Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » The Work of Their Own Hands

The Work of Their Own Hands

By: Ardis E. Parshall - February 16, 2009

Aurelia Spencer Rogers, the originator of the Primary program, envisioned every type of wholesome activity as falling within the purview of the program – if it engaged the attention of children, if it taught them something worthwhile, if it trained them in knowledge or service or manners or morality, it belonged in Primary. One of the early activities she organized for her ward in Farmington, Utah, was a community garden where the boys raised beans and popcorn.

The sisters of the Blackfoot (Idaho) 2nd Ward drew on that tradition when they planned their activities for 1914.

Early Spring, 1914

The ward Primary leadership called on merchants in Blackfoot and obtained a number of wooden shipping crates, which someone knocked down into their constituent boards. Other preparations were made with a farmer who had land near the ward chapel.

The 10- and 11-year-old boys of the ward were instructed to bring their hammers, saws, and nails – they all had their own, apparently – to Primary one day. Their teachers wouldn’t tell them what they were going to do; the mystery added to the anticipation.

After opening exercises that day, the boys were shown how to build boxes, about 7″x12″x4″, and they all banged and sawed cheerfully away. Still, they did not know what they were making.

Then the boys walked a short distance to the farmer’s field, where they were told to fill their boxes with the richest soil. While they were doing that, their teacher slipped away to the farmer’s greenhouse and returned with a supply of seedling tomato plants, which the boys planted in their boxes. They took their boxes home, tending their plants carefully indoors until they were big enough, and the weather warm enough, to transfer the tomatoes to outdoor gardens.

(In this photo, the boys display not only their tomato plants, but some willow baskets and a doll bed that they learned to make in Primary.)

July and August, 1914

One morning their teacher answered a knock at her door and found one of her boys standing there, wearing a grin from ear to ear, and holding a bucket filled with ripe red tomatoes, the first of the crop. It was time to trigger the second part of the Primary plan.

All through the summer, each time enough tomatoes had ripened, different groups of 10- to 13-year-old Primary girls (MIA didn’t start until age 14 in those years) were called to their teacher’s house on Primary day, where they learned how to bottle the tomatoes. (If you’ve ever bottled tomatoes at home, with the slipped skins and the juice and the stickiness that is unavoidable even with experienced canners, you know exactly how dedicated that Primary teacher was!)

September, 1914

The Primary girls entered some of their canned tomatoes in the state fair … and won a first place ribbon. The boys continued to harvest fruit from their vines, and the girls continued to can. Some of their produce was offered for sale, with the profits going into the Primary budget.

October, 1914

When the days grew shorter and frost seemed imminent, the boys gathered the last of their crop, including the green and partially ripe fruit. One last canning session by the girls produced bottles of pickled green tomatoes.

December, 1914

The Blackfoot 2nd Ward prepared its customary food deliveries to needy families in their area – including the Primary children’s home-grown and home-canned tomatoes and pickles.

Not bad for a handful of 10- to 13-year-olds, eh?



  1. Very cool.

    Interestingly enough, all these activities are still within the guidelines and instruction books of the current Primary programs. What is too often missing is the leader with vision. (And who has been left in the calling long enough to complete such a big project.)

    Comment by Coffinberry — February 16, 2009 @ 7:55 am

  2. I didn’t realize that, Coffinberry — it’s been so long since I’ve known of a Primary that saw its work as more than a couple of hours of singing and story-telling on Sunday, with the occasional hastily planned Activity Day. I’d love to hear from anybody (Primary worker or parent) whose Primary has gone beyond that minimum in the past few years.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 16, 2009 @ 8:10 am

  3. Ardis, you are correct that such insight and planning is rare. The problem often arises in compartmentalizing the Gospel (failure to see the Gospel as inclusive of dirty active messy creative stuff) and departmental boundary-making: the inability to see that the active creativity and messiness of Cub/Boy Scouting and Activity Days very specifically relates to Sunday Primary, without making every church-sponsored activity a sit-down-and-be-reverent moment. Some people get very very uncomfortable or uncertain about making such connections.

    Because my first three children were boys, my experience has been with the boy-end of Primary. As a leader, I would do some larger-scale stuff, not quite like this… think rather a month-long series of related activities building on each other; but I heard from other parents that I was ‘working too hard’. Perhaps I was, but the boys were having a good time.

