Scholars & Saints

The Tragic Universe of Mormon Theologian Eugene England (feat. Terryl Givens)

August 01, 2022 Stephen Betts Episode 20
Scholars & Saints
The Tragic Universe of Mormon Theologian Eugene England (feat. Terryl Givens)
Show Notes Transcript

Professor Terryl Givens of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University joins me to talk about the life of Latter-day Saint theologian Eugene England. 

The Tragic Universe of Mormon Theologian Eugene England

Stephen Betts: I'm joined today by Terryl Givens, Neil A. Maxwell Senior Fellow at Brigham Young University's Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship and Jabez A. Bostwick Professor of English Emeritus at the University of Richmond. Professor Givens has authored numerous books about Latter-day Saint culture and theology, including Wrestling the Angel, Feeding the Flock, and many more. Today we're discussing his recent biography of Latter-day Saint scholar Eugene England entitled Stretching the Heavens: The Life of Eugene England and the Crisis of Modern Mormonism. Thanks for taking the time to chat with me today, Terryl.

Terryl Givens: Happy to be here. 

Stephen Betts: So Terryl, you're not really principally a biographer. Most of your work in Mormon Studies over the years has been about the history and literature, scripture, theology of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. So what's the, what's the story, the impetus behind taking on this project? 

Terryl Givens: Well, I, I had written one previous biography with Matt Grow. I had done the Parley P. Pratt biography. Uh, I don't know, a dozen years ago or so. And, you know, in both cases I was drawn to the project because I saw that particular character, Pratt in the 19th century and Eugene England in the 20th as a particularly potent window through which to examine really formative moments and episodes in the Church's history. And so in both cases, I saw what I was doing to be really the work of cultural biography rather than personal or documentary biography. 

Stephen Betts: Yeah, in the title, you characterize this project as opening a window onto a, a crisis in modern Mormonism that I think we'll get a better picture of as we, as we talk some more. But of course I think the place to start here is, uh, really before Gene is born, right? Uh, in some ways you know, his parents make this kind of, Samuel-like, this biblical, uh, agreement with God before he's born. They're, they're wanting a son and they say, God, if you give us a son, we'll dedicate his life to church service. So, can you tell us more about that background and how that shaped his life and his work? 

Terryl Givens: Oh, the burden of fatherly expectation! Uh, yeah. Gene was given to know from a very early age that he had been consecrated, effectively to the work of the Lord. And I think that burden weighed heavily on him throughout his life, caused him a great deal of pain.

And I think the reason for that is because in Latter-day Saint culture, service to the Lord is generally seen as equivalent to calling in the Church. And that conflation was pretty evident in the minds of his parents, as it became apparent to him in his midlife and beyond. I think the fact that we and the church tend to think of the priesthood as something through which men progress in rank rather like a Scouting program.

And, uh, so it's clear that that Gene tried to kind of disassociate himself from those kinds of aspirations, but he recognized that his parents had hoped that he would have some high calling in the Church and, you know, he remarks and his parents would remark in their journals in their writings. They would kind of track the sons of friends. "Well, he just got called as a stake, you know, president." Gene's own father was close to the Brethren. He was a temple president. And so he always measured himself against that standard, which of course he never fulfilled because, uh, he, he was called as a Bishop and as a branch president, but he never had the kind of high office that he thought would make his parents feel that he was a success.

Stephen Betts: And nevertheless, he, he certainly sustains long relationships with numerous General Authorities of the Church, members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. And I think that we have to kind of set the stage for why that's possible at this point, obviously the church is, is a much different culture, much different place.

What sorts of influences does he have early on in his life? I mean, he's interacting with Latter-day Saint. luminaries, intellectual luminaries, like Lowell Bennion and of course his wife, Charlotte. Tell us more about his early influences and, and sort of his cultural background.

Terryl Givens: Well, you have to remember that back in the sixties and seventies, when he's coming of age in his own faith and testimony, as well as in his professional life, it was a much smaller, more intimate church. It hadn't yet really become internationalized in any sense. This was before the, the era of, you know, tremendous leaps forward in missionary work and, and conversions.

And so if you were born and bred in the Utah, Idaho regions, you, you tended to have frequent interactions with the Brethren. And, uh, his family history also gave him access to the Brethren. And then in addition to that, he had a weakness that he acknowledged and Charlotte certainly recognized of craving affirmation.

And part of this, I'm not a psychologist, but it seems to have been related to his perennial sense that he was failing his father in some way. And so he was seeking affirmation by frequent contact with the Brethren. And this was always at his instigation. He was always sharing with them his poetry, his essays, his, his hopes and aspirations.

