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Stretching the Heavens: A Review

A review of “Stretching the Heavens: The Life of Eugene England and the Crisis of Modern Mormonism" by Terryl Givens.

When renowned rhetorician Wayne Booth attended Eugene England’s Sunday School class he’d just finished listening to “an abominable sermon” during the first hour and was “so disgusted [he] was thinking seriously about getting [himself] excommunicated.” Remembering, however, that England was teaching the next class, Booth stayed and later recorded: “[England’s] hour was so thoughtful that I changed my mind: I’m not going to bother about getting excommunicated. In fact, I found myself thinking: any religion or culture that can produce a man like Gene, a man who can get away with unpopular, deeply thoughtful interpretations with a congregation like that, is worth belonging to” (p. 265). In the meticulously researched biography, Stretching the Heavens: The Life of Eugene England and the Crisis of Modern Mormonism, Terryl Givens examines to what extent England did, in fact, “get away with” his heaven-stretching theology.

Givens speaks to the quality and potential impact of England’s wide-ranging essays and dialectics by contextualizing them not only within the history and culture of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but within the larger arc of Christian theology. He portrays England as a complicated genius who, often to his professional detriment, publicly explored the complexity and nuance within the history and beliefs of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during a time of institutional entrenchment. 

Eugene England died in 2001—the year after Booth attended his Sunday School class. That England still had such loyal devotion to the Church of Jesus Christ after being recently pushed out of his professorship at BYU and could teach such beautiful Sunday School lessons while suffering from the symptoms of undiagnosed brain cancer is a testament to England’s personal abilities and priorities. What Givens accomplishes with this biography is not only a compelling argument for England’s intellectual and spiritual contributions to Latter-day Saint theology and culture (indeed the carefully chosen excerpts from England’s essays sprinkled throughout biography speak for themselves) but a tenacious examination of how the historical moment in which England lived informed his ambitions and scholarship. Givens, who was hand-picked to write Gene’s biography by England’s widow, is in some ways England’s own intellectual successor: Givens too is an active member of the Church, an incredibly gifted scholar and writer, and perhaps all too aware of the constraints that come with being a “Mormon celebrity.”

Of course, Givens’ own “historical moment” is what makes the publication of such a biography—one written by a celebrated, orthodox Latter-day Saint scholar who can unflinchingly unpack difficult behind-the-scenes questions about sensitive Church matters—allowable. In 2016, Elder M. Russell Ballard gave a landmark Church Education System (CES) Fireside to religious educators wherein he acknowledged that church curriculum in generations prior (ostensibly during England’s lifetime), “though well-meaning, did not prepare students for today—a day when they have instant access to virtually everything about the Church from every possible point of view.” Elder Ballard’s proposed remedy for instilling faith during the age of the internet was to teach Latter-day Saint youth from the best books “includ[ing] the scriptures, the teachings of modern prophets and apostles, and the best LDS scholarship available.” Such a high-ranking and explicit directive to study and incorporate serious historical scholarship into religious teaching was a shift from England’s day when in 1981 Elder Boyd K. Packer cautioned LDS scholars against writing or teaching about what Packer regarded as unhelpful tenets of Church History: “some things that are true are not very useful” (p. 168).

And Givens has authored some of the best Latter-day Saint scholarship currently available. Many of his most popular works, including The God Who Weeps (with Fiona Givens), are published by Deseret Book or BYU’s Maxwell Institute—tacitly approved for and geared to believing LDS audiences. In Stretching the Heavens, however, Givens is firmly the historian and writes for a much wider audience (though to what extent non-LDS readership exists for serious LDS-centric scholarship is another question). That his England biography, undoubtedly top-tier scholarship, is published through The University of North Carolina Press underscores not only Givens’ broader intended audience but perhaps the lingering hesitancy in Latter-day Saint culture regarding whether somewhat disquieting historical inquiry can truly be faith-promoting.

However, it’s obvious Givens believes that honest scholarship is faith-promoting. He makes this implicit argument throughout the entire biography by skillfully highlighting England’s own tenaciousness and dedication to “the [Church] that he loved too much to either leave or leave alone” (p. 168). England’s widely read essays (some published posthumously) including “The Weeping God of Mormonism,” “On Fidelity, Polygamy, and Celestial Marriage,” “Are All Alike Unto God?: Prejudice against Blacks and Women in Popular Mormon Theology,” and “Why the Church is as True as the Gospel” engage not only in speculative theology but provide practical and pragmatic reasons for staying active and faithful in what England believed was a divinely directed but flawed institution: “God will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.”