    A few years back (almost a decade ago, now, I guess) I would create and publish online a correlation between the Cub Scouting annual program themes, the Faith in God books, and the LDS Primary program themes, in an attempt to help people see these larger opportunities of how the programs work together to achieve the aims of preparing young fellows for the priesthood and righteous adulthood. In the process, I received feedback — some people were invigorated by the insight. But more to my dismay were the aggravated priesthood and primary leaders who vehemently complained to me that I was either usurping Salt Lake’s prerogatives, misinterpreting the program, or (most common) setting up impossible standards for them to achieve. I also heard that for an awful lot of U.S. wards, the introduction of the Faith in God program led leaders to subtract even more of the active messy dirty creative parts of Cub Scouting to substitute in quieter more Sunday-like activities.

    I did this for three or four years, and got tired of the complaints.

    Comment by Coffinberry — February 16, 2009 @ 8:50 am

  4. I loved this post. Thanks.

    As a parent of three Primary kids, I can tell you that the focus in our Ward seems to be making Primary a mini-Sacrament Meeting. It’s “shhhh” this, and “shhhh” that, and lots of talking at the kids, and very little activity, if any. Then it’s off to their classes for more “mini-Sacrament Meeting.” The Primary does have a Saturday activity every once in a while, but the themes are usually of a decidedly religious nature; often the kids are required to come in church dress! On a Saturday!

    Can you tell that I’m not impressed? As a musician, I would have them moving to music, and at least getting the blood flowing. Instead, by the end of the third hour, our kids turn into zombies with melted brains.

    Comment by Hunter — February 16, 2009 @ 9:07 am

  5. Wow, Coffinberry, that’s disheartening. The complainers must not have been involved in Primary or MIA before 1970, when they held the annual Primary and MIA conferences. Those were always packed with far more suggestions for activities than any ward could possibly implement. The idea wasn’t that everybody had to do everything, but that each locale should brainstorm and pick the ideas that best suited their individual conditions, or come up with their own that achieved the same ends. I remember when my mother would go to those meetings and come home a little frustrated that the General Board wouldn’t print up a package with all those materials — but then she admitted that their purpose was not to create specific programs for wards to follow (by giving printed materials), but to stimulate the creativity of the ward leaders in the audience (by presenting ideas so fast that they couldn’t take detailed notes).

    I wonder — I hope — if you wouldn’t get a better response to your coordination of all those parts of the program if you were to do it today, with so many more people online and used to searching the blogs for ideas. There would still be the complainers, but now you might have a chance to develop an appreciative audience, too.

    Hunter, although we don’t have a Primary at all in our ward anymore, your label “mini-Sacrament Meeting” does fit the last Primaries I witnessed. It doesn’t need to be that way, does it!

    Maybe others will comment with examples from their wards showing that it *isn’t* that way everywhere, all the time. I hope to hear that.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 16, 2009 @ 9:22 am

  6. I don’t know how it is all the time, but one of the last times I peeked into our Primary on a Sunday, they were having sack races or something like that. It was a little noisy, but we’re the only ward in our building during the meetings. Things might need to be kept a little quieter if there were other wards meeting at the same time.

    Comment by Researcher — February 16, 2009 @ 9:56 am

  7. Things might need to be kept a little quieter if there were other wards meeting at the same time.

    I think that’s a big part of it – and it’s a shame.

    Comment by Ray — February 16, 2009 @ 11:21 am

  8. Well, what we obviously need to do is go back to weekday primary. That would mean, of course, that we’d need leaders and teachers who could show up for 4:00 weekday meetings.

    I suspect that as long as I’m being sent over to fMh to loosen things up, I may as well take this news to them too.

    Comment by Mark B. — February 16, 2009 @ 1:06 pm

  9. Farewell, Mark, it’s been good to know you.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 16, 2009 @ 1:34 pm

  10. In my opinion, nothing says “Mormon” like a cooperative gardening and canning project. From the planting where the stake president invoked a blessing on our efforts to the midnight irrigation turns filled by priesthood volunteers to the harvest day when when 300 people showed up at the farm at 5:00 a.m. to harvest the produce and another 200 went to the cannery to preserve and package it. I miss our welfare farms.

    Comment by Mark Brown — February 16, 2009 @ 3:09 pm

  11. Such a great bit of information. Things don’t always change for the better do they! I believe that we entertain more than we allow hands on instruction. I agree with so many others who have commented..It’s Primary for “Heavens Sake”, make a little noise!

    Comment by IntheDoghouse — February 16, 2009 @ 3:37 pm

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