Humans in Digital Humanities

Kathleen Flake Photo by Keith Alan Sprouse

A series of interviews with faculty, staff, and students working in the digital humanities at the University of Virginia. The series spends time with the fascinating and talented people who are fortunate enough to work at the exasperating, unpredictable, and deeply interesting juxtaposition of humanities and digital technology. The interviews are edited for clarity.

Kathleen Flake is the Richard Lyman Bushman Professor in Mormon Studies, in the UVA Department of Religious Studies. She teaches courses in American religious history, with an emphasis on religious adaptation and the interaction of American religion and law. Her project with IATH, Early Mormon Marriages: a Study in Socially Constructed Kinship, uses computational techniques to analyze the complex practices and social connections of the Mormon marital system to reveal the logic of the practice, its familial order and gendered meanings among its first practitioners. Before becoming an academic, she litigated cases on behalf of the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Washington, D.C. She then taught at Vanderbilt University in both the Divinity School and Graduate Department of Religion, before coming to the University of Virginia.

Kathleen Flake
IATH Fellow

Had you planned all along to go back to graduate school?

No, actually law was the detour. I always intended to get a Ph.D. in English and teach in a university and got distracted by going into law. I wanted more freedom and power than faculty life gives. I was very involved in the feminist movement and the civil rights movement, so it was natural to look for more assertive ways to grow up, I suppose. I got a law degree and went to Washington, and did civil rights law in higher education. We had independent enforcement authority, so we enforced Title VI on race and Title IX on gender and section 504 on handicapped law in higher education and in secondary education.

And then, through a series of events, I sued the Department of Education during the Reagan administration. The Reagan administration began requiring all civil servants who achieved a certain level to get full field background clearances—security clearances. This was generally perceived by the civil service as part of the Reagan administration's assault on the civil service and a reduction of the various agencies. I had been a law clerk for the ACLU when I was in law school, so I went to the ACLU in Washington and asked them if they wanted a case to challenge this policy. I worked with many people who had arrest records from civil rights demonstrations, who were gay, who at that time could not be out (this was the early '80s), and it was an absurdity to think you needed such a clearance to enforce civil rights acts. We filed the suit and the judge decided summarily that the government was wrong. And so it became time for me to find another employer. I got a job in what looked like a sleepy little agency called the Federal Home Loan Bank Board and soon found out that the savings & loan industry had gone bankrupt and it was being hidden from the public because there was an election pending. It was like being a cowboy before there were fences.

In the meantime I decided, just as a hobby, to go back and get a master's degree in the study of religion. I'd always been interested in religion but I couldn't figure out how you made a living at it. I assumed that I would continue being a lawyer but I'd get a master's degree, because I like to learn. So I went to Catholic University and got a master's in religious studies. I decided then to continue, because by that point I didn't really want to go into more managerial positions. I applied to the University of Chicago, and they took me. I got a Ph.D. in American Religious History because they didn't allow religious studies in Christian traditions.

Was it your intent all along to study Mormonism?

I realized what an ideal case study Mormonism was, because of its transparency. I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and so I could recognize that the various theories, ritual studies, narrative function, sociological questions, and anthropological questions that aggregate to create this field we call religious studies... many of their questions could usefully be applied to the study of Mormonism, to understand religion as religion. Mormonism is a modern construction: its transparency is unrivaled in terms of a religion that is overtly in the revelatory tradition. You can't go back and look at the origins of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and their claims of being revelatory traditions, but with Mormonism you can. Here is a figure who organized a church, produced a book like the Bible, claimed prophetic and priestly authority, was really a Moses-like figure, and it's all being written about! The Mormons were collecting documents as well as creating them, and were maintaining those documents. They hauled them in wagons across the Plains when they went to Utah, so there is an enormous reservoir of internal documentation. In addition, everybody was mad at them, so they were keeping records, watching them, writing in newspapers, or publishing what we would call monographs, exposés of them. So you have this wonderful record of records of a contest over the creation of a revelatory tradition in antebellum America.

The title of your project refers to early Mormon marriage as socially constructed kinship. Could you talk a little bit about why you called it that?

Kinship bespeaks a particular kind of connection that goes directly to a core sense of identity. You have a child and he or she becomes your kin. And then you have social construction of kinship, like in-laws. Society deems you to be in relationship through a marriage rite, and other people become your kin. Churches have (and I'm thinking of Christian churches) traditionally created, though a church ritual or ordinance, a relationship called a godmother or godfather, and that becomes a social construction of kin as well.

What we're describing, through this database, is a set of socially constructed relationships: families that were built—very complex families—and multiple marriages that created kinship relations to one another, creating yet a more extended web of relationships and then of course intermarriages by generation. We're interested in knowing how that construction of kinship constructs not only ecclesiastical relationships but, because of Mormon settlement patterns in the intermountain west, actually lays out a pattern of a kind of city-state relationship. These towns were settled and we think that maybe when you look at them, you'll see them as these extended family relationships that were given a geographic representation and a political dimension. Eventually, if this project goes on far enough into the Utah Territorial period, we'll see how this develops into an ecclesiastical organization and a political organization, as well as a family/domestic kind of kinship.