He would go to them and seek counsel. Sometimes he would go to the Church Administration Building and just kind of wander the hall, seeing who was in and who he could start a conversation with. He came home frustrated on one occasion and Charlotte said to him, why does it matter to you so much what the Brethren think of you? And he writes in this journal, "Good question!" So, that was, I think part of the setting that, that ended up having deleterious effects in, in his life as it turns out. But in terms of other influences, he was probably more profoundly influenced by Lowell Bennion than by any other figure in the Church. Lowell Bennion never held high office.

He had the distinction of being the only, or at least one of the only non-General Authorities to ever be asked to speak in a General Conference. That's a reflection I think, of how enormous the respect in regard that she was held by the laity and by the leadership alike . He was an Institute teacher. That's where Gene England encountered him. Lowell Bennion because he had a pure heart and didn't seek for church office. He, he tended to be more frank than most people today would be in the CES about his own reservations about church policies and practices about his own questions and searching. And in particular, he challenged church policies and teachings regarding the priesthood ban.

And, uh, one of the really formative moments that Gene England records in his own journal was the morning in seminary or Institute where he gave a kind of pat answer to the question of why blacks didn't have the priesthood and was challenged by Lowell Bennion. And he notes that as a kind of turning point, Gene England does in his life.

Not that he, he changed his position or attitude, but that he realized how unfounded many of our assumptions about doctrine and practice are. And I think that launched him on a career of interrogating his own faith and, uh, the Mormon culture around him.

Stephen Betts: I mean, it seems like an early crucible, you know, that sort of, uh, questioning of doctrinal presentation and, and, uh, official narrative, comes really early on.

He doesn't serve a, a mission in a traditional sense. Somewhat untraditionally, he and his wife serve together as very young adults in their early twenties in Samoa. And, uh, you know, you'd pointed out in the book that, before they go, they're reading Margaret Mead, they're learning about, you know, the sorts of early 20th century anthropological work that's been done in Samoa and they get there and they realize, "Oh, this is, this is not true. Talk, talk more about that formative experience of the, of the mission to Samoa. 

Terryl Givens: Well in his journal, and he and Charlotte both kept a mission journal and they did it in a really lovely manner. They shared the journal, writing on opposite pages, alternately. And so you can track kind of their individual spiritual development, as well as the growth of their marriage, uh, through that journal.

But, probably the most common motif one finds in that mission journal is his frustration and disappointment with the racism and kind of ethnic prejudices of other white North American missionaries. And there's clearly a kind of condescension that permeates the mission from the mission leaders all the way down to the other elders.

And, uh, he develops a great love for the, the people that he's serving in Samoa. And he does come to recognize, as you indicated, quite early on that even cultural anthropology had been kind of blinded by all kinds of Western assumptions and biases against other cultures. And this mission was formative, not just in spiritual ways, but also in professional ways because he, he had demonstrated quite a facility for math and science, and that's where he thought he was going to be going professionally.

And there was something about the human contact and, uh, the way in which the genuinely human experience of brushing up against people in their daily lives, struggling with survival and family issues and faith questions convinced him that he had to pursue some kind of calling in life that was going to be deeply rooted in the human condition and the study of the human condition. And so that's why he switched to the humanities. 

Stephen Betts: Yeah. He comes back to the University of Utah. He finishes up there and he goes to Stanford. And I think it's really here that we, we kind of begin to see what his trajectory in life is gonna look like. Uh, and like his mentor, Lowell Bennion, we begin to see not just the fact that his life is going to kind of be, be an expression of the tragic, uh, really that he studies, right? The tragic of the, of the Romantic literature that he studies, but also that he's very concerned, even from a very young age with, with the big questions, you know, questions about God, questions about meaning, and you see this on his mission like you pointed out, questions that are about unresolved, you know, the traumas of life, right? The inequities of life, race, all of these things are on his mind as he's coming to Stanford as a Danforth scholar. So very, you know, very prestigious fellowship at the time. And he's coming there in the early sixties, right. And so there's all kinds of stuff going on here.

Terryl Givens: That's right. this right, incredible political ferment going on. And especially on the west coast at a place like Stanford, he begins his studies there in 1962. I think the most formative incident probably in those early years was the Gulf of Tonkin incident. It takes place in 1964, where suddenly, in very dramatic fashion, the United States government is revealed as providing false information to the American public and to governmental agencies in order to justify certain actions and greater involvement in the Vietnam war. He loses his faith in the United States government, as a reliable institution of, you know, any kind of integrity. He also, again, in part shaped by Lowell Bennion's humanitarian instincts, he is very pained by the racial band that's in place at that time. So one of the ironies of his predicament and it'll be a recurring irony is that, you know, he, he says in his journal, he says, look, I voted for Reagan twice. And yet. By all of his fellow Latter-day Saints he's considered to be this flaming liberal, right. And by the standards of west coast liberals, because he believes God and traditional values, he's considered to be this, you know, hopeless reactionary. So he, he encounters tremendous conflict with leaders, both local and, and general because he becomes so vocal and outspoken in his criticisms of the Vietnam war, in his peace activism, and he doesn't explicitly criticize the, the priesthood ban, although he does become quite outspoken against racism in all of its forms. And he thinks some of those forms are manifest in Latter-day Saint culture that extend beyond right, the official priesthood ban. One of the complications is that the closest relationship he has with any of the church leadership at this time is with Marion D. Hanks and Marion D. Hanks happens to be the American serviceman's representative in the Church.

