Book review: “Stretching the Heavens: The Life of Eugene England and the Crisis of Modern Mormonism” by Terryl Givens

Despite my insistence that I would cut back on buying books, I couldn’t not by the new Eugene England biography, Stretching the Heavens by Terryl Givens. I have to be upfront– I haven’t actually read anything by Eugene England. I will fix that soon, especially since @JamesGoldberg pointed out you can read most of his stuff on his website. @calvinjburke got me REALLY hyped up for the book, so I’m indebted to him. Cal just happens to be working with Terryl Givens, so he’s had an insider peek throughout the whole writing process. He has been dropping hints for months. While I haven’t read anything by England, I have tried to read everything Terryl and Fiona Givens have ever written, so this one was not to be missed.

I was mostly excited about the England biography because of what he represented: a faithful liberal Latter-Day Saint. While officially over the pulpit, the Church declares itself politically neutral (Principles compatible with the gospel may be found in various political parties), there is a clear tendency toward the right. In fact, I grew up thinking that was the only way to be a faithful Mormon. Rediscovering the radical-ness inherent in Mormonism’s roots, our emphasis on community, the Book of Mormon’s ideal of “no poor among them” and the United Order, Joseph Smith’s presidential platform to reform penitentiaries and abolish slavery, a theology with a Heavenly Mother and Mother Eve cast as a hero– all provide a strong argument for a compassionate and forward-thinking Mormonism. What happened? Finding representatives of Mormon thought that still represent these aspects of the restoration is always refreshing, and it awes me at how awesome the restoration of the gospel really was.

I would say the first book I really became aware of a liberal current in Mormonism just underneath the surface was David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism by Greg Prince. In that, I discovered the that the Church was much more politically diverse in the early twentieth century, and the presidency of David O. McKay was a kind of high watermark before the more conservative elements gained the upper hand. I also read a biography of Henry Eyring in Mormon Scientist. Eyring was a scientist, and perhaps couldn’t be classified as a liberal. But he did spar with Joseph Fielding Smith over evolution, and had a complementary view of the roles of science and religion. I read many of the works of Lowell Bennion, including his The Place of a Liberal in Religion. I really liked his explication of the roles of the prophetic (corresponding to the liberal instinct to seek justice and call out abuse of the wealthy and powerful) and the priestly (corresponding to the conservative instinct to preserve, record, and transmit). Eugene England was another figure that carries on this tradition, but perhaps in a different way than Lowell Bennion or Henry Eyring. Certainly louder. But still within the tradition, not playing the role of a heretic like Sterling McMurrin.

Givens’ biography of England highlighted much of these “liberal” themes, 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 was moved by Givens’ book The God Who Weeps where he beautifully expounds the doctrine of a God who is moved by human suffering and all its implications. But this idea isn’t original to Givens. Of course, the idea originally from scripture, but it was Eugene England’s essay The Weeping God of Mormonism that pulled out this theme from the Pearl of Great Price.

But while the biography did very well in terms of ideas and context, I found it wanting in aspects dealing with Eugene England the man. Biographical details were much more plentiful when dealing with the early chapters of his life, especially of his mission to Samoa. I found a pleasant surprise in this chapter of England’s life: the scout leader of my youth was a Samoan by the name of Jacob Fitisemanu. A policeman by the name of Fitisemanu pulled a prank on the young Elder England when he was fresh off the boat in Samoa! I am assuming that this Fitisemanu was a father or grandfather of my scout leader, but I can’t be sure. It was fun to find a personal connection in there.

The book gets much more scanty on events in England’s life, instead relying much more on the scholarly writings of England. Givens laments at one point, England would only keep [a journal] sporadically over the next quarter century; a dismal record for one so passionate about the value of journal-keeping in the pioneer past. Givens also pulls some details from interviews with family members, as well as the many letters Eugene exchanged with general authorities. A surprising amount– how common was it to exchange letters with apostles back in the day? Today? I would often find myself wondering, hey, where did this person come from? It says they know Eugene really well, but we haven’t been introduced to them before.

I also didn’t like some of Givens’ character judgments of England. Givens uses naive or naivete thirteen times and the deafness or tone deafness five times when describing his interactions with general authorities. In Givens’ view, Eugene’s idealistic view of Mormonism should be tempered with the living reality of a religion that has become anchored in tradition and respect for authority. Sure, stick to your principles. But you have to be realistic about what you can accomplish, don’t step on peoples’ toes, and pick your battles. If that is naivete, I wish we had more of it. I wish it was allowed, I wish it thrived, in our wards and stakes.

The thing I find tragic about England’s life was how much the approval of Church authorities held sway over his conscience and his sense of peace. Close to his deathbed, an exchange of letters with Elder Maxwell led to a downward spiral in his mental health. In his journal, he wrote, I’m getting close to a panic attack. I lay in bed this morning for almost an hour, just barely hanging on. My mind keeps circling, circling, over past failures, mistakes, omissions, wishing I could go back and change things. Nothing attracts me, fills me with desire to do, accomplish, feel. And as I think of what I must do, it all seems banal, petty doomed to failure. I felt this so much, because I have been there. But I came to a point in my life where I chose to discard this weight of guilt, of what the Church would think, of what my mission president would think, etc. But my inner religious life doesn’t belong to the Church, and I shouldn’t have to feel like they are peering over my shoulder all the time. I choose to stay faithful in the Church, but it is a conscious choice. In many ways, my faith has a different timbre to it than England’s. In many ways, England is more optimistic than myself. But I find hope in his hope. I think one of the things that will stick with me from England’s biography is his recounting of the story of Levi Savage:

As his student Dian Monson relates, “I remember how admiringly he would tell the story of Levi Savage, a member of the Martin Handcart Company and one of the few to challenge the decision by company leaders, among them an apostle, to embark on the trek across the plains at such a late season in the year. After voicing his strenuous objection to the decision and realizing his objection would go unheeded, Savage told fellow company members: ‘Seeing you are to go forward, I will go with you, will help you all I can, will work with you, will rest with you, will suffer with you, and if necessary, I will die with you.'”

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