Why Eugene England Still Matters

Shawn LarsenBloggernacle, BYU, christianity, Culture, LDS 29 Comments

If you spend any time here in the Bloggernacle, or leafing through the pages of any number of “alternate voices,” you are bound to encounter Eugene England. A founder of Dialogue, England — a former Bishop, LDS missionary, and BYU Professor — is a patron saint of the Mormon intellectual community, oft-revered as “our greatest essayist.” But for all of our lip service, we — as a Church and as an Internet community — could still learn a thing or two by actually putting his more challenging philosophies into practice.

A bit of background: I’m a relative late comer to England’s work. He was still teaching at BYU when I was there (’90-’91, ’94-’96), but I never took a class from him. All I heard was that he was “one of those Sunstone-type liberal Mormons.” Given my limited world-view at the time, I paid him little mind, assuming that he would talk himself out of the Church sooner or later. It was only a few years ago that I found a collection of his essays on-line via Signature Books. After that, I couldn’t get enough, and have spent many hours since curled up with an essay or symposium recording.

For me, England sits apart from other big names in the Mormon Studies world. I see folks like Michael Quinn and Todd Compton as the “head” of that particular body — they are fact gatherers, interested in overturning every possible stone in hopes of unearthing new facts shedding light on Obscure Historical Issue #467 (What phase was the moon in on the day of the First Vision?; What did he eat for lunch in Liberty jail?). Don’t get me wrong, these are worthwhile endeavors, but can leave one lacking spiritually. England, by contrast, is the “heart” of the movement. He rarely focused on historical minutia. Rather, he dealt with big-picture questions: what does it mean to be a Christian? What does it mean to become “like God” in the hereafter and how do we prepare ourselves now for that state? How will men and women be united in the afterlife?

Heady stuff. As I’ve been re-reading some of my favorite essays, it has come to mind that, while we often pay homage to England, we’re more reticent to actually incorporate the lessons he taught into our worship. That’s a shame, in my book. In hopes of remedying the situation, I offer below two main themes of England’s work which, I believe, have the potential to aid us in our journey toward perfection, both as individuals and as a Church.

[A quick disclaimer: this post does not aspire to be a comprehensive survey of England’s body of work. Feel free to let me know in the comments if you think I’ve mischaracterized him or his writing in any way.]

1. A “Theology Of Peace”: I’ve written at length in other places about the travails of being a Mormon Democrat, a role which often puts me at odds politically with almost all of my friends and fellow worshipers on any given Sunday. For the most part, that difference doesn’t bother me; I believe the world is big enough for Mormons from all over the political spectrum. However, what I do find heartbreaking is the lengths to which some of my more conservative-leaning Mormon friends will go to justify the war in Iraq. Armed (pardon the pun) with plenty of scriptures from Alma and Helaman, they prattle on about the need to use force to defeat evil, and speak in platitudes about “modern Gadianton robbers.”

This is not the Christianity I know. England offers a counterpoint to this approach. As he taught it, LDS theology — which he deemed a “theology of peace” — mandates the principle and practice of “effective pacifism,” whereby “we are called to do whatever we can that will genuinely create peace, even sacrifice our own lives.” The central tenet of this philosophy, drawn from the same scriptural basis relied on by Latter-Day hawks, is: “Enemies cannot be defeated, they can only be changed into other than enemies by true principles of love, and God will provide the power to do that if we will trust him and pay the price of trying things his way.” Christ taught that we must “love our enemies”; England believed that if were to take this principle seriously, it would bring peace not only to us individually, but also collectively to the nations of the world. Such a stratagem requires the most difficult of disciplines: knowing and treating your enemies as “humans like ourselves.” England, ever the realist, recognized that this theory would not always work, and he made room for a compromise position analogous to the Catholic notion of “just war.” But, in his eyes, “effective pacifism” is an ideal worth striving for.

