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The Final Letters Between Eugene England and Neal A. Maxwell

Maxwell broke the silence nine days later, but rather than offer either absolution or comfort he effectively confirmed England’s fears.

Except for a few sporadic entries, Eugene England’s diary comes to an end in these months. His personal papers, however, reveal a spiritual torment that occludes all other concerns in his life.

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This is an excerpt from Stretching the Heavens: The Life of Eugene England and the Crisis of Modern Mormonism. Read the book for the rest of the story.

Although his new position was satisfying and he was finding the support, recognition, and respect he had yearned for at BYU, he could not make peace with his dismissal of two years past.

On 18 January, he wrote a letter to the apostle in whom he still placed his greatest trust—Neal Maxwell. In it, he rehearsed and explained once again the final series of conflicts with the administration beginning in 1994. He narrated the events up to 1998, when President Bateman had directed his chair to terminate him.

Compounding the pain, he added, he had learned from Wayne Booth, who had visited BYU shortly before, that “President Bateman had said, without specifics, that I was a ‘person who could not be trusted.’” He had considered legal action and resistance to what he saw as an unjust firing.

My soul is still not at peace. Can you help me?

But the report of Booth changed everything. His concern now was for his own soul and standing, not justice.

It hurts me terribly to think I am—or am seen as—a person who can’t be trusted or doesn’t tell the truth. . . . So I ask your forgiveness. If the reason for all of this is that I did not properly follow the counsel you gave . . . and the follow-up counsel Rex [Lee] gave, . . . I am truly sorry. . . . I only wish someone had talked to me straight about this. I certainly recognize that I am passionate, probably self-deceiving, even arrogant at times. . . . But I hope you know I am not defiant, unrepentant, dishonest, or inclined in any way to hurt the Church or its leaders. If I have done so in any way, please forgive me.

England did not send the letter—apparently realizing that his long series of attempts to be understood and validated had come to naught and were unlikely to be fruitful at this stage. Throughout the year, his despondency persisted. He taught, built upon the foundations of the Mormon studies program, and fulfilled his duties—but family and friends grew concerned at his unprecedented change in demeanor.

The day after Thanksgiving, he had written in his journal, “I’m suffering more than any time I can remember. I have a constant hurt in my stomach that is not sharp like an ulcer just dull, but seems the result of some inner stress. I find myself reviewing my past and thinking of decisions and actions I would like to go back and change and thinking of my future as rather bleak because of those decisions and actions.”

The upside he strove to find was in a determination “to repent and live differently. . . . Less scattered, less pushy and self-confident about doing things my own . . . way.”

Learn more about the relationship of Eugene England and Neal A. Maxwell in this Faith Matters podcast with Terryl Givens.

Like a drowning man caught between two banks, he fled first to one side and then the other. No sooner had he committed to acknowledging personal “failure of some kind” and maintaining his “focused, repentant mode” than he switched direction and found the culprit in the institution he loved.

He became “increasingly convinced my pain is due to a lack of voice, of expression of my heart’s core.” His sense of “humiliation and loss” was attributable to the “unfairness of being asked to leave BYU by President Bateman on behalf of the ‘Brethren.’” Never imputing any wrong to England, the church had never given him a “chance to repent if need be.”

Two days later, his resolve to let the matter lie broke down, and he wrote another letter to Maxwell. He incorporated much of the year-old draft, omitted some details, but returned even more poignantly—and pathetically—to his spiritual pain:

I feel now that I should have been more vigilant, and I apologize to you that I wasn’t. I repent sincerely and . . . am ‘trying again’ constantly in what I see as my task to be the kind of writer whose work only builds faith. Please tell me if this failure is the reason I have been thought untrustworthy or if there is something else I need to know and do and be to regain that trust. It is a constant, piercing pain in my soul to think that I have done something that might prevent me from serving the Church with the gifts I know God has given me.

And then, in desperation, he reverts to his familiar pattern of invoking character witnesses one last time: “Bishop Borland and my stake president, Jim Toronto, have expressed complete confidence in me, and though I sought it, I have felt no chastisement from the Lord, but my soul is still not at peace. Can you help me?”

He anxiously awaited Maxwell’s reply.

Revisiting the past had not been cathartic—it had only intensified his turmoil. After sending his letter to Maxwell, his anxiety spilled over. Days before, UVSC’s vice president, Brad Cook, had told England that he was “a great treasure” of the college. But such praise did nothing to assuage his despair. That was not the approbation he craved.

He confided in his journal, “I’m getting close to a panic attack. I lay in bed this morning for almost an hour, just barely hanging on. My mind keeps circling, circling, over past failures, mistakes, omissions, wishing I could go back and change things. Nothing attracts me, fills me with desire to do, accomplish, feel. As I think of what I must do, it all seems banal, petty, doomed to failure.”

This post about the correspondence between Eugene England and Neal A. Maxwell is an excerpt from “Stretching the Heavens.”

He anxiously awaited Maxwell’s reply. On 20 December, he wrote in his journal, “I’m getting afraid of total collapse. . . . Charlotte feels I need to face my ultimate anxieties concerning the Church and authority but that she’s not sure I can resolve them—or that she can stand the process.”

