Biographer Kristine Haglund describes the context behind the correspondence of Elder Bruce R. McConkie and Eugene England. Her new book, Eugene England: A Mormon Liberal, is the second installment in the Introductions to Mormon Thought series (University of Illinois Press, 2021).
What is the Introductions to Mormon Thought series?
The series is the brainchild of Matthew Bowman (Claremont Graduate University) and Joseph Spencer (BYU). In their words, “this series takes as a model Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introduction series. Its purpose is to provide accessible and short introductions to important figures in Latter-day Saint theology, intellectual life, and culture: the men and women who shape how Mormons today think about what Mormonism is.”
It is intended for use in college classrooms and for general readers.
I got involved simply because Matt and Joe are friends of mine and they asked me if I would write about Eugene England. I have always admired England’s life and loved his work, so I was glad to try to introduce his work to new readers.
Who was Eugene England—and why is he relevant today?
Eugene England was a teacher, an essayist, a literary critic, a proponent of Mormon literature, and, most of all, a thoughtful believer. He was born in 1933, and grew up in Downey, Idaho and Salt Lake City. He attended the University of Utah, served a mission in Samoa, and later earned a Ph.D. in English at Stanford. He first taught at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, where he also served as branch president. He was hired as an English professor at BYU in 1977, and taught there until 1998, when he retired from BYU and began to establish a program in Mormon Literature at (then) UVSC.
I think his work is particularly relevant today as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints try to navigate a political climate which encroaches on the lives of Church members in ways that make them inclined toward fear and distrust of those who think differently than they do. Eugene England was a pioneer in thinking differently than many of his fellow Saints, but lovingly insisting that someone who thinks differently can still believe and belong.
One of the central concepts of his thinking is paradox—the notion that two seemingly opposing ideas can be held in tension with each other, rather than resolved by choosing one over the other. At a moment when fracture and schism often seem to be the only possible resolution to opposing viewpoints, his efforts to make disparate elements of thought and belief cohere in the framework of deep community seems more important than ever.
He was also a model for being a committed member of the Church while disagreeing with some of its policies and practices. As the Church grows in increasingly diverse political and ideological climates, we need more models of principled and loving disagreement within an enduring commitment to the Church and faith in the gospel.
One of Eugene England’s central insights is that the disagreement and interpersonal friction of Church activity are a feature, not a bug, in our efforts to become Christians and build Christian communities.
Did you correspond with Terryl Givens while he was writing his Eugene England biography?
No, we were not in touch while we were writing. The two projects are very different. I wanted to mostly work with Eugene England’s published and readily available texts, since the goal of my work is mostly to pique people’s curiosity and give them a guide to England’s own work.
I admire Dr. Terryl Givens’s work, and I worried that I would distrust my own intuitions if we talked and I found that he disagreed with me! Like everyone else, I’m now checking my mailbox obsessively and looking forward to digging into his book.
What was Eugene England’s purpose in founding Dialogue, and how was it generally received by Church leaders? Is that perception any different today?
I think that there were two important motivations for Dialogue. One was the sense Eugene England had from teaching Institute in Palo Alto that young Latter-day Saints needed materials to help them think through not only the timeless principles of the gospel, but the timely application of those principles in navigating the morally complex world of the 1960s.
The second was, I think, that he thought a lot of Church-produced material was boring, particularly for life-long members of the Church who had heard the basic teachings many times over and were hungry for deeper engagement.
Church leaders’ reactions to the project ranged from tepid support to general skepticism and decided opposition. As leaders of a rapidly expanding worldwide church, they were concerned with maintaining the simplicity and purity of basic doctrine—“Correlation” was the watchword of the moment—and the desire of a smallish number of privileged intellectuals for more complexity and nuance in gospel discussions was out of sync with institutional priorities.
Also, Dialogue’s early focus on the issue of Blacks and the priesthood brought unwanted discussion of the most sensitive problem facing the Church; already facing intense media pressure over the practice of withholding priesthood and temple ordinances from Black members, the Brethren were not inclined to appreciate questioning or opposition from within.
My sense when I was editor of Dialogue (2009-2015) was that Church leaders were neither particularly interested in nor concerned about what was published in Dialogue. The proliferation of on- and offline forums for discussing Mormonism meant that it was no longer possible for the Church to tightly control information or discussion among members.
The Church’s posture toward scholarship had also changed—academic interest in “Mormon Studies” was growing, and scholarly work was less polemically pro- or anti-Mormon. It seemed to me that there was wide leeway for respectful discussion.
However, unlike Eugene England, I never wrote to General Authorities to ask them what they thought, so my supposition may be wildly mistaken!
What Church leaders did Eugene England maintain a correspondence with?
Eugene England’s archive at the University of Utah has two full boxes of correspondence with over 40 general authorities. He probably wrote most often to Elder Marion D. Hanks and Elder Neal A. Maxwell, but he often sent letters to others, sometimes asking questions, sometimes sending copies of his essays, and sometimes thanking them for their remarks in various contexts.
