Restoration and Church History

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“Primary,” Church History Topics



In early 1878 Aurelia Spencer Rogers was concerned about the unruly behavior of many young boys in her community of Farmington, Utah. Although 44 percent of the population in Utah Territory at the time was under the age of 14, there was no Church organization for children.1 Rogers developed an idea for a program to help boys and shared her ideas with Eliza R. Snow and Emmeline B. Wells when they were visiting from Salt Lake City. Snow shared the idea with President John Taylor, who endorsed Rogers’s plan. In a follow-up letter, Rogers suggested also including girls in the program. Snow approved and expressed her conviction that Rogers’s work had deep spiritual significance.

In August 1878 Aurelia Rogers’s bishop set her apart as the president of the first Primary organization. Over 200 children between the ages of 6 and 14 attended the first meeting at the rock chapel in Farmington.2 The concept of Primary spread quickly as Eliza R. Snow and other female leaders from Salt Lake City traveled throughout Utah Territory, coordinating with bishops and Relief Society and Young Ladies Mutual Improvement Association presidents to organize ward associations.

Farmington Ward, South Davis Stake.

Rock chapel in Farmington, Utah, where the first Primary meeting was held.

Courtesy Church History Library and Archives

In June 1880 at a Salt Lake Stake Relief Society conference, women voted to sustain the first General Presidencies of the women’s associations. Eliza R. Snow nominated Louie B. Felt “to preside over all the Primary Associations of all the Stakes of Zion.”3 Stake Primary organizations soon followed.

Farmington Ward's first Primary presidency (1878) ca. 1890

Aurelia Rogers (center) and her counselors in the Farmington Ward Primary presidency.

Early Primary meetings, held weekly under the direction of the local Primary president, included praying, singing, reciting poetry, reading essays, and performing musical numbers. Primary children often studied the gospel through the use of catechisms—series of questions and answers students were expected to memorize.4 They also frequently read selections from the Sunday School’s Juvenile Instructor magazine.5 When Eliza R. Snow visited early Primaries, she instructed the children in good behavior, told them stories from the life of Joseph Smith, and often showed them his gold watch to give them a tangible connection to the early days of the Restoration.6 In addition to gospel instruction, teachers and leaders organized activities such as arts and crafts, fairs and bazaars, song and dance festivals, dramas and plays, gardening projects, and service activities.7

Over the next century, Primary membership expanded from hundreds of children growing up in Utah settlements to nearly one million children globally.8 Under the direction of Louie B. Felt, the Primary instituted training for teachers, established separate classes for children based on age, and in 1902 began publication of the Children’s Friend magazine.9 In 1913 the age at which boys completed Primary was lowered to 12, followed by the age for girls being lowered to 12 in 1934.10 In 1922 the Primary introduced an achievement program called the Seagulls for girls ages 12–13 who were still attending Primary. This was the first of many achievement programs fostered by the Primary.11

Primaries in the Church’s missions outside the United States were suspended during World War II. When Primaries started to resume in Europe, they were attended by many children who were not Latter-day Saints because the program offered opportunities for friendship and supervised activities in countries that were struggling after the war. This led, in some instances, to the conversion of these children’s families.12

For decades, the Children’s Friend had been providing lesson materials for Primary teachers, and in 1949 Adele Cannon Howells oversaw the creation of the Primary’s first official lesson manual.13 In 1952 the Primary adopted the Cub program offered by the Boy Scouts of America as the activity program for young boys in the United States. This affiliation with the scouting program lasted nearly 70 years.14

Building on earlier efforts to provide adequate health care for children in need, the Primary raised funds to build the Primary Children’s Hospital in 1952. Members of the Primary presidency chaired the hospital’s board, and funding for hospital care was provided, in part, by a penny drive directed by the Primary.15

In 1980 Church leaders consolidated the meeting schedule, discontinuing junior Sunday School and moving midweek Primary meetings to Sunday, and men were called for the first time to serve as Primary teachers. Activity programs for boys and girls continued to be held on weeknights, but the frequency of midweek activities was reduced. Primary continues to play a central role in the Church’s support of families in their responsibility to teach children the gospel.