Uncharacteristically, the apostle did not respond.

England continued to puzzle through his guilt, desperately seeking to pinpoint a sin he could make the focus of his repentance. Perhaps, he considered, it was in publishing, after McConkie’s death, the essay the apostle had condemned. “I felt I was being honest but I may have been guilty of self-deception. . . . God help me be true.”

He supplemented his repentance with antidepressants, but still wondered whether he was being “fitly punished with much sorrow and a withdrawal of the spirit.”

In London a few months before, England had attended the final moments of one of his favorite dramas, a medieval religious play called The Mysteries that chronicled the history of the world from Lucifer’s fall to final judgment. The play was almost over, but a befriended house manager let in the two couples (Gene, Charlotte, and their friends Tim and Mary Slover).

Maxwell broke the silence nine days later.

They entered the back as Jesus was imposing judgment. Tim Slover described what followed.

Jesus turned to a section of audience who had unknowingly sat on a bit of stadium seating that he had marked out for damnation. “Ye cursed caitiffs of Cain’s kin,” he said to the startled theatregoers, “that never me comforted in my care, from me flee, in hell to dwell without an end.”

By this time, Gene, who knew the drill, had worked himself over to the section of those who were to be saved. Jesus turned to him and smiled. “My blessed bairns on my right hand,” he said. “Your life in liking shall ye lead, in this kingdom that to you is due for your good deed. Heaven shall be your rest, in joy and bliss to be me by.”

Gene, I noted from where I stood in tears, beamed beatifically back at him.

Tim Slover

Now, gravely ill (though still undiagnosed) and finding no solace, and after a lapse of six silent weeks since his letter to Maxwell, England wrote to the apostle again.

He enclosed a copy of the original letter, and appended a note with additional details of his harrowing dark night of the soul, sounding like a medieval monk mercilessly debasing himself in a fruitless quest for absolution:

I have continued my process of self-examination and prayer for guidance and forgiveness on a daily basis—with many sleepless nights. I am worried that I may be sinking towards a serious depression and so am asking again if there is any help you can give. . . . The Lord warns that ‘the rebellious shall be pierced with much sorrow.’ [But] I don’t feel I’m rebellious, in fact, I’ve bowed my head and said yes many times when it was not only hard but unexplained and seemed unjust. . . . But I have realized, in my late night struggles with conscience, that I may have been proud and rebellious at times that I managed to rationalize in terms of being true to my conscience.

Eugene England in a letter to Neal A. Maxwell

And then he assured Maxwell, “All of you Apostles are the Lord’s chosen servants to whom I should be especially obedient. . . . I have never spoken ill of you or been knowingly untrue or intentionally disobedient. If pride or rebelliousness has ever dimmed my judgment I am profoundly sorrowful and ask your forgiveness.”

The same day, he wrote his final journal entry—where he sounded a still defiant note. Referring to the church that had deprived him of his position at BYU, he quoted Walter Lippman, who wrote of the “‘necessary opposition.’ His point was that the leaders of any institution must allow their opponents the right freely to challenge official positions, not out of any generosity of heart, but because the leaders desperately need to hear opposing views in order to keep their own excesses in check.” As with Goethe’s Faust, two spirits were at war in his breast to the very end.

Maxwell broke the silence nine days later, but rather than offer either absolution or comfort he effectively confirmed England’s fears.

The letter must have come as a devastating final blow.

The reason for the delay, he responded in late January, was in “pondering how best to respond to you.”

Then he said, “It would be unprofitable to meet merely in order to reprocess incidents from your personal history with their attendant concerns.”

Perhaps, in struggling with his own leukemia that would prove fatal, Maxwell recognized that England had to find his own way to a peaceful exit from a life of fraught discipleship. Especially since, as he suggested, England might not yet have come to terms with his own culpability in this tragic denouement to his career.

“You mentioned that ‘I have felt no chastisement from the Lord,’ but you also wrote that ‘I have realized . . . that I may have been proud and rebellious at times.’”

And then, with words that must have aggravated England’s already considerable misery, Maxwell added, “Frankly, your struggles may reflect having lived so long in the intellectual world that you might be ‘past feeling’ in terms of the precious process which may be under way.”

Only at the end of his letter did Maxwell almost, but not quite, soften the blow. He would consider meeting at a “spiritual level,” he granted, meaning past history and past controversies were off the table. There would be no reexamination, no resolution, of the fractured past. But even such a concession to allow England a final meeting with his spiritual confessor—death was now mere months away—was contingent on “your receptivity to counsel about discipleship.”

The letter must have come as a devastating final blow. The rebuff was a tragedy beyond mere emotional pain. It represented England’s ultimate failure to secure the goodwill of the hierarchy he had so earnestly sought to serve throughout his life.

Yet perhaps, even in the tragedy, one may discern a kind of felix culpa, a lovely grace that emerges from the ashes of a broken communion.

Book excerpt. Read the book for the rest of the story.

From Stretching the Heavens: The Life of Eugene England and the Crisis of Modern Mormonism by Terryl L. Givens. Copyright © 2021 by Terryl L. Givens. Published by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.

Further reading

Eugene England and Neal A. Maxwell resources

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