Others to whom he wrote frequently included Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, President Dallin H. Oaks, Elder Robert D. Hales, and President Boyd K. Packer. He was eager for discussion of his ideas and theirs—he often wrote with comments on their talks in Conference or at BYU events. He was genuinely anxious to win the Brethren’s approval of his thoughts and projects.
What is the context for Eugene England’s correspondence with Elder Bruce R. McConkie?
Soon after Eugene England came to BYU as a professor, he gave a lecture called “The Lord’s University” in which he laid out the ways he believed that a university ought to be shaped by the ideal of eternal progression. He cited Joseph Smith’s King Follett sermon, Brigham Young, Wilford Woodruff, B. H. Roberts and others in support of the idea that God is eternally learning and progressing, as a way to encourage students to view their studies as part of a godly project.
Always eager for collaboration, Eugene England circulated drafts of his talk before he was to give it. Joseph Fielding McConkie read it and called England to tell him that the ideas in the paper would be condemned by Elder Bruce R. McConkie. England invited Joseph McConkie to come hear the talk and present his response. McConkie’s response was a strong denunciation of the paper, and concluded, “I do not see the salvation of BYU in the abandonment of absolutes, and with the prophets whose blood flows in my veins, I refuse to worship at the shrine of an ignorant God.”
England revised his paper, trying to harmonize the view that God could be progressing with a belief in God’s omniscience and omnipotence, positing that God had progressed so far beyond the human realm that He was indeed omniscient about the universe that we know, but that He might still be learning about other universes.
He sent a draft to Elder McConkie, but left for a study abroad program in England before he received a reply.
Nine months later, Elder McConkie delivered his well-known talk on “Seven Deadly Heresies” at BYU, listing as the first deadly heresy the notion that “God is progressing in knowledge and is learning new truths.”
Early in the next year, Elder McConkie sent a blistering 10-page reply to Eugene England’s earlier letter, denouncing England’s thesis and even his attempts to find middle ground between his own opinions and the Apostle’s, declaring:
Did any portions of Elder McConkie’s letter confuse Eugene England?
In a letter responding to Elder McConkie in May, 1981, Eugene England wrote:
It hurts and bewilders me to have you imply in your letter that I am somehow comparable to those cultists who use the obscure speculations of Brigham Young about Adam and God to support their self-indulgent and evil ways, or to have you think that I go about speaking in opposition to the revealed doctrines of the Church, or to have you feel that I presume to instruct you or any of the Brethren, or set myself against you in any way. I have never done any of those things.
Of course, Eugene England is here writing defensively, and probably still with some anger and hurt, but I believe he sincerely saw himself as completely faithful and obedient and was surprised to be perceived differently.
He and Elder Bruce R. McConkie were speaking past each other from two different epistemological universes—Elder McConkie believed that truth was revealed through the orderly structure of priesthood offices.
England believed in revelation, but also thought truth could be found through a messier process of dialogue:
Dialogue depends also on willingness to prove all things. We must be willing to consider that anything we believe or base our lives upon may be a partial truth—at best something seen (as Saint Paul also said) “through a glass darkly”—or even may be dead wrong. … My faith as a Mormon encourages by specific doctrines my feeling that each man is eternally unique and god-like in potential, that each man deserves a hearing and that we have something important to learn from each man if we can hear him—if he can speak and we can listen well.
For someone with Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s views about the relationship between authority and revealed truth, Eugene England’s questions and disagreement were disobedient, no matter how carefully he framed them.
Eugene England was “bewildered” by Elder McConkie’s response (and, throughout his life, by the reactions of others who believed that authority was a matter of hierarchy rather than persuasiveness) because he understood rigorous engagement—“proving all things”—as a sign of faithfulness, rather than rebellion, and because he saw the world of ideas as flat and egalitarian, rather than structured by priesthood hierarchy.
What was behind the intensity of Elder McConkie’s response to Eugene England?
It’s hard to say, of course, because we don’t have much of Elder McConkie’s side of the story, but I have a few guesses.
First, the question of God’s progression and its relationship to the eternal progression of human beings had been contested in the Church, almost since its founding. The tracks of McConkie’s and England’s disagreement were well-worn, and each had authoritative pronouncements to support his argument. The long history of these disputes, which had involved members of McConkie’s family—Joseph F. and Joseph Fielding Smith (whose daughter Amelia was Elder McConkie’s wife)—undoubtedly made England’s disagreement seem more personal and raised the stakes of the debate in Elder McConkie’s mind.
Historically, England and McConkie’s disagreement comes at the end of a decade where universities were a frequent locus of unrest, and where students were insistently challenging authority. Eugene England might have been the best known student activist in the Church—although he was already married and a father by the time he was in graduate school, he was sympathetic to protesting students at Stanford and publicly involved in some social justice causes there.
