Eugene England and the Future of Mormonism

My nearly-married and newly-married twenties were some of the most profoundly significant days of my life. Two events and two very different people were most influential to my way of living and thinking about Mormonism. The first event occurred on one of our first dates in 1983, when my then-fiancée, Zina, took me to a fireside sponsored by the BYU Honors Program. The speaker that night was English professor Eugene England. My wife had taken an honors colloquium from Gene, and raved about what an awe-inspiring teacher he was. But my initial impression of Gene was shock rather than awe. He began his lecture that night by talking about the Mountain Meadow’s Massacre, the Willie and Martin Handcart Company, and the biblical narrative of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. Gene did not flinch from the troubling details, either. He told of the Mormons, following obediently their ecclesiastical leaders, and brutally killing the men, women, and children of the Francher party. He discussed Levi Savage’s passionate plea that the Willie company wait until spring to cross the plains and how he was scolded by Church leaders for not having enough faith. He discussed the two events in Mormon history as Abrahamic tests of integrity and faith. I remember growing more and more uncomfortable as Gene continued, wondering to myself exactly what kind of fireside I was attending.

Then Gene switched gears, not abruptly, and not without fully forcing us to confront the horror of these stories. But he began to help us work toward a solution, a place where we could appreciate the paradoxical demands of personal integrity and obedience. I remember Gene reciting Joseph Smith’s aphorism that “by proving contraries truth is made manifest” and assuring us that Mormonism requires us to unify heart and mind in order to find truth. That fireside was a turning point in my life. Gene helped me to understand that faith and intellect are not two different realms—two separate spheres of the brain that must be shielded from each other—but that integration of the two is the only way for them both to be fully expanded. Intelligence broadens faith and faith broadens intelligence.

The other event occurred in April 1985. Zina—by then my wife of almost a year—and I travelled to Salt Lake City, hoping to attend General Conference. Unfortunately, we didn’t get seats in the Tabernacle, but ended up listening instead as the conference was broadcast live in the Assembly Hall. One of the first speakers that Saturday morning was Elder Bruce R. McConkie who spoke of “The Purifying Power of Gethsemane.” The soaring rhetoric of Elder McConkie’s words coupled with his characteristic authoritative delivery left us all deeply moved by the sermon. As he concluded, Elder McConkie bore witness of Christ’s divinity and atonement and then, choking back tears, stated that “in a coming day I shall feel the nail marks in his hands and in his feet and shall wet his feet with my tears. But I shall not know any better then than I know now that he is God’s Almighty Son, that he is our Savior and Redeemer, and that salvation comes in and through his atoning blood and in no other way.” The atmosphere in the Assembly Hall was electric. I think all of us knew this would be Elder McConkie’s last discourse and the poignancy of his confession of faith and the power of his witness moved us all. Less than two weeks later, Elder McConkie died. Elder McConkie’s impact on me and my generation of Church members cannot be overstated. He gave us a sense of surety that this Church is divine and he gave us doctrinal meat—speaking forthrightly, for example, about having one’s “calling and election made sure”—rather than shallow platitudes. He inspired us to study the scriptures and to grow in the faith.

At the time Elder McConkie gave his last speech, Zina and I were both attending BYU and were members of the BYU 139th ward. Our bishop was Eugene England. When we were searching for an apartment prior to our marriage, Zina wanted to find out the boundaries of the BYU 139th ward, the ward where Professor England was bishop. All the cool people in the BYU Honors program were moving into England’s ward—some were attending who weren’t even within the boundaries. Gene was a celebrity among what would now be called the “hipster” crowd. But I told Zina that I didn’t believe in shopping for wards and felt that the Lord would place us where he wanted us. I don’t know whether I was really persuasive or just exercised some unrighteous dominion, but we didn’t shop for a ward. We moved into a small apartment owned by my aunt near the old pioneer-built Manavu chapel just south of campus. When we met the other residents of the apartment, we discovered that we were in the 139th ward. Zina won after all!

