Aurelia Spencer Rogers first thought to form an organization for Latter-day Saint children, which became known as the Primary Association (or Primary), in about 1878, a decade and a half before writing the autobiography from which the following passage is taken.1 Rogers devoted more than a third of her autobiography to Primary history, feeling it “proper to explain to the people and children of the Latter-day Saints, the origin and intent of Primary work.” Among other highlights from these foundational years of the Primary, she described Eliza R. Snow’s organizing efforts; the appointment of a general Primary president and stake Primary presidencies; Primary fairs held to raise money for temples, hospitals, and the poor; and Primary martial bands that were formed “to encourage in our children a love for music, also a love for all things beautiful.”2
Concern for the spiritual welfare of children dated back to the early days of the church. According to Eliza R. Snow, “The young took delight in the work, and it was no uncommon thing for the children to speak in tongues, and have the blessings of the Gospel poured upon them. But children get no more than they earn, either of the spirit of the world, or the Spirit of God.”3 In 1861 Brigham Young expressed concern for restless teenagers and encouraged local programs to provide recreation for the youth.4 The Deseret Sunday School Union, organized in 1867, united efforts to create a system of Sunday schools for youth and adults that focused on both spiritual instruction and basic education.5 In 1875 Young established the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association as an organization for young men analogous to the previously established Young Ladies’ Retrenchment Associations, which were renamed the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Associations in 1877.6 By 1878 concern shifted to younger children, particularly young boys with disorderly behavior.7 In 1880, two years after the Primary was organized, 44 percent of Utah’s population was under age fourteen; the need for a children’s organization was great.8
Rogers was an expert in caring for children. When she was thirteen, she and her fourteen-year-old sister Ellen assumed the care of four younger siblings after their mother died during the flight from Nauvoo in 1846. A few months later, their father, Orson Spencer, began serving a three-year mission, leaving the two oldest children to watch over the others during their journey to and settlement in the Salt Lake Valley. By her eighteenth birthday, she had married Thomas Rogers and given birth to their first son. Over the next two decades, she mothered twelve children, losing five in early childhood. The first Primary was organized in Farmington, Utah, on August 11, 1878, under her leadership. Two weeks later, more than two hundred boys and girls gathered for the first meeting.9
At the same time that Rogers was spearheading the Primary organization in Farmington, Snow worked to establish a similar group in the Salt Lake City Eleventh Ward and then throughout the church.—Snow consulted with Rogers two years later when it came time to choose a general Primary president—“someone to preside over all the Primary Associations in the Territory.” They chose Louie B. Felt, who was president of the Eleventh Ward Primary. In reflecting on her experiences in the period preceding the organization of the Primary in August 1878, Rogers recalled, “While thinking over what was to be done for the best good of the children, I seemed to be carried away in the spirit, or at least I experienced a feeling of untold happiness which lasted three days and nights. During that time nothing could worry or irritate me; if my little ones were fretful, or the work went wrong, I had patience, could control in kindness, and manage my household affairs easily. This was a testimony to me that what was being done was from God.”10
The following document is a single chapter of Rogers’s 1898 autobiography, Life Sketches of Orson Spencer and Others, and History of Primary Work. As the title suggests, Rogers divided the volume into two parts, the first focused on her childhood, marriage, and family, especially her father, Orson Spencer; and the second focused on the history of the Primary.
HISTORY OF PRIMARY WORK—LETTER FROM E. R. SNOW.
In writing this sketch of the commencement of our Primaries, it is my desire, and shall be my aim to present it in a way that shall be plain to the understanding of all.
In August, 1878, I was called upon to preside over a Primary Association in Farmington. I was always an earnest thinker, and naturally of a religious turn of mind. And for some time previous to the organization of the children, I had reflected seriously upon the necessity of more strict discipline for our little boys.
Many of them were allowed to be out late at night; and certainly some of the larger ones well deserved the undesirable name of “hood[p. ]lum.” It may seem strange that in a community calling themselves Latter-day Saints, children should be allowed to indulge in anything approaching to rowdyism. But it must be remembered that the age in which we live is one that tends to carelessness in the extreme, not only in regard to religion, but also morality. And not only this, but in many in[s]tances our people have been driven about and persecuted on every hand, until it has seemed to be all they could do to make a living for their children; and an apology might almost be made for negligence in training them up. Yet why should anything be allowed to come before the most sacred duty of parentage, that of looking after the spiritual welfare of the children? was the question which burdened my mind.