And so right there, you can see just this clash that, that does unfold, that the, the friendship more or less survives, but there are, there are very hard words and feelings that are damaged between the two of them, because Gene England is advocating on behalf of and will actually write a letter in support of a conscientious objector who's a member of the Church. That is maybe the first action he commits that is seen as a real serious provocation. The father of the person in question writes a letter of complaint to the church leadership. Church leaders at that point become aware that in a period of really heightened patriotism on the part of the Church, here we have this figure who is kind of publicly advocating against the war and, and defending conscientious objectors. So the first of many, many clashes with his fellow Latter-day Saints in the church leadership is set in motion. 

Stephen Betts: Yeah, and, and the sixties and, and you know, his, his time at Stanford, I think really is where we start to see this window onto this, this what you call the crisis of modern Mormonism. This is a, this is a really inflection point in the early sixties for the Church in terms of its orientation towards the members, in terms of its self-conception of its role and its organization. But also in terms of doctrine and trying to figure out who gets to tell the narrative? Who's in charge of history? What's the difference between facts and, and, you know, secular history? So say more about this crisis. Like what, what, what kind of events are taking place in the Church? 

Terryl Givens: Well, the subtitle of the biography is you know, Eugene England and the Crisis of Modern Mormonism, but it would've been more accurate to say The Crisis of Mormon Modernism and, you know, crisis is an overused phrase. Every publisher wants it in their subtitle, but, but in this case, there, there really was a kind of crisis in the sense of an enormously challenging threat to prevailing paradigms of how the Latter-day Saints understand themselves and their religion. Now, in the case of Catholics and Protestants, historians of religion recognize that there was a "modernist crisis" and they so denominate it, that takes place like around the 19 oughts and teens and to speak just kind of simply and economically the, the modernist crisis in, in religion, in the west is largely a function of a growing historical consciousness that comes into conflict in the. Catholic Church with two things primarily. One is how can we have faith in the divine inspiration behind an institution now that we come to recognize how much cultural construction and historical contextualization gives shape to this institution. And then secondarily the, the same questions are applied to scripture. We become right increasingly aware of the fact that the scripture, the Bible is a cultural product and it reflects prevailing cultural attitudes and views and, you know, et cetera, et cetera.

And so this all becomes irresistibly apparent in the early 20th century, largely through the, the work of historians and archeologists and textual critics. Mormonism is able to defer that crisis for about 75 years. And they can do that for a number of reasons. One is simply because Latter-day Saints are so culturally insulated, right. We don't send our people to Eastern seminaries. We don't engage in much interfaith dialogue with other, I mean, yeah, sometimes in, in a kind of goodwill way, but not in terms of serious interchange of intellectual ideas and the growth of ideas about theology and biblical scholarship.

And there's a kind of geographical isolation of the church, right, that's prevalent throughout the 20th century. And there's a kind of hostility in Latter-day Saint culture towards theology itself as an enterprise. And then there's a kind of emergent anti-intellectualism that sets into the Church, you know, with the J. Reuben Clark era in the 1940s and following.

So all of these factors make it possible for Mormons to be insulated from this violent confrontation of a historical consciousness and the Church's narrative about itself. But what happens is by the time you get to the 1960s and seventies, right? There's this kind of revolt in American culture against authoritarianism.

There's a kind of, right, radical drive for egalitarianism and freedom and free thinking. And, and then of course, by the time you get to the seventies, you've got the growth of the, the internet. And suddenly we're in the information age. And Gene England is just very, very prescient about this coming collision between our narrative about ourselves and a vast repository of information that is at times inconsistent with that sanitized narrative, he becomes even more attuned to that looming collision because beginning in 1975, he's employed by the Church Historical Department.. And so he's doing original research in the Church archives, reading materials some of them being exposed for the first time.

He works on a biography of Brigham Young. He's doing work with primary sources, journals, and diaries. And so all of these lead him to a, a kind of privileged perspective of this looming crisis. And he tries to address it in a very faithful way. And his strategy is to acknowledge the, the problems, the sticky wickets in Mormon history and in the history of Mormon theology, to address them openly with absolute confidence that, the Church and truth are going to prevail and that the Church is strong enough and the Book of Mormon is strong enough to withstand scrutiny and interrogation and critique. It's a long way of saying that he's a little bit ahead of the curve in ways they're not always appreciated by the leadership. 

