The Biography of Eugene England

Sponsored by BYU Studies — Terryl Givens discusses his biography, “Stretching the Heavens: The Life of Eugene England and the Crisis of Modern Mormonism” (University of North Carolina Press, 2021).

Your admiration for Eugene England shines throughout the book, and yet you also discuss his weaknesses. Why was it important to you that the biography include both?

Terryl Givens: I told Gene’s widow Charlotte that if I took on this project, it would not be a hagiography—it would be honest biography. And that’s the book she wanted too.

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.

The biography includes an account of a seven-year-old Eugene England doing sprints at a sleepover to try and escape thoughts that the universe didn’t exist. How did this mindset foreshadow some of the issues that would trouble him as an adult?

Terryl Givens: Eugene England never expected his faith to provide resolution for all of life’s agonies and perplexities. He loved his faith because it took him deeper into the mysteries.

What sustained him were three pillars. 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 (he remained troubled by the limited reach of a church committed to a kind of exceptionalism). And he found immersion in service to his community the most important path to discipleship.

The book cover of Stretching the Heavens, a biography of Eugene England by Terryl Givens.
Terryl Givens is the author of a biography of Eugene England, “Stretching the Heavens.”

Eugene England was a charismatic figure who you mention was once referred to by some Church members as the “13th apostle.” How did that perception complicate England’s endeavors and His relationship with general authorities?

Terryl Givens: 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.

Why was Eugene England’s teaching style sometimes referred to as “Questions to Gospel Answers”? Did his manner ever get in the way of his message?

Terryl Givens: Eugene England was acutely prescient about the ways in which the founding narratives of church history would be contested and complicated by the opening of the historical archives and the broad reach of the internet. He anticipated the challenges to faith that would result and addressed these challenges directly in firesides, essays, and classroom contexts.

On occasion, however, he articulated questions and challenges that had not even occurred to students, thus precipitating rather than resolving faith crises.

So we find in the record times when students were distressed by his questions and provocations, and colleagues criticized him accordingly.

Why did Eugene England so often initiate correspondence with general authorities?

Terryl Givens: Eugene England did not provide us with a clear explanation for his proclivity to launch correspondence with so many of the apostles and other members of the church administration.

I would venture two motivations.

First, Eugene England had no false modesty. He was aware of his intellectual and literary gifts, and he genuinely believed he had important contributions he could make to the kingdom. So, he at times proposed an array of initiatives, from curricular reform to new journals to programs and course proposals. At times his zeal carried him too far—as when he even offered to assist Elder Maxwell with improving his literary style.

A second reason was perhaps an entirely too human desire for approbation and affirmation. He never attained the churchly status of his father (mission president, temple president), nor did he by way of compensation achieve great scholarly success (most of his efforts were in the personal essay and devotional literature). 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.

Eugene England often provoked general authorities, penitently sought reunion, and then doubled down on his initial approach as consequences grew. What was it about his personality that seemed blind of certain likely outcomes?

Terryl Givens: Eugene England’s childhood friends would reminisce that he was peculiarly oblivious to the consequences of their youthful escapades. I personally believe that some character deficiencies are more virtue than vice, and many of Eugene England’s flaws fall in that category. He was impetuous, passionate, and uncalculating. He was politically naive and highly idealistic. He was also headstrong, stubborn to the point of being willfully obtuse, and pridefully intemperate.

When one finds oneself in conflict with authority, it is tempting to make an idol of our own integrity. One can be more concerned about the virtue one is manifesting than the practical outcomes one is hoping to achieve. I think this was Eugene England’s perennial temptation that he managed imperfectly.

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On one level, Eugene England seems keenly aware of how differently people think. And on another, he often seems as if he’s writing as though everyone thinks and feels like him. Was he ever conscious of this contradiction?

Terryl Givens: Eugene England never expressed this awareness that I recall. His entire life’s work was dedicated to the proposition that our human tendency is always toward polarization. He hated categories and labels (especially liberal and conservative). For him, Dialogue was not just a journal’s name, but the essence of any ideal community working to maintain a synthesis of difference of mind and unity of heart.