Gene was a bishop unlike any other I’ve had before or since. He was personally involved with each member of the ward. He got to know each of us by having all new couples attend the Family Relations class, which he taught. Gene used personal examples from his own marriage with Charlotte to illustrate each lesson, but his relationship with Charlotte spoke more than his words. They both seemed equally-yoked and beautifully in love with each other. Numerous times Gene counseled, comforted, and consoled Zina and me as we confronted the first painful moments of marriage when the blinding bliss fades and we started hurting each other. The ward had its challenges too. One young family was composed of two mentally disabled parents with one very brilliant five-year-old daughter. Gene called me to teach the Sunbeams, so I got to know the daughter quite well and saw first-hand how Gene worked to help this little family approach the problems of parenthood. I saw Gene’s willingness to innovate in ways that personally involved each of us in the ward and inspired us all with his devotion to the gospel. We had Pioneer-Day sacrament meetings outdoors in Provo canyon. We had post-temple-night socials at the England’s home with Charlotte’s home-made ice cream. And best of all, we had weekly short sermons from Bishop England. It was a unique and wonderful experience and I came to love Gene as a unique and wonderful man.

At the same time, I was enrolled in a Book of Mormon course the taught by Elder McConkie’s son, Joseph. There I found that same McConkie testimony and authority that inspired deeper scripture study and personal commitment. Both Bruce R. McConkie and Eugene England strengthened my testimony and shaped my life; however, the two were quite different in their approach to Mormonism. Indeed, several years prior to my experiences with them, Elder McConkie and Professor England had clashed in a series of private letters (one of which was leaked to the public and circulated widely). Claudia Bushman called the conflict between the two men “a microcosm” of two strains within Mormonism.[1] Indeed, the two men represent two starkly different visions of Mormon thought. Where Elder McConkie emphasized one set of absolute truths, Professor England stressed paradox and complexity. Where Elder McConkie taught unyielding obedience to institutional authorities, Professor England underscored the importance of exercising independent thought and maintaining personal integrity. Where Elder McConkie declared scriptural and prophetic authority, Professor England was interested in theological and intellectual exploration. While both of these men influenced the way I think about and experience the Church, I believe that the Mormonism of the future demands an approach more like Eugene Enland’s than that of Elder McConkie’s. In the Internet-age, where the free flow of information makes the possibility of a single correlated and controlled message about the church’s teachings and history less and less possible, Elder McConkie’s authoritarian style just doesn’t work. But England’s approach to the gospel can forestall the current exodus of disillusioned Mormons and, I believe, bring new converts into the Church.

First, I believe Gene’s vision of owning and confronting our past is critical. He understood that burying shameful history can lead not only to individual disillusionment and loss of faith, but also to institutional dishonesty. But Gene’s honesty about our historical and theological history was not disinterested, nor disheartening. He loved examining the difficult choices members of the Church confronted because he saw that we each confront many of the same problems. If Levi Savage and the Mormons of Mountain Meadows had to confront the competing demands of obedience to authority and individual conviction on a grand scale, we each must do the same in our own lives. Gene didn’t see white hats opposing black hats within the warp and weft of LDS history, but rather individual disciples forced to confront the demands of competing principles. He recognized that when obedience to authority wins, it sometimes comes at the expense of the individual heart; but when individual integrity wins, it can often come at the expense of community.

I believe Gene’s emphasis on the individual paradoxes of human life, of the complicated real world of choices that each of us confronts, reflects the true nature of the world we live in. Certainly there are moral “rights” and “wrongs” that Church leaders have emphasized for so long, but more often we are confronted more difficult choices. As Gene once wrote, “if we … suppose there are easy solutions to the dilemma of personal integrity and social responsibility, we … ultimately endanger our own salvation.”[2]

Gene’s willingness to confront the hard truths of Church history and theology did not leave him with a nihilistic view of the Church. Gene celebrated the richness of Mormonism. He loved the expansiveness of Mormon theology, of an eternity of learning and growing.[3] He loved the compassion of a theology that postulates a God who weeps for his children and their trials.[4] Gene loved Mormonism’s rich and expansive theology. He also loved the epoch Mormon story of pioneer bravery and perseverance and implemented those pioneer ideals in his practical service to Food for Poland and in his nurturing care for his students and the ward he ministered to as bishop. Gene was full of optimism and delighted in spreading the gospel of peace.

Spreading that gospel, however, necessarily involves embracing diversity, and Gene believed that our very salvation depends on loving and accepting of all of God’s children. “We can only know God as part of a triangular relationship that includes all other humans, his other children whom he loves as much as he does us,” England argued.[5] Differences between us—whether based on politics, religion, gender, race, or sexuality—should not divide us. Rather Gene saw them as an essential resource for learning to be more like God.

Finally, Gene’s vision of Mormonism was necessarily dialogic rather than dogmatic. This emphasis is, perhaps, the greatest difference between the world views of Professor England and Elder McConkie. They were both true believers, they both loved the gospel, and they both saw themselves as consecrating their gifts of heart and mind to the Church. But where England embraced difference and nurtured discussion, McConkie sought conformity or silence. As England’s daughter, Rebecca, has written, “One approach invites dialogue; the other silences dissent.”[6]

In the age of the Internet, a dialogic approach to the gospel is the only possible approach.

