Summarized by Kent Larsen
The Battle for England: LDS writer's journey traces his struggle between church and cultural criticism
Salt Lake Tribune 29Jan00 A2
By Peggy Fletcher Stack: Salt Lake Tribune
OREM, UTAH -- LDS writer Eugene England will be named today Utah Valley
State College's first Writer in Residence in a move that recognizes his
influence on Mormon culture and efforts to promote the teachings of the
But England's journey to UVSC hasn't been easy. It has been marked by
controversy and political battles, starting from his graduate school
days at Stanford University to his more than 20 year tenure at BYU, from
which he retired last year.
As a graduate student at Stanford in the 1960s, England was influenced
by the free speech movement, anti-war rallies and fair housing
initiatives that characterized life on many U.S. college campuses in the
60s. But he was also an active member of the LDS Church and a leader in
the local student ward. England says he felt caught between two
different and conflicting worlds, "I was seen in each place as a totally
different person," he writes in a forthcoming essay. "As a naive
conservative [though strangely on the 'right' side about Vietnam and
racism and educational bankruptcy] when I was at Stanford and as a
dangerous liberal [though strangely obedient and devout and faithful]
when I was at church."
Since that time, England has struggled to bridge the two worlds, trying
to get the academic community to take Mormon culture seriously and
trying to get Mormons to be more thoughtful about Mormon culture. As a
result he has sometimes been rejected, misinterpreted and vilified and
other times revered for his thoughtful support of LDS teachings.
In 1966, while at Stanford, England and fellow academic Wesley Johnson
announced that they were founding a new academic journal to focus on
Mormon culture. The quarterly journal, "Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon
Thought" attracted a number of LDS academics. One editorial board member
was then University of Chicago Law Professor Dallin Oaks, now a member
of the LDS Church's Council of the Twelve. Another was Laurel Ulrich,
now a professor of early American history at Harvard and a winner of the
But at the time, his efforts were seen as radical. After England and
Johnson met with San Francisco Bay area LDS leaders about the journal,
his stake president told him, "What you are planning looks very good,
but if you do it, you will never hold high position in the church."
After graduating from Stanford with his Ph.D., England taught at St.
Olaf Lutheran College in Minnesota, where he argued for the school to
maintain its religious emphasis at a time when other religious colleges
were dropping theirs. But when some of his students started expressing
interest in Mormonism, their parents complained and England was forced
After teaching at the University of Utah's LDS Institute of Religion for
two years, England was able to land a professorship at BYU, with the
help of Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, now a member of the LDS Church's
Council of the Twelve Apostles. England saw the position at BYU as a
chance to work on Mormon literature, which had been ignored until then.
He says he "caught hell from my academic friends, Mormon and non-Mormon
alike, who wondered what I was doing with my interests and my gifts,
going to BYU, because I would be oppressed."
But England was able to teach classes in Mormon literature at BYU and
helped found the Association for Mormon Letters while there, raising the
visibility of the study of Mormon literature. He was also able to do
what he felt he would not be able to do elsewhere, explore religious
themes in important literary works, including older works like those of
Shakespeare and more current work like that of John Updike.
But in the past ten years, England feels like he was increasingly under
fire at BYU for his work. He says that the 'culture wars' on many
American campuses came to BYU, and other faculty members increasingly
felt that modern forms of criticism such as feminism and post-modernism
were wrong and devilish. BYU became increasingly less tolerant of the
unorthodox. "Teaching in any way critical of Mormon culture was read as
a criticism of the Mormon religion, even though there's a sharp
distinction between the two that the prophets have always drawn,"
England said. "I could tell other faculty began to see me as an evil
rather than liberating influence."
So in 1998 England retired from BYU. After struggling with what he saw
as a rejection of his life's work, he was offered a position at Utah
Valley State College; one that allowed him to introduce his approach to
Mormon literature there. It gives him a chance to get back to what he
sees as his role, that of a "cultural critic." [Mormon scriptures almost
universally] "tell the story of the people of God at war with God, and
God criticizing them for failing to live up to what he's told them," he
said. "If we followed that model, we would all do cultural criticism."
And England sees being named a writer in residence as an opportunity to
change how he has to spend his time, "I've been so involved working with
our study-abroad program and the Center for the Study of Mormon Culture,
that I haven't been able to have writing groups, give readings and do
the normal things that a writer in residence does," England says. "I
hope this event will kick that off."
And he is grateful to UVSC for the opportunity it has given him. "The
thing I love about UVSC is they're genuinely interested in LDS
literature. The president is not a Mormon, yet he has encouraged me to
be a resource. And many non-LDS faculty members have come to me looking
for ways to connect with their LDS students."
And friends and colleagues have seen the event as a way of honoring
England. Retired BYU professor William A. Wilson says "Gene has always
worked strongly for the good of the church. That's why what has happened
to him is so tragic." Another retired BYU professor, Marden Clark, says
that "Under the restless spirit of Gene England is a profound and
abiding faith in that Christ and, strangely, in a kind of cosmic justice
that will finally lead us to be reconciled with him."
Wilson adds, [England's] "finest sermon is his own life, where in spite
of obstacles, criticisms and downright cruelty, he has never lost the
Wordsmith takes up residence at UVSC
Deseret News 30Jan00 A4
By Jerry Johnston
Eugene England is the college's first Writer in Residence
Works of restless writer tap into faith
Provo UT Daily Herald 29Jan00 A2
By Marden Clark