By Kent Larsen
PROVO, UTAH -- Tomorrow hundreds of people are expected at the Provo
Tabernacle to remember one of Mormonism's best known and most
influential authors and intellectuals. G. Eugene England was widely
known in spite of the fact that he never held Church-wide office. But
he did start two of Mormonism's most enduring independent
institutions and was heavily involved in another. He pushed for and
encouraged the study of Mormon literature and Mormonism during a
career of more than 20 years at BYU, and most recently founded the
only center for the study of Mormonism. But six months ago, England
was hit by a devastating case of brain cancer, to which he finally
succumbed last Friday.
During his 68 years, England built a reputation that will last for
years. That reputation was built on successfully balancing both a
faithfulness to the Church and the gospel with a faithfulness to an
intellectual view of Mormonism that left him widely respected, but
that left some suspicious of him.
Born July 22, 1933 in Logan, Utah, England grew up on a wheat farm in
Downey, Idaho. At age 20, he married Charlotte Ann Hawkins, and
together they were called to serve an LDS mission to Samoa. [At that
same time, England's father, George Eugene England, was serving as an
LDS mission president over the North Central States Mission.]
Following a stint in the Air Force, where England was a captain, he
entered graduate school at Stanford in the 1960s. There 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 an 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
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 Pulitzer Prize. Dialogue is still
published today, 35 years after England and Johnson started 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
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 to leave.
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
in 1976 he helped found the Association for Mormon Letters, raising
the visibility of the study of Mormon literature. Today, the AML
remains the only institution supporting the study of Mormon letters,
and the source of the only Mormon literary awards.
At BYU England 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. During this time England was
also at his most prolific, writing books of essays such as "Dialogues
with Myself" and "Why the Church Is as True as the Gospel," poetry, a
biography and numerous articles.
But in the past ten years, England felt like he was increasingly
under fire at BYU for his work. He said 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. While many observers have
maintained that he was pushed out, England maintained otherwise.
While he would never tell exactly what happened, apparently because
he didn't want to damage BYU or appear to be disaffected from BYU.
After struggling with what he saw as a rejection of his life's work,
England 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."
The college named England its writer in residence, and allowed him to
launch a Mormon cultural studies program, called the Center for the
Study of Mormon Culture, as part of the college's plans for a
religious studies program. The program was launched with a day-long
conference on Mormonism in March 2000.
England was grateful to UVSC for the opportunity it gave 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 saw the program as a way of honoring
England. Retired BYU professor William A. Wilson said "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, said 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
Wilson adds, [England's] "finest sermon is his own life, where in
spite of obstacles, criticisms and downright cruelty, he has never
lost the faith."
But before he could further develop his last effort for the study of
Mormonism, England suffered a debilitating case of brain cancer.
After weeks of blinding headaches and general physical and emotional
decline, England's symptoms became so acute that he collapsed and was
taken to the hospital, where two golf-ball sized cysts and a portion
of a tumor were removed from the right-front lobe of his brain. He
was never able to fully recover from the cancer, however.
It isn't yet clear how enduring Eugene England's legacy will be, but
the long history of the institutions he helped found and supported,
Dialogue, the Association for Mormon Letters, Sunstone, and most
recently, UVSC's Center for the Study of Mormon Culture, implies that
his legacy will last a long time. It sometimes seems that everything
of value in Mormon intellectual and literary endeavors is somehow
connected to him.
The Battle for England: LDS writer's journey traces his struggle between church and cultural criticism
Mormon Writer and Academic Eugene England has Surgery for Brain Tumor
UVSC To Study Mormons; College to pioneer LDS cultural program
UVSC Says LDS Studies Benefit Utah
Dialogue Starts Website, Resumes Publication
Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought
Association for Mormon Letters
More about "Brother Brigham" by Eugene England at Amazon.com
More about "Making Peace: Personal Essays" by Eugene England at Amazon.com
More about "Bright Angels &Familiars: Contemporary Mormon Stories" edited by Eugene England at Amazon.com
More about "Harvest: Contemporary Mormon Poems" edited by Eugene England and Dennis Clark at Amazon.com
More about "Tending the Garden: Essays on Mormon Literature" edited by Eugene England and Lavina F. Anderson at Amazon.com
More about "Beyond Romanticism: Tuckerman's Life and Poetry" by Eugene England at Amazon.com
More about "An Open World: Essays on Leslie Norris" edited by Eugene England and Peter Makuck at Amazon.com
More about "Why the Church Is As True As the Gospel" by Eugene England at Amazon.com
More about "Dialogues With Myself: Personal Essays on Mormon Experience" by Eugene England at Amazon.com
More about "Converted to Christ Through the Book of Mormon" by Eugene England at Amazon.com
More about "The Best of Lowell L. Bennion: Selected Writings, 1928-1988" edited by Eugene England and Lowell Lindsay Bennion at Amazon.com