How did this reflect on the role of women in religion and Mormonism? Did socially constructed kinship, which was to a certain degree dependent on women being willing to come into the marriages, give women more influence?

The very nature of marriage is that it's a power relationship. In this kind of marriage, the power relationships are made even more overt because of its religious dimension. We want to analyze how this was reflected in Mormon society. We're looking for two things: the ideology of the gender relationship as expressed in the religious rituals and how that was deployed in the social field, in people's relationships. People have often been suspicious of and criticized these forms of early Mormon marriage as oppressive to women. We're looking for evidence of that, and that means that we're also looking for evidence of women's agency.

My understand is that these marriages were not just an excuse for an older man to marry a 16- or 17-year-old, since in fact the women were not always young. Some of them were much older than the men they married.

There were women who were grandmothers and women as young as 14-years old. What we're discovering is that different rules governed these kinds of marriages, and some of them appear to be caretaker connections. In fact, “marriage” is a problem term for this database, because it sets us up to assume a sexual relationship. One of the major problems is to find a word that's neutral, that leaves us open to what the data will show us.

The word the Mormons themselves used is “sealing.” It's not a new term—it's a classic Biblical term—but they put it to a new use, obviously. Some were like adoptions, and so they were called adoptions, and some were like marriages, so they were called marriages. With men being sealed to men, it's very clear that these were adoptions. With women, it's not always clear. In some cases a sealing was viewed as a kind of caretaker relationship. When a young woman achieved the age of what they considered maturity (usually 18), a decision was made by the woman herself and her sealed partner whether or not it became a full marriage. We have a record of at least one instance of this and we need to look for others (if there are others). We that know in many cases these 14- and 15-year-olds stayed in these families and stayed married for the remainder of their lives.

One thing that's not widely known is that the Mormons were highly criticized for not only marrying too much but divorcing too much. Divorce was very easy in the Utah Territory, especially for women.

That adds a twist to the notion of exploitation.

The question is how free were these parties in these unions? That is one of the fundamental questions about any marital system. The minute you get in the business of joining people, you're in the business of releasing them, or not.

So we're asking this question about plural marriage: what were they signing up for? What did they think they were doing? It's the classical historical question. You look at any group of people in the past, and you ask, what did they think they were doing? Many of them were middle-class New Englanders, immigrants from industrial England and other northern European countries. They're fully steeped in the norms and mores of the culture that then criticizes them for these marriages. It is a very interesting study in how they adapt to this new kind of marriage and family life and why. We're talking about not just men, but women in their 30s and 40s and 50s, not just young girls enthralled to their cult-like religious leaders. It's an entire social system that we've had trouble explaining through individual case studies. With this project we're trying to look at the society it created as well as layer in the individual commentary where it exists.

Let's talk a bit about Mormonism's sacramental rites that are associated with salvation and which invoke a covenant with God. Marriage is, in Mormon theology, one of those rites.

Christianity has always had an ambiguous relationship with marriage, because very early on in Christian history there was the idea that celibacy was the most direct path to holiness. Traditionally in Christianity, there's been a fork in the road for the believer: they would either ordain to priesthood, with its requirements of celibacy and the ordination to a kind of holiness to mediate the divine through a variety of practices (baptism, confirmation, etc.), or they would marry. But marriage was always seen as a defense against carnality. One of the ambiguities about it is that the church was hard-pressed to show its affirmative contribution to the progress of faith: the root symbol of marriage, and in fact one of the primary identifying acts of marriage, is coitus.

The Mormons come along in the early 19th century, at a time when marriage is in state of flux and a lot of people are thinking radically about marriage. Mormonism fits in that cultural time when patriarchal marriage is shifting to the kind of romantic marriage that typically we identify with the Victorian era. But the roots of it lie in a late 18th/early 19th century shift in relationships. There were a number of religious groups arguing for different kinds of marriage, and Joseph Smith begins to teach a kind of marriage that is more than simply a defense against carnality. Marriage became a kind of priesthood. Marriage and ordination (the traditional sacraments) are joined in his theology.

By marrying, you achieve a kind of holiness, even a capacity to mediate and to be a means of creating a holy life. This is spoken of generally, even in the contemporary church, in terms of eternal marriage. It has many names: eternal marriage, celestial marriage. The question becomes, when and why does “eternal marriage” become “plural marriage” or polygamous? Historians trace it back at least to 1833, but no one's really sure. Smith never spoke of it publicly or directly, so we're forced to piece together various things that he said about salvation and exaltation. Smith died in 1844, but he began to institute his practice more broadly among the membership between 1842 and 1844. Nobody was talking about it except at the level of gossip. Word got out, and antagonists began to publish charges in local newspapers. But there are no descriptions by the people themselves of what it was they were trying to accomplish in creating these marital unions that became the basis for Mormon's large, even tribe-like, families that later appear in the Utah Territory. What most scholarship has done is to look to journals left by these individuals or, even more, look at later periods of time (say the 1870s, as opposed to the 1840s).

