made much room for theology or theological speculation in its two centuries. The early period saw ambitious forays most notably with the apostle Orson Pratt, but even his intellectually free-wheeling was recurrently curbed by Brigham Young.

Decades later, B. H. Roberts made the most ambitious attempts at a systematic theology where he filled in many of the perceived gaps—but his magnum opus did not meet with approval of the leadership and was only published posthumously.

Dogmatic theology–in the sense of binding, authoritative theology, was seen as the province of the apostles and prophets, and was most famously practiced later by the likes of Boyd K. Packer and Bruce R. McConkie.

Eugene England had the misfortune of trying to revive a kind of speculative theology at a time when the leadership saw it as clashing with an authoritative, doctrinal emphasis. In a structure as authoritarian as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where keys and prerogatives are starkly articulated and defended, it is doubtful if speculative theology will ever find a place.

In the case of Eugene England, even though he was explicit about the non-authoritative, speculative claims of his writings (on such subjects as the atonement, the priesthood ban, eternal polygamy, and God’s progressive nature) his popularity and public forum as a teacher and writer were interpreted by the leadership as competing with their stewardship and he was asked to desist.

It didn’t help his cause that, at times, England “articulated questions and challenges that had not even occurred to students, thus precipitating rather than resolving faith crises,” which would cause distress to the BYU students he was addressing.

Part of what made the problems he faced difficult for England personally was that one of his flaws was that he was prone to “mistaking personal relationships with individual leaders as reflective of one’s relationship to the Christ.”  As a result, Givens feels that England’s “love and respect for the apostles led him to place an unhealthy degree of reliance upon their approbation.”  He corresponded frequently with these Church leaders, which Givens attributed to the fact that England “was aware of his intellectual and literary gifts, and he genuinely believed he had important contributions he could make to the kingdom” and that he had “an entirely too human desire for approbation and affirmation. … That he often accompanied his letters to the Brethren with copies of his poems or recent essays suggests a talented individual yearning for praise on the part of men he deeply respected.”  Thus, when he was “pressured to resign from BYU” as a result of some of his conflicts with Church leaders, it was “incredibly devastating to a teacher whose highest aspiration was to sustain and build faith in the Latter-day Saint Restoration, and to help BYU live up to its potential as a place of genuine learning.”  His dedication to these ideals are indicated by Givens’s statement that: “Few people have been repudiated by an institution into which they poured so much love and talent.”

Still, England has left an important impact on the Latter-day Saint community.  Givens noted that: “I have not personally known an individual who registered such a profound impact on so many others through his writings, his teaching, but most of all through the sheer force of his love for those in his large community.”  In explaining some of how current Church efforts in history can be traced back to England, Givens stated that:

Dialogue broke new ground in dealing honestly with tough issues and questions in Latter-day Saint history (BYU Studies was doing some of that at the same time, but hit some speed bumps in doing so).

England’s premise was that if the Church is true, it will be resilient in the face of scrutiny, and its members don’t need protection from access to challenging facts and interpretations. The Latter-day Saint historical department was slow to receive authorization to do the same. First steps under Leonard Arrington were incredibly fruitful but also alarming enough to some that “Camelot” had a brief lifespan.

The Joseph Smith Papers represent a true coming to maturity of the Church’s approach to history: the volumes are unexpurgated, well-annotated, undefensive and complete.

While England had his flaws, his impact on Mormon Studies and on individuals in the Church through his life and writings should not be understated in its importance.

For more on Eugene England, such as comments on his relationship with Neal A. Maxwell, his unrealized plans to write a Joseph Smith biography, and some about his blindness to the likely outcomes of some of his actions, hop on over to read the full interview with Terryl Givens here.  In addition, to explore some of England’s essays and life work, I recommend going to the website dedicated to sharing his life’s work here.  For those interested in learning more about the recently-published biographies of England, Benjamin Park’s review of them is available here.

6 comments for “Terryl Givens on Eugene England

  1. Interesting write-up. I don’t know why, but I was surprised to see that Givens had written a bio on Eugene England. But glad he has. And thanks for this post.

    I went and read the Kurt Manwaring interview, too. Lots of interesting insights. (The anecdote about Neal Maxwell feeling unable to visit with England while he was dying was heartbreaking.) But this part was a punch in the gut: when Given was asked what question he is most frequently asked about Eugene England, Givens replied that it was this question: “Who was he?” Whoah. Givens states that in his experience, the vast majority of people under 50 have never heard of him. Depressing!

  2. I remember reading Eugene England’s books when I was a freshman at BYU. I have always had a soft spot for him.

    His only mistake is that he thought he was a stakeholder when he was not. It’s a very human attitude to adopt when one is in the church; I don’t blame him for that.

  3. I was shocked by that too, Hunter. I’m under 50, and a decent amount of my close friends that are/were in the Church in my age group know the name, but that may partly be from me talking about him.

  4. The thing that surprised me the most in the book was the manner in which England lost his position at BYU. It reminded me of when Homer and Mr. Burns lost their trillion dollar bill to Castro.

  5. I wonder if Terryl’s work here is to open the nuance envelop by resurrecting England.

    The Maxwell Institute is a leaky boat without Fiona.

  6. While working in the Midwest in the summer of 1975, I attended Church one Sunday in small branch in Northfield, Minnesota where Eugene, England was Branch President. I remember Br & Sis England as kind, loving and welcoming church members and leaders. It was a pleasant and enjoyable Sabbath. Whatever his flaws, that is the Eugene England I will remember.

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