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10,000-piece collection boosts UVa's status as a leader in Mormon studies
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10,000-piece collection boosts UVa's status as a leader in Mormon studies

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A collection of Mormon memorabilia and materials that spans the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints could make the University of Virginia the leading site for studying the religion outside of Utah, university officials say.

UVa recently received a gift of more than 10,000 books and materials from Gregory A. Prince, a researcher, businessman, author, social critic and historian of the Latter-Day Saints faith, also known as Mormonism.

The items are being housed in the UVa Library collections and cover Mormonism’s entire history, with a focus on the 20th century. The collection will help bolster the Mormon Studies program in UVa’s Department of Religious Studies.

“With the gift of the Gregory A. Prince Collection, the UVa Mormon studies program is poised to provide the leadership needed for a new generation of students and researchers of Mormonism,” said Kathleen Flake, a professor of Mormonism. “Built over a lifetime of research in and writing about Mormonism, it is widely recognized as one of the finest private collections in the world. In terms of 20th-century materials, it is unique.”

Originating in the 19th century, Mormonism’s history in a country that promotes religious freedom offers a glimpse into how religions develop and function, Flake said.

“As a form of Christianity that originated in the world’s first modern democracy and has thrived in a postmodern, globalist culture, Mormonism can tell us much about the nature and functioning of religion generally,” she said.

Most of the collection will be available for researchers to study, according to officials with the UVa Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library.

According to research by the church, as of 2019, there are an estimated 16.5 million members of the denomination with about 6.7 million in the United States. Of those, about 96,500 live in Virginia.

Brigham Young University researchers estimated that, in the middle of the 20th century, half of Latter-Day Saints members lived in Utah. Another 30% lived elsewhere in the western United States and 11% lived across the rest of the country and Canada.

The church membership has increased throughout the country and the world, the study shows, but only about 2% of people in the United States are Mormons. About 1.14% of Virginians are Mormons, the research shows.

The collection includes a dictionary of sign language terms, a typed-and-copied newsletter for gay and lesbian church members in Los Angeles and a comprehensive mix of rare printed posters, handbills and other items from Mormon church groups, children’s organizations and mission groups from around the world, as well items from splinter sects and some anti-Mormon materials.

Founded in 1830 in upstate New York by Joseph Smith, the church was among many at that time that sought to restore ancient forms and powers of early Christianity, according to Flake. The term “Mormon” was first used as an insult and then absorbed as a nickname for church members.

Flake said the church prefers the full title of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to reflect its identity as a Christian sect.

“As a modern revelatory tradition, its origins and historical development have been and are much commented-on and recorded by insiders and outsiders. The Prince Collection is an extraordinarily rich source of such records,” Flake said.

Mormonism is considered a general term for several related groups that consider Smith as their founder, including small sects known as fundamentalist Mormons that continue to practice polygamy, which was abandoned by the main church a century or more ago, officials said.

The collection likely will prove of interest to a range of scholars and students, including those focused on religion, American studies, history, politics, media and literature, library officials said.

Prince declined to comment on donating his collection, saying he preferred to let the university discuss plans and its importance.

UVa officials said Prince wanted to make sure his collection would be used and discussed options with Richard Bushman, who created the endowment for Flake’s professorship. Officials said Prince knew Flake from her time as a professor at Vanderbilt University. Officials said Prince believed that the UVa program, plus the research library, would make UVa a center for Mormon studies “that would be unrivaled by anything else east of the Rocky Mountains.”

“Mormon studies coming to UVa was a cooperative effort by the department and several private donors,” Flake said. “The fit was natural given how much of [Thomas] Jefferson’s legacy is related to religious freedom and how much of Mormonism’s story has to do with the struggle to obtain it.”

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