Church historian, writer and leading voice for women’s history, Kate Holbrook, dies at age 50

Her family announced Holbrook’s passing from cancer on Saturday

As Kate Holbrook concluded her interview on the Church News podcast last June, she shared her testimony. 

“I see the Church and the gospel together having the potential to lead us through every trouble that we encounter in this life, as individuals and as a world community,” Holbrook said. “I think it has that potential for the entire world, for every person. And I have felt the power of this community and adherence to its teachings throughout my life.

“I feel like thanks to this Church, I’ve been able to accomplish some things that mattered from an eternal perspective. I’m deeply grateful for it. I love it,” she said.

Holbrook died Saturday, Aug. 20, from a rare cancer of the eye — she had been diagnosed 10 years before, but over the course of the last year the cancer took her life. When announcing her passing, her husband, Sam Brown, wrote on Twitter, “Today I have no poetry, only a broken heart and the brutal fact that broke it.”

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

Holbrook served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Russia Samara Mission and graduated from Brigham Young University. She moved to Boston, Massachusetts, where she graduated from Harvard Divinity School with a Master of Divinity, and began a doctorate in Religious Studies at Boston University. She met and married Brown in Boston, and they have three children.

Kate Holbrook is pictured in 2017. | Samantha Kelly Photography

The family moved to Utah, where Holbrook completed her Ph.D. remotely and started her career with the Church History Department as a historian of Latter-day Saint women. 

She edited and/or wrote many books and articles. She paid special attention in her scholarship to the relationships between food and religious community, explained her obituary

“Kate loved Jesus with her whole heart,” her family wrote. “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.”

The importance of Church history and women’s voices

Holbrook took part in a 2018 Face to Face event in Nauvoo, Illinois, with Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and fellow Church historian Matt Grow, where they took questions about many different topics about Church history.

She acknowledged that it is painful for a person to learn of an aspect of Church history they thought they should have known, but did not.

That is why Church historians “do the work that we do,” she said.

In a statement Monday morning, Elder Cook said four years after the Face-to-Face event, he is often approached by people who remember it. “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.”

Church historian Kate Holbrook speaks during a worldwide “Face to Face” broadcast.
Church historian Kate Holbrook speaks during a worldwide “Face to Face” broadcast focusing on the history of the Church in Nauvoo, Illinois, on Sept. 9, 2018. On the left is Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and on the right is Church historian Matt Grow. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Holbrook said being there in Nauvoo gave her an awareness of how early Latter-day Saints “were able to prioritize faith in God’s will over every other consideration.”

“I have found that when I study Church history I gain spiritual ancestors,” she said. “Their examples, their experiences, their suffering, all of it is really meaningful to me. It makes me feel rooted. It makes me feel stronger than I did before learning their stories.”

When speaking about Nauvoo and the early Latter-day Saints on the Church News podcast, Holbrook said the Church celebrates everyday life at the historic sites.

“Everyday life, those are the lives that you and I lead, the things that fill our days that are infused with a desire to be disciples, both efforts to be disciples of Jesus Christ and failure to be disciples of Jesus Christ, to then repent and try to change,” she said.

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Episode 33: Church Historian Kate Holbrook on what we can learn from the early Saints in Nauvoo

When giving a lecture in March 2017 about the recently published book she co-edited, “At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women,” Holbrook said women must take responsibility and authority for their own lives and the good they have the potential to do in them. She encouraged women to use their authority to speak to be peacemakers and beacons of hope.

“We need women’s words as well as men’s words to help us deeply understand and live the gospel,” she said.

Kate Holbrook — co-editor of “At the Pulpit: 185 years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women” — speaks in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square on March 2, 2017. | Rachel Sterzer, Deseret News

Her family in her obituary said that Holbrook “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.” 

Grow said Holbrook’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.”

Said Elder Cook, “We mourn with Kate’s family and friends. Her passing is a significant loss to the entire Church.”

The funeral will be Saturday, Aug. 27, at 11 a.m. at the Bonneville Stake Center, 1535 East Bonneview Drive in Salt Lake City.

Instead of giving flowers, the family asked that people donate to the Kate Holbrook Endowed Scholarship Fund at BYU for primary caregivers of young children pursuing graduate work in the humanities.

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