Imagine the possibilities were the U.S. to adopt this approach in dealing with the Middle East. Could resisting the temptation to tear down existing political, social and economic structures abroad as a means for “bringing about a government more to our liking” have saved any of the thousands of lives lost? If we come to see the Iranians as children of the same Father in Heaven, rather than as godless heathens, how would that inform our approach towards them in this heated political climate? Thinking closer to home, if I were to recognize my neighbors first as sons and daughters of God, my thoughts and actions towards them necessarily would be lifted by an increase of love. Rather than finding cause for conflict, I would take the opportunity to serve them unconditionally.

2. Being “Mormon”: For my money, this was England’s forté. England was a Mormon, through and through. His essays are brimming with anecdotes from his childhood involving family prayers, conference trips and attending “boring” meetings. England saw everything through the prism of LDS theology. For example, he crafted well-reasoned, but always uniquely Mormon, positions on virtually every major political event from the 1960’s through the 1990’s, from Watergate to the Cold War to the Operation Desert Storm. Regardless of whether you agree(d) with him, England was not afraid to take a stand while flying his Primary-colored flag high (for those of you who have forgotten, our primary colors — sing it with me — are red, yellow and blue.)

But England’s deep and abiding love for Mormonism went well beyond his cultural and political endeavors. He grappled with the issue of what it truly means to be a member of the Church, and how that relates to being a disciple of Christ. England taught that former is a means to achieving the latter. Put another way:

The Church is true in large part because it provides an opportunity, for all who are willing, to endure all these things — and also to be guilty of them — and thus to learn how to be merciful, to be patient and forgiving, to accept forgiveness and help, to love unconditionally so we can accept the unconditional love of the Atonement and be saved.

The key to the Atonement, therefore, is to learn to love those with whom we disagree, or who hold opinions/beliefs that we find repugnant. Mandatory church attendance is a laboratory for developing this Christ-live and charity. It is our responsibility to progress beyond being mere “consumers” of the services offered at Church; we must actively participate in providing those services to others. To do so, we must resist the natural urge to find fault with, or to be offended by even the most genuinely offensive behavior of, our fellow travelers:

The Gospel is so overwhelmingly valuable that it crowds out the temptation to be overwhelmed by the mistakes people make trying to translate its ideals into specific Church expression and action — the real intellectual problems and puzzles that such human expression of the Gospel can get us involved in.

This statement took my breath away the first time I read it and, since then, it has changed (for the better) the way I view my place in the Church. Imagine how such an approach could enrich our everyday Church activity? How effective would your Ward be were it filled with “doers” as opposed to “consumers?”

This point is especially salient for those of us who frequent this insular world we call the Bloggernacle. It often seems we spend most of our time venting frustration that “regular” Mormons are unfairly dismissive of, or openly hostile to, what we perceive as our more enlightened/open-minded views. “I have to keep my mouth shut in Elders’ Quorum” and “nobody in my ward is interested in hearing the truth about Historical Issue X” are all-too-common refrains. We express a longing for unity and more open channels of communications.

At the same time, however, we hypocritically jump at the chance to find fault in those same members, with our most pointed criticism reserved for those in leadership positions. We further set ourselves apart from the pack by affixing labels such as “liberal” or “Liahona” Mormons. Were we to apply England’s vision of the Church, we would see the pettiness of such back and forth. Constructive dialogue and debate are healthy for, and necessary to, the building of a vibrant community. Bickering, however, serves only to divide us, and distance us all from Christ. How much more could we accomplish if our conversation was stripped of this infighting and prejudice?

There’s more to say, and further lessons to be learned, but this post is already too long. I hope that we can all take a second look at Brother England’s work and, as we do, that we dare to grapple with the questions he raised. Brother England, wherever you are, thanks for everything — although we never met, your words have been a ray of hope in my life.

Comments 29

  1. Saw the pingback on FMH. Funny I was just thinking about how much I missed Gene and how he lived as well as spoke “why the church is as true as the gospel.”

    Dang I miss that man.

  2. Wow, Shawn, I have to say you blew me away with this post. I couldn’t agree more and was hoping you’d keep going.

    I agree wholeheartedly about the need to truly embrace a Gospel of Peace. I left the Republican party in 2003 (back when we were “winning” the war) over the issue of the Iraq War. Book of Mormon prophets plainly rejected the concept of “pre-emptive” war in more than one place, and I think our collective failure to recognize that as Mormons was one of the most important and tragic missed messages for our day. Hopefully there is still time to learn it.

