LDS woman makes a living thinking about Mormonism

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 18 2013 11:05 a.m. MDT

"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.

Email: jwalker@desnews.com

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