This warning cry brought fear to the hearts of all those who heard it in the little community of Farmington, Utah, for the only way they had to fight fires was to form a line and pass buckets of water from the nearby creek to the burning building. As a result, almost any building that caught fire was destroyed, and few of the contents inside were ever saved.
Aurelia Spencer Rogers, who lived in Farmington most of her life, heard the cries of alarm, and ran toward the house from which smoke was billowing up into the hot August air. The home belonged to friends with whom she was staying, after she had rented her own house that summer of 1902 and moved into Salt Lake City, twenty miles to the south. However, she returned often to Farmington to take care of business there and to put up fruit for the winter.
Aurelia joined in the bucket brigade that quickly formed. Characteristically, she thought of the loss her friends would suffer before she thought of her own clothes and personal articles that were inside. Suddenly, she had a sick feeling. Her Primary record books were in an upstairs bedroom where she had been working on them at a table near a window! Silently she prayed that by some miracle they would be saved, but it seemed to her that everything in the building was going up in smoke.
“I mourned exceedingly,” Aurelia said later. “I would not have minded losing my clothes if the records could only have been saved.”
Aurelia helped her friends move into a vacant house to set up housekeeping again. She was heartsick as she returned to Salt Lake, for she thought that nothing in the fire swept home had been saved. Still haunted by the loss of the Primary record books, she returned to Farmington the next week to try to gather what information she could about the organization of the Primary so she could begin to write another history.
News of the miracle for which she had prayed awaited her when she called on her bishop. This is how she described it:
“Bishop Moroni Secrist felt prompted to climb onto the porch (during the fire) and go through the window to my room, thinking he might save some of the property; but when he went inside, the smoke was so dense he was nearly suffocated and had to be helped out by others … As he neared the window, he reached out his hand and felt the cover on the table and drew it toward him, gathering up the corners with the books … and passed them to those on the outside. Thus the records were saved through the providence of God.”
These records told the story of the first Primary ever held and how it came to be. They were used as the basis for Aurelia Spencer Rogers’ Life Sketches that she later wrote for children and dedicated to them with these words:
It was in March of 1878 that Aurelia first thought seriously of an organization for children, especially so little boys could be taught “everything good and how to behave.” She wanted desperately to help them and prayed that she might be shown a way. “I had a strong motivation within me,” she wrote in her history.
A few weeks later Sister Eliza R. Snow went to Farmington to meet with the Relief Society. She and Sister Emmeline B. Wells, who accompanied her, stopped at Aurelia’s home for a brief visit on their way to the depot to board a train back to Salt Lake. Sister Rogers discussed with them her concern over many of the boys, who she felt were not being properly taught the gospel nor the manners that would help them become good men. She asked if an organization to help them would ever be possible. We are told that Sister Snow was “silent for a few moments, then said there might be such a thing and that she would speak to the First Presidency about it.”
At that time John Taylor was president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and the acting president of the Church, since a president had not yet been sustained by the Church membership after the death of Brigham Young. Sister Rogers talked with President Taylor who discussed the matter with other members of the Quorum of the Twelve, and they were inspired to write to Bishop John W. Hess of Farmington, asking him to call some women to be leaders. Sister Rogers was chosen to be the president. “Up to this period,” she said, “the girls had not been mentioned; but my idea was that the meeting would not be complete without them …” And so it was agreed.
Louisa Haight and Helen M. Miller were selected as counselors of the new organization to be called “Primary,” a name suggested by Sister Eliza R. Snow. Bishop Hess urged these women to visit every home in the area to invite the children to attend and to obtain their parents’ permission. Sister Rogers reported that they enrolled about 112 boys and 112 girls! The children together with all members of the ward, were asked to attend a public meeting on Sunday, August 11, 1878, when these women, and others, were set apart by Bishop Hess and his counselors to preside over a Primary at Farmington.
Bishop Hess was most helpful, often attending Primary himself or delegating other priesthood holders to do so. In a letter written shortly after the organization of the First Primary, Sister Snow wrote encouragingly:
“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 … The angels and all holy beings, especially the leaders of Israel on the other side of the veil, will be deeply interested.”
Sister Rogers’ records that were so miraculously saved from the fire report that the children were called together for the very first Primary on August 25, 1878. This is how she described the Primaries that followed:
“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. Obedience, faith in God, prayer, punctuality and good manners were subjects oft repeated. 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. 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.
“… The next spring we rented a town lot and the Primary Association planted beans and popcorn to go with the Relief Society wheat in the time of famine which is to come.”
During this year (1978), boys and girls in Primaries all over the world will remember the first Primary ever held and honor Sister Rogers and others who made it possible. From the 220 or more boys and girls who were enrolled in the Farmington, Utah, Primary in August of 1878, membership in this inspired organization for boys and girls—led by thousands of dedicated Primary workers has swelled to nearly a half million.