    On avoiding petty and nit picky fault-finding, I concur as well. We can and should address issues of substance in as Christlike a way as possible, but there is too much uncharitable murmuring in the peanut gallery these days. We acknowledge we’re not perfect and yet gripe unceasingly when others are imperfect.

    Thanks for reminding us of England’s important messages.

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    Andrew — buy me lunch and I’ll talk your ear off. That offer stands for anyone willing to buy me lunch 🙂

  4. Very nice post. By the way, does anyone know if there is a Eugene England biography in the works? If not, there should be.

    England was a liberal in the same way Lowell Bennion, Robert Rees, and others were/are liberals. (And I agree, when we think of liberals in Mormon Studies we usually think of the “fact gatherers.”) What makes people like England liberal, in my opinion, is that they are not affraid to differentiate between the institution and the gospel of Christ. In contrast, I’d argue that conservatives and most Mormons think of the two as inextricable. England was not above questioning the institution and its leaders; in fact, I think he considered it a necessary part of both being a good member of the institution (and of gaining a testimony), that it made both the individual and the institution stronger. At the same time, he considered the institution and leaders to be absolutely necessary and vital for personal growth and salvation. He was both an unabashed “homer” and a “critic” at the same time.

    If you are familiar with Fowler’s Stages of Faith, I consider the Eugene Englands and Lowell Bennions of Mormonism to be the few who have made it to Stage 6. Their faith includes but transcends the institution and its sometimes ethoncentric worldview/doctrine/dogma to a universal faith and worldview that is inclusive of the entire human community. For an orthodox and somewhat fundamentalist church, this is indeed very liberal.

  5. ‘I think the comments posted by some commenters on the threads here at MM likewise contained some examples of the mindset England urged us to avoid…’

    It seems like it would have been more charitable to use your own site as an example. Bad form.

    And equating the American Democratic party with pacifism is preposterous.

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    Matt — I’m not aware of a biography. The only upcoming England I’ve heard of is the “Reader’s Edition of the Book of Mormon” done by him and Robert Rees. I second the notion that a good biography is sorely needed.
    I also agree with your assesment of England’s position. One thing I find endearing about his work is, underneath all of his criticisms, is a true affection for Mormonism. And not just as a “cultural Mormon” and “social Mormon.” He wore the workers’ seal proudly. As I read his stuff, he was very much against the idea of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. That’s what makes him special in my eyes — so many folks get frustrated, throw up their hands, and leave. England took the harder road; he stuck around to try and make things better.

  8. While I certainly agree that Gene England’s thought and life remain very relevant today, I think you overstate your case in calling him the heart of the Mormon Studies movement. It seems you’ve equated “Mormon Studies” with the Mormon Sunstone/Dialogue intellectual community (which seems problematic and innacurate). And even if we narrow England’s legacy within that crowd, I don’t think he’s the “heart” of it. That honor, as England would be the first to point out, probably belongs to Lowell Bennion, who was addressing what it means to be a Christian, how to effectively apply the gospel to our lives, why war is wrong, and racial and class tolerance and respect 20 years before England even stepped foot on the scene.

    In addition, Michael Quinn and Todd Compton (who are probably appropriately labeled part of the Mormon Studies crowd) are far from “the head” of that movement. Not only were there predecessors long before those two (think Arrington and Bitton), but Quinn and Compton aren’t unique, either, in their desire or their ability to unearth previously unknown historical tidbits. Besides, Mormon Studies as a movement is less interested in the obscure questions you suggest, and much more interested in addressing questions like “why is Mormon history relevant to larger historical issues?” and “what does the study of Mormonism–both contemporary and historical–tell us about the human experience?”

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    Christopher — you raise fair points, which I will attempt to address in order.

    1. Any defintion of “Mormon Studies” is problematic, your post suggests. Perhaps “New Mormon History” would be more precise, but England was not foremost a historian. The term was meant to be inclusory, as opposed to exclusionary. I certainly did not suggest, and do not believe, that Mormon Studies is concerned only (or even mainly) with “obscure questions”.