Stephen Betts: You know, he forms with some of his colleagues while still at Stanford, uh, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought with precisely this, this end in mind and, and culturally there's reason to believe in the sixties that, you know, with Vatican Two, that maybe there's a, a way for religion and for the life of the mind to come to some kind of agreement, to come to some kind of rapprochement.

He forms this and he says, look, we're going to do faithful intellectual work that tries to address these issues. So this is a basically theological commitment. And this is going to be sort of the beginning of his kind of journey becoming a lay theologian in the Church.

Terryl Givens: No, just what's terribly sad about this, right? Is that, I mean, even, you know, Kristine Haglund, when she does her biography, her really fine biography of Gene England that also came out this past year. Right? The title is Eugene England: The Mormon Liberal and, um, well, yes, certainly in some sense, he was a liberal, but he was radically Orthodox insofar as he was absolutely in harmony with Joseph Smith's kind of intellectual adventurousness that I think characterized the role in life, prophetic mission of Joseph Smith. And so he saw himself accurately, I believe, as trying to return us to an original vision of Joseph Smith that believed one, not only could, but must find a way to fully incorporate the heart and the mind. The world of the spirit and the world of learning; kind of the temple and observatory principle, right? Where we think of Orson Pratt building that rustic adobe observatory, right against the wall of the Salt Lake temple as if to say in this defiant visual way, we are going to reconcile science and spirit. And so he was idealistic and optimistic in this regard. He co-founded Dialogue in 1966 with this in mind, the very title, which, you know, we're a little bit numbed to the title because it's become so familiar to us. But you know, you have to think a minute about what that title embodied for Gene England.

It was the hopeful vision that a community of Saints could come together across all kinds of intellectual divides and find unity and commonality of purpose in a gospel in which all truth could be circumscribed. And, uh, he met with fierce pushback, almost immediately. And that really was in many ways, kind of the focus of the tragic life of Gene England was the fact that his whole self-declared mission was to bring about greater dialogue and harmony and he ended up precipitating all kinds of conflicts and divisions and hurts. 

Stephen Betts: I mean, you call him, you call Gene a theologian out of season. And of course we've sort of laid the groundwork here already for kind of understanding why doing theology as a Latter-day Saint, lay Latter-day Saint is a problematic venture to begin with because of the nature of the ecclesiology of the church, the priesthood hierarchy and the, the ways that knowledge gets disseminated and doctrine gets disseminated and developed. It's understood to come directly from God by revelation. So there's no sort of, there's no sort of question about, can we investigate this or not at the time that he's writing and he, but he doesn't see this as a problem because Joseph Smith famously talks about proving contraries, that truth comes about by bringing contrary things together and seeing what happens.

Terryl Givens: Yeah, no, I, I think one of the problems here is that, is that look there are, there are ways I'm a believing Saint. So there are ways in which I think Latter-day Saint belief and, and doctrine and practice is exceptional. Okay. I believe there are absolutely unique gifts and offerings that the church has to make to the world of, of Christianity. But the church isn't as unique as we think in the ways that we believe it to be. For example, Catholics have the same principle of continuing revelation. They believe that through the magisterium of the Church, the Spirit continues to unfold the original deposit of faith.

And so the Catholic church has long ago learned that theology can be an asset to doctrine and most Catholic theologians, I mean, there are some rebels, but most Catholic theologians understand that they do their work of theology in the service of the magisterium. Their, their challenge is to explicate and expound and extrapolate and fill in blanks and speculate as to how we can fill in some of the missing gaps in our understanding about God and do it all with a recognition that they speak without authority, but with the intent of sustaining church doctrine and belief. The Latter-day Saint church hasn't exactly made that accommodation to people who engage in the work of theology because they confound theology and doctrine thinking that theologians are making truth claims and authority claims that that they're not. I know I certainly don't make any, and yet at times we can be interpreted in that way. And so Gene England, I think was one of the first, most graphic examples of how the church was unwilling to make that accommodation. He believed that in a tradition that had fostered people like Orson Pratt and Parley Pratt and others who just gloried in the possibilities right of how far we could take and extend some of the implications of Joseph Smith's revelations. And so he explicitly denominated his work speculative theology to differentiate it from dogmatic theology, but he still was called on the carpet and told to be silent. 

Stephen Betts: There are some, I mean, truly spectacular, in just the, the sense of being a spectacle, truly spectacular moments in his life where, uh, he's developing this speculative theology of things like atonement. Things like the, the nature of God does God progress. Obviously Latter-day Saints, believe in this idea very early on Joseph Smith is teaching this idea that human beings progress in their nature. They become purified. They become more like God.

And the, the goal is of course to become like God, literally. And he's teaching, well, God, maybe God himself progresses, continues to progress. And, you know, Bruce McConkie, an Apostle, does not like this. So talk about that, that conflict that's this is one of the major inflection points of, I think, England's career.

