The Birth of Primary

, 1878

This article originally appeared in Vol.65, No.2 (2018) of Pioneer Magazine.

by Keith Lawrence
John W. Hess, Aurelia S. Rogers, and other leaders at the first meeting of ihe Farmington Ward -Association on August 25, 1878;  215 children between the ages of 6 and 14 attended. Art by Lynn Fausett.
John W. Hess (1824-1903)

In early 1878 John W. Hess, bishop of the Farmington Ward, invited his women neighbors to attend a special evening meeting. Bishop Hess wanted to discuss a problem that had concerned him for several months, and, as he grappled for a solution, he wanted the counsel and support of sisters in his ward, especially those with young children.

First-generation pioneers in Farmington and surrounding communities were aging; some had already passed away. Most of their children were now adults establishing their own families and households. Communities were relatively secure and stable, and life was much easier than it had been thirty years earlier, especially for children too young to shoulder the burdens of farming, domestic work, or family businesses. And herein was the root of the problem that concerned Hess: Farmington’s children had a lot of leisure time, and young boys, in particular, were abusing it during the warm spring and summer months. More precisely, they were running unsupervised in the streets at night and devising pranks and making mischief both night and day. Hess asked Farmington’s mothers to pray for solutions and to bring their recommendations to him. In the meantime, he encouraged them to train their children more conscientiously in civility and righteousness.

Aurelia Read Spencer Rogers (1834-1922)

One of the women attending the meeting was . Two of her surviving sons, Orson and George, were now adults, but she still had a four-year-old son, Curtis, at home. The very problem identified by Hess had for some time weighed heavily on Rogers—intruding on her thoughts, she later wrote, “day and night” Following Hess’ neighborhood meeting, Rogers pondered the situation even more diligently. Why should anything be allowed to come before the most sacred duty of parentage, she asked herself, the duty of looking after the spiritual welfare of the children? She recognized that a resolution would depend upon “the united effort of the parents” and, she believed, of the larger community. She gradually understood the potential of an organization for all children “wherein they could be taught everything good, and how to behave.”

She declared simply, “A fire seemed to bum within me.”1 Amelia Read Spencer was the second surviving child of Orson and Catherine Curtis Spencer, bom in Connecticut in 1834. In 1829, Aurelia’s father had graduated as class valedictorian from what would later become Colgate University and, for the nest twelve years, he would serve as a Baptist minister in New England. In 1841 Orson was introduced to the restored gospel by his older brother DanieL Soon acquiring his own testimony, Orson was baptized; he immediately resigned his ministerial position and moved his family to Nauvoo. Orson would eventually serve several missions for the Church and would become the first chancellor of the University of Deseret (later the University of Utah) in 1850.2

Aurelia inherited her father’s keen intellect, and she learned from both her parents an abiding devotion to Christ and his Church. Aurelia’s mother had grown up in a wealthy upstate New York family, but she was apparently disowned by them when she was baptized with her husband. Following the expulsion of the Saints from Nauvoo, Catherine Spencer became desperately ill. When asked by well-meaning friends why she didn’t renounce her faith and return to her parents’ home with its comforts and security, Catherine responded, “I would rather abide with the Church, in poverty, even in the wilderness, without their aid, than go to my unbelieving father’s house, and have all that he possesses.” Catherine died in March 1846 at Indian Creek, Iowa, likely of pneumonia.3

About ten months later, Orson Spencer accepted an assignment as president of the British Mission, serving from January 1847 until the spring of 1849. His oldest daughters, Ellen and Aurelia, insured that their father’s absence did not delay their journey to the Salt Lake Valley, traveling with the Brigham Young Company of 1848, and then living together in a dirt dugout for a time before their father returned from England in September 1849.

He brought with him a new wife, Martha Knight, whom he had married in Somerset, England, in April 1847, and almost two-year-old Emma.4 Orson then served a very brief mission to Prussia, Germany, in 1852; to England in 1853; to Cincinnati in early 1855; and to the Cherokee Nation in Ohio in late 1855. During his last mission he contracted typhoid fever and passed away shortly thereafter. These facts are crucial to understanding the character of Aurelia Spencer. Only twelve years old when her father began his service as mission president in Great Britain, Aurelia and her fourteen-year-old sister Ellen were left to raise their four surviving siblings, two girls and two boys, ages four through ten.

