​Obituary: Frank K. Flinn, religious freedom advocate, religious movements scholar, 76​

Frank K. Flinn, PhD, an outspoken expert on religious freedom and the constitutional rights of fringe religious groups, died Saturday, July 4,
2015. He was 76.


“Flinn was a very popular teacher with a special gift for engaging students and getting them to ask tough questions,” said Beata Grant, PhD, professor of Chinese language and literature and director of the Religious Studies program in Arts & Sciences. “He was an extraordinarily well-read man with boundless enthusiasm, a ready laugh, a quick wit, and an infectious curiosity about all aspects of the human experience.”

An adjunct professor of religious studies at Washington University in St. Louis since 1990, Flinn was a frequent commentator on religious issues in the news and often called upon to testify in court cases involving the legal rights of controversial religious groups, including the Church of Scientology and the Texas-based Branch Davidians of David Koresh.

A longtime scholar of church-state issues and cults, he staunchly defended the rights of such religious sectarian groups to exist and function as legitimate religious movements. Threatening the constitutional rights of these sectarian groups also threatens the rights of older, mainline religions, he warned.

Flinn earned a bachelor of arts in philosophy from Quincy College in Illinois (1962); a bachelor of divinity degree from Harvard Divinity School (1966); and a doctorate in special religious studies from the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto, Canada (1981).

His research focused on the rise of new religious movements in the United States and abroad since World War II, including such religious phenomena as the Great Awakening, Shakerism, Mormonism, Seventh Day Adventism, Jehovah’s Witness, New Harmony, Oneida, Brook Farm, Unification, Hare Krishna and the Wiccan Movement.

Flinn testified on new religions before the U.S. Congress and various state legislatures and lectured at colleges and conferences throughout
the United States and in Canada, Japan, China and Europe. He authored many scholarly publications, including the 2007 Encyclopedia of Catholicism.

At Washington University, he taught popular courses on “Cults in America” and “The North American Religious Experience.” He retired from the Religious Studies Program in 2011, but continued to offer courses on a regular basis through University College and Summer School.

“These courses reflected his own many interests and included topics as diverse as “Religion and Science,” “Women Theologians,” “Primal Religions of America,” “Introduction to World Religions” and “Sacred Shrines, Sacred Places,” Grant said.

Flinn is survived by his wife Alice Bloch, by sons Adam Pablo Flinn and Mark Hosteen Flinn, daughter-in-law Lolita L. Flinn, grandchildren Kristin Ayana Flinn and Caleb Scott Flinn, sisters-in-law Paula Marie Flinn and Serena Dossenko, brother-in-law Barry Dossenko, niece Allison Hanzawa, and nephew Edward S. Flinn.

“Frank was always available to help friends in need,” Bloch said. “He loved walking in the wild; carrying his sketch book and binoculars everywhere he went. Frank was a man who never met a stranger.”

A celebration of Flinn’s life will be held Sunday, Aug. 9, at the Regional Arts Commission (RAC), 6128 Delmar Blvd., St. Louis, Mo., 63112. Friends and family will gather from 1-5 p.m., with a 3 p.m. memorial in the RAC’s main auditorium. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to The Nature Conservancy or Forest Park Forever.