“Foundation for the Future”: A Conversation with Naomi M. Shumway, General President of the Primary

Naomi M. Shumway


Naomi M. Shumway

Photography by Jed Clark

Ensign: How shall we begin? Happy birthday! Tell us a little about your plans to celebrate 100 years of Primary.

Sister Shumway: The year 1978 will be an exciting and memorable one for Primary. Primaries are planning many events to help the members of the Church become aware of this historical event.

A printed pamphlet, “Birthday Celebration Ideas,” has been distributed to all Primaries. This contains suggestions for incorporating the 100th birthday celebration into the Primary program and making it a memorable and rewarding experience for each child. One recommendation is that each ward Primary hold a Primary Fair as its culminating activity for the year. In the early Primaries, a Primary Fair was held each year and children brought the produce of their gardens, their crafts, and their projects. Children can plan activities and handicrafts for the fair throughout the year.

Other plans have been made by the priesthood authority to commemorate this important event. For example, at the first stake quarterly conference in 1978 when the stake president presides, it is suggested that a children’s choir present musical selections and that talks be themed to “Strengthen the Child through the Home” and to recognize the work of Primary. Each bishop has been asked to reserve one sacrament meeting during 1978 to commemorate the Primary’s 100th birthday. The Primary will prepare an exhibit in the cultural hall of the children’s projects and activities for the parents to view after the meeting. We also have an elegant china plate available at the Salt Lake Distribution Center as a lasting commemorative memento of the anniversary.

We hope that Primaries will be celebrating the Primary birthday all year. In fact, a new song has been written, “A Happy Birthday to the Primary,” and we are suggesting that old-fashioned themes be used for some of the mother-son, daddy-daughter activities.

Ensign: It sounds as though emphasis is on ward and stake activities. Is there going to be anything gala in Salt Lake City?

Sister Shumway: Yes, the Promised Valley Playhouse in Salt Lake City is going to present a musical on the life of Aurelia Spencer Rogers called Aurelia, describing how Primary began in that little rock church in Farmington, Utah, because of her desire to see an organization formed that would meet the needs of children. After April 1, the script for this musical will be available for local presentation by stakes. In addition, the Primary will be featured in the Youth Parade during the Days of ’47 Celebration in Salt Lake City. But we’re also encouraging Primaries in every locale to enter floats in community parades and to celebrate their own local Primary heritage.

We’ve had reports that Primaries all over the world are excited about this celebration. They really want to tell the story of Primary in their own areas, and we couldn’t be more pleased.

Ensign: Then Primary is as vigorous overseas as it is in the United States?

Sister Shumway: Yes! That’s the inspiring part—to see how Aurelia Spencer Rogers’ vision of Primary has spread all around the world, affecting the lives of thousands of children.

Ensign: That brings up an interesting point. Do you think that the vision of Primary has changed since Sister Rogers’ day? Is it a different organization with the same name?

Sister Shumway: It’s essentially the same. The needs of children are still the same as they were a hundred years ago, even though they might now be met in different ways. Primary is just in more places with more children. And Primary is growing stronger all the time.

Ensign: What’s been the attendance at Primary?

Sister Shumway: There are approximately one-half million children enrolled in Primary today, with an average stake attendance of 68 percent.

Ensign: Would you care to comment on an interesting fact that most of the Primary presidents had no children of their own? In fact, if we exclude Sister Rogers, who was founding president but not a general president, only two presidents out of six have been mothers—you, Sister Shumway, and your immediate predecessor, LaVern Watts Parmley.

Sister Shumway: Yes, that is interesting. I think it shows that the Lord knows that children can be loved and taught by women who are not mothers. Each president had a part to play in building the gospel foundation in the lives of children. Each was called by inspiration to help meet the needs of little children in her day.

Ensign: What does the Primary perceive as the needs of children, and what is it currently doing to meet those needs?

Sister Shumway: Above all, children need to be taught the gospel, so that when temptations come to them they already have a foundation of true principles. All of our lessons and activities are planned with the goal in mind of teaching them the gospel. The children are helped to prepare for baptism, the boys to receive and to honor the priesthood, and all of the children, of course, for their responsibilities in life.

Primary is also a very steadying influence on the child—it creates a spiritual anchor for him for times when his spiritual needs might not otherwise be met.

Ensign: How closely are the Sunday School and Primary correlated?

Sister Shumway: Their lessons are closely correlated by subject matter since the manuals for both auxiliaries were written by the same committee, and they tried to arrange them so that a given concept would be taught at the same time in both classes. But they’re designed to reinforce each other, not duplicate each other.