Although Brigham and others provided assistance to the Spencer children, Wilford Woodruff later declared of the two sisters, in a personal letter to their father “Their faith, patience, forbearance and longsuffering and wisdom in the midst of all their trials… would have done honor to a Saint of thirty years… or been a crown of glory upon the grey hairs of him of riper years.”5

Also traveling in the 1848 Young Company was twenty-year-old , teamster for Andrew Cahoon, captain of the group of ten families that included the Spencer children.6 Rogers, whose family was taught the restored gospel by Parley P. Pratt in the spring of 1840, was baptized at age thirteen by his stepfather, Andrew L, Lamoreaux. Later that year the family emigrated from their native Canada to Nauvoo, there establishing a close relationship with the family of Joseph Smith.7

About two and a half years after their arrival in the Valley, Thomas proposed marriage to Aurelia, and she happily agreed. They were married in March 1851; by that fall, they had accepted the call to help build up the small town of Farmington in Davis County. Thomas helped construct the settlement’s mud fort, and he and Aurelia lived the rest of their days in Farmington. Thomas helped rescue Salmon River settlers in 1856; in 1857, he accepted the assignment as one of the “minute-men” who gathered advance information about the strength and intentions of the Utah Expedition; and he served as a missionary in Islington, England, in 1869.8 Most importantly, perhaps, he was a loyal and devoted husband to Aurelia, and he was known throughout his life as a man of integrity—a man “always ready to perform whatsoever was asked of him.9

Undoubtedly with her husband’s support and blessing, Aurelia applied her hard-earned testimony of sacrifice and devotion to the problem raised by Bishop Hess. She spent long hours in thought and prayer during March and early April 1878. For reasons she couldn’t fully define, she felt a personal responsibility to provide Bishop John Hess with genuine answers to the spiritual and social problems he observed in Farmington’s youth. The more she pondered the situation, the more strongly she felt that “an organization for little boys” would resolve the issues that worried Hess.10

And so when the general Relief Society president, Eliza R. Snow, visited Farmington in mid-April for a Relief Society conference, Aurelia resolved to speak with Snow about her personal desire to help resolve Hess’ concerns. Aurelia began with a question. “What will our girls do for good husbands,” she asked, “if this state of things continues?” When Sister Eliza showed grave interest in issues suggested by this question, Aurelia asked a second: “Could there not be an organization for little boys, and have them trained to make better men?” Aurelia later wrote that Snow “was silent a few moments, then said there might be such a thing and that she would speak to the First Presidency about it.”11

Given that Brigham Young had died the previous August and that the new presidency had not yet been set apart, Snow consulted with John Taylor, president of the Quorum of the Twelve, together with other members of that quorum. They unanimously approved Aurelia Rogers’ proposal, and asked Snow to write a letter to Bishop Hess “explaining the matter to him.” Hess subsequently called Aurelia “to preside over an organization of the children” in the Farmington Ward. “From that point forward,” Aurelia later wrote, “my mind was busy thinking how it was to be managed.”12

Her first decision hinged on the calling that Bishop Hess had extended to her.

“Up to this period,” she said, “the girls had not been mentioned; but my mind was that the meeting would not be complete without them.” And so, “after some consideration, a letter was sent to Sister Eliza asking her opinion in regard to the little girls taking part.”13

Aurelia soon received a response:

“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“… You are right—we must have the girls as well as the boys—they must be trained together.“… The angels and all holy beings, especially the leaders of Israel on the other side of the veil, will be deeply interested.”14

The letter was dated August 4. Shortly after receiving it, Aurelia had a personal visit from Snow—who “suggested that the organization be called ‘Primary.’”15

