Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Marching in Primary and Sunday School

Marching in Primary and Sunday School

By: Ardis E. Parshall - April 07, 2014

Sometimes a 21st century Mormon will pick up a Primary or Sunday School songbook from long ago and discover a small selection of music (usually music only, without lyrics), labeled “Marches” and jump to the conclusion that Mormon children of past decades were drilled in marching in some kind of creepy Hitler Youth-like mindless inculcation of obedience. Around the block, or up and down church hallways, armies of children marching in lockstep … That has been suggested here on Keepa in years past.

Here’s what’s really behind those marches in our historic songbooks.

From 1920:

The preliminary or opening exercises [of Sunday School] are intended to prepare the mind and soul of the pupil for the reception of the lesson which follows; and an orderly separation into classes will do much to preserve the spirit of worship and tranquility in the boys and girls, whereas a helter-skelter rushing to class rooms often robs the class – both teacher and pupil – of the possibility of giving and receiving the gospel truths which the lesson period might otherwise bring.

It’s been years since I lived in a ward with a Primary and cannot speak to how today’s organization moves children to and from classrooms and Sharing Time. But I taught Primary for quite a few years, both on Sundays and in the earlier weekday afternoon system. I can remember what it was like trying to herd a dozen 5-year-old Stars through the halls, the more eager and rambunctious ones tearing ahead to the classroom, where they rearranged the chairs and covered the board with chalk drawings before the rest of us could get there, while the dawdlers stopped to examine every speck of dust on the floor. It was a challenge, and a consumer of several precious minutes, to get the children settled and focused for an opening prayer.

Marches were a means of encouraging the children to move in an orderly way from one part of the building to another, not in a rigid, silent, artificial form of reverence, but in a way that engaged minds and allowed bodies to wiggle but still maintained true reverence – a recognition that the children were in a special place, and that delivered them to their classrooms (or back to the chapel in the years when Sunday School-wide closing exercises were part of the weekly routine), without having lost the reverence or dignity established in the first parts of the meeting.

To judge by the articles published regularly in Church magazines and aimed toward auxiliary organists, it was a challenge to choose suitable music for marches. “We must insist that the Sunday School is a sacred place and occasion and anything of a frivolous or secular nature must not enter there,” admonished one article – organists and pianists were choosing march music that “tickle[d] the ear and induce[d] a sprightly step – just as it would in the dance hall.” That was not the object of marching, the author wrote. “The Sunday School is not the place for frivolous and light music – even for marching purposes. I am in favor of using march music that has associated with it, if possible, religious sentiment.” He suggested tunes such as

“Onward Christian Soldiers”
“Hark, Listen to the Trumpeters”
“In Our Lovely Deseret”
“Battle Hymn of the Republic”
“We are all enlisted till the conflict is o’er”

and a number of other named marches that are not familiar to me but were presumably available in organ collections listed in the same article, or that were included in the “Marches” sections of the auxiliary songbooks.

Without naming specific tunes, Tabernacle organist Edward P. Kimball taught principles, not surprisingly stressing the duties of the organist:

Of course the first requirement for good marching is an organist who knows how to play a march, and who is provided with some good marches. This officer should have a number of marches on hand and should change the selection occasionally, because repetition is monotony, and monotony puts to sleep. Marches should be strong in melody and march-impelling rhythm. Cheap, common song-marches, the words of which are foreign to the occasion and which the children know as such, should be avoided. …

It is imperative that your organist give some thought to the playing of marches because the school is dependent on the organist for tempo (speed), and it may happen that in order to keep in step with the organ the school will have to run or perform a funeral march. When once a natural, dignified and impelling rate of speed is attained, there should be no deviation from this tempo. The abominable practice of changing the tempo for the passing of pupils of different ages should be discouraged, for no body of human beings can keep step when the organist is playing a game of “hide and seek” with tempo.

Rather than changing the tempo, Kimball taught, a rate suited comfortably to short legs should be chosen, and teachers of longer legs should model shorter steps that kept pace with the tempo.

So there is the purpose of the marches found in old Church songbooks – they were used solely to maintain order and reverence in moving about the church building, not to drill Mormon children into becoming brainwashed miniature soldiers.



  1. I was a Primary teacher at the point where Rosa (#5) was a babe in arms, and my husband was working out of state. We had quite a young and new presidency, and they made a habit of looking around the room to see which class was being the most reverent. Then they would say, “All right, the 5-year olds may go.” Then my class would jump up and run out of the room while I was still trying to stand holding baby, diaper bag, and bag of class supplies. After three weeks of this, a Presidency member asked if I could lead my class to their room instead of having them in a mad dash. So I pointed out that her method of dismissing them abruptly, without giving me any warning, was the problem. After that the Presidency started saying, “Sister Nielsen, would you lead your class to their room.” And by golly, it worked a whole lot better.

    Comment by LauraN — April 7, 2014 @ 11:31 am

  2. This also explains the existence of all those organ pieces titled “Sunday School march” in Tabernacle organist Alexander Schreiner’s “Organ Voluntaries.” Years-long mystery solved — thanks!

    Comment by David Y. — April 7, 2014 @ 12:25 pm

  3. There is a sort of holiday in Brooklyn every June, celebrating the establishment of the first Protestant Sunday school in the city (the city of Brooklyn, that is!) and all the kids would march in a parade, led by their pastors and Sunday school teachers, etc. I just discovered that there was still a parade this past year, but most kids just celebrate it as a day off from school, observed only in Brooklyn and Queens (I have no idea why they’re tagging along). That annoyed my daughters, who went to high school in Manhattan and didn’t get the day off, while their brothers did.

    I suppose that those Sunday school marches might have come in handy as accompaniment for the kids in the parade.

    Comment by Mark B. — April 7, 2014 @ 4:13 pm

  4. You only describe two types of Primary children. What about the kind that reverently followed the teacher and hung on her every word? (That’s why I turned out so boring as an adult)

    Comment by Grant — April 7, 2014 @ 4:28 pm

Leave a comment

RSS feed for comments on this post.
TrackBack URI