Yesterday, I reread the (infamous) letter that Bruce R. McConkie wrote to Eugene England, severely rebuking him with some of the most abusive, nauseating, and--dare I say?--un-Christlike way possible. Just as with the first time I read this letter, my admiration for Gene multiplied a thousand times over. At the same time, I have to ask myself, Could I have done as Eugene England did? Could I have held back and not retaliated? Could I have written back that I would comply, ask others not to criticize McConkie in my presence, still praise and sustain him, and then wait 4 years after McConkie's death to publish the peace that provoked McConkie's wrath?
I don't think I could.
Some back story:
In June of 1980, Elder Bruce R. McConkie gave a speech at BYU entitled "The Seven Deadly Heresies," (original version / published version) condemning beliefs in (1) God's progression in knowledge; (2) organic evolution; (3) that temple marriage guarantees salvation; (4) that baptisms for the dead offer those who have died a second-chance to accept the gospel; (5) that a soul may progress from one kingdom of glory to another; (6) Adam-God; and (7) that perfection is required for salvation.
The problem with McConkie's speech was that (2) can only be denied by those ignorant of the facts of evolution; (1), (5), and (6) were taught by many Church leaders, including Brigham Young; and that the dogmatic assertion of (4) --as nearly all of McConkie's words were-- implies a unloving God that most Mormons simply don't believe in.
To make things worse, McConkie authoritatively claimed that the denial of (1) was a "saving truth"; that "no man can believe in the atonement" who believes in (2); and that anyone who believes in (6) "does not deserve to be saved."
He of course failed to mention that Brigham Young was not going to be saved for believing and teaching (1), (5), and (6).
Like many Mormons, Gene was deeply bothered by this speech--especially with the first supposed heresy which he knew was taught by several Church leaders, and simply made sense to him and so many Mormons. While trying to find a middle ground between McConkie's dogmatic cry of heresy and the teachings of these other leaders, Gene sent his thoughts to McConkie and other leaders for their thoughts. (He eventually published these thoughts four years after McConkie's death.)
Six months later, Eugene England received a response from McConkie. Here are some highlights:
This may well be the most important letter you have or will receive. . . . [Y]ou set forth the thesis that although God knows all things as pertaining to our sphere of existence, there are nonetheless other spheres beyond ours in which Deity continues to advance and progress in knowledge and truth. In espousing and explaining this philosophy you suppose you are harmonizing quotations from various of the early Brethren. Some of these statements emphatically say that God knows all things and has all power and others of them say that he is advancing in knowledge and understanding and is gaining new truths.
When your letter arrived I was aware of the subject material contained in it and in the enclosed article. Because I do not engage in controversy or discussion of divergent views, either orally or in writing, I simply dropped your letter in a drawer and did not bother to read it. Some four and a half months later, in January of this year, I did read your presentation for the first time. I was not at all pleased, but still thought I would have nothing to say to you on the subject. . . .
I have now reached the conclusion that it would be wise for me to depart from my usual custom and send you an answer to your letter. I do so out of respect for your parents, G. Eugene and Dora, and for your own personal well-being and for your guidance where your teachings and discussions with others are concerned.
I shall write in kindness and in plainness and perhaps with sharpness. I want you to know that I am extending to you the hand of fellowship though I hold over you at the same time, the scepter of judgment. My office door is open to you and if you feel the need for discussion with me, my secretary will be pleased to set up a mutually convenient time or times for such.With such love, McConkie then cites passages from his Seven Deadly Heresies speech, and then acknowledges that Brigham Young taught both Adam-God and that God continues to progress in knowledge, adding that "Brigham Young will have to make his own explanations on the points there involved," and that "If we choose to believe and teach the false portions of his doctrines, we are making an election that will damn us."
He then lovingly concludes:
I advise you to take my counsel on the matters here involved. If I err, that is my problem; but in your case if you single out some of these things and make them the center of your philosophy, and end up being wrong, you will lose your soul. One of the side effects of preaching contrary to what the Brethren preach is to get a spirit of rebellion growing up in your heart. This sort of thing cankers the soul spiritually. It drives people out of the Church. It weakens their faith. All of us need all of the faith and strength and spiritual stability we can get to maintain our positions in the Church and to work out our salvation.
Now, I think I have said enough in this letter so that if you are receptive and pliable, you will get the message. If you are not, rebellion will well up in your heart. I pray for your well-being. I repeat: the door to my office is open. Perhaps I should tell you what one of the very astute and alert General Authorities said to me when I chanced to mention to him the subject of your letter to me. He said: "Oh dear, haven't we rescued him enough times already?"
Now I hope you will ponder and pray and come to a basic understanding of fundamental things and that unless and until you can on all points, you will remain silent on those where differences exist between you and the Brethren. This is the course of safety. I advise you to pursue it. If you do not, perils lie ahead. It is not too often in this day that any of us are told plainly and bluntly what ought to be. I am taking the liberty of so speaking to you at this time, and become thus a witness against you if you do not take the counsel.
I repeat: I have every good wish for you, pray that the Lord will bless you and hope that things will work out properly and well in your life.
Bruce R. McConkie
If I had been in Gene's shoes, I would have flipped out and lost it. I would have wanted nothing more than to take McConkie's offer of an open door to step into McConkie's office and land my fist between his eyes. If that would have sent me to hell, I would have done it and laughed my way to perdition. I would have gone public with my criticisms. I would have used every opportunity I had to point out McConkie's abuse of authority and unChristian arrogance. I would have completely ignored his threats and published my thoughts. I would have jumped into McConkie's mudhole and done everything I could to drown him in his own muck. I would do everything that I am doing this moment.
I am no Eugene England.
Instead of taking McConkie's bait and getting dirty in his pen, Gene complied. He set aside his thoughts for another day, waiting 4 years--as I mentioned--after McConkie's death to publish them. Instead of publicly rebuking and judging McConkie (as McConkie had done to him), he remained silent and left the judgment to God--even trying to find occasions to praise McConkie and find other truths in his teachings. And when he finally decided that he had wronged his own integrity by complying to McConkie and burying what he knew was true, he published his essay without the fanfare and backstory that could have given further publicity to his thoughts and elicited praise from many of his fellow Mormons who knew the struggle and pain that McConkie put him through.
I'm not that kind of person, but I need to be. When someone in (what I perceive to be) their arrogance and ignorance tries to rebuke me, I kick back and throw everything I can at them. Instead of displaying Christian restraint, I come back with angry force, personal criticisms, name-calling, mud-slinging, and everything else that I despise in what was thrown at me. Some of you who read this have been targets of my revengeful angst.
In these situations I need to be more like Gene, and perhaps less like me. Before I react, I need to ask myself,
What Would Eugene England Do?