Camille Fronk Olson is a professor emeritus of ancient scripture and former department chair at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. Her research and publications have focused on women in the Bible and Palestinian families. She loves to travel, garden, and research stories about her ancestors. She scored when she married Paul Olson, a decision that included the blessing of two children and four grandchildren.
It’s funny how the same words can mean something different when we gain greater knowledge and experience in life. I have discovered this phenomenon to be true with many scripture passages, counsel from Church leaders, and especially, in my deepening understanding of the priesthood.
I grew up in northern Utah at a time when the expectations for girls pretty much began and ended with marriage, children, and homemaking. My mother delighted in this role, which encouraged me to envision my life following the same path. Except it didn’t.
My decision to serve a full-time mission at age twenty-one changed everything. Several people told me that guys wouldn’t marry young women who served missions and that by going I would ruin my life. Saying yes to a mission also necessitated that I “take out my endowments” (the common vernacular I heard to describe one’s first temple experience) when all my girlfriends were receiving the same endowment in conjunction with their temple marriages. If given a choice at the time, I would have opted to postpone going to the temple until I married. So I dreaded the day as it approached. Amazingly, those anxious feelings were swept away by the time I left the temple. I experienced a profound sense of protection as we traveled home. That warm feeling of safety continued the next day and again the following day when I entered the Language Training Mission. Protection was the word that clearly formed in my brain when I tried to describe my temple experience. It was like I had been given an invisible covering to shield and enable me while I served the Lord. In truth, it was a gift from the Lord: His endowment of power. By the way, I still don’t get the expression “taking out endowments.”
I continued to rely on that enabling power after my mission. The landscape of opportunities had shifted considerably because I was a returned missionary. Doors I had never imagined opening were opening to me. I was offered a full-time position in the Church Educational System teaching seminary when no other woman at the time was similarly hired. Afterward, other open doors beckoned me, including those leading to graduate degrees and a tenure track position in ancient scripture at BYU. Meanwhile, the marriage door remained firmly shut.
This unforeseen professional life as a single woman in the Church afforded me more than two decades of grappling with many Sunday lessons and teachings about the role of women, family, and priesthood that rarely resonated with my reality. At the same time, I was immersed in daily study of scripture, ancient history, and teachings of living prophets to stay current in my field and succeed in my profession. In contrast to lessons and talks given at church, I marveled at the timelessness and power that scripture carried to reach me personally. Because scripture is not subject to change or tweaking, I had to wrestle with precise words to understand what the Lord wanted me to see. Scripture—all four standard works—more than any other form of instruction, communicated to me that even without husband or children, I was known, loved, and being guided by the Holy Spirit. I heard the voice of Jesus Christ in scripture reassuring me that I belonged and that He had a path designed just for me.
Over time, some of my perspectives for applying the gospel felt at odds with interpretations that many of my Relief Society sisters shared. Because my life experiences differed from theirs, I asked different questions and sought different opportunities to honor covenants I had made with the Lord. I found particular strength from Doctrine and Covenants 6.14: “As often as thou hast inquired, thou hast received instruction of my Spirit. If it had not been so, thou wouldst not have come to the place where thou art at this time.” Days when I knew I had been directed by the Spirit, had my prayers answered, or been empowered to succeed beyond my natural abilities became my touchstone for building faith to continue down a path where few, if any, trailblazers had gone before.
In particular, I had different questions and observations about the priesthood. I don’t know how many years had passed before I realized that pretty much the same questions were asked and the same comments were made every year when we discussed priesthood in Relief Society. The main question was always something like, “How does having the priesthood in your home bless your life?” Responding comments all echoed some form of gratitude for a husband who can give priesthood blessings to wife or children in time of sickness, distress, or the commencement of another school year. The gospel tenet to “sustain the priesthood” was assumed to mean support your husband and men in the Church generally to do the Lord’s work.
During one lesson, my reality unexpectedly and violently crashed against these hollow-sounding platitudes. I was surprised to hear the exasperation in my voice when I asked my ward sisters, “All that I am hearing is that the main blessing of the priesthood is the convenience of a live-in blessing-giver. I live alone, but if I need a blessing, all I need to do is ask, and my home teachers will be at my door within minutes. So what am I missing because no ordained priesthood holder lives in my house?” I heard a gasp and lots of animated whispers, before a few sisters suggested the blessing of companionship or support in making decisions. So I asked, “Is that the priesthood or is that the blessing of a good marriage?”
I guess I didn’t expect a satisfying answer that day because our collective foundation for discussing priesthood in Relief Society was rather thin and flimsy at the time. I could honestly argue that one could feel the Spirit in my home as readily as in a home where one or more priesthood holders dwelled. So what does “having the priesthood in your home” really mean?