Our Bishop must have been similarly impressed, for a meeting of the mothers of our little ones was called by him, at which much good advice and counsel was given.11
The subject of training children was thoroughly discussed and the responsibility of guiding their young minds was thrown almost en[p. 206]tirely upon the mothers. I had children of my own, and was just as anxious as a mother could be to have them brought up properly. But what was to be done? It needed the united effort of the parents, and, as is often the case in a community, some of them were careless. A fire seemed to burn within me, and I had a desire at one time to go to the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association meeting and talk to them; but I did not yield to the impulse, thinking too much, perhaps, of what people might say. The query then arose in my mind could there not be an organization for little boys wherein they could be taught everything good, and how to behave. This was in March; a few weeks later Sister Eliza R. Snow Smith and Sister Emmeline B. Wells, from Salt Lake City, came to Farmington to attend a Relief Society Conference.12
After meeting was over, and when on their way to the depot, these sisters in company with Sisters Mary S. Clark, Nancy Clark, and Lorinda [Laurinda] Robinson, stopped at my home for a short call.13 The topic of our conversation was the [p. 207] young people, and the rough, careless ways many of the young men and boys had at the time. I asked the question, “What will our girls do for good husbands, if this state of things continues?” Sister Eliza seemed deeply impressed with the question; and then I asked.
“Could there not be an organization for little boys, and have them trained to make better men?”
She was silent a few moments, then said there might be such a thing and that she would speak to the First Presidency about it.
The death of President Brigham Young occurred on the 29th of August, 1877: and at the time of the beginning of the Primaries, President John Taylor with his quorum of the Twelve Apostles, presided over the Church.
Sister Eliza consulted with Apostle John Taylor and others of the Twelve, concerning this new move, and it was approved of by them. She accordingly wrote a lettter to Bishop Hess and explained the matter to him. He visited me soon after receiving her letter, and when we had talked awhile on the subject, he asked me [p. 208] if I would be willing to preside over an organization of the children. I felt willing, but very incompetent. From that time my mind was busy thinking how it was to be managed.
Up to this period the girls had not been mentioned; but my mind was that the meeting would not be complete without them; for as singing was necessary, it needed the voices of little girls as well as boys to make it sound as well as it should. After some consideration, a letter was sent to Sister Eliza asking her opinion in regard to the little girls taking part.
The following letter was received in answer to mine.
Salt Lake City, Aug. 4, 1878.
My dear sister Rogers: The spirit and contents of your letter pleased me much. I feel assured that the inspiration of heaven is directing you, and that a great and very important movement is being inaugurated for the future of Zion.
Your letter was waiting my return from Provo Valley on Thursday evening—yesterday (Sat.) I read it in our general meeting in the Fourteenth Ward Assembly Rooms.14 [p. 209]
Soon after my return from Farmington I proposed to Sister Mary J. Thompson to move forward in the Sixteenth Ward and establish a president, requesting her to suggest a whole souled brother who would enter into the spirit of the work; and last evening with her, I called on Brother [John] Perkins, whose feelings were fully enlisted as soon as we informed him of the object in question. He is in daily employment during the week, and although a constant attendant at Sabbath service is willing to devote the afternoon to the benefit of the children, and for the time being deprive himself the enjoyment of the Sacrament. The importance of the movement, and its great necessity is fully acknowledged by all with whom I have conversed on the subject.
President John Taylor fully approbates it, and Joseph F. Smith15 thinks we might better afford what expense might be incurred in furnishing uniform, musical instruments etc, for the cultivation of the children in Zion, than what we are expending in converting people abroad where elders spend years in converting a very few. [p. 210]
We think that at present, it will be wisdom to not admit any under six years of ago [age], except in some special instances. You are right—we must have the girls as well as the boys—they must be trained together.
I think your mind will be directed to a brother who will unite with you in establishing this movement. Brother Perkins thinks that plenty of assistance will be forthcoming as the work progresses. The angels and all holy beings, especially the leaders of Israel on the other side the veil will be deeply interested.
I wish to see and converse with you, but cannot make it convenient at present. Tomorrow is election—on the 6th, if the Lord wills I shall go to Mendon—attend the sisters’ Quarterly Conference in Ogden on the 15th and 16th—go to West Porterville on the 17th and return home sometime about the 20th. If I can so arrange will see you on my return.
That God will continue to inspire you in the establishment and development of this great movement, is the earnest prayer of
Your sister and fellow laborer,
E. R. Snow. [p. 211]
Sister Eliza in company with Sister M. Isabella Horne visited me soon after. Sister Snow suggested that the organization be called “Primary.”