Remembering Kate Holbrook, HDS Grad and Influential Latter-day Saint Historian

September 12, 2022
Kate Holbrook
Kate Holbrook, MTS 2001, leaves a lasting legacy in the study of Latter-day Saint women’s history. / Photo: Ravell Call, Deseret News

Kate Holbrook, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and a scholar hailed as a “champion of Latter-day Saint women’s history,” passed away at age 50 on August 20, 2022. She leaves behind a rich legacy of scholarship, compassion, and religious devotion recognized by the many whose lives were touched by her own.

Born in Santa Barbara, California, she grew up in Provo, Utah, where she attended Brigham Young University. She paused her studies to serve a church mission in Samara, Russia. Following her graduation, Kate relocated to Massachusetts to pursue a master of theological studies degree from Harvard Divinity School, which she received in 2001. At HDS, Kate sought out ever more capacious understandings of religious diversity, attested to by her contributions to the Pluralism Project under the direction of Diana Eck. During this time, she also carried out a detailed effort to map the surprisingly diverse religious landscape of the state of Utah.

Kate left a lasting imprint on Harvard. According to Emeritus Professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Kate “pioneered an ecumenical approach to religious studies” in various projects, including a “landmark undergraduate course at Harvard University, which she helped design and manage while working on the master’s degree.”

Following her involvement in the course “Personal Choice and Global Transformation,” Kate was bestowed Harvard’s prestigious Levenson Award for Best Teaching Fellow in 2002.

Director of Women’s Studies in Religion and historian Ann Braude noted how, in 2004, Kate “approached with some caution a non-Mormon professor that approached LDS women in the context of second wave feminism and other recent developments,” enrolling in her course "Women and Religion in Contemporary America."

Of this occasion, Braude recalls, “ was the first time I had included a Mormon woman author on the syllabus, and this attracted a remarkable group of students. By the end of the term we had all been transformed. Kate concluded that LDS history and women’s history had much to offer each other, and, in fact, needed each other.”

Braude would come to see this commitment strongly evidenced in Kate’s later professional work within the Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, saying that “every time she invited me there to speak I experienced her creativity, diplomacy, intellectual breadth and hospitality. I will miss her very much.”

Following her time at Harvard, Kate carried out doctoral work at Boston University, where she received a PhD in religious studies under the direction of Stephen Prothero. At BU she created and offered new courses on women and religion, as well as on religion and food. While residing in Boston, she met and married Sam Brown. The pair later moved to Utah, where they raised three daughters, with Kate finishing her doctoral studies remotely.

Of her dissertation work, Prothero remembers it as “terrific” in the ways that it “explored how the LDS Church and the Nation of Islam responded to the Great Depression through competing foodways.” Breaking out of prevailing norms in the developing subfield of religion and food, Kate focused not just on food restrictions and consumption but also on production and distribution. Though religiously influenced dietary behaviors sometimes served to reinforce forms of separation and self-identity, she showed that they also revealed the ways in which these two groups integrated themselves within the broader American social landscape.

Despite Kate’s impressive academic accomplishments at BU, Prothero holds his most significant impressions of her as “Kate the human being,” describing her “on this central score [as] extraordinary…It's a cliche, but Kate always seemed so vibrant to me it's hard to imagine her gone. She made such a great professional life for herself—a perfect fit between her religious commitments and her academic training.”

Prothero recalls a visit to Utah in which Kate graciously helped him understand and navigate the state’s unique liquor laws during a visit. “I can't even remember if I got a drink. I just remember thinking how thoughtful she was to make me feel at home. I know she did the same for many others.”

Following the completion of her PhD work, Kate leaned fully into a highly generative life of writing and research, delving deeply into Latter-day Saint women’s history. She became the managing historian for women’s history in the Church History Department, a position from which she made important resources available for both academic researchers and church members.

Her career-defining projects included such works as At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women and The First Fifty Years of the Relief Society: Key Documents in Latter-day Saint Women’s History, among others. Her scholarship was intimately tied to her sense of community and religious devotion as she strove to give back to her own spiritual tradition.

HDS professor David Holland, who shares Kate’s faith and worked with her in various settings, asserts that these books represent “truly signal achievements in the study of the Latter-day Saint tradition. They demonstrate unmistakably, to borrow a phrase from Ann Braude, that Latter-day Saint history is women’s history. Of course, as Kate’s work, they are impeccably researched and expertly edited. As pathbreaking source collections they symbolize her characteristically generous service to the scholarly community and her determination to let the women of former generations have their say.”

Joining in this same sentiment on the vital significance of Kate’s lasting legacy towards the study of Latter-day Saint women’s history, HDS professor Catherine Brekus admires her as “an intellectual dynamo who was deeply committed to preserving the history of Latter-day Saint women, whose stories have too often been forgotten. Her work made a profound, indispensable contribution to our understanding of Latter-day Saint history. Her intelligence, her kindness, and her commitment to her faith were an inspiration.”

Just as Kate amplified the voices of Latter-day Saint women from the past, she likewise inspired and lifted up many young scholars of her faith, including current and recent LDS students of Harvard Divinity School. Among them, Janan Graham-Russell, a PhD candidate in the study of Religions in the Americas, pays tribute to her memory, saying:

“Kate’s work spotlights the intricacies of women’s interior lives that are often overlooked in studies of religion and spirituality…Alongside her scholarship, I will remember Kate for her passion for supporting the work of others and leaving the trail wide open for those who came up after her. Her everlasting kindness lives on in the lives of those whom she met and worked with. The spirit of her work will continue to dwell within the study of women, and foodways in the LDS faith—and more broadly—the study of American religions. I'm grateful to have had her as a mentor, and for the gifts that she shared with so many of us."

In her memory, donations can be made to the Kate Holbrook Endowed Scholarship Fund at Brigham Young University, which seeks to support primary caregivers of young children who are pursuing graduate work in the humanities.

Written by members of the HDS Latter-day Saint Student Association