The origin of Primary

ORIGINS. In the summer of 1878, Aurelia Spencer Rogers, a Farmington, Utah, mother, who felt the need for a united effort to help parents teach their children the gospel, voiced her concerns to Eliza R. Snow, president of the Relief Society of the Church: "Could there not be an organization for little boys, and have them trained to make better men?" (Rogers, p. 208). Sister Snow presented the matter to President John Taylor, and he authorized establishment of the organization.

Under the direction of local Church leaders, the first Primary was organized on August 11, 1878, with Aurelia Rogers as president. On August 25, the first Primary meeting was held in Farmington, where 224 boys and girls met to be taught obedience, faith in God, prayer, punctuality, and good manners. The girls were included to make the singing "sound as well as it should" (Rogers, p. 209).

EARLY PRIMARIES. Within a short time, more Primaries were organized throughout the territory. By the mid-1880s, a Primary group had been organized in nearly every LDS settlement. The women of the Church were given the responsibility to organize and administer the Primary program. The bulk of the weekly program was devoted to songs, poems, and activities presented by children. Primary general officers did not take a controlling leadership role until the 1890s, and curricular materials were few, although most Primaries used a hymnbook, a tune book, and a catechism of Old and New Testament questions and answers prepared by Eliza R. Snow in 1881. In many localities, children remained in Primary through their early teens and often served as Primary secretaries.

1890 -1939. During this period, Primary general officers assumed the leading role in Primary development. Louie B. Felt (1880-1925), the first Primary general president, and her counselor and successor, May Anderson (1925-1939), sought professional training in education. Exposed to the ideas of progressive education, they initiated curriculum development and teacher training. General officers encouraged local Primaries to establish age-graded classes with lessons appropriate to the children's development. They began publication of the Children's Friend (1902), at first with lessons and instructions for leaders and, within a few years, with stories, handiwork, and music for children. In 1913 the Primary established a children's ward in the Grove's Latter-day Saint Hospital in Salt Lake City, the first in a series of Primary efforts to provide pediatric hospital care. When religion classes, instituted in 1890 for weekday religious instruction for children, were discontinued in 1929, the Primary assumed greater responsibility for children's spiritual education. Lessons were scheduled three weeks each month, and activities were reduced to one per month, except during the summer program. Stake boards held monthly training meetings for ward leaders; general board members visited regularly.

1940-1974. Spiritual education remained the focus of Primary programs under presidents May Green Hinckley (1940-1943) and Adele Cannon Howells (1943-1951). Mission lessons were written for the growing number of Primaries in Church missions throughout the world and, during World War II, for the hundreds of home and neighborhood Primaries developed because of wartime travel restrictions. Under President LaVern Watts Parmley (1951-1974), the Primary lessons were made applicable to all units in the growing Church, including mission Primaries. When a comprehensive Church correlation program was begun in the 1960s, responsibility for Primary lesson materials was transferred to priesthood leaders and professional departments.

The Primary Children's Hospital, authorized by Church leaders in 1949, was completed in 1952, and President Parmley became the first chair of the hospital's board of trustees (see Hospitals). While the majority of patients were from the intermountain region, others came from many areas of the world. Children of all races and creeds were welcomed. Patients' families usually paid for their medical costs, but charitable funds assisted many. The hospital, transferred to private ownership in 1975, made possible some of the most important contributions that the Primary has made to the lives of individual children.

In 1952 the Primary was given responsibility for Cub Scouting for LDS boys eight, nine, and ten years of age and Boy Scouting for eleven-year-old boys. Since that time, a close working relationship has existed between the Primary and the Boy Scouts of America. Primary is also involved with Scouts in Canada, throughout the United Kingdom, and in New Zealand.

Until 1952, women could serve only as den mothers in Cub Scouting. That year the Primary obtained permission from the National Scout Committee for women to serve as leaders of the eleven-year-old Scouts. Since then, women have become registered Scouters and serve on local and national boards.

1974-1990. With the growth of a more geographically widespread Church, annual general conferences of Church auxiliaries were discontinued in 1975. Under presidents Naomi M. Shumway (1974-1980), Dwan J. Young (1980-1988), and Michaelene P. Grassli (1988-), communication with local leaders continued through materials prepared for regional conferences, a Primary Handbook, information published in the bulletin, and periodic visits to regional training sessions. Responsibility for planning lesson concepts for Primary manuals was returned to the Primary General Board in 1977.

In the consolidated Sunday meeting schedule (1980), Primary meetings were moved from midweek to Sunday, junior Sunday Schools were discontinued, and Primary was given responsibility for all formal religious classroom instruction of children in the Church. With that change, callings to teach in the Primary began to be extended to men as well as women, although only women serve in Primary presidencies. Weekday activities involving all Primary children were reduced to four per year, and spiritual education was further emphasized. Children were encouraged to read the scriptures regularly, and Primary lessons taught gospel principles from their scriptural foundations. Music and activities culminating in the yearly children's Sacrament meeting presentation (e.g., "The Book of Mormon-A Witness of Jesus Christ," 1988; "I Am a Child of God," 1989; and "I Belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," 1990) focused on scriptures and gospel principles.

CURRENT STRUCTURE. As of 1990, Primaries serve over a million and a half children with lessons taught in many languages. Primary meetings are held each Sunday for approximately an hour and a half. A nursery program is provided for children between eighteen months and three years of age. Children between the ages of three and eleven meet as a group under the direction of the ward Primary presidency. The children offer prayers, read from the scriptures, and give short gospel-related talks. They learn gospel principles through role playing, readers' theaters, choral readings, buzz sessions, panel discussions, and other activities. They also learn and sing music selected from a children's songbook.

The children divide according to age for small group classroom sessions. Age-appropriate lesson materials are selected to help children grow in understanding gospel principles; learn that the Heavenly Father and Jesus love them; and prepare to be baptized, receive the Holy Ghost, and keep their baptismal covenants. Classroom presentations and discussions help girls prepare to fulfill their roles as righteous young women and to live lives of service. Classes help boys prepare to receive the priesthood and be worthy to use this power to bless the lives of others.

In addition to Sunday Primary meetings, twice-a-month weekday activities are held for ten- and eleven-year-old boys and girls. In some countries, eleven-year-old boys use Scouting activities for their weekday activities. A quarterly activity is held for all Primary children. The weekday and quarterly activities encourage children to interact with each other and have wholesome fun involving them in physical, creative, cultural, and service activities.

Children with disabilities are nurtured in Primary and are given opportunity to participate in the full program. Leaders assess their needs individually and tailor programs to meet specific needs. They are integrated into the regular program whenever possible by giving additional support and training to their teachers, leaders, and peers.

Church leaders call and set apart lay officers and teachers to oversee the Primary; and Primary general officers and Church curriculum committees prepare handbooks, teaching guides, visual aids, lesson manuals, and a variety of training videos for their use. Monthly in-service lessons help teachers improve their teaching skills and relate appropriately to children. Periodically, the Primary general presidency and board members conduct multi-stake or regional training sessions. Leaders and teachers seek and receive inspiration in their Primary service.

The Primary's mission, the impetus for its historical development, and the purpose for its current structure are summarized in the scripture that has become the Primary's theme: "All thy children shall be taught of the Lord; and great shall be the peace of thy children" (3 Ne. 22:13).


* Madsen, Carol Cornwall, and Susan Staker Oman. Sisters and Little Saints. Salt Lake City, 1979. Primary Handbook. Salt Lake City, 1985.
* Rogers, Aurelia A. Life Sketches. Salt Lake City, 1898.
* Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 3, Primary