Elder Bruce R. McConkie, even more than some of the other Brethren, was especially careful and deferential to priesthood authority. My hunch is that activism of any kind seemed suspicious and disrespectful to him, so he may have been inclined to react strongly to Eugene England’s work, even before he read it.
England had been an insistent and vocal critic of the ban on Black members of the Church being ordained to priesthood office, and continued pressing after the ban was rescinded in 1978 for a fuller repudiation of the folk doctrines that had arisen to justify the practice. I don’t have any evidence for this guess, but I suspect Elder McConkie might not have especially liked Eugene England’s frequent quotation of his August 1978 speech about the rescinding of the ban, where McConkie quoted 2 Nephi 26:33—“all are alike unto God…” and explained:
“These words have now taken on a new meaning. We have caught a new vision of their true significance. This also applies to a great number of other passages in the revelations. …. Many of us never imagined or supposed that they had the extensive and broad meaning that they do have.”
Eugene England generally did not cite the rest of Elder McConkie’s explanation about the timing and scope of the revelation received by President Spencer W. Kimball, and Elder McConkie may have felt that his words were being taken out of context to justify some of England’s positions with which he did not fully agree.
How did Eugene England’s correspondence with Marion D. Hanks and Neal A. Maxwell differ from his communications with Bruce R. McConkie?
Eugene England had been personally acquainted with Elder Neal A. Maxwell and Elder Marion D. Hanks in other contexts, so their letters were friendlier and less abstract. There were usually at least a few details about their personal lives as well as doctrinal back and forth.
They were not always without friction—there was at least one episode where Elder Hanks was really angry with England, but they were able to work it out over the course of a few letters. England’s final exchange with Elder Maxwell is also painful, and they did not have time to work through their differences before England’s death.
The most consistent feature of England’s letters, I think, is that they are raw and vulnerable—he pours himself out on the page–without guile and often without diplomatic caution.
What was the aftermath of Eugene England’s correspondence with Elder McConkie, and what do you most admire about England’s response?
Gerald and Sandra Tanner published a copy of Elder McConkie’s letter in the Fall of 1981, and England wrote to Elder McConkie once more to assure him that he was not the source of the leak. Thereafter, he did not speak publicly on the topic of their disagreement until after McConkie’s death.
According to his daughter Rebecca, “most of England’s friends and family were unaware of his struggle to respond with integrity to McConkie’s letter of reprimand.”
In 1989, Eugene England published “Perfection and Progression: Two Complementary Ways to Talk About God,” the paper he had sent to Elder McConkie after the initial conflict at BYU in BYU Studies. England felt that Elder McConkie’s counsel of silence was no longer in force after his death, and that his own integrity required him to continue to explore the question of God’s progression.
In a 1993 essay, “On Spectral Evidence,” he explained “it was certainly not my prerogative to publicly challenge or oppose Elder McConkie’s ideas, especially while he was serving as an apostle. But neither did it any longer seem right for me to remain silent about what I understood to be an important and official teaching of the restoration affecting the education of my students…”
I admire Eugene England’s initial response to Elder McConkie, his willingness to engage in an attempt to find a middle way between their views.
I also respect his patience—it seems to me that many of us feel that our integrity demands immediate action, and I particularly admire people who find strength to live with a quiet, honorable struggle for a long time. I am not sure that I would have solved the dilemma in the way Eugene England did—it’s not clear to me that Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s death necessarily changed the force of his injunction—but I think England was true to his intuition that his own soul and intellect had to be respected in the conflict, that mere submission was not necessarily godly.
What issues would Eugene England be most interested in today—and what might one of his Tweets look like?
He would have become a more committed and effective feminist, and he would have worked hard to make the Church (and the world) a safer place for LGBTQ+ Saints. I think he would have been urgently concerned about young people leaving the Church over political issues, and he would have been heartbroken over the increasing political polarization in the country and the Church. There probably would have been some more idiosyncratic anti-poverty efforts like Food for Poland.
He would have been so happy about so many things that are happening in Mormon literature and Mormon Studies—his contributions to the founding of Dialogue, the Association for Mormon Letters, and the Mormon History Association have yielded abundant fruit. It would be wonderful to have him at conferences in the role of elder statesman.
He would be wary of Twitter, and also unable to stay away. He would probably write long threads no one would finish reading. Many of his sentences are too baroque for a single tweet, but some of his best ideas can be squeezed (with a little editing) into 280 characters:
—The Church is as “true”-- as effective, as sure an instrument of salvation as the system of doctrines we call the gospel— because of the very flaws, human exasperations, and historical problems that occasionally give us all some anguish.
—I believe in a weeping God who can’t solve our pain and problems or promise to make everything right in the end, who calls us to live with him in a tragic universe. It is a tragedy to believe in such a God; it would be a tragedy to lose such an understanding of him.