Eugene England’s vision of the gospel was expansive enough for the age of the Internet because he understood that Mormon discipleship requires the devotion of both heart and mind. Orson Scott Card once wrote about the “prophetic” quality of Eugene England’s writing, “if you place yourself in his hands and receive his words with an open, undefended heart, he will bring you closer to the Spirit of God and closer to the community of Saints.”[7]

The words of both Elder McConkie and Eugene England brought me closer to the Spirit of God and closer to the community of Saints, but the future of Mormonism, I believe, requires us to embrace an approach to the Gospel closer to that of England’s.

[1] See Rebecca England, “A Professor and Apostle Correspond: Eugene England and Bruce R. McConkie on the Nature of God,” the Eugene England Foundation http://www.eugeneengland.org/a-professor-and-apostle-correspond-eugene-england-and-bruce-r-mcconkie-on-the-nature-of-god

[2] Eugene England, “Obedience, Integrity, and the Paradox of Selfhood,” in Dialogues with Myself: Personal Essays on Mormon Experience (Midvale, Utah: Signature Books, 1984), 19–38.

[3] Eugene England, Perfection and Progression: Two Complimentary Ways to Talk about God, BYU Studies 29, no. 3 (Summer 1989): 31-47. Available at http://eugeneengland.org/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/1989_e_001.pdf.

[4] Eugene England, “The Weeping God of Mormonism,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 35, no. 1 (Spring 2002): 63-80. Available at http://eugeneengland.org/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/2002_e_001.pdf.

[5] Eugene England, “‘No Respecter of Persons’: A Mormon Ethics of Diversity,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 27, no. 4 (Winter 1994): 79-100. Available at https://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V27N04_93.pdf.

[6] Rebecca England, “A Professor and Apostle Correspond.”

[7] Orson Scott Card, Eugene England and the Lighted Lamp,” review of Why the Church Is As True As the Gospel, Sunstone 11, no. 3 (May 1987): 30–32. Available at http://eugeneengland.org/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/1987_r_003.pdf.

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10 thoughts on “Eugene England and the Future of Mormonism

  1. Boyd, with Gene’s remarkable personal essays in mind, I am moved by your assessment. Dialogue and dialectical thinking are the foundation as we make truth. Gene, as you know, could even have dialogues with himself.

    1. Thank you for this, Boyd. I’m not quite as eloquent as you. My tribute to Brother England would be monosyllabic, but sincere: He was cool.

  2. I knew Gene England in Cambridge, Mass. @ the chapel on Longfellow Park. He has always taught the true Spirit of Christ and the concept of Eternal Progress which is the escense of Christ’s Gospel. I consider it trajic the way that Gene was treated by the church. He was never a threat to the Church only an enlightenment. God will bless Gene,eternally.

  3. Loved this! While the McConkie in me has played an important role during certain moments of my life (mission, etc.), my inner Englandite is what allows me to flexibly weather the storms.

  4. Respectfully, is not drawing a dichotomy between Elder McConkie and Bro. England setting up a black-hat, white-hat opposition? Did Bro. England seek to publicly (or privately) undermine the foundational faith expressed by Elder McConkie? Did Elder McConkie ever suggest that Bro. England should have no home in Zion? And, in the end, must I, who cannnot know either man, but only read the words of both, choose between Cephas and Appollos? Is it acceptable to reject parties, without being ridiculed for my desire to be nothing more than part of the body of Christ?

    1. I appreciate your comment. Let me clarify one thing: I loved and respected both men. I see great value to the way both men approached the gospel. I see these approaches as a paradox at the root of Mormonism, and Terryl Givens describes it well in the first chapter of People of Paradox, using Richard Poll’s Iron Rod/Liahona (obedience/individual revelation) typology. Terryl, rightly I believe, suggests this tension exists within individual Mormons rather than simply between types of Mormons as in Poll’s version. There are benefits and dangers to each approach, but, I believe that we’ve focused too much and for too long on the side of the Iron Rod, and by not emphasizing or teaching the other side of this dichotomy, we are losing people as they come in contact with the wild and crazy world of the Internet age.

  5. An interesting take on things. The dichotomy you set up is certainly familiar to anyone whose been paying attention at church over the past several decades. I agree with you that for members to remain faithful in the information age they would need to have not only a strong foundation, but a flexibility of thought and understanding to make sense of things.

