A COMMITTED PERSON OF EXCEPTIONAL VALUE
By G. Wesley Johnson
I am very pleased to write a few lines about one of the most remarkable persons I have known during my lifetime, my colleague and friend Gene England. From 1965 to 1970, the two of us shared the responsibility of editing Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, a task that brought us together once a week for editorial meetings, as well as many other times as we struggled to make intelligent editorial decisions. We both had full-time jobs, were both working on our doctoral dissertations at Stanford University, and yet we somehow found time to launch and maintain this new publication. To say that we were committed is an understatement.
One of the first moments of truth for us came on the heels of the first announcements of our new journal, which created public interest in such places as Time magazine and the New York Times. Gene’s father flew into Palo Alto and strongly urged him to give up this new enterprise. I was not present, but I know that Gene agonized over the conversation—the essence of which was that editing this journal might well compromise Gene’s potential advancement in Church leadership. My father had also discussed this question with his friend and mentor, Elder Delbert Stapley, who had hinted at the same outcome should Gene continue pursuing Dialogue.
Gene and I had two different backgrounds. Gene was an “insider” in the church, growing up in Idaho and Utah, attending East High in Salt Lake City, and coming from a well- connected family. By contrast, I was an “outsider,” growing up in Mesa and Phoenix, Arizona, and viewing the church from afar. My father gave his approval for me to go ahead with the journal—I think he believed we could accomplish something for good. But Brother England was not happy with Gene’s decision to continue in his editorship, and I know that his father’s disapproval was hard on him.
The point is that Gene and I, and the other Dialogue founders (Frances Menlove, Joseph Jeppson, and Paul Salisbury) were all committed to bringing out this publication. We sensed that historically the time was right, since so many new social issues were swirling about us—the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, the Viet Nam war, and general social unrest. The LDS Church issued only one magazine for adults—The Improvement Era—which mainly carried articles by General Authorities. There was no place where thinking LDS persons could discuss these pressing issues. Yet other denominations—Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Seventh-day Adventists—all maintained independent journals in which their members could engage in putting forth their ideas, so it seemed to us that the time had come for Mormons to “step up to the plate” and show the larger world that Mormons had views on these questions, too, and that our values were worth sharing.
I know that Brother England returned to Salt Lake disappointed, but the rest of us admired Gene for staying with us and remaining committed. That commitment characterized the relationship between Gene and me for the next five years during which we had an intense personal and professional relationship. During those times when we had to meet various crises, Gene was always calm and was a pleasure to work with. Although, as mentioned above, we had different backgrounds, and our personalities were also very different, somehow when it came to making editorial decisions, we emerged from long discussions as though of one mind. My having edited other publications at Harvard and Columbia (where there were far too many opinions!). this was a refreshing experience.
By the time I first met Gene at Frances Menlove’s apartment in Escondido Village—I had already heard about him from others since my arrival at Stanford a few months earlier. Now here was Gene in person—slender, intelligent-looking, dressed conservatively as though he had just arrived from the Ivy League. There was a focus in his demeanor that one rarely finds even in academia. As the evening wore on and Gene argued why a new independent publication was desirable, I could tell that here was a man who had wide-ranging ideas and yet who was also a pragmatist. Gene had edited Pen magazine at the University of Utah and knew the nuts and bolts of the publication world. The question before this hastily assembled group was: Could the friends of Gene and the friends of Wes be able to work together to create a new publication? In my mind’s eye, it was apparent to me during this first meeting that I could indeed work with Gene, whose ideas (while not necessarily similar to mine) were appealing. Here was a person with an original style in speaking and deportment. And it was apparent that he was also original in his thinking, especially about the needs of the modern LDS church. He was well read not only in Mormon texts, but he also had a feel and understanding for other religious groups, something that was important to me, since I felt very strongly that we needed to communicate with other Christian intellectuals, as well as Jews. (This was a before Islam became a major religious force in the U.S.)
Following that meeting, we agreed to put together concrete plans for moving ahead. Those plans took form during the rest of the summer of 1965, so by fall we had bargained and negotiated and compromised until we had a game plan we all liked. Gene and I were put in charge of carrying out this plan, with a target that our first issue would appear by spring of 1966. Looking back, this certitude that we could do this seems amazing, since we were all so busy. How did we have time to fit Dialogue’s creation into our respective agendas? Again, in retrospect, it was simply our commitment, which we all displayed from the beginning and which we maintained as the first and subsequent issues emerged.
Gene was able to transfer this kind of commitment to a host of persons, mostly undergraduates, but also some graduate students and young members who were in the working world, persuading them to volunteer their time to help launch Dialogue. Luckily for us, the classrooms near my office in history corner, which served as the Dialogue office, were empty every Tuesday night, allowing us to commandeer several rooms for our staff purposes. Gene’s “pied piper” qualities were much in play here, as we regularly had from half a dozen to two dozen persons arrive to do everything from addressing brochures, to entering names on subscription lists, to reading letters to the editor, to helping screen new manuscript offerings, edit manuscripts for publication, and generate new ideas about what the journal should emphasize and stand for. Although we editors had our own ideas, we believed it was important to seek other input, especially from young people who were literally riding on the waves of change. It is hard to convey just how topsy-turvy the late sixties were.
There were many who selflessly gave of their time to help create Dialouge. Among the regulars those Tuesday nights were Edward Geary, Joseph Jeppson, Bob and Shirley Griffin, Frances Menlove, Kent Robson, Ralph Hansen, and many others whose service deserves to be remembered. From time to time, Paul Salisbury would fly in from Salt Lake, or we would see visitors such as Robert Christmas or Robert Rees (Rees would eventually take over the journal’s editorship and run its operations from UCLA).