Many of his peers commented on a kind of respectful restraint that characterized most of his personal exchanges (not always evident in his written outbursts). In other words, few students or colleagues felt that he disrespected competing views. He modeled appreciative listening, though as one friend remarked, “he did not think provocative” was a negative word. So, he loved to provoke, to challenge, and to unsettle.

So, I don’t think it’s the case that he assumed assent, as that he wanted to place the burden of disagreement on the other.

Eugene England dreamed of writing a Joseph Smith biography. What might that have looked like—and how might it have affected the way we perceive Joseph Smith today?

Terryl Givens: Eugene England was of the opinion that almost two centuries of church culture had taken the edge off of Joseph Smith—to our detriment. (This is ironic, because he thought the reverse was the case with Brigham Young in some ways.)

He saw Joseph primarily as a political radical (the Joseph of the Views on Government more than the Joseph as city mayor) and as an intellectual revolutionary (Joseph of King Follett more than the author of the Articles of Faith).

Eugene England saw Joseph Smith as theologically expansive, daring, provocative. He famously spoke of his hostility to being “trammeled,” and of wanting to test boundaries (“prove contrarities”).

I am undoubtedly biased, but I believe his biography would have gone far to make an argument I have been trying to make (along with Fiona), that he laid a groundwork for a Restoration much more free of Protestant preconceptions that is apparent in Latter-day Saint vocabulary and culturally infused overlays.

How can the Joseph Smith Papers trace some of its roots back to Dialogue?

Terryl Givens: 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.

What question are you most frequently asked about Eugene England—and what do you wish people asked you?

Terryl Givens: Who was he? Sadly, the vast majority of people under 50 have never heard of him, in my experience.

I would like to be asked more about the reasons for his enduring (if not fully recognized) legacy. Charlotte shared with me two large notebooks full of reminiscences she compiled from friends who sent cards and letters at his passing. 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. This was a man who reminds me of the character in a Toni Morrison novel: I wish I’d known more people, she said at her death. Because then I would have loved more people.

I also believe that he was unparalleled as a master of the personal essay (Easter Weekend is my favorite). His intellectual engagement with Mormonism was always secondary to his commitment to the ideal of community that required personal and not just mental investment.

Describe Eugene England’s turmoil as he neared death and the letter he received from Elder Neal A. Maxwell.

Terryl Givens: Eugene England was suffering from a terminal brain tumor that affected his emotional state that was misdiagnosed as depression (or the cause of his depression). Just a few years before, he had been pressured to resign from BYU. This 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.

Few people have been repudiated by an institution into which they poured so much love and talent.

It must be said, however (and is in the book), that part of his fate was attributable to self-inflicted wounds.

He was not always as good as his word in avoiding controversy, in self-censoring his writing as he had been asked, or in putting his teaching responsibilities above his passion for being a persistent gadfly. And he continued to teach his theology of atonement in spite of apostolic censure of his interpretations.

Consequently, as he wrestled with self-doubt and insecurity, while muddled in his thinking by the advancing cancer, and desperate for affirmation—he was torn by a wild roller coaster of competing impulses: contrite repentance alternating with fierce bouts of self-justification. He reached out to his most revered friend in the leadership—Neal Maxwell—for solace and validation.

Elder Maxwell felt unable to offer what England needed, and a final meeting never occurred. Eugene England passed away, without finding the peace he had so long yearned to find.


Is Eugene England an unrealized ideal or a cautionary tale?

Terryl Givens: He is both. In the tradition he loved, Zion is always the unrealized ideal, and so are we as participants in that quest. His love of Dialogue was emblematic of his hope that we could interpret each other in the most charitable ways possible. And he was frequently interpreted with a minimum of such charity (though his interlocutors were at times justifiably exasperated with him).

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.

Eugene England is also a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of mistaking personal relationships with individual leaders as reflective of one’s relationship to the Christ who is the true object of discipleship. He realized this in some of the last pages of his journal. His love and respect for the apostles led him to place an unhealthy degree of reliance upon their approbation.

And in the end that orientation distracted him from the satisfaction that should rightly have been his for the many students and friends and readers whose lives he had so enriched.

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