    2. You’re right — England would be the first to point out that he (any many others) studied at the feet of Lowell Bennion. Just as I wrote this post in hopes reminding folks of England’s work, England was a tireless promoter of Bennion’s work. I meant no slight to Bennion. For me, however, England has been a more impactful figure. Perhaps this is a generational issue, I don’t know. That said, England was more than simply a puppet of Bennion’s ideas. His ideas has come into their own, and his is the name I see and hear more often in publications/lectures/symposia these days than Bennion.

    3. I think you misunderstood my use of the word “head.” As I thought was clear from the post, I didn’t mean that Quinn and Compton are “leaders”; rather, I used them as representing the “brains” or factfinding/research-oriented wing of the MS crowd. Certainly, they are two among a long list of qualified individuals. Yes, I’m aware of Arrington, Davis and that ilk. But the point of the post was not to give a comprehensive list of Mormon researchers, only to give context for a discussion of England’s thoughts.

  10. Shawn,

    I miss Gene too. I never took one of his classes, but I met him at Sunstone and he was very gracious in responding to questions.

    I think he is underappreciated and less well known than his mentor. Lowell Bennion has a prominent service center at the University of Utah named after him, but England has nothing of the same type yet to my knowledge. UVU at least should name a chair after him after the work he did trying to get their Mormon Studies program off the ground.

    While I agree with you that he provided wonderful ways of being Mormon and taking peace seriously as part of our religion, considering how he and others, like Bennion, were treated by the institution, would you say he was right about the chances for cultural change in Mormonism?

  11. Dear Shawn,

    I sent this on to some of Gene’s daughters, my aunt one of them, because I think it was a nice reminder of Gene’s impact on so many people in such important ways. I also appreciated the reminder of some of the ways he helped me find my own voice, although THIS voice DID do what you feared Gene’s would: that is, talked herself out of the church. But you are right– it is the memory of his voice that sometimes manages to tug at my heart and remind me that the church needs strong people like you to expose a rather insular culture to views that are actually more harmonious with Christ’s than some of the more popular trappings of conservative Mormon culture. Thanks for the reminder of a man who I do miss greatly.

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    Nicole, thanks for the kind words. In or out of the Church (or somewhere in between), you are always welcome here 🙂

  13. I am one of the daughters who received this. I appreciate continuing to hear about the impact Dad’s life and writings continue to have on the world. We have been and continue to work to prepare Dad’s papers to be donated so others will have access. I think that will be the best way we can further Dad’s efforts in building Mormon Studies programs, and well as continue his influence through his amazing example.
    I could go on forever in commenting on what kind of person he was, what kind of title he deserves, what kind of impact he had or should continue to have. Ultimately each person who is willing to know him or his writings, without making assumptions about where he belongs, or how he was accepted or not accepted, will have an opportunity of learning from him in a very individual way. It was one of the qualities he practiced in his life, to let each person he met get that they had something unique to offer to the world.
    I feel honored that my experience with him covered my whole life. I, as one of his children, know that he was far from perfect and I appreciate his willingness to look at every opportunity to repent and forgive. I am very grateful he left so much of himself here in his writings and recordings. But the Eugene England I miss the most is my dad, my mom’s husband and my children’s grandpa. No matter what other impact he had on other people, those are the greatest things he did with his life.

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    Jody — I appreciate your perspective. I’m not overstating the point when I say your Dad’s writing fundamentally changed the way I see the Gospel and relate to the Church. Certain passages from his “Why the Church …” ring in my head nearly every week. I’d love to ask you a few more questions off-blog. If you’re up for it, please drop me a line at larsenshawn AT gmail DOT com. I won’t be a pest, I promise 🙂

    John N. — I agree that England is tragically underappreciated, although I’m not quite sure why. I think only time will tell whether his hopes for a shift in our culture take hold. I do see some progress in the increasing willingness to take those of other faiths at face value, rather than trying to fit them into our own, Mormon box. However, as Jaime’s post about the pervasiveness of non-doctrinal norms shows, we still have a long way to go.