    The problem from my perspective is that church leadership (from the top all the way down) is squarely in the McConkie camp (as you have it laid out). They haven’t budged an inch on institutional control or die-hard respect for authority. In fact, they’ve doubled down, evident by their recent actions of excommunicating public members on the fringe (Dehlin, Snuffers, Kate Kelly, etc), the policy regarding children of gay members, and painting anything outside of correlation curriculum or church approved materials as “anti-Mormon.”

    Even the church’s attempt to embrace their past, as you rightly suggest they should, by releasing the gospel topic essays over the past few years has actually only enhanced this notions with messages like “stay in the boat” “doubt your doubts” “don’t think for yourself” “listen to us, we know what’s best.” Any attempt at real scholarship in the essays was in vain, and the ended up with whitewashed, carefully worded admissions of embarrassing things about the church’s past that they have been DELIBERATELY suppressing for years, with the offensive message that they never hid any of it. The essays were released anonymously and without any announcement, so that there’s no one to trace them to or anyone to hold accountable for their words.

    I was a lifelong member until recently, and I left for essentially the issues you bring up in this post. The church is extremely rigid in it’s interpretation of teachings and how it deals with dissent, forcing people like me out. If there were room for people like England in today’s church I might be able to stay as well. But their isn’t. Don’t fool yourself, in today’s environment England would have been excommunicated long before John Dehlin.

    I appreciate very much the sentiments of your post. You seem like someone with a good heart, trying to do what’s right and make sense of Mormonism. Unfortunately, your church doesn’t have the same humility to admit “maybe I don’t know everything” or the same wisdom to allow others to practice their agency in determining for themsleves who God is or how he acts.

  6. Boyd, while I disagree with much that you wrote here, I am grateful, if for no other reason than the online conversation it generated made me aware you had a blog to begin with. I admire not just your brilliant thinking but the charitable way you treat others, while also standing firmly for your ideas.

    If you may humor me, I know I am quite late to this discussion, but I was irrationally fired up after reading this the first time and before posting a passionate (see also/irate/angry/and just down right mean) response, I should try to figure out what was firing me up, and do unto you as you routinely do unto others and write something thoughtful and charitable instead. Below are my best attempts. I hope I succeed, but am open to critique.

    First, I think we need to separate McConkie’s thought from McConkie’s temperament. McConkie’s thought placed a high value on orthodoxy. England placed a high value on what I will call orthocommunitas (or correct community. I don’t speak latin so I am relying on wiki, so, you latin speakers feel free to correct). McConkie’s tempermant was zealous and passionate. You either love him, or you hate him. England had a gentle and charitable tone. Where McConkie inspired certainty and action, England inspired deep thought and empathy.

    Once temperament and thought are separated the Iron Rod/Liahona dichotomy breaks down. It becomes apparent that there are some McConkie-ites in thought, while England-ites in temperament. One such fellow that comes to mind is Neal A. Maxwell. Maxwell spoke quite highly of the importance of orthodoxy, while doing so with England-ite gentleness. Conversely I would say there are also many England-ites in thought who place a high priority on getting community right, while conversely are zealous and passionate advocates for their causes. John Dehlin is someone who comes to mind, who like McConkie, when the man gives his viewpoint, no one walks away thinking, “you know, I don’t know what my opinion is on this.” Like McConkie he inspires passion on both sides of the debate and moves people to certainty and action.

    I do not make the McConkie/Dehlin comparison to demean either or both of them (since I imagine neither would feel comfortable being compared to the other). I just find it interesting that I have never read an Iron Rod/Liahona discussion comparing Maxwell to England. Maxwell, like McConkie, put high value on orthodoxy and even criticized over reliance on the mind of flesh, and warned of those taking off on intellectual bungee cords looking for new sensations only to be yanked around by the old heresies. He could be an interesting conversation partner for England, and yet, I have not seen a single Iron Rod/Liahona post on Maxwell v. England. What would be even more interesting in a blog post that pits the mild mannered Maxwell against a liberal firebrand. However, I doubt I’ll see those posts because to some degree the Iron Rod/Liahona narrative, far from opening the world to new exploration and empathy, closes us in a vicious cycle of old narratives, uncritically accepted stereotypes, and dualistic thinking. I appreciate that you made McConkie less a villain than the traditional narrative, however, your post still reinforces the narrative itself. It is the type of game that the only way to win is not to play, and begin to search for new metaphors to see ourselves and those we thought of as “outsiders” (or McConkie-ites) through new eyes.

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