This is what the Early Mormon Marriages database is designed to do: to gather the raw data of their lives. Where they came from, how old they were, where they lived in relationship to one another, if there were pre-existing relationships from the townships in which they were converted, and so on. Essentially, it will gather the data that will help us define what the relationship was, in order to get at its significance. Instead of looking anecdotally at journals, we want to see if we can't come up with some generalizations about how they constructed these families. Our wager is that if we can get some definition of how they designed these families, we can get a better understanding of what their intentions were. This data will give us a broader picture of the society. We're trying to trace how they constructed these families; how these families shifted in their identity over time; who left the family, who entered the family, and when. We are looking for patterns in the data that will give us a better understanding of the philosophy behind the union, not just the individual experience within it that we get from the anecdotal information in the journals.

No one has tried to understand Mormon marriage practices using data like this and to this degree. It just hasn't been possible. People have made lists of polygamists, they've worked with the dates of when they were married, their birth information, who their children were. There were at approximately 200 people who participated in some fashion in this new marriage system between 1842 and 1846, when they left to go out the Rocky Mountains and the Great Basin area. We are gathering the data on that generation of polygamists, who practiced it privately. We're beginning in 1842 when Smith began to perform plural marriages and then we are, for this present round, ending in 1852, when they arrived west of the Rocky Mountains, beyond the jurisdiction of the United States and the harassment they've received in Illinois. In 1852 they publicly announced that they were going to practice plural marriage. This is the first public announcement to the church itself and it's also, of course, the first public announcement to the world in general.

Why are you using the digital humanities for this project, instead of more traditional means?

Both the size of the system and the number of people engaged in this, and our desire to understand what was going on, systemically required this kind of computer power. First, we need a way of aggregating all this information. We started with a group of 75 people that were part of an inner quorum, and that quickly grew to 200. And now we've got more than 800 names. We're trying to keep it relatively small, but there were at least 14,000 people who went west to Utah and created this polygamist society. Not all of them were polygamist, but they are all related somehow. They're still part of the picture and they're part of the kinship structure, even if they're monogamous.

The nature of the questions that we're asking requires us to be able to sort this data in a variety of ways, to see things that we couldn't otherwise see. When we query the data and it collapses around certain nodes or certain points, it leads to different questions and we begin then to re-aggregate it to search for new answers. We think that we'll see something different than scholars who have read 100 journals that may have an oblique reference to “went to the temple today with Mary,” or some other kind of symbol in the journal to represent this sealing. For every one of those oblique references, we're trying to map the connections between people as data points that then can be compared and contrasted with other people in this system. Many people assume it was a free-for-all, and we want to test this hypothesis and see if, in those patterns, there were relationships that show us church regulation of the marital system. It's hard to imagine, with this many people and with such an inflammatory activity at the heart of it, that they didn't have some way of regulating it. We're curious to know what that was and we think that the patterns of behavior might show us that. Or not—we're as interested in that. Were people ever disciplined in this system, for example? Did they lose their kinship relationships? We know that social organizations that create marriages also have the power to dissolve them. Churches can dissolve relationships and states can annul them: they can define what is and is not a marriage. Digital humanities databases allow us, most fundamentally, to look for patterns. We're looking for rule-making patterns as well as human choice.

There's a fundamental tension in using digital tools to document and analyze the history of early marriage in Mormonicsm, when you consider the intense passions and almost irrational behavior that surrounds this topic. This topic is rife with uncertainty.

But that's the very thing that data's designed to do and that frustrates people. We're on that uncomfortable division between the anecdotal and the general. The effort to come up with generalizations, even universalizations, makes those of us in the humanities so uncomfortable. We occupy that space, and our wager is that it's a fruitful space, that each of us has the training we need to not fall off of either side in a way that prevents the other from providing its contribution to the question. I think it's inherent in the team model for this. We find those areas of tension productive.

In terms of marriage being identified as such an emotional and even passionate site and therefore some might think it not suitable for this kind of analysis: one answer is that that's the very reason that this analysis is needed. Mormonism is inherently a much contested area of study. One of the contributions we hope to make with this database is to invite scholarship to another perspective on this question, that might get it further in understanding the phenomenon, so it doesn't become a kind of stalemate of “is not/is so” about sex or religion. Obviously it is about both. Much of the scholarship, if not virtually all of the scholarship on Mormon polygamy has been highly partisan, not just anecdotal, about it being a good or a bad thing. We're just trying to understand what it was.