Historian Kate Holbrook, who brought LDS women’s voices to light and life, dies at 50

Jan. 13, 1972 — Aug. 20, 2022: A scholarly and energetic trailblazer, she heightened the visibility of women in the faith while doing so with “grace and wisdom.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kate Holbrook, managing historian of women's history at the LDS Church History, speaks at Benchmark Books in 2018. Holbrook died Aug. 20 at age 50.

In a little more than a decade, Kate Holbrook rose from being a student of American religion to sitting atop the nerve center for the burgeoning historical study of Latter-day Saint women.

As a generous and grace-filled scholar, Holbrook, who died of cancer Saturday at 50, was the first person hired by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ history department to focus exclusively on women’s history. In that position, she nurtured scholars and writers across the spectrum of ability, education and belief, while also penning and editing books of her own and bringing diverse scholars together in conferences and collaborations.

And it showed.

After news of her death ricocheted around social media over the weekend, hundreds shared thoughts about her life and sorrow over her loss, using words like “heartbroken” and “devastated.”

On Monday, the church supplied quotes about her from leaders and many colleagues, some of whom worked with her in the history department or on book projects.

“Kate played a leading role in launching a new era of scholarship that both heightened the visibility of women in church publications and invigorated conversations with scholars from the broader academic community,” said Latter-day Saint historian Jill Mulvay Derr, biographer of Eliza R. Snow and one of Holbrook’s co-editors. She “brought the long-absent voices of women to the church history canon and preserved women’s preaching, theological analysis, and testimonies for future generations.”

Holbrook was a “bridge builder throughout her career,” famed historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich noted in a church email, “mediating the historical perspectives of professional scholars and church leaders, senior historians and undergraduates, Latter-day Saints and members of other religious communities.”

Even during this past year, when her health was failing, she “continued to plan for conferences and projects,” Ulrich said, “that would bring scholars, students and the general public together around neglected themes.”

Beyond her scholarly accomplishments, Ulrich said, Holbrook radiated “grace and wisdom in every setting.”

Reaching out to so many others wasn’t always easy for her, said her husband, Dr. Samuel Brown.

“What I think people may not recognize is how shy she was and how much work she did to make herself available for this work of empathy and connection. The love was totally natural,” he wrote in an email. “Applying that love took real work because of how gentle and shy she was at heart. To my eye, she had just the right balance of authenticity and hard work.”

A house full of women

Holbrook was born Jan. 13, 1972, in Santa Barbara, Calif., “in the desperate confusion of the early 1970s, to Kathleen Stewart and Robert Holbrook,” according to the family’s obituary, but young Kate was reared solely by her mother and her grandmother, Belle Fillmore Stewart, in Provo.

From early childhood, she lived in a “three-generation home of women,” Ann Florence, a cousin of Holbrook’s mother, said in an email. “I’ve known and loved these women all my life. They were/are two of the most effusive, grounded, supportive, compassionate women I have ever known. Kate had nothing but praise and encouragement her whole life.”

This is notable, Florence said, because Latter-day Saints “pay lip service to mothering but rarely mention the mothers of women who become influential, many because of the confidence and opportunities given by their mothers.”

It might, she added, “soften the stigma on single and/or working mothers.”

It was also in this home that Holbrook developed her lifelong love of food as a gift.

Innovative and interfaith thinker

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Kate Holbrook, a historian in the Church History Department, discusses several topics based on questions from young adults throughout the world in a live Face to Face devotional Sept. 9, 2018. Apostle Quentin L. Cook is at left and fellow historian Matt Grow is at right.

After serving a Latter-day Saint mission to Samara, Russia, and graduating from church-owned Brigham Young University, Holbrook moved to Boston because “she’d loved a rainy afternoon spent there when she was 13,” the obituary said. “There she worked at Boston University, graduated from Harvard Divinity School with a Master of Divinity, and began a doctorate in religious studies at Boston University. She also met and married Sam Brown.”

During that time, Holbrook “pioneered an ecumenical approach to religious studies through two quite different projects,” Ulrich said. “The first was a landmark undergraduate course at Harvard University, which she helped design and manage while working on the master’s degree. That course literally made national news.”

Then, at Boston University, she introduced “‘foodways’ to the religious studies program there in a comparative study of the Nation of Islam and [the LDS Church],” the Harvard emerita professor said. “Cookbooks were one of her primary sources.”

Literature, faith and food

In their middle 30s, Brown and Holbrook realized “they were at heart mountain people and returned to Utah,” the obituary explained. They landed in Salt Lake City, with their three daughters: Amelia, Lucia and Persephone Holbrook-Brown.

Holbrook had “a collaborative approach to parenting the kids, wanting to have them fully part of the conversation and decision-making,” Brown said Monday. “She never raised her voice, ever. She loved to give the children autonomy so that they could experience agency.”

Holbrook finished her dissertation remotely. She was hired by the Utah-based faith and immediately began thinking up projects on the church’s many untapped resources and primary documents in women’s history.

Her productivity was legendary and exhausting.

Her book projects included “At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women”; “Women and Mormonism: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives”; and “The First Fifty Years of Relief Society: Key Documents in Latter-day Saint Women’s History.”

At the same time, she also pursued her love of food, regularly making delectable dishes for family, friends and neighbors and hosting a cooking blog, The Away Cafe.

Her favorite food was chocolate cake, Brown said, and her signature dishes included cookie bars, various improvised salads with homemade vinaigrettes, grilled chicken b’pita with apricot chutney and homemade preserves.

Holbrook read at least one, sometimes two, novels a week, her husband said. In the last year of her life, she devoured the Louise Penny “Inspector Gamache” books because “they were about a community, the food they ate, and the land they inhabited.”

From her youth, Holbrook adored “Out of Africa,” both the movie and the memoir, and so the couple went to Kenya during her final year to fulfill her lifelong dream.

She also, Brown noted, loved Chopin.

God and the gospel

In 2018, Holbrook was featured in a worldwide devotional for Latter-day Saint young adults, answering church history questions alongside apostle Quentin L. Cook and Matt Grow (then director of publications for the department).

“When I was selecting a female historian to appear with me in a Face-to-Face in Nauvoo [Illinois] that would emphasize church history, I wanted someone with three qualities,” Cook said in his remembrance of Holbrook. “First, someone who could express empathy and reach people who have challenges. Second, someone who is absolutely professional. And, third, someone with a deep and abiding testimony in the Lord Jesus Christ and his gospel. Kate exemplifies all of these qualities.”

Holbrook loved Jesus “with her whole heart,” read the obituary. “There wasn’t a part of her that didn’t breathe God and gospel. She was honored to lead teams to tell the story of the Latter-day Saints to outsiders and the stories of women to her fellow Saints.”

To that, Brown added in his email: “In this day and age, there’s this idea that scholars can only believe with asterisks and disclaimers. She had a deeply textured faith in full awareness of the rich complexity of life, and there were no asterisks or disclaimers. She believed the way she loved, with her whole heart and mind.”

In that textured faith, said Spencer Fluhman, executive director of BYU’s Maxwell Institute, “She has left a mark on us — and we are better for it.”