During the week or so between her receiving the call and her being set apart, Rogers felt herself “to be carried away in the spirit,” experiencing “a feeling of untold happiness.” For three days and nights, “nothing could worry or irritate me,” and “I had patience, could control in kindness, and manage my household affairs easily.” This, Rogers later declared, “was a testimony to me that what was being done was from God.”16

Thus, on Sunday, August 11,1878, “at a public meeting,” Aurelia Spencer Rogers was set apart by Bishop John W. Hess “to preside over a Primary Association in Farmington,” with Louisa Haight and Helen Miller as her counselors. Subsequently; Rhoda Richards was set apart as secretary and Clara Leonard as treasurer.17 Almost immediately after setting the women apart,

“Bishop Hess, who was zealous in every good cause, suggested that myself and counselors visit the ward and get the names of all the children of a suitable age [initially, those six and older], and see if the parents were willing for them to attend meeting. This we did, visiting every house, taking the name and age of each child to the number of two hundred and twenty-four.”14

Rogers believed that the response was remarkable and rejoiced in the goodness of the children and their parents. Nevertheless, she then experienced something that “seemed strange” to her: after the organization of the Primary she was “nearly overcome by the opposite power” from that experienced before her setting apart:

“I felt my unworthiness so keenly that I could scarcely attend to my duties; and went to my meetings weeping by the way being humbled to the very earth; so much so, that whatever anyone said afterward in my praise, did not make me feel exalted, or lifted up in my own mind. I had been made to feel my entire dependence on God the Eternal Father.”19

The first meeting of the Primary was held August 25, 1878, with Aurelia Rogers conducting. Among the lessons taught the boys at this first meeting was that they should not steal fruit from orchards; the girls were taught not to hang on the backs of wagons.10 Rogers and her counselors were not a little relieved to observe that “when the children came to understand the motives which prompted the calling of their little meetings, they seemed elated with what was being done for them.” Initially the children were reluctant—or shy—about singing, but soon, Rogers noted, “their voices rang out sweet and clear, and in some cases much talent was displayed.”11

Rogers and her counselors took turns conducting the meetings, held every Saturday afternoon at 2:00pm. “It would be impossible,” Rogers later wrote, “for one who had never experienced anything of the kind, to imagine our feelings as we stood before an audience of children who had come there to receive instructions from us.” Although the women felt “very weak indeed,” they learned “to lean upon the Lord in all humility? Instructional subjects “oft repeated” were “obedience, faith in God, prayer, punctuality and good manners.” The children also learned about gardening, carpentry and homemaking skills, together with principles of thrift, industry and observance of the Word of Wisdom. Rogers and her counselors “always endeavored to impress the children with the fart that home is the place to begin to practice all good things.”11

To demonstrate to the children the importance of faith and prayer and the reality of a having Heavenly Father who hears the prayers of children, Rogers and her counselors “would ask the children before the opening prayer of the meeting, if they knew of anyone who was ill and needed our special prayers.

“If so, a prayer was offered up to the Lord in their behalf; and in a number of instances the sick were helped immediately which strengthened the faith of the little ones. This taught them to think of the sufferings of others, and to cultivate a desire to comfort and bless everyone.”23

In the first Primary in Farmington, quarterly meetings were held that were similar to today’s annual Primary presentations in sacrament meetings. Each quarterly meeting was centered around “a special program arranged for the occasion,” and parents were invited to attend. “Sometimes,” Rogers wrote, “we had visitors from Salt Lake City.”

She continued,

“At these meetings, the whole association would generally take part in the exercises. The smaller children were seated on the front benches, the rest according to size all the way through. At the proper time the smallest would rise up and, perhaps, recite a verse or two in concert, then sit down and the next bench full take their turn in answering Bible questions. Another class would sing a song; another would repeat sentiments or verses, one at a time, and so on. Our larger boys and girls assisted us in training these classes, which work they enjoyed very much, and it also lightened our labors.”24

