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Kate Holbrook, writer, historian, champion of Latter-day Saint women’s history, dies at 50

SHARE Kate Holbrook, writer, historian, champion of Latter-day Saint women’s history, dies at 50
Kate Holbrook answers questions at a news conference.

Kate Holbrook answers questions as co-editors of “The First Fifty Years of Relief Society,” released by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on the Church Historian’s Press, are interviewed at the Relief Society Building in Salt Lake City, Monday, Feb. 22, 2016. Holbrook died on Aug. 20, 2022, at age 50.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

Kate Holbrook, historian, writer and champion of Latter-day Saint women’s history, died Saturday, Aug. 20, 2022. She was 50.

Her cause of death was listed as a “rare cancer of the eye,” according to her obituary. Her husband, Sam Brown, announced her passing on social media Saturday.

“Today I have no poetry, only a broken heart and the brutal fact that broke it,” Brown wrote in a tweet. “Kate died this morning. Funeral expected this Saturday in Salt Lake City.”

“We are utterly bereft, and we are also filled with the joy of her existence,” her family wrote in Holbrook’s obituary.

Key contributions

Holbrook served as the managing historian of women’s history in the Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Born in Santa Barbara, California, in Jan. 13, 1972, Holbrook was raised by her mother and her grandmother, Belle Fillmore Stewart, in Provo, Utah. 

She served a Latter-day Saint mission in Russia before graduating from Brigham Young University. She went on to graduate from Harvard Divinity School with a master of divinity, and earned a doctorate in religious studies from Boston University.

She was one of two historians who joined Elder Quentin L. Cook, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, in speaking to young adults about church history topics in a “Face to Face” broadcast in 2018.

When Elder Cook was selecting a female historian to appear with him the Face-to-Face in Nauvoo, he wanted someone with three qualities, he said in a tribute to Holbrook.

First, he was looking for someone who could express empathy and reach people who have challenges. Second, he needed someone who is professional. Thirdly, he wanted someone with a deep and abiding testimony in the Lord Jesus Christ and his gospel, the apostle said.

“Kate exemplifies all of these qualities,” Elder Cook said. “Four years later, I’m often approached by people who remember the Face-to-Face in Nauvoo. And many, many times, they comment on Kate and what her words on the stage — and who she is and what she represents — have influenced them in their own lives and helped solidify their own faith. We mourn with Kate’s family and friends. Her passing is a significant loss to the entire church.”

Matt Grow, managing director of the Church History Department, was Holbrook’s manager for many years and they worked together on several projects. He was also involved in the 2018 Face-to-Face event.

“Kate has been a leader, both in the Church History Department and in the broader historical profession, as she promoted a much deeper understanding of Latter-day Saint women’s history,” Grow said. “A consistent and persuasive advocate for a greater inclusion of women’s voices and experiences, Kate’s leadership meant that all church history books and websites — not just those on which she directly worked — did a much better job in highlighting faithful women who shaped history. As a result, Latter-day Saints around the world are a beneficiary of her vision and leadership.”

Holbrook was a key contributor to “The First Fifty Years of Relief Society,” “At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women” and other publications highlighting the faith and dedication of early Latter-day Saint women.

Historian Kate Holbrook speaks during a worldwide “Face to Face” church history broadcast.

Historian Kate Holbrook, center, speaks during a worldwide “Face to Face” church history broadcast in Nauvoo, Illinois, on Sept. 9, 2018. Participating were Elder Quentin L. Cook, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Holbrook and historian Matt Grow. Holbrook died on Aug. 20, 2022.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Holbrook spoke at BYU Women’s Conference and lectured at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute in 2020. She was also a featured guest on The Church News podcast in 2021.

“Kate loved Jesus with her whole heart. 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,” her obituary says.

“As she contemplated her passage from mortality with great sadness, it was not because she lacked confidence in the reality of an afterlife. Instead, she mourned her physical absence from the mortal lives of her beloveds. She held in her hands and her heart both the certainty that death is not the end of us and the terrible tragedy of mortality cut short.”

Preserving women’s history

Holbrook joined the Church History Department in 2011 as its first historian specializing in women’s history.

“History needs to be told,” Holbrook said in 2016, “in a way that integrates what men were doing with what women were doing.”

Holbrook sought history projects that she thought would “matter to people today and can help us today,” she said.

“We need to see more vividly the ways women’s contributions have been an integral part of building the church throughout church history,” Holbrook said in 2016. “It’s something we need to see and understand to understand how to move forward and to help Latter-day Saint women really feel their worth and, I think, to feel like this is a place to put their energy, to see that it is a place where women have put their energy to important results and achieved important things. Women really being able to see how Mormon women have helped build the church is part of why I think history matters.”