Terryl Givens: Yeah, it's, it's probably what puts, Gene England on the radar of those who until that time had been unaware of him and his work. I remember as a missionary or just recently returned missionary, that, that, uh, that's where I first encountered the name of Gene England is because he'd been publicly condemned by Elder McConkie twice! Not by name, but certainly, the reference in allusion was clear. Yeah, this incident had its birth in the fact we have two different kinds of traditions going back to Joseph Smith, one that emphasized like the King Follett discourse that God progresses and, and advances in knowledge. And then you have a statement I think, attributed to Hyrum Smith, that" I would not worship a God that didn't have all power and knowledge."

Well, I think at this point, and, and I think gene England believed at this point, the debate becomes largely semantic. And so I, I just think it's a tragedy to reduce theology to the level of these kind of Scholastic debates about, you know, angels dancing on the head of a pin. Well, what does it mean to progress? Well, he progresses in the sense that he acquires greater and greater dominion and greater experience because as you develop relationships with your creation, you're engaging in new experiences and therefore your world is somehow enlarging. That's pretty self-evident, but that can be seen as a threat to those who want a kind of God who's kind of the static, right, eternally perfect entity. And so he tried to reconcile these two traditions by crediting both as being true in particular ways. And he was vigorously denounced by Joseph Fielding McConkie and just insulted and just kind of ravaged verbally. He responded with just incredible grace and kindness.

And, uh yet he was not willing to relinquish the effort. Because he thought it was important for students to see that one could work through apparent discrepancies and discordances in the Latter-day Saint past. And so, Joseph Fielding McConkie clearly passed on his work to Elder McConkie, Bruce McConkie, who denounced that idea as one of the seven heresies of, of Mormonism and wrote him a, a letter demanding that he'd be silent. And that letter was leaked, not by Gene England, because it was leaked before he even received his copy of it. And so it was clearly leaked in order to denounce and discredit him in a very public way. 

Stephen Betts: Yeah. He's also a scholar of, of literature and despite these, these conflicts with church leaders, he's not only appointed as a Bishop several times of, of congregations, but, but he's eventually hired not just by the Church History Department, but by Brigham Young University, right. And, and he comes and he's, he's establishing his goal is to establish Mormon literature as a significant literary force in American, especially Western American culture.

But he's also, I think you point out in the book, really crucial— probably beginning with Dialogue, but certainly also his work on literature, and then later as well— in establishing the discipline of Mormon studies. So I wonder if we can talk a little bit about Brigham Young University, his work there on, on literature, but also more broadly, what is this Mormon studies that he's trying to work for? 

Terryl Givens: Well, I think, I think probably a couple of factors feed into this. One is, as you mentioned earlier, his background in American Romanticism. And of course Romanticism is often associated correctly, but inadequately as a kind of celebration of individualism and subjectivity.

And so we find that writing with, you know, especially with people like William Wordsworth suddenly becomes all about the self, right? It's the narrative is always, the exploration is always interior. And so there's a kind of preoccupation with one's own mental, artistic, spiritual development. At the same time, working in the Church History Department from 1975 to 77, he's immersed in all of these journals of early Latter-day Saints and he comes to appreciate the tradition of journal writing among Mormons as a particularly potent literary form of expression. And, uh, you know, just as, just as the epistolary form, right, writing letters, right, had a very artistic self-conscious dimension to it in our Western tradition, but we've kind of lost that association today. We think of it as just kind of, you know, it's just a, a business practical kind of thing. Similarly, we tend to associate journals with just, you know, intimate diary keeping you're just keeping a personal record. And, and he said, no, no, no, no, this is, this is, this is an art form. It's, it's highly developed. Latter-day Saints, because of the, the practice of testimony bearing, for example, have developed this kind of art expressing the intersection of the personal and the divine in a way that is fairly unique to Latter-day Saints.. And he thought that it needed to be brought out of obscurity and celebrated and made the foundation of a kind of uniquely Latter-day Saint artistic heritage and tradition.

And so he wasn't the only one who was trying to formulate a kind of, you know, Mormon studies that was oriented around Mormon belles lettres, but he was probably the most dynamic and influential voice behind it. And so, he wasn't able to actually launch a formal Mormon studies program at BYU, but he did help to found the association for Mormon letters, which continues to this day.

And it wasn't until after he was forced out of BYU, hired by Utah Valley Community College, now Utah Valley University, that he actually received an NEH grant to formally found a Mormon studies program, the first of its kind anywhere in the world now they're replicas all around.

Stephen Betts: And it's not, you know, it's not just his work trying to formulate "what does the study of, of Latter-day Saint, culture, literature, art, et cetera, look like?" but he's also practicing this in his own work. Right. He's exemp, just like in so many other ways, he seems to be exemplifying in what he does, what he wants to, what he wants to bring out. And he, he uses the personal essay in really, really powerful ways. I wonder if you could, you could highlight for us, what does that look like? What is the uniqueness of the Eugene England personal essay? 