After the troops had departed on Tuesday nights, Gene and I would sit in the office, make a few quick editorial decisions, but sometimes we would have a few moments to muse over the significance of what we were doing, and as circulation grew, to reflect on the feedback we were getting from readers. That was perhaps the most rewarding facet of our enterprise, because the feedback was almost unanimously favorable. There seemed to be a lot of pent-up interest in being able to read lay Mormon writers on important issues. There was also a lot of pent-up energy among writers. We need not have ever worried about obtaining enough material to publish. Since there were no other outlets for Mormon thought, we benefited for our first few years from manuscripts that LDS writers had already been seeking to publish. As time wore on, we learned that to procure the very best offerings, we would have to commission articles. Nevertheless, we did receive some outstanding articles that came unsolicited in the daily mail. Perhaps most remarkable, we had no funds to pay for contributed items—everything was gratis.
As an English major, Gene was a superb copy editor and was unparalleled in his gift for helping authors get the most out of their writing. I wonder how many authors we published truly knew of and appreciated the care and thought that went into Gene’s editing suggestions. As an historian, I brought different skills and perspectives to editing,and our different approaches created a journal that appealed to LDS readers across the country. At least that is what the feedback seemed to indicate.
Gene and I constantly asked ourselves how the church was doing in the midst of all this change. We were committed to publishing manuscripts that dealt with the status of blacks in the church. Having lived in West Africa for several years and having befriended many African scholars and government officials, I was convinced of the necessity for our church to recognize and accept these people of black African ancestry into a position of equality in our own society. Gene and I both welcomed a cadre of scholars who also shared our beliefs, and the net result was that Dialogue’s pages and the scholarship therein made a major contribution to helping change the LDS public’s point of view on “the black question.”
Women’s rights were another area that had to be addressed, and we published several special issues on the subject and also maintained a steady stream of articles. Some persons cancelled subscriptions because they thought we were going too far on civil rights and women’s issues, but the response from the grand majority of our readers was supportive. The most negative feedback we ever received was when we published a letter to the editor from Stewart Udall, a former Secretary of the Interior to John F. Kennedy, that more or less demanded that church leaders change priesthood policies immediately. Our readers were interested in evolution not revolution, and they let us know the difference!
Some of the most amusing times took place when Gene and I would together talk to members of the media—radio, tv, and especially the newspapers. We would take turns talking and answering questions, and as we did so we would wink at each other. Some reporters were determined to get us to make certain statements or to agree to certain potentially compromising ideas —but I am proud to say that I think Gene and I held our own with the media. We were never faced with superfluous quotes or misstatements. Dealing with the media became a game we both enjoyed.
It should be pointed out that our continuing commitment to furnish a dialogue within the Mormon community and with the outside religious world was sometimes misinterpreted to suggest we wanted to dialogue with the General Authorities. Nothing could have been further from the truth. The sixties provided great intellectual ferment all over the spectrum, and we were delighted to be part of that ferment. Gradually the media realized that we were not an opposition press or malcontents, but that we were loyal Mormons who wanted a chance to present our views as a reflection of Mormon values. One smart decision we made was to send copies of the journal issues to each General Authority (there were fewer then) so they would know precisely what we were printing.
Gene and I were gratified by two major accomplishments: First, the great number of people who wrote to let us know the magazine was a positive force in their lives for remaining active in the church. And second, the many people who thanked us for providing a place where their articles, stories, and poems could be published. As the years wore on, Exponent II, Sunstone, and other publications came on the scene to provide additional outlets for expressions of Mormon thought.
Gene and I were blessed with long-suffering, patient, wives. After all, wouldn’t you expect your husband to come home after the school day was over? In our case, many times we stayed on the Stanford campus to deal with some problem or another on the journal. Both of our wives were understanding and were always supportive, which I know that Gene and I appreciated. They both had children to care for, and they both had their own intellectual and artistic interests to pursue. It was wonderful to get the chance recently to see both of these stylish ladies simply glowing at Dialogue’s fortieth anniversary banquet in Salt Lake City.
I have tried to compose a brief portrait of Gene as I knew him during those Stanford years. Later, in the eighties and nineties, we were colleagues again at BYU, where Gene had carved out an admirable record for extraordinary teaching and had now published a wide variety of brilliant essays. I arrived from California in the mid-eighties, when Gene’s career was in high gear. I was pleased to see the general recognition he was getting but disturbed by what I heard in certain quarters where some were failing to see his strengths and were pointing out only his weaknesses. I had hoped BYU would have a more tolerant atmosphere, but although much progress had been made, there were still “pockets” of intolerance and plain ignorance about some of the subjects and issues Gene addressed in his innovative writings.
To suggest that Gene was a member of the avant-garde is probably an understatement. He was ahead of his time on many issues, which is a plus in general society but can be difficult in a conservative church community that waits for signals from the prophets before thinking or acting. For example, Gene was a pioneer in celebrating the virtue of “diversity” in society, and yet he was faulted for this by some. Yet today, diversity has become a concept accepted both in general society and (finally) in church society. And it should also be emphasized that one of Gene’s central purposes in writing and teaching was to help young LDS people come to a firm knowledge of the church, its history and doctrine, and to develop intelligent testimonies. His personal life was in fact a living testimony to the truthfulness of the restored gospel.
It was a privilege for me to be so closely associated with Gene, one of the most remarkable colleagues I have known. His spirit and his intellect will live forever and will be an inspiration to many, especially the young people who flocked to his lectures and talks. For adults and intellectuals, Gene will forever be distinguished for his penchant in the Socratic tradition, which emphasizes asking the big questions and realizing that only through dialogue can we hone in on the key issues and which approaches are the strongest. Gene’s image will not fade with time but will remain a permanent presence among those whom we might call “thinking Latter-day Saints,” or, to be more precise, the “committed.”