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. 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.”
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. He loved the compassion of a theology that postulates a God who weeps for his children and their trials. 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. 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.”
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.”
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.
 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
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 Rebecca England, “A Professor and Apostle Correspond.”
 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.