Terryl Givens: Well, first of all, I'll, I'll just say to be clear, I think Gene England was probably the most gifted practitioner of the personal essay that we have in our, in our tradition. And yeah, he was trying to, to not just promote past models of this art form, but he engaged in the practice himself in order to, I think, to explore what its limits and potentials were. And I think by so doing, he affected a beautiful merger of theology and art. I mean, you think of, you know, "Easter Sunday" or, or "Bonna Carlo," or, I mean, in, in these essays, he interweaves the personal with the deeply reflective with the unique perspective of a Latter-day Saint..

 But there is a kind of openendedness to his inquiries. This is one of the things that really kind of distinguishes him as a Latter-day Saint theologian is he doesn't fall victim to what I think can be a dangerous proclivity to think that that the fullness of the gospel means we've got it all. And that there is kind of a completeness and a closure and a finitude to it. And for him, there are all kinds of questions that we still hadn't fully plumbed and resolved. And so most of his best essays are characterized by this kind of, you know, gentle incertitude and an open-endedness, but I don't think he has any near peers. I think one of my contemporaries, Phil Barlow is, is also equally gifted. I wish, I wish we saw more writing of the quality of a Gene England. 

Stephen Betts: Well, and I like how you bring out this incertitude, this, this lack of, of closure. I mean, this really comes to characterize, I think the, the tenor of his, of his last years, and really sort of the end of the beginning of the end for him, I think we have to say is the be, is in the early nineties. There's a a lot going on in the early nineties with tensions between church leaders and feminists, church leaders and intellectuals, church leaders, uh, people from the LGBTQ community. Right. And, uh, and everything sort of comes to a head. For gene in, in 1992 at the Sunstone conference, in, in Salt Lake. Can you say more about that event and what, what its fallout looked like for him?

Terryl Givens: Well, the Church had issued a statement, asking people not to participate in Sunstone symposia, some letter day, Saint scholars took that as ambiguous, meaning are we not supposed to, to contribute to panels and papers, or can we not attend? And so Gene England was no longer participating in panels, but he was attending one.

And it came out at one of these sessions, Lavina Anderson gave a, a talk in which, and she wasn't the first, but it was the first revelation that received any kind of attention that there was a "committee for strengthening members" that was monitoring the work of Latter-day Saint scholars and assessing the level of danger that they represented to the Latter-day Saint church.

And so it, it sounded a little bit McCarthyite-like . And Gene England, upon hearing this stood and waved his hand pointing and said, I accuse this committee of I don't remember the exact words undermining the church essentially. Well, there were TV cameras rolling, and this received national attention.

And of course, Gene England didn't know that that committee was constituted of apostles. And so it's hard to say where the beginning of the end for Gene England takes place 'cause there were so many beginnings of the ends. We could go all the way back to the 1960s and his essay on atonement, which we could talk about. But, but this was probably the most devastating to his reputation. Because he had publicly embarrassed the church and embarrassed men on, on the Quorum [of Twelve Apostles] whom he personally loved and sustained. He engaged in effusive, apologies, privately and publicly, so many and for so long that finally he received a note from the brethren saying that year, that, that this apologies suffice, you don't need to keep doing this in public.

 But I think that was seen and felt by many in the leadership to be the last straw. But it was, you know, he, he didn't really repent of it and there's a really fascinating exchange of correspondence subsequently. And I can't remember how much of this correspondence I include in the biography, but to some leaders that he respects and admires, he writes a letter of apology, but by the time he finishes the apology, he's angry all over again and is, is retracting the apology. Cause he just, he, he just believes so passionately in intellectual freedom. And he he's just is really appalled that there is not the openness and receptivity to intellectual exploration at Brigham Young University that he thought a church college should embody 

Stephen Betts: Well, and with, with the retirement or the, or the, the end of the term of, of president Rex E. Lee and the incoming president Merrill Bateman, he receives word progressively and then quite decisively in, in '98 that his services are no longer required at BYU and it was 

Terryl Givens: that's right. 

Stephen Betts: better for him to leave. Right. 

