The University of Virginia announced this week that Kathleen Flake will be the inaugural Richard L. Bushman Chair for Mormon Studies in UVA’s Religious Studies Department (that’s a lot of capital letters!).
Professor Flake’s academic credentials are impressive. She received her undergraduate degree in English at BYU and her J.D. from the University of Utah Law School. She received her M.A. from Catholic University of American in Religious Studies, and her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Professor Flake has spent the past thirteen years at Vanderbilt teaching American Religious History. Her first book, The Politics of Religious Identity: the Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle, is well regarded in non-Mormon and Mormon circles alike. The American Historical Review proclaimed of Flake, “no more sophisticated mind has turned its attention to the history of the Latter-day Saints.”[i]
JI’s readers would be wise to read her non-Mormon work, which is of equal noteworthiness and attention. As the JI is a Mormon History blog, here is a sample of her most noteworthy papers on Mormonism:
- 2012 “Joseph Smith’s Letter from Liberty Jail: A Study in Canonization,” Journal of Religion, 92, 4 (Oct. 2012): 515-526.
- 2010 “The Emotional and Priestly Logic of Plural Marriage,” Leonard J. Arrington Mormon History Lecture Series No. 15, (Utah State Univ., 2010).
- 2007 “Translating Time: The Nature and Function of Joseph Smith’s Narrative Canon,” Journal of Religion, 87, 4 (Oct. 2007): 497-527.
- 2003 “Re-placing Memory: Latter-day Saint Use of Historical Monuments and Narrative in the Early Twentieth Century,” Religion and American Culture 13 (Winter 2003): 69-110.
- 1995 “Not to be Riten’: The Nature and Effects of the Mormon Temple Rite as Oral Canon,” Journal of Ritual Studies, 9, 2 (summer, 1995): 1-21.
Professor Flake was kind enough to respond to a few questions about what she is currently working on, as well as her new position as the Bushman Chair:
1. What are your teaching / research / work plans for this coming year? Do you have any requirements in your role as Bushman chair that you have to fufill?
I will be teaching two of my favorite courses in the spring. The first is about America’s newer religious movements: Scientology, the Nation of Islam and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The class will be using theories of ritual and text to understand how religious communities constitute themselves around an originating vision and retain a sense of continuity notwithstanding considerable change. In addition, we will be asking why these three religious movements have created such crisis for the American state and anxiety among its citizens. My second course looks at why and to what ends have Americans produced so many versions of the Bible, as well as several new scriptures, such as the Book of Mormon and Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health. A minor, though recurring theme in the course will be the modernist crisis over questions of historicity and myth, reason and revelation. Thus, we will be thinking about the Bible both as a sacred text for some and an unavoidable cultural object for all Americans.
My present research project is an analysis of Mormonism’s highly gendered, nineteenth century power structure. This resulting book will tell the story of Joseph Smith’s attempt to join matriarchy with patriarchy in antebellum America and the crisis this created at all levels of his own and his followers’ private and public lives. Arguably, the several Mormonisms that resulted from the succession crisis after Smith’s murder cannot be understood absent consideration of Smith’s innovations on gendered authority, especially as expressed in priestly marriage and tribe-like family structures. The book will not only describe the logic of this system, but will analyze its gendered qualities and critique its practice within antebellum America, itself in the process of redefining women’s status and marital norms.
2. What made you want to pursue Mormon Studies, and why do you think it is so important to understand and study today?
Obviously, its size as America’s fourth largest denomination and is political influence, as well as its not infrequent conflicts with American culture, recommends the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for academic study. More significant to me, however, is what the Church has to contribute to our understanding of religion more generally. Most surviving, revelatory traditions arose in antiquity and, while their evolutionary strategies come into view over time, their origins are too remote for scholars to analyze. Arising in the modern era, Mormonism’s structural formation and ideological roots, as well as the more human question of why so many were convinced of its claims are part of a well kept, public record. This, coupled with its continuing vitality within America and its success outside of it, makes Mormonism an extraordinarily rich and complex example of religious formation and adaptation for the Religious Studies academy. Other fields, of course, such as culture studies and church-state relations can also find in Mormonism a useful site to pursue a variety of questions in the humanities and social sciences.
3. How do you feel about being the first Bushman Chair? Was Dr. Bushman influential to you / your studies in any way?
It is an honor, of course, to be named to this chair. Professor Bushman is rightly considered one of the premier historians of early American social, cultural, and political history. His later work on Mormon history, especially his seminal biography of Joseph Smith, is second to none in its account of revelatory religion in its cultural context. He models also the capacity to engage serious academicians and the general reader. Those who occupy this position, not least myself, have been set a high bar of accomplishment. More constructively, his name on this chair signifies a pattern for our future endeavors.
Please join us in congratulating Professor Flake!