The Farmington Primary also participated in service projects, planting and harvesting beans and corn and learning to store these items to supplement Relief Society wheat storage in case of famine. The boys contributed five cents each for wrap to weave carpets—which were subsequently displayed locally and then donated for use in the Salt Lake Temple.25 Soon, Rogers and her counselors were hearing reports from the children’s mothers “who had noticed quite a change for the better in their children.”26

Aurelia Rogers served seven years as president of the Primary Association in Farmington. During this time, she reports,

“Sister Eliza… came to me and said it was thought best to have someone appointed to preside over all the Primary Associations in the Territory. She suggested that the person should reside in Salt Lake City, as that was the center; and asked me whom I would propose to fill the office. I said I could not tell on so short notice, but would reflect a few moments. After doing so the name of Sister Louie B. Felt came to my mind. As soon as I told Sister Eliza, she said that was her choice, and also Sister [Ellen] Clawson’s [Aurelia’s sister]. This satisfied me that Sister Felt was the one to hold that important office.”27

Aurelia Rogers served humbly and willingly in a variety of callings through the remainder of her long life, many of them associated with the Primary. She deeply loved the children of the Church, and she was beloved of them. “In 1896,” she later wrote, “about three weeks after [my sister] Ellen’s death, my husband died suddenly of a paralytic stroke. For a short time afterwards, I was prostrated with weakness and an overtaxed mind. But what surprised me greatly was that I soon rallied, and was comforted in a great degree. I [later learned that] Primary children [throughout the territory] were praying for me… and I thank the children everywhere who remembered me in that way?28

Primary Board of Davis Stake, 1915

While the organization that Aurelia Rogers helped establish has changed and grown in remarkable ways, its core mission and its key elements remain consistent with the visionary objectives of Rogers and her counselors, John W. Hess, Eliza R. Snow, John Taylor, and other individuals close to the first Primary. Farmington rightly celebrates its role as the birthplace of a quietly profound organization that has changed and blessed the world.

  • Aurelia Spencer Rogers, Life Sketches of Orson Spencer and Others, and History of Primary Work (1898), 206,207.
  • Unsigned biography,’Orson Spencer? RndAGrave, online.
  • Orson Spencer,'[Obituary of Catherine Curtis Spencer],’’Millennial Star, transcribed at FindAGrave, ‘Catherine Curtis Spencer? online.
  • Thomas Edward Rogers,’Autobiography? RndAGrave, “Thomas Edward Rogers? online; Dean Borde],’Aurelia S. Rogers?, ‘Mormon History” online. See also Aurelia Spencer Rogers 121.
  • Quoted in Aurelia Spencer Rogers 102-3.
  • Aurelia Spencer Rogers 76;Thomas Edward Rogers, online.
  • Thomas Edward Rogers, online.
  • Ibid.
  • Obituary, “Thomas E. Rogers? Dese/ef News, quoted in Aurelia Spencer Rogers 294.
  • Aurelia Spencer Rogers 207.
  • Aurelia Spencer Rogers 207-8.
  • Aurelia Spencer Rogers 208,209.
  • Ibid.
  • Aurelia Spencer Rogers 209,211.
  • Aurelia Spencer Rogers 209,212.
  • Aurelia Spencer Rogers 212.
  • Aurelia Spencer Rogers 212,213.
  • Aurelia Spencer Rogers 213.
  • Aurelia Spencer Rogers 214.
  • Anonymous,’Aurelia Read Spencer Rogers, 1834-1922 ’FindAGrave, ‘Aurelia Spencer Rogers?online.
  • Aurelia Spencer Rogers 215.
  • Aurelia Spencer Rogers 215-6,219,
  • Rogers and her counselors kept a list signed by children who committed to observe the Word of Wisdom. Rogers was delighted when, years later, many children on that list reported to her that they continued to live that law, deriving strength from their childhood commitment (see Aurelia Spencer Rogers 219).
  • Aurelia Spencer Rogers 216.
  • Aurelia Spencer Rogers 218-9.
  • Aurelia Spencer Rogers 220.
  • Aurelia Spencer Rogers 216.
  • Aurelia Spencer Rogers 222-3.
  • Aurelia Spencer Rogers 281 -2.

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