Ensign: How well do you think the Primary is meeting its goal of being an auxiliary to the home?

Sister Shumway: We pray that Primary is effective in this way. We certainly get some wonderful letters from parents. One mother told of putting her son to bed, and after prayer he was expressing some fears about robbers. She explained that there really wasn’t much to worry about since Heavenly Father and Daddy and the police were all concerned about his safety, and added, “Besides, we don’t have very much that’s valuable in the house.”

“But what about Christine’s CTR ring?” he asked. “Christine says that’s the most valuable thing she has because it helps her choose the right.”

Ensign: Let us ask a question about the nonmember children who attend Primary. What process puts them in contact with the missionaries?

Sister Shumway: The Primary teacher refers the name of the nonmember child to the Primary president, who takes it to the correlation council meeting in the ward. It’s a priesthood decision whether the stake or full-time missionaries get involved at that point.

Ensign: Are Primary referrals a very fertile source of baptisms?

Sister Shumway: Oh, yes, and some very touching stories come out of these child-missionary experiences. I received a letter a few weeks ago from a mother who let her daughter go to the “Mormon church for the kids” with the neighbors. Here’s what she says: “Every Thursday all the mothers would gather every child for miles around, Mormon or not. They called and showed concern, love, loyalty, and most of all they cared enough about my child to make the effort. Every week my daughter came in with all kinds of things to tell me about Heavenly Father. After a very short while, we were impressed, so we asked for the missionaries. … A whole new world walked into our home. … Nothing has ever changed us or our lives so much since our daughter ran in and asked, ‘Can I go to Primary, please Mom, please?’”

Ensign: Tell us a little about your reverence program.

Sister Shumway: I believe we’re the only auxiliary that has a fully developed program to teach reverence. It involves so much more than just being quiet. The children and leaders are taught that reverence is demonstrated through obedience, humility, respectfulness, gratitude, and other Christlike qualities. We are hopeful that the reverence program will motivate each child, teacher, and leader to develop and show a true spirit of reverence. We want to make Primary a spiritual experience for each child—and that means making it spiritual for the teachers as well.

Ensign: How do you do that?

Sister Shumway: We encourage them strongly to read the Church scripture assignment for the year. Then Primary leaders and teachers have an opportunity to share significant scriptures and their feelings about them in prayer meeting weekly. That is a powerful motivation to stay spiritually in tune.

Primary also has a strong inservice program to train Primary teachers in teaching skills. With so many new converts and young mothers, their first call often is to teach in the Primary.

Ensign: Are there any difficulties presented by having inexperienced teachers involved in teaching children?

Sister Shumway: No. We trust the inspiration of the bishops. One area of concern, of course, is that when any teacher doesn’t understand a gospel principle, the child usually can’t correct her. Instead, he’ll believe her. So we think it’s very important that new teachers get the best orientation possible to assure that they always teach correct doctrine.

Ensign: How can Primary prepare children for the physical and emotional changes of adolescence?

Sister Shumway: We think the most important thing we can do is to lay the foundation of a good self-image so that they go into those turbulent years knowing that they are worthwhile individuals, loved by their Heavenly Father, and loved by other people who are important to them.

Ensign: How does Primary prepare boys to receive the priesthood?

Sister Shumway: That’s the main purpose of the program for ten- and eleven-year-old boys. They are given outstanding lessons on the priesthood, such as restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood and the duties of a deacon. The deacons quorum presidency visits the Blazer Scout class to talk to the boys about the importance of their preparation for the priesthood. It is a spiritual experience—not only for the boys, but also for the deacons themselves.

The boys are helped with their priesthood preparation in all their Primary classes. If we look at the graduation requirements from Primary, we see that a boy learns to pay tithing, pray, keep the Word of Wisdom, attend sacrament meeting, memorize scriptures and the Articles of Faith, and do genealogy. They gain an understanding of what the priesthood is, how it was restored, why and how a boy should honor it. They also learn about the different offices in the Melchizedek and Aaronic priesthoods and what their responsibilities will be when they become deacons.

There’s also the special evening called “Priesthood Preview” in November for each eleven-year-old boy and his father or substitute father. The purpose of this program is to help the boys understand and appreciate the power of the priesthood. We’ve received numerous reports that inactive fathers who have participated in these meetings have been reminded of their priesthood responsibilities and have been motivated to honor their priesthood.

