Eugene England and the Modern Mormon Mind: A Review Essay On Two New Biographies

Eugene England was long due for a “moment,” and 2021 might finally give him one. Two new biographies, one just out and the other forthcoming, will introduce readers to one of Mormonism’s most prominent intellectuals from the late-twentieth century. England co-founded Dialogue as a graduate student at Stanford, taught English for two decades at BYU, helped establish America’s first Mormon studies program at Utah Valley State College (now Utah Valley University), and was one of the tradition’s best essayists. His frequent clashes with church leaders, resulting in his expulsion from a tenured professorship, also highlight the fraught relationship between LDS authorities and academics during the era.

With such an imposing legacy, we are fortunate to have two prominent scholars choose England as a biographical topic. Both biographers, further, are successors to England in one way or another. Terryl Givens, author of Stretching the Heavens: The Life of Eugene England and the Crisis of Modern Mormonism (UNC Press), has taken up England’s mantle as one of the foremost defenders of an ideologically rigorous and theologically expansive Mormon tradition; Kristine Haglund, author of Eugene England: A Mormon Liberal (University of Illinois Press), has not only served as editor of Dialogue, but is also, like her subject, one of the most incisive examiners of Mormon ethics.

Despite the shared topic, these two volumes have very little overlap. Givens’s book is the more traditional (and meaty) biography, offering a chronological narrative of England’s entire life and career; Haglund’s work, the inaugural offering of IUP’s new “Introduction to Mormon Thought” series, is a svelte volume that offers a thematic overview of England’s intellectual corpus.

Interpretive diversions do not end there, either. One of England’s most persistent and persuasive arguments throughout his career was that ideas reflected an individual’s own background, context, and approach; it makes sense, then, that his two biographies shed light not only on the world of Eugene England, but also the world in which his cultural descendants now live.

***

Terryl Givens and Eugene England hold a lot in common. Both were/are scholars of American literature, both were/are known for their engagement with Mormon letters, and both were/are doggedly committed to the capacious possibilities of Mormon theology. One of Givens’s most popular books, co-authored with Fiona Givens, The God Who Weeps, is a clear echo of one of England’s most influential essays, “The Weeping God of Mormonism.” (Haglund rightfully identifies Givens as the perhaps the most successful inheritor of England’s legacy, albeit a conservative one (99-100).) This biographical pairing, then, is a notable match.

England also fits perfectly within themes that have dominated Givens’s extensive scholarship. In People of Paradox, his history of LDS culture, Givens identified several enigmas at the heart of the Mormon tradition, including the perilous balance between 1) reason and faith, as well as 2) freedom and obedience. England’s life therefore provides a case study for how these tensions played out in one prominent example. Stretching the Heavens is a powerful exploration of how England maintained, on the one hand, devout loyalty to and genuine belief in the institutional church and, on the other hand, an indefatigable commitment to investigation and autonomy. England’s life, therefore, is effectively recast as a Greek or Christian tragedy, a competition between competing yet concomitant interests (3-4).

Though biography may not be Givens’s best genre—his narrative is often disrupted by too many block quotes, and his prose is more graceful when exploring themes than developing chronological arcs—Stretching the Heavens adequately covers the major moments in England’s life: his early development, his struggle to find a place in St. Olaf, his tumultuous decades at BYU, and, perhaps most famously, his public clash with Bruce R. McConkie. (“It is my province to teach to the Church what the doctrine is,” McConkie once declared to England; “it is your province to echo what I say or to stay silent” (167).) At every step, Givens goes extra lengths not to cast either side of the disputes in a negative light, instead emphasizing how all participants were merely different pieces in the larger portrait of paradoxical performance.

While England is cast as an inheritor of Mormonism’s progressive theological past, Givens also presents him as prescient for the modern present. The flowering of Mormon studies and the maturation of Mormon theology that has taken place in the last two decades, the biography argues, find seeds in England’s life and thought. He was merely a man before his time.

Givens’s scope often transcends England and is more focused on constructing a compelling Mormon theological tradition more broadly. In explicating England’s ideas, Givens projects ideological fascinations that have dominated his own scholarship, most prominently his twovolumes on the foundations of Mormon thought. “England was trying to take Mormon culture back to its—and Christianity’s—earliest theological roots,” he explains before launching into a digression on theosis (117-19); “Latter-day Saints are a people of a hyper-Protestant sensibility operating within a hyper-Catholic structure,” he posits in another dissection on freedom and authority (170-76). Readers familiar with Givens’s oeuvre will rightly see this biography as a supplement to, rather than something distinct from, his other works.[1]

Other instances of Givens’s self-projection are more difficult to justify. Though he decries the politicization of scholarship and activism of academics, Givens devotes several digressions to defending a particularly conservative version of his—and not England’s—otherwise progressive theology. For one example, he justifies the church’s intellectual and social retrenchment in the mid-twentieth century for successfully staving off the ills of secularism (51-52). In another, he critiques developments within the field of English to incorporate theoretical approaches, like feminism, for not only introducing friction into England’s department at BYU, but also making the discipline less relevant (232-37). More startlingly, he spends five pages presenting the Mormon case for opposing abortion—a topic England rarely wrote on, let alone one central topic to his overall corpus—and positing that the Mormon pro-life position has always been consistent and coherent. He even dismisses England’s pro-choice position as being a “rare moral and logical obtuseness,” a commitment born more out of guilt for being a late convert to feminism than a logical culmination of a broader theology (237-39).

Perhaps the biggest divide between Givens and his subject concerns the role of public provocation. England’s belief in dialogue included, at times, open confrontation, visible debates that made clear points of disagreement. There were therefore several key moments in his life where he loudly challenged the church and its leaders. Givens, who has notably taken a different track in his prestigious career, is obviously skeptical of such an approach. He critiqued the Dialogue founders for framing their initiative as being in opposition to the institution, rather than an extension of their deep faith (66-67), and categorized England’s eventual dismissal from BYU, and distancing from church leaders, as an inevitable result of his activism (210-11). To Givens, England was a valiant crusader who chose the wrong battles—or at least chose the wrong way to fight said battles.

Much of this is a logical consequence of the biography’s overall framing. By prioritizing England’s internal paradox, as well as by studiously avoiding the tempting “Good Guy vs. Bad Guy” narrative, Givens overlooks the institutional structures that shaped England’s life—indeed, the very same structures that England sought to challenge. And though Givens often highlights England’s prescience regarding modern Mormon theological openness and historical inquiry, he overlooks the significance of the mechanism—public and vocal dissent—that made these positive changes possible.

These strategic disagreements embody the very paradoxes at the heart of Givens’s, and England’s, study. They also reflect ongoing tensions within the Mormon tradition writ large. What is the role of the intellectual in a church predicated on revelation? Does reform come through subtle persuasion or direct opposition? England and Givens have produced some of the most eloquent and powerful examinations of these dilemmas, contributions to a dialogue that will forever be ongoing.

***

If Expanding the Heavens takes the longest chronological scope possible to understand England’s thought, Kristine Haglund’s Eugene England: A Mormon Liberal is constantly conscious of England’s time and place. “England was born in 1933, both ahead of his time, and having just missed it,” the book opens, poetically, signaling that this will be a narrative conscious of historical change (1). After a brief biographical introduction, Haglund provides three thematic chapters: one that dissects England’s best genre, the personal essay; one that examines his commitment to, and sometimes failure with, dialogue as a religious philosophy; and one that explicates his evolving, and often unorthodox, theology of reconciliation and atonement. The volume, only a smidge over a hundred pages, concludes with an exceptionally helpful annotated bibliography.

Haglund does not pull punches, and she squarely confronts the shortcomings of England’s work. She is willing to provide examples of when an essay is “rhetorically and philosophically unsatisfying” (26), and demonstrates how his aversion to literary theory limited his contributions to the scholarly world (42). She also points out how his commitment to dialogue and loyalty to the church allowed him to support ideas and practices, like the pre-1978 racial restriction, with which he disagreed but still brought harm on the community. But Haglund’s analysis of his literary form succeeds in explaining England’s lasting appeal, and her exploration of his overlapping themes—like his tethering of theology to action—unearthed lessons I hadn’t seen before.

Haglund’s analysis truly shines when she places England’s ideas in context with other thinkers, like comparing his political views to Reinhold Niebuhr, or his social views to Paul Tillich. However, besides glancing references in the introduction, the book could have done more to place the debates that ensconced England’s life within the broader context of American religious life during the late-twentieth century, a realignment of Christian culture that shaped the modern church. (The same critique could be said of Givens’s work, too.)

The most powerful parts of Haglund’s work are when she demonstrates how England lived during a transition moment for Mormonism. When he was born, the LDS church was still largely rural, communitarian, and parochial, with leaders who could be intimately involved and connected with the general membership, especially prominent intellectuals. Apostles received and responded to letters from average saints, and obligations were not strenuous enough to preclude intervention and engagement. That England frequently—some might say obsessively—wrote any and all apostles reflected this old dynamic. But once the church became more global, more corporate, more streamlined, such networking was no longer possible, and the resulting gulf was too large for England to navigate (57).

But the more poignant transition concerned the ideological possibilities for progressive thinkers. “[England] was the last Mormon liberal,” Haglund argues, not because he was the last Latter-day Saint to present a theology that encompassed progressive ideals, but because “by the time of England’s death, it was no longer possible to believe, as England did, that his ideas…were in the mainstream of Mormon belief and teaching” (22). Ever since, liberal Mormons have been forced to acknowledge their marginalized status, definitively found outside the mainstream.

Perhaps. But reading Haglund’s—and Givens’s—tale also made me wonder if the transition took place earlier, and that England’s life was so extraordinary because his time had already passed, as the book’s opening hinted. Perhaps he was genuinely naïve concerning modern Mormonism, a misplaced assumption that his beliefs reflected his surrounding culture, or perhaps it was a conscious act of unrelenting optimism meant to prescribe rather than describe the faith. Regardless, it seems clear any space he inhabited was one he carved out for himself, not one he inherited.

***

Given Eugene England believed dialogue was the best way to gain knowledge—“proving contraries,” as Joseph Smith claimed—it is fitting that these two biographies offer such differing portraits: Haglund’s work is rooted in context, while Givens’s tries to transcend chronology; Givens’s story is a tale of continuity and progress, Haglund’s is a declension narrative; Haglund’s England was a hallmark of historical change, Givens’s is a timeless character; Givens refuses the “liberal” category for England, Haglund embraces and contextualizes it.

Past and present, unique and representative—as Terryl Givens frequently notes, these are paradoxes at the heart of the Mormon tradition. They also frame Eugene England’s lasting legacies, including the Mormon world we inhabit today.

_________________________

[1] The biography also includes statements that work more as rhetorical embellishments than accurate analysis, as when Givens says the LDS Church “has the distinction of being the religious group most systematically persecuted by state and federal governments in America’s history” (42), or that “Joseph Smith’s commitment to the life of the mind, personally and institutionally, was absolute” (46).

Comments

  1. A superb introduction to and summary of two books I want to read, Ben. Thank you!

  2. Excellent, helpful review, Ben. Haglund seems to be the better interpreter.

  3. Thanks much Ben. Nice insights on the bios.

  4. Roger Terry says:

    Thanks for this wonderful review essay, Ben. Two more books, alas, to add to a growing list. I did finish you fine book on Nauvoo this morning, though, so maybe I’ll get to these sometime soon.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Well done, Ben.

  6. Truckers Atlas says:

    “…he spends five pages presenting the Mormon case for opposing abortion—a topic England rarely wrote on, let alone one central topic to his overall corpus…”

    YOU LOVE TO SEE IT

  7. Matt Harris says:

    Enjoyed this, Ben. Thanks!

  8. Thanks for the helpful review! Honestly, after Terryl Givens’ essay on abortion and his son’s subsequent defense, I approach his work with caution. I appreciate the head up about the topic nuzzling its way into this.

  9. Holly Miller says:

    Thank you for the helpful reviews. Much appreciated.

  10. Ben, a small correction: Gene was a grad student at Stanford when founding Dialogue (not undergrad). Appreciate the rest of the thorough reviews.

  11. Benjamin Park says:

    gillsyk: yikes–not sure how I goofed on that. Thanks for the correction.

    And thanks, everyone else.

  12. I took Eugene England’s Mormon Lit class at UVSC. It was right before I left on my mission and right before he died. (Two of my siblings had studied abroad w him at BYU.)
    England really cared about us. He cared about broadening our view of Mormonism. He gave all of us our first “Dialogue.” He spoke of many issues that he couldn’t have spoken about at BYU.
    Each week we’d read a book and we’d have lunchtime chats with the author while we are his wife’s delicious homemade bread.
    I didn’t realize what a privilege it was to take the class from him with only 20 other students. I only wish I could retake the course now; I have so many questions.

    I don’t know that the Eugene England who taught my course would agree with a majority of Givens’ ideas—especially about feminisms and intellectualism—but I do think he believed in a “big tent” church.

    (At one point, a classmate whispered to me that her dad told her the “Dialogue” magazine was “anti” and he was asked to leave BYU. I ignorantly asked about his circumstances leaving BYU, and I completely regretted that moment because I remember the sorrow and shock in his eyes when he said, “Where’d you hear that? I wasn’t fired!”)

  13. Jesse Stricklan says:

    I grew up in a Mormon home where Eugene England’s expansive view of Mormonism was considered (as he considered it) perfectly orthodox. It has been a shocking, painful experience in the decade after Prop 8 for me to realize that, actually, there are many who cannot even abide England’s methods, let alone the logical extensions of his positions. I don’t know how I grew up in Utah County and Rexburg and didn’t get that, but I suspect it was because England’s Mormonism is cohesive, reasonable, rooted in scripture and love, and “tastes good” — in other words, it persuades to do good and believe in Christ. I am looking forward to getting my copies of these books, Ben — good review of both books, and, to boot, it’s moving the merchandise. The authors should be pleased.

  14. Ben, thank you for these reviews.
    Like Laura I’m also cautious around Givens – ‘self-projection'(s) are characteristic of his style and often raise the question of who the work is really about.
    “Why the church is as true as the gospel” arrived in Melbourne in 1986 where we lived at the time. The book provided out first glimpse of Eugene England’s thoughtful work and indeed the value that a scholarly perspective on our faith could have blending the literary and theological with practical faith.
    For us in another hemisphere his work focussed the question, as it still does, to what extent do we here live an ‘American religious life’ – his efforts to collapse oppositions provided an orientation to sifting the cultural wheat from the cultural chaff in the church that we still appreciate.
    Thank you Eugene, and thanks again Ben for providing your insights.

  15. On my list to read. Thanks for heads up.

  16. Julie J. Nichols says:

    Many echoes to these comments. A thorough, thoughtful, helpful review of these two books on a man who changed my life (as he changed the lives of so many). I would tell a different story from either Givens or Haglund; not only was I privileged to participate in the first creative nonfiction class England taught at BYU, but then he guided me to teach many other sections before I too left BYU (“you’re well shed of the place,” he told me when I called him to let him know, a couple of years after he was compelled to early retirement). He was “the most helpful Mormon male I ever met,” as I wrote in the farewell newspaper that was prepared for him as he “retired.” Your review situates these two twenty-years-later responses to England usefully–but I wish there were a way to revisit and re-create contemporary responses to his smile, his kindness, his brilliance, his insistence on writing that mattered. Like Jesse Stricklan, I grew up in a (northern California) home that subscribed to the very first issues of Dialogue–England was famous to me before I went (kicking and screaming) to BYU, and was one of a handful of giants who enlarged, enlightened, and uplifted my years there. Your review and my copy of Givens’s book show how history/biography never fully capture the “sum of existence” which is reality, and how these biographies will alter future generations’ understanding of a human being who made Mormonism not only tolerable but full of love for many, many bright thinkers. Praise to the man.

  17. Wise Woman says:

    I was Eugene’s colleague in the BYU English Department for a number of years. He was one of my all-time favorite people. He was always warm, kind, considerate, interested in what I was doing. He hosted gatherings at his home to let new colleagues tell about their work and get acquainted with department members. I loved to read his essays and had no idea that Church leaders were offended by some of what he wrote. (Maybe I didn’t read enough.) It all seemed right and good to me, and his behavior toward others was so Christ-like that I couldn’t imagine anyone not liking him. From everything I heard he was a great teacher. He was a conscientious department citizen. I couldn’t understand it when he was forced to leave BYU, but I know it pained him a great deal. Still, I think he handled it very graciously and without bearing ill will toward those who must have borne ill will to him. I went to his funeral and it was all I hoped it would be. I still love the man.

    I look forward to reading the biographies. I hope they also mention his wonderful wife Charlotte, to whom he was absolutely devoted and who made it possible for him to accomplish so much.

  18. such good reviews, and such tragedy in what happened to him

  19. Does anyone know if either of these books plan to have audiobook versions?

  20. Great review. Now the task to decide which one to read. (Probably Haglund) I attended BYU law school and grad school 82-86. My close group of friends were kind of labeled the “liberals” in our graduating class. We often met to discuss Sunstone and Dialogue articles. One of our friends was the EQP in the ward Gene was Bishop. Our friend arranged a group visit with Gene at his home. It happened to be the Sunday night of the General Conference of Elder Poleman’s well known talk. We discussed the talk and then were later dismayed at the changes. Now 35 years later almost all of that group remains active in the Church, most have served as bishops and in other demanding callings. Gene in person and in word gave us all the framework to navigate the challenges of the modern church to separate annoyance from faith. Not many men would have the character, humility and commitment to survive the public flogging he endured from BRM. His writings and more importantly his life was the embodiment of humility, grace, and commitment.

  21. I am new to Mormonism and this intellectual sounds inspiring and intriguing! Thank you for apprising me of him. I’ll keep tabs on these books, looking forward to learn more.

Trackbacks

  1. […] which have also been highlighted in Givens’ own work. Benjamin Park’s review over at By Common Consent labels Givens as “perhaps the most successful inheritor of England’s legacy.” I […]

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