In many ways, Givens argues, England’s “Cassandra-like prescience” not only anticipated the current attrition rate in church membership (currently less than half of individuals who identify as Latter-day Saints as teenagers continue to do so as adults) but also provided a potential remedy in his simultaneously faithful and questioning dialectics. Instead, church members during England’s lifetime found themselves in what Givens describes as “a [religious culture] that essentially criminalized doubt [wherein] thousands of members found themselves faced with limiting black and white options, to affirm or reject. With no room to embrace complexity and fallibility … they chose [rejection]” (p. 78).

Givens’ own ability to “embrace complexity and fallibility” is pivotal to the success of this biography and no more so than when he leans into complicated and messy backdrops that provide crucial (and dramatic) context for England’s writings and professional careers. While Givens does organize the biography chronologically along with England’s life events, he often pauses to provide painstakingly detailed historical context and uses England’s life as a lens to examine his dual thesis of “The Crisis of Modern Mormonism.” 

For example, Givens takes particular care to introduce Lowell Bennion, founder of the Latter-day Saint Institute of Religion adjacent to the University of Utah, who was one of England’s most influential spiritual mentors. During an institute class in 1953, teenage England proffered the oft-used explanation that “Blacks were not valiant in the preexistence” as an explanation for the Church’s Priesthood Ban. He was mildly chided by Bennion who “simply asked [England] how [he] knew Blacks had not been valiant.” When England realized he was solely relying upon “tradition,” he recorded that Bennion “gently suggested that the God revealed in Christ would surely let Blacks know what they had done wrong and how they could repent, rather than merely punishing them—and since God had done no such thing, it seemed better to believe that Blacks had been, and were, no different spiritually from the rest of us” (p. 25).

Not only does this anecdote set the stage wonderfully for England’s intellectual and theological insights that later challenged Latter-day Saint culture, but it also lets Bennion serve as a sobering type for what’s to come in England’s own career and gives Givens a chance to launch into an explanation of the Latter-day Saint leadership structure for non-Latter-day Saint readers. 

In 1962 Bennion was forced from his position as Institute Head by CES and BYU President Ernest Wilkinson, known for his ultra-conservative approach to church doctrine. Givens gives minute details of administrative meetings in 1954 when Wilkinson had tried to remove Bennion from his position (Wilkinson, for instance, was concerned that Bennion refused to acknowledge any doctrinal support for the Priesthood Ban). Wilkinson was thwarted when supervisor Joy Dunyan arranged a meeting between Bennion and President David O. McKay who voiced support for Bennion. That meeting preserved Bennion’s job for a while (Wilkinson, likely in subsequent frustration, fired Dunyan instead). Though Bennion remained in President McKay’s good graces—even being invited to speak in the 1958 Priesthood Session of General Conference—he was eventually removed from his Institute position in 1962. Though Givens notes that Bennion’s final removal “blindsided” President David O. McKay and was “decried” by the more liberal-leaning apostle Hugh B. Brown, both ultimately declined to intervene. 

This behind-the-scenes look at church bureaucracy primes the pump for England’s BYU ouster as well as the friction that could result from the intense and disparate personalities of church leaders operating under a concentrated hierarchy of the First Presidency & the Twelve Apostles. 

When Givens gets to one of England’s most public feuds with church leadership about one hundred pages later, the reader is appreciatively more abreast of the nuance involved in what “was or wasn’t” acceptable by church leadership at the time. During a 1979 Honors Lecture Series while a professor at BYU, England posited that “in some way God was a progressing Being” building off the Lorenzo Snow adage “as man now is, God once was” (p. 162 – 163).

This assertion was seen by some as “heresy” and frustrated Joseph McConkie, a BYU religion professor at the time and son of apostle Bruce R. McConkie. McConkie declared “that even the merest suggestion of an imperfect God was sacrilege” amongst other critical statements in his rebuttal to England’s address. While no institutional action was taken by BYU against England at the time, the next year Bruce R. McConkie gave the BYU Devotional “The Seven Deadly Heresies” that clearly targeted England. The very first “heresy” McConkie listed was the “utterly, totally, and completely” false notion that “God is progressing in knowledge and is learning new truths.”

Givens juxtaposes England’s public doctrinal feud against McConkie’s own publication of “Mormon Doctrine” in 1958. McConkie published “Mormon Doctrine” despite over a thousand corrections recommended by President David O. McKay (who did suspend its republication even in a corrected form). Regardless, McConkie republished the book in 1966 and, Givens notes, “the Church’s publisher marketed the immensely influential title all the way until 2010” (p. 55). In short, Givens gives historical examples of how apostolic unity was complicated and sometimes fraught, alongside the tenuous definition of what was considered heresy and who was propagating it. 