  15. You know, as I read this, I thought about the difference between the pacifist movements in the BoM, and the very aggressive movement in the BoM lead by Helaman (and the Sons of Helaman). One one hand you have a group who have vowed to never fight, and are strict pacifists. People who believe that it is better to die than to fight. On the other hand you have people who believe it is better to fight and protect the righteous.

    What we don’t have is any record of strife between these groups, and I think that’s what the real take away lesson of the scriptural segment there probably is for me. Not that we must be pacifists or that we must be willing to fight, but that both choices are acceptable and that we must accept the choices of others to live according to one philosophy or the other. Which, of course, leads to a greater peace in the land by not causing contention within the House of God, which is the first step in converting those who are unbelievers.

    I think if we want to spread peace to the world, we must stop fighting amongst ourselves about minor things and learn to accept that minor theological points are not a big deal, and that we really just need to move on. Like I told my wife yesterday, I think the answer to a lot of the questions regarding church history may ultimately be: “we don’t know exactly why the Lord commanded Joseph Smith to do X or Y, and that’s okay for now”. I can live with that for now. I’m learning more, and as I learn more, the ambiguity is lessened in some areas and strengthened in others, but I think learning to live with ambiguity is a major part of maturation in this life. Just a personal point of view.

  16. I am one of those younger folks who is just coming to know England through tidbits that get dropped here and there on the Bloggernacle. I was not even a member of the Church yet when he died and am not personally acquainted with anyone who took a class from him. If I wanted to learn more about England and his work, where and how would you all suggest that I start?

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    Now that’s a good question! Embedded in the second paragraph of my post is a link to the complete on-line version England’s “Dialogues with Myself,” which includes a couple of my favorites: “Letter to a College Student,” “The Hosanna Shout in Washington D.C.” and “Blessing the Chevrolet.” From there, you can delve into the archives of Dialogue and Sunstone. Here’s a link to the Sunstone search engine: https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/index.php?option=com_mira&Itemid=35&searchword=eugene+england&filter=pdf&searchphrase=any&constraint=author.

    You’ll definitely want to read “Why the Church is as True as the Gospel.” It’s likely his best-known work and a stone-cold classic. Another fun way to experience him is through recordings of his Sunstone symposium readings (use the link above). Anyone else have suggestions? Happy hunting! Let us know what you think once you’ve had time to read a few things.

    Matt Thurston — am I ever going to collect a commission for all this Sunstone-shilling I’ve been doing lately? 🙂

  18. Hey John,

    I think you need to change your issue # from 120 to 121 on your link

    I’m a huge Eugene England fan and love this tribute issue.

    Thanks to you and to Sunstone for making it available like this.


  19. One aspect of Gene England’s life and work that has not been mentioned here is the indelible influence he had on hundreds of BYU students. He taught for a number of years in the Honors Program, at least from the late 1970s through the 1980s, maybe later, I’m not sure. A large percentage of the best, most talented BYU students of these years were Gene’s students, or learned with him in ventures such as Food for Poland. I have no doubt that many of these people–now in their 30s and 40s–would cite Gene as the single most important person in their college education and in the process of their becoming adults within their own faith culture. A biography would be welcome; it ideally would simultaneously be a history of Mormon thought and culture of his era, of the transition from a religion of people like Lowell Bennion to the corporate Mormonism of today.

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    I was fortunate to receive a call from England’s widow, Charlotte, responding to some of the questions posed in the comments above. She informed me that, in fact, a biography of her husband is in the works. It will be different than a traditional biography, however, in that it will be a collection of essays written by different folks about their experiences with England. The essays are still coming in, and they would like to have it completed as soon as possible. I, for on, are looking forward.

    In addition, England’s last major project “A Reader’s Edition of the Book of Mormon,” is finally out through Signature Books. The book spilts the 1830 BoM thematically into 7 separate books, each with an essay by a prominent Mormon scholar, including Cluadia Bushman and Edward Kimball. It looks fantastic and can be purchased here: http://www.signaturebooks.com/bookofmormon.htm

  21. BradW #23 wrote: “I have no doubt that many of these people–now in their 30s and 40s–would cite Gene as the single most important person in their college education and in the process of their becoming adults within their own faith culture.”