Ensign: How can Primary help parents with emotionally disturbed or physically handicapped children?

Sister Shumway: If there are only a few children in an area, we really encourage parents and Primary leaders to include them in a regular Primary. It’s a very sweet experience for other children in the class to learn to share and help them. Children with physical handicaps can be integrated into Primary in most areas. In some areas, there is a large enough Church population to combine children with mental or emotional problems from two or three stakes into a small Primary of ten or fifteen children.

Ensign: Are there guidelines available if someone wanted to start a special Primary?

Sister Shumway: Yes, the instructions are contained in the Primary Handbook and also in a pamphlet prepared by the general board that we send out on request. And there’s a great deal of interest in it. We have a request almost every day for more information.

Ensign: Does it take special education personnel to staff a special Primary?

Sister Shumway: No, not at all. The first special Primary in the Church was begun in Bountiful by the stake Primary president who saw that need. And the people who came to help were not specially trained either—just young people who were interested, mothers of handicapped children, and Primary workers who were called by the priesthood. This Primary made their own version of setting the Articles of Faith to music when it became apparent that memorizing blocks of prose that long was beyond the capacity of the children.

We received a report from a Primary president in St. Louis, Missouri, about a handicapped child in their area. The mother had left the family, and the Primary workers wanted to encourage and help the child attend Primary. They went to the home with a good deal of apprehension. But the father was very grateful for their interest and went to great lengths to see that the child was in Primary every week.

It would just thrill you—the stories of faithfulness and love that these special Primaries produce. I heard about a Primary where a handicapped child’s special needs were being met by individual attention—which he needed. He spent the first lesson period under the chair and the teacher was right down there on the floor talking with him. A special relationship developed between the teacher and the child, and he was taught the gospel through her love and dedication. And I also heard about a Primary graduation where one of the little girls was so badly handicapped she couldn’t speak. The bus driver would deliver her right to the door of the Primary and the other girls would help her inside. She was so pleased to be in the graduation ceremony, and the sweetest smile came over her face when she realized that she had graduated, just like all the other girls. She waved to her mother, and—well, there wasn’t a dry eye in the place.

Ensign: Did your challenge of “a Primary for every child and every child in Primary” have any impact on special Primaries?

Sister Shumway: Yes, it did! Primary workers have become more aware of each child in their Primary. Also, there have been other results because of this challenge. I heard of a ward that had a 100 percent attendance for three weeks in a row.

Ensign: How does the Primary work with the Friend?

Sister Shumway: The Friend, of course, is the magazine for all of the children of the Church. We have a very close working relationship with them. They will provide articles each month during the birthday year, in addition to publishing the Primary birthday song. They also reinforce certain basic concepts of the Primary curriculum—you remember the fine articles they did on faith, repentance, baptism, and the gift of the Holy Ghost last year? We called these articles to the attention of the teachers who teach the seven-year-old children in Primary. We also encourage our pre-Primaries and nursery to use Friend stories and activities.

Ensign: Can you explain your home Primary program?

Sister Shumway: Home Primaries are for children in areas where they can’t meet with others, either because of distance or illness or other factors. The mother is usually the Primary leader, called to that position by the bishop or branch president, and works under the direction of the Primary president. We heard of one case in Waldorf and Accoceek, Maryland, where there was a nucleus of members, but the distance to the chapel was so great that attendance at regular ward Primary was a real problem. The ward Primary president made that home Primary feel important. She and the counselor in the bishopric supervising the Primary visited often. This little Primary was included in the sacrament meeting presentation in the spring and other special programs. Since about half of the children who attended were nonmembers, these special programs were a wonderful opportunity to invite parents. No doubt this is why the “twig” became a branch and eventually a ward.

Ensign: If there were a message that you could give teachers and parents, what would it be?

Sister Shumway: That we hope they, as teachers, will sense the importance of their sacred calling—to teach children the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Children need to have a spiritual experience every time they go to Primary—and they need to have fun, too. Children should look forward to Primary, and teachers and leaders can give them that feeling.

Ensign: And to parents?

Sister Shumway: We certainly love you. And we love your children. Please keep sending them to us. Our greatest concern is your child’s spiritual growth, and we need you. We need you to listen to your children when they come home from Primary. We need you to work with us as partners in teaching your children the gospel. There’s no way of overestimating how important your example is to your children.

I keep thinking of a little poem. I am not certain who wrote it, but it says,

I saw tomorrow look at me from little children’s eyes,
And thought how carefully we’d teach if we were wise.

The future rests upon these children.