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Virginia names scholar to oversee Mormon studies

First Published      Last Updated Sep 16 2013 03:34 pm

The University of Virginia has tapped American religion scholar Kathleen Flake for its first endowed chair of Mormon studies.

Flake — who is moving from Vanderbilt, where she has taught for 13 years — "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," the school said in a news release, "and she is highly renowned among her peers in modern religious academia."

The University of Chicago-trained Flake has written numerous articles on Mormon history, a book, "The Politics of Religious Identity: the Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle," and is doing research on "19th-century Mormonism's highly gendered power structure, with an upcoming book on early Mormonism's plural marriages."

Virginia's Richard Lyman Bushman Chair, named after one of the LDS Church's most respected historians and biographers, was established with a $3 million endowment funded by anonymous donors, the release said. The Department of Religious Studies, where Flake will work, has no relationship with any theological seminary, church body or particular religious tradition.

Flake is "well regarded in non-Mormon and Mormon circles alike," said the Mormon blog, Juvenile Instructor, and quoted The American Historical Review as saying, "no more sophisticated mind has turned its attention to the history of the Latter-day Saints."

Virginia joins a growing list of schools taking a scholarly approach to the Utah-based faith.

In 2007, Utah State University established the Leonard J. Arrington Chair of Mormon History and Culture, which has been held by ever since by Harvard-trained historian, Philip Barlow.

Claremont Graduate University created its Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies in 2008, with Bushman himself as the first recipient. Now that position is held by Patrick Mason.

The University of Utah has a Mormon studies fellowship, Utah Valley University offers courses, conferences and lectures on the topic and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley provides a course in Mormon studies once a year.

At Virginia, Flake will begin teaching classes this spring, the news release said, including one on "America's newer religious movements: Scientology, the Nation of Islam and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" and one on "scriptural texts produced in America, from the many versions of the Bible to entirely new Bible-like texts, such as the Book of Mormon."

Peggy Fletcher Stack