    Yep, I’m one of those. I had the pleasure of taking England’s Mormon literature course in the mid-1990s and getting to know him personally, and he got me involved in the Association for Mormon Letters, Sunstone, and other things that have played a HUGE role in my life. No other college professor in undergrad or grad had as big an influence on me, and I’m so glad I didn’t miss out.

    Also, he is probably the one person I personally know within Mormonism who I admire most as a role model, influence, etc. including his flaws and humanity, which make most General Authorities look like robots in comparison. I was more sad when he died than when President Hinckley died, and while I usually avoid funerals, England’s was one I made sure to attend. I haven’t actually read many of his essays and haven’t agreed with some of his theological views (such as on polygamy), but I just love his attitude and influence on breaking out of the usual Mormon boxes, and he pointed me in so many valuable, rewarding directions. I don’t know if I can ever forgive BYU for not appreciating and valuing him to the end.

    I can’t wait for the biography! I do hope a more narrative one is done sometime too about all the ins and outs of his fascinating life, in addition to this collection of essays Charlotte England mentions.

  22. I appreciate the “Why the Church is True” essay by England,and have loved the testimony Eugene England in other writings I’ve read.
    I get nervous when I read that there are those who are afraid to speak up in Elders Quorum meetings for fear of causing troubles. Too frequently those who express such concerns are those who would like to hold their superior light and wisdom up for others to admire and they withhold because they would not be sufficiently appreciated. In reality they may be tending towards puffery, pride, arrogance and intollerance.

    Now dear Shawn,you clothe yourself in the holy garments of the Democratic party and say that you oppose the war. If you will review the wars of the past 60 years, you may find a difficult correlation with Democratic Party and peace or conversely Republican Party and war. It just doesn’t wash.

    But I love the dialogue here. I don’t have much time to read this type of blog as a full time missionary serving with my wife in – of course – England. But I wanted to find the essay and give to to a member here who will get a real spiritual lift from consideration of it.

    I loved the revisiting of spiritual experiences in England’s article because I have had those experiences too. But perhaps even more universally valuable is the reminder that loving and serving unconditionally is a significant purpose of the church.

    Love to you all – for all of us are truly seekers of truth. Keith

  23. As a student in the Honor’s Colloquim at BYU in 1981, Dr. England and the rest of the professors in that program had a significant impact on me. They probably kept me active in the Church for a significantly longer period of time than I would have if they hadn’t influenced my life.

    My pacifist, liberal leanings come directly from those years. I ultimately came to the conclusion that maybe the Church wasn’t quite as true as the gospel, but Dr. England always tempered my responses and made me remember that our societal constructs are a critical part of what makes us human. Thinking back now, the education I received was as a humanist and anyone who can impart that gift deserves accolades and kudos.

  24. I just saw this in the old stuff link on the front page. Thanks for this post. I am new to England’s work having only read Making Peace, but I also have several friends / acquaintances who were friends with him, and I enjoy hearing them talk about him.

    From reading Making Peace I think that its something of a misnomer to describe England in terms of Mormon studies. Making Peace is the work of a theologian rather than of an academic. I think this is an important distinction and part of the reason that England maters now and will continue to matter for a long time to come. We mormons don’t talk about theology much at all, but there is a degree to which we are constantly doing some sort of theology, its usually informal, very limited, incomplete, and often sloppy but its theology nonetheless. England is an example of what Mormon theology looks like when its done well, and focused on Christ. The only problem is that England was just about the only Mormon theologian we’ve had. These day Bob Reese is stepping up to the plate and doing some wonderful work, but if you don’t attend Sunstone you are going to miss out on a lot of what he does. I think we should see England’s work as a challenge. He challenges us to become better theologians and better Christians, to produce a body of Mormon theology that is worthy of the name and that explores the beauty and potential of the religion that will never be spoken of in Conference or Sunday School.

  25. Shawn Larsen,
    I do not know who you are but I so appreciated your post. I am grateful for Eugene England and need to fellowship with like minded saints. Thank you.

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