Holbrook cared about women, said Lisa Olsen Tait, managing historian of the Church History Department.

“Kate really cared about women — about women’s lives and experiences, their faith and their happiness,” Tait said. “Everything she did as a historian, she did with an eye to capturing women’s voices from the past and enriching women’s lives in the present. She was vigilant about making sure that women’s history would remain an area of deliberate focus for the department, recognizing that when it is taken for granted it is often neglected.”

Kate Holbrook, writer, historian and a leading voice for Latter-day Saint women’s history, died Saturday, Aug. 20, 2022.

Kate Holbrook, writer, historian and a leading voice for Latter-day Saint women’s history, died Saturday, Aug. 20, 2022.

Church History Department

The sentiment was echoed by Keith Erekson, the Church History Department’s director of outreach and research.

“Kate brought her outstanding academic reputation and her genuine kindness to this important new role,” Erekson said. “She quickly conceived and began to carry out a host of ideas that will long bear fruit in helping scholars of religion and religious history understand the church’s history and its record keeping practices.”

Reaction to Kate Holbrook’s passing

Holbrook was someone who acknowledged the complexities of life as a person of faith, said Matthew S. McBride, director of publications for the Church History Department.

“People who are clear-eyed enough to see the complexities of life as a person of faith, but who remain steady in their commitment to God and who work patiently to make things better, to alleviate suffering, to redress wrongs. Kate was such a person,” McBride said. “She spoke candidly and persuasively to many who were unsettled in their faith. Her commitment to God was evident, even when addressing the most difficult questions. She was honest about her own struggles but evinced such steadiness. I can’t count the number of people who, knowing I worked with her, have approached me to say how stabilizing her words had been for them.”

She was described as a “bridge-builder” by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a professor emerita at Harvard as well as a friend and mentor.

“Kate Holbrook made many important contributions to Latter-day Saint history, American cultural history, religious studies, and Mormon studies broadly defined. She has been a bridge-builder throughout her career, mediating the historical perspectives of professional scholars and church leaders, senior historians and undergraduates, Latter-day Saints and members of other religious communities,” Ulrich said. “She has been an articulate and persuasive spokesperson for Latter-day Saint history. Even as her health failed, she continued to plan for conferences and projects that would bring scholars, students and the general public together around neglected themes. Surmounting all these achievements were the grace and wisdom that she radiated in every setting.”

Other friends and colleagues mourned Holbrook’s passing and offered tributes on social media over the weekend.

“MHA is heartbroken by the news that Dr. Kate Holbrook has passed away,” the Mormon History Association wrote in a tweet. “We are grateful for her scholarship on Latter-day Saint women and her service as managing historian of women’s history at the Church History Department.”

Spencer Fluhman, executive director of the Maxwell Institute:

“Kate Holbrook is a very bright light,” he wrote in a tweet. “We all love her.”

Fluhman worked with Holbrook in her position on the Maxwell Institute’s board and released the following statement:

“Kate Holbrook is a force for good, far and wide, well beyond the bounds of her formal appointment at the Church History Department. She builds bridges. She brings people together. She creates. She is so very smart. She is kind. We all value her voice. Her faith is unmistakable and infectious,” he said.

“I have personally leaned on her perspective, on a range of matters, for the better part of my 20-year career in church education. She has left a mark on us and we are better for it. Even through the pain and discomfort of her cancer struggle, she has been there, smiling, giving more than she ever receives from us. For those of us privileged enough to work closely with her, she has been much more than a colleague. She’s been a trusted friend. We love her.”

W. Paul Reeve, professor and director of graduate studies in the history department at the University of Utah:

“Kate was such a light, Sam, and such a compassionate soul I’m so very sorry. My prayers are for God’s grace to lift and surround you and your daughters as you mourn.”

Matthew Bowman, associate professor of religion and history and Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University:

“I organized a conference with Kate Holbrook that turned into a book,” he wrote. “She cared deeply about women’s history, about opening and organizing communities, about the power of history to heal and make us better. I learned from and leaned on her. Peace and prayers to her and her family.”

Erika Koth Barrett wrote:

“Kate Holbrook was my inspiration for getting involved in Mormon women history and sociology. Her work is invaluable and will positively impact millions for years to come. She’s a huge reason women’s voices in Mormonism are being reclaimed. Past, future, & present thank God for her.”

Benjamin Park, assistant professor of history at Sam Houston State University:

“Kate Holbrook was not only a brilliant scholar, but a phenomenally kind person. This is a heartbreaking loss.”

Holbrook is survived by her husband and the couple’s three daughters.

Instead of flowers, the family is encouraging well-wishers to donate to the Kate Holbrook Endowed Scholarship Fund at BYU for primary caregivers of children pursuing graduate work in humanities.