Terryl Givens: That's right. So he's yeah. So his course load is reduced, then he's barred from teaching religion and he's barred from teaching honors classes and he's barred from participating in the study abroad. So it's quite evident that he's being pressured out. And, uh, there's, there's a little bit of a, a pre-history that culminates in 1998 that explains why his departure is forced at this particular moment. And it really has to do, according to all the evidence that I could find with his insistence on teaching a doctrine of atonement that the Brethren find to be heretical. And he is trying to revive the doctrine of "moral influence theory" it's called the, the atonement theology of moral influences. First proposed in the Middle Ages by Abelard. Abelard is just horrified by penal substitution, well at that time is just called substitutionary atonement theology. The notion that God demands, somebody suffer for sin. And so Jesus says, "well, punish me." And so God punishes Jesus in the place of us. And Abelard just thought "that's incongruous with any notion of a loving, compassionate God, a parent doesn't demand somebody suffer when a child breaks a rule." And so he argues that that Jesus, as a perfectly innocent sinless one voluntarily allows himself to be sacrificed as a demonstration of his infinite love for us. And we are so broken by the spectacle of innocent suffering, that our hard exterior crumbles. And we, we want to emulate that love and come onto Christ. And it's a beautiful, it's a beautiful theology. And so he recasts it in an essay that he publishes in Dialogue, "That They Might Not Suffer." A theology of atonement. And it's and it's beautiful. He sends a copy of this to Elder Packer who responds, I couldn't track down the correspondence, but secondhand sources indicate that Elder Packer responded and said, "this is false doctrine." He sends a copy to Elder Maxwell. We do have that correspondence and Elder Maxwell responds effectively by saying "it's really lovely doctrine. The only problem it has is that it's not true, or that it's not scripturally substantiated." And yet in spite of two heavyweight apostles indicating their displeasure with the article and its theology, he continues to teach it in firesides and Sunday school class and going all the way down now to the 1990s, he's still teaching it. And a person in his Sunday school class complains to the stake president that he's teaching false doctrine. And the stake president happens to be a man by the name of Merrill Bateman and Merrill Bateman to his credit says, as scriptures advocate, "well, you go and sort it out between yourselves," and he doesn't intervene.

So they do have a conversation about the theology of atonement Gene is teaching it's all documented. And Gene acknowledges, yes, this is an accurate representation of what I'm teaching and the matter seems to fade away. But then when Bateman suddenly appears as new president of BYU, Gene England, as is his wont, invites himself into a get acquainted meeting with Bateman and just in just unbelievable kind of naivete and obliviousness, Gene will write in his diary, after the meeting, "president Bateman was, was just kind of weirdly cold and unfriendly. And I didn't know why. And then as I was leaving, he asked me the oddest question: "what do you believe about the atonement?" And Gene just fails to make any connection at all to the past and just thinks, "what a strange question." And then he bears his testimony of the atonement and leaves. But clearly, if that was still on the mind of president Bateman, Gene England is still giving firesides, still teaching this. Then that seems to be one of the final precipitating indications that from the standpoint of the Brethren, he just is intransient and just won't mend his ways toward a greater orthodoxy. 

Stephen Betts: You brought this up earlier, but one of the things that persists even till really his, his death is his lack of understanding about what other people think about him. The, the fact that it doesn't occur to him that what he's doing could possibly be construed as not orthodox. 

Terryl Givens: Yeah, 

Stephen Betts: And maybe we just put it down to, you know, he has a pure heart. He just can't imagine somebody would have malintent. But what's, what's your take on this? Why does he have such a hard time with you know, understanding people. 

Terryl Givens: This was a deeply rooted characteristic. I think one of the funniest stories that is told is, was I think it was his friend, Bert Wilson, who said, "look, we, we were eight and 10 years old, 12 years old, and we're getting ourselves into trouble." And he said, "the only difference between us and Gene was Gene was always surprised. It's like, you know, "we knew we weren't supposed to be stealing hens or, you know, or, or creating this kind of ruckus, but he always seemed disconnected from the consequences of what we were doing." Now, it is clear because there are some really poignant moments in his journal, one in particular, I'm thinking of how Gene England won't let this racial issue rest even after the ban is revoked. He still is excavating a very ugly thread in the Mormon past, revealing all kinds of horribly racist language. Especially on the part of Brigham Young. And, one day he's listening in a sacrament meeting and there's a black member of the church who's bearing a testimony and he's, he's talking about the racism that he has experienced and the need for forgiveness. And I just think in one of the most self revealing moments in his entire life Gene England writes his in his journal and says "I can't help but think he affected more good with his contrite, meek revelation of his experience than I do with all my moral outrage.

And so he recognized that moment that he did have a tendency at times to be a Luther, you know, "throw me on the flames! I'm gonna go down as a martyr to my faith" rather than always being more concerned with "how can I actually effect a good result, a good outcome here?" And part of it was also naivete. I mean, there, there are time after time after time where Elder Packer in particular sends very clear signals of what Gene England needs to do if he wants to be hired by BYU or be in the good graces of the Brethren. And they'll have all of these meetings where Gene will say, "well, you didn't tell me that." And Elder Packer will say, "well, I think I made it perfectly clear," and Gene says, "well, I don't read signs very well." Some of that is, is a little bit disingenuous, I think, by any measure. 

