The Primary Program

The author of this post, Heidi Naylor, teaches English at Boise State University and is the closest thing that Mormon short fiction has to a rock star. Her stories and articles have appeared in The Washington Post, the Jewish Journal, the Idaho