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LDS woman makes a living thinking about Mormonism

Kathleen Flake, a nationally respected scholar of early Mormon history, is the first occupant of the Richard L. Bushman Chair of Mormon Studies in the University of Virginia's Department of Religious Studies.
Kathleen Flake, a nationally respected scholar of early Mormon history, is the first occupant of the Richard L. Bushman Chair of Mormon Studies in the University of Virginia's Department of Religious Studies.
Courtesy Kathleen Flake

CHARLOTTSVILLE, Va. — As a curious little girl, Kathleen Flake says she had "more fun thinking about (Mormonism) than anything else."

Years and one career later, Flake found a way to make a living thinking about Mormonism, and last week the well-regarded scholar of the early history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints became the first occupant of the Richard L. Bushman Chair of Mormon Studies in the University of Virginia's Department of Religious Studies.

The chair at Virginia is only the third of its kind in the United States.

"We are honored and privileged to welcome Professor Flake to the university," said Kurtis Shaeffer, chairman of the nationally recognized Department of Religious Studies, established in the early 1960s. "She has a distinguished record of published work on the American religious tradition and the emergence of Mormonism, has written a major book in Mormon studies about the relationship between nation and religion, and she is highly renowned among her peers in modern religious academia. We are so proud to offer her this historic position within the university."

The Bushman Chair was established last year through a $3 million endowment funded by anonymous donors in honor of Bushman, who is widely regarded as the dean of Mormon scholars and one of the founding fathers of Mormon studies as an academic pursuit.

"Professor Bushman is rightly considered one of the premier historians of early American social, cultural and political history," Flake said. "Those who occupy this position, not the least myself, have been set a high bar of accomplishment."

Bushman said in an email that he thinks Flake was selected for the honor because of her understanding of contemporary religious studies, a field that he said is "distinct from history and literary studies, but related to both."

"She knows the language and how to communicate the meaning of Mormonism to the practitioners of this budding discipline," Bushman said. "She is one of a number of Latter-day Saints now working in religious studies, but one of the best. Fortunately for the church, she is also a devoted Latter-day Saint who is forthright about expressing her convictions in the language of scholarship."

Patrick Mason, who holds a similar position — Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University in California — said he is "tremendously pleased and gratified" by Flake's appointment.

"The Religious Studies Department at the University of Virginia is one of the largest and most prestigious in the nation, and so the placement of a chair in Mormon studies there — the first chair east of the Rockies and the third total (the other is the Leonard J. Arrington Chair in Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University) — reflects the maturation of the field of Mormon studies and its increasing acceptance as a legitimate field of study within the academy," Mason said.

Mason was in Charlottesville recently to participate in a number of meetings relative to the establishment of the UVA chair. "It was clear," he said, "that the faculty and administration of the university are pleased with the position, seeing it as a fitting addition to their existing expertise in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and other world religious traditions."

Flake will begin teaching classes at UVA next semester. Those classes will include a course on new American religious movements like Scientology, the Nation of Islam and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as well as a class on American scriptural texts, including a number of different Bible translations as well as the Book of Mormon.

She will also continue her research on 19th-century Mormon plural marriage and its impact culturally and religiously on both men and women.

"It's not a church history program or an American history program; it's a professorship of Mormon studies," Flake said. "I will teach and research in the subject of Mormonism."

And that suits someone who says she has "always been interested in religion."

"As a girl I was always curious," she said. "In fact, I had an eighth grade teacher who told me I was analytical, and I didn't know what the word meant so I had to go to the library to look it up."

Her parents encouraged her thoughtful approach to life and education, especially her father, who she said was "inclined to question." Growing up as a member of the LDS Church, she said she "always found Mormonism to be worth thinking about."

"I've always enjoyed thinking about Mormonism," she said. "I had more fun thinking about it than anything else."

But as much as she thought about all things LDS, she couldn't figure out how to make a living by thinking about it. So after receiving her bachelor's degree in English from BYU, she went to law school at the University of Utah and for 15 years practiced law.

As she became more established as an attorney, however, she realized that she still enjoyed considering questions of religious thought. While working as a lawyer for the Federal Home Loan Bank Board in Washington, D.C., she was introduced to the academic study of religion at Catholic University of America.

Suddenly her lifelong avocation became her chief vocational pursuit. She received a master's degree in religious studies from Catholic University and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. For 13 years she taught American religious history at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., publishing numerous books and articles along the way.

As she begins her work as the first Richard Lyman Bushman Professor of Mormon Studies at the University of Virginia, Flake said she owes a debt of gratitude to scholars like Bushman who have paved the way in Mormon studies.

"There's a fine tradition of scholars who have for many years been looking at political and historical questions about Mormonism," Flake said. "But the rise of the field of Mormon studies has allowed Mormonism to become a viable field of study. The Bushman professorship, placed as it is in a world-class institution, is uniquely positioned to facilitate the study of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints not as an end in itself but as a means of understanding how religious communities come into being and shape — as well as are shaped by — their culture.

"Mormonism is an extraordinarily powerful site of religious imagination and organization," she continued. "It is worthy of greater attention by those who seek to understand the human condition, especially the human capacity to make and live within worlds of meaning that produce very real acts in the social field."

Another noted Mormon scholar, Matthew B. Bowman of Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, said, "Dr. Flake's appointment is another welcome sign of the further integration of Mormon studies within the fields of religious studies and American religious history more generally."

"Dr. Flake is well equipped by training and her previous work to help bring Mormons into the broader stories of religion in American and global history," Bowman said.