Stephen Betts: So I think we can say that he never really recovers from the lack of affirmation that he gets from, from church leaders. But specifically with his, you know, his forced retirement from BYU. And it's only a couple of years later that he's diagnosed with brain cancer, he's really suffering from really deep, you know, introspective depression about, you know, "was my life worth it? Did I do the right thing?" But you say, "one of his profounder contributions was to introduce into Latter-day Saint discourse the intractability of the tragic, it's fierce resistance to glib moralizing, facile comforts, or even final explanations without calling his faith in Joseph Smith's gospel into question," and you call this "dangerous discipleship." Say more about dangerous discipleship, and, and sort of what, what is Eugene England the man, but also the symbol mean at the end of his life? 

Terryl Givens: Yeah. Okay. This, this comes to the real root of Latter-day Saint culture. You know, I, I was reading our Sunday school or our church program last week that is handed out at the beginning of services. And it had a quote from somebody saying, "if God wills it, it will happen. And if he doesn't it won't so sit back and relax." And I think, well, that's part of those creeds that Joseph Smith decried as an abomination, but we still insist on having this kind of Calvinist obsession with God is in charge and everything is unfolding according to his plan.

Well, if that were true, why would Enoch have seen him weeping? I think we miss the fact that weeping is not just a sign that God is passible. That he's a God of body, parts, and passions, but it's also a sign that he's not a sovereign God, he doesn't control human agency. And so things happen that God doesn't want to happen.

He didn't want the Holocaust to happen. He doesn't want Russia to be invading Ukraine and slaughtering men, women, and children. And so it's a tragic universe because God is a self-limiting God. Because of human agency, we bring incalculable evil and pain and suffering upon ourselves and upon each other. And, uh, I think in one of C.S. Lewis's more inspired moments in this regard. He has one of his characters say, "God could make use of all that happens, but the loss is real." And to my mind, that is the mind of Gene England. The loss is real. And as a, as a branch president and as a Bishop, he encountered incredible suffering that he chronicles in some of his essays, just horrible birth defects in children that parents had to wrestle with and mental illnesses and, and just physical disabilities. These aren't intended. They're not designed God doesn't impose them. They happen 'cause that's the kind of universe that we inhabit. And so Latter-day Saint teachings can give clarity, but they can't erase all pain and suffering. And I think that's, that's what he's saying. I think that's what he meant.

Stephen Betts: So Terryl, what do you think the, and you can defer this question if you want, but what's the outlook for lay Latter-day Saint theology and theologians now sort of after the kinds of work that that Eugene England does? 

Terryl Givens: Well, I think there's always going to be a tenuous, that those who aspire to do theology will always occupy a fragile ground. And I think, I don't know if it's because the church is still young. I don't know what it is that makes it so difficult to acknowledge and respect on the one hand an inspired leadership in whom we believe all the keys reside and yet to also make room for healthy exploration and, and, imagination.

 I think as a historian, looking back over the last 200 years of the church's history, it seems that we've constantly been just swinging from one side to the other, as a pendulum going back and forth. There were, you know, there was a golden age back in the 1930s when the church deliberately at right as a deliberate course of action said who were the leading intellectuals in the church? Let's have them write the manuals and they did right? And so we get B.H. Roberts and Talmage, and, and later in the fifties we had Nibley right. And then you get the reaction after the catastrophe of the Chicago Divinity School experiment of the 1930s, where suddenly, now we're not gonna send anybody out to outside the university.

We get the, we get the J. Reuben Clark manifesto, right? "The Charted Course of Church Education," which says, no, we're just gonna cut ourselves out. We're not gonna try to accommodate ourselves to the ways of the world. And then you get Elder Ballard's 2016 address, which I think had the potential to be the most transformative talk given in my lifetime where he says, very frankly, "we have failed. We as a church educational system have failed to prepare our students for the challenges of this world. We need to change our mentality. We need to understand that if a testimony is not an answer to a question, if you don't know the answer to a question, go to a, a scholar or a historian who does," right.

So a complete paradigm shift in 2016, but now we're seeing again, right, cautions and requests that we pull back and not engage in anything that is speculative. And so, I think the trajectory is always onward and upward in, in healthy ways, but there are lots of short term aberrations that we just have to ride out. But, I'm hopeful that that eventually the attitude of Joseph Smith will prevail that, uh, you know, he, once said's one of my favorite quotations from him, he said, "I do not have the prerogative vouchsafed to every other American to speak my mind freely. Because when I do somebody is there to take it down with a pen and say that a prophet said it." I love that because what, what Joseph is saying is "I like to be able to just think out loud and I want to accord all other men that same opportunity and, and privilege." So, I would like to think that as long as we are clear about not claiming authority we don't have there's there's room to do that. But that's not always the case. And we just have to struggle within those constraints.

Stephen Betts: That's Terryl Givens talking about his recent biography, Stretching the Heavens: The Life of Eugene England and the Crisis of Modern Mormonism. Thanks for being here with me today, Terryl 

Terryl Givens: Real pleasure to talk with you. Thanks.

*Transcript edited for clarity, grammar, and punctuation.