My question was sincerely asked. I turned to scripture to teach me. I remember when I discovered the verse that records the angel Moroni’s words to young Joseph Smith in Palmyra, New York. Instead of citing Malachi’s prophecy exactly as it reads in the Old Testament, Moroni quoted it this way: “Behold, I will reveal unto you the Priesthood, by the hand of Elijah the prophet . . .” (Joseph Smith–History 1.38; emphasis added). The verse surprised me because I expected it to read “I will ordain you to the Priesthood” or “I will give to you the Priesthood” and that it would come through Peter, James, and John or even John the Baptist. Instead, the Lord promised to reveal the Priesthood through the prophet Elijah.
Elijah didn’t come until 1836, seven years after Peter, James, and John restored the priesthood. And he came to the newly dedicated Kirtland Temple to restore the sealing power that binds families together for generations (see Doctrine and Covenants 110.13–16). Moroni’s teachings to Joseph implied that the fulness of God’s priesthood would not be completely restored or its meaning completely understood by the Saints until a temple was built and the sealing power given. That necessitated the inclusion of women. This implication suggested to me that ordaining a man to the priesthood did not constitute the fulness of priesthood. I remembered the unexpected and overwhelming feelings of power and protection I had experienced after receiving my temple endowment. I knew God was the source of that power, but with what power had He endowed me?
Fast forward to the April 2014 general conference. At the time, a group of women were petitioning general Church leaders to allow priesthood ordination for women. And, for the first time, the priesthood session was publicly broadcast like all other sessions. The first speaker, President Dallin H. Oaks, issued an indirect welcome to sisters in the Church whom he must have known would be listening.1 I was one of them. By the time he completed his discourse that evening, my eyes were overflowing with tears and my heart and mind with the Spirit. He answered so many of my questions, and he confirmed each of his teachings by citing another apostle’s witness of the same truth.
Specifically, President Oaks endorsed the recent clarification by Elder M. Russell Ballard, “When men and women go to the temple, they are both endowed with the same power, which is priesthood power.”2 To clearly communicate that women are also given priesthood authority, President Oaks cited President Joseph Fielding Smith. As President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, President Smith had taught nearly sixty years before, “A person may have authority given to him, or a sister to her, to do some great and wonderful things, sacred unto the Lord, and binding just as thoroughly as are the blessings that are given by the men who hold the Priesthood.” Then, speaking directly to the women, President Smith declared, “You can speak with authority, because the Lord has placed authority upon you.”3 How was this teaching lost for sixty years?
As if to ensure that no one could misunderstand, President Oaks then explained, “We are not accustomed to speaking of women having the authority of the priesthood in their Church callings, but what other authority can it be?”4 He gave examples of women receiving priesthood authority when they are set apart as full-time missionaries, officers, teachers, or any calling in the Church. My heart was doing backflips! Finally, I had the words to identify the power with which the Lord had endowed me. For decades, He has given me priesthood power and priesthood authority to act in His name as a missionary and in countless other callings. I understood why I felt insistent on being set apart before commencing a new calling. That is where my authority comes to act in His name.
Ever since that general conference, I have enthusiastically spoken of ways that women in the Church have access to the Lord’s priesthood power and authority to assist in His work. I am also less patient when I hear language that confuses priesthood, “the powers of heaven” (Doctrine and Covenants 121.36), with “men who are ordained to the priesthood.” As President Oaks reiterated yet again that evening, “Men are not ‘the priesthood.’”5
Unquestionably, the word priesthood means far more to me today than I understood when I first went to the temple. I now feel and acknowledge priesthood power that comes from being eternally linked to ancestors and posterity. Likewise, when I hear or read about “sustain the priesthood” and “priesthood in the home,” I no longer consider that those words pertain only to men in the Church. When I sustain the priesthood, I wholeheartedly confess God’s unparalleled power and support given to women as well as men as they serve in His name.
The marriage door did eventually open to me, but not until I was in my late forties. I appreciate the blessing of companionship and support in making important decisions in the home. There’s also a lot more laughter, goodness, and wholeness in life because of the miracle of my marriage. When I married a worthy priesthood holder, however, priesthood power didn’t suddenly appear. The Lord’s power was already there. My desire now is to discover the multitude of ways that the Lord is beckoning me to draw on His power to bless and assist the human family. No more bemoaning what I am not invited to do or sitting on the sidelines. Women of the Church are enlisted to fully engage on the front line. I’m all in.
A Place to Belong is filled with distinctive stories written by thirty-three modern women of faith who show from their own lives that there's more than one way to be a believing and contributing woman in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This collection celebrates the diverse lives that women lead and how they navigate their twin commitments to women's issues and to their faith. Available now at Deseret Book stores and at DeseretBook.com.
1. Dallin H. Oaks, “The Keys and Authority of the Priesthood,” Ensign, May 2014.
2. M. Russell Ballard, “Men and Women in the Work of the Lord,” New Era, April 2014, as cited in Oaks, “Keys and Authority of the Priesthood.”
3. Joseph Fielding Smith, “Relief Society—an Aid to the Priesthood,” Relief Society Magazine, January 1959, 4, as cited in Oaks, “Keys and Authority of the Priesthood.”
4. Oaks, “Keys and Authority of the Priesthood.”
5. Oaks, “Keys and Authority of the Priesthood.”