In my view, the historical perspective of the biography showcases just how dynamic Latter-day Saint doctrine is. Yet ultimately it is England’s inability to leave alone a thornier doctrinal issue that seemed to be the final straw for the CES Administration and Church Leadership. Though England experienced frequent moments of chastisement and friction with Church leadership—from England’s involvement with Dialogue Magazine to his opposition to the Priesthood Ban and his protesting the Vietnam war—it was ultimately his views on the Atonement that led to his ouster from BYU. 

Givens suggests that surprisingly little has been written that constitutes a “uniquely Latter-day Saint theology of atonement,” the closest thing being the early-twentieth-century theory by B.H. Roberts that “was little read and had no impact on Latter-day Saint thinking” (p. 125 – 126). Yet Roberts’s treatise “[recast] the language of justice, punishment, and retribution” often associated with the Atonement “into an emphasis on choice, consequence, and human freedom.” In his essay “That They Might Not Suffer: The Gift of Atonement,” England also pushes back against the penal substitution interpretation of the Atonement (though contemporary church leaders, including Elder Boyd K. Packer, had given influential sermons emphasizing the justice and penalties absolved by the Atonement). England’s own views described “sin as principally a matter of alienation—from God and from self” and that “the shock of eternal love” from Christ’s Atoning sacrifice is what compels men and women to come to Christ. Givens argues that doctrinally, England’s viewpoints “did not establish a convincing rationale for [the Atonement’s] utter, unqualified, absolute indispensability to human salvation” (p. 129). When this essay was first published in an early edition of Dialogue in 1966 England solicited reactions to his essay from a wide cross-section of church leaders. Then-vice president of the University of Utah and later apostle Neal A. Maxwell was “not satisfied … that it was entirely true” and Elder Boyd K. Packer was “strongly opposed.” 

Givens argues that the discomfort senior leadership felt toward England’s views on the Atonement followed him for years. Nearly two decades later during tension-filled interviews with BYU Presidents Rex Lee and Merrill Bateman—both who were unsubtly urging England to leave BYU and find employment elsewhere—England shot himself in the foot by sending Bateman a copy of this same essay, “That They Might Not Suffer.” England’s professional demise, it seemed, was hastened by a somewhat trademark inability to recognize that an essay he thought “was a monument in print to the centrality of Christ in his discipleship” was actually what “two senior and hugely influential apostles had clearly conveyed … as heresy plain and simple” (p. 256).

Givens notes that England had, tragically, “come to see God’s mind and will as so mediated by individual church leaders that it was their individual pronouncements, rather than official church teachings, that created virtually all the conflict within his conscience. He knew he loved and revered the Church and could not understand his tormented relationship to the institution. The truth is, he was never at war with the Church—though he let himself be misled into thinking that was the case” (p. 175).

In a speaking event at Pioneer Book in October 2021, Givens lamented the “corner of the sandbox” Latter-day Saint scholars sometimes dwelled in within the larger intellectual milieu of religious scholarship. Stretching the Heavens is fascinating, well-written, and draws incisive comparisons between Latter-day Saint and more general Christian theology. But, as Givens lamented, there seems to be limited interest in serious Latter-day Saint scholarship by non-LDS religious scholars. Additionally, while both England and Givens can write prose that bridges the gap between the ivory tower and general readership, the exhaustive research necessary to contextualize England as an important Latter-day Saint and Christian theologian may, ironically, limit even Givens’ Latter-day Saint readership in this case. 

While members with similar inclinations to Wayne Booth will probably find this biography delightful and informative, many Latter-day Saints still function within the cultural expectations that existed during England’s lifetime and may find this kind of searching and revealing historical scholarship of this nature irrelevant at best and threatening at worst. But perhaps these are inevitable Sunday School squabbles. Members who believe church culture is sliding toward unseemly woke progressivism may be disinclined to countenance anything that reaches “beyond the mark,” whereas many members drawn to England’s heaven-stretching theology may already, unfortunately, be feeling pulled out the doors of the cultural hall. Perhaps the most practical and hopeful message of this biography is the implicit advocacy for more inclusive, transparent dialogue between multiple factions and shades of discipleship both within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and among non-LDS & Latter-day Saint religious scholars. But what such rigorous and far-reaching scholarship also provides is a broader, firmer foundation for those who have embraced complexity, fallibility, and activity within the Church.

About the author

Kelsey Smith Gillespie

Kelsey Smith is an adjunct faculty member of BYU's English Department. She and her husband have three children.
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