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Posted 27 Aug 2001   For week ended August 24, 2001
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Sent on Mormon-News: 25Aug01

By Kent Larsen

Remembering England

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 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 Pulitzer Prize. Dialogue is still published today, 35 years after England and Johnson started the journal.

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 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 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 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

See also:

Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought


Association for Mormon Letters

Selected Publications:

More about "Brother Brigham" by Eugene England at

Making Peace
More about "Making Peace: Personal Essays" by Eugene England at

Bright Angels &Familiars
More about "Bright Angels &Familiars: Contemporary Mormon Stories" edited by Eugene England at

Harvest: Contemporary Mormon Poems
More about "Harvest: Contemporary Mormon Poems" edited by Eugene England and Dennis Clark at

Tending the Garden
More about "Tending the Garden: Essays on Mormon Literature" edited by Eugene England and Lavina F. Anderson at

More about "Beyond Romanticism: Tuckerman's Life and Poetry" by Eugene England at

More about "An Open World: Essays on Leslie Norris" edited by Eugene England and Peter Makuck at

Why the Church Is As True As the Gospel
More about "Why the Church Is As True As the Gospel" by Eugene England at

Dialogues With Myself
More about "Dialogues With Myself: Personal Essays on Mormon Experience" by Eugene England at

More about "Converted to Christ Through the Book of Mormon" by Eugene England at

More about "The Best of Lowell L. Bennion: Selected Writings, 1928-1988" edited by Eugene England and Lowell Lindsay Bennion at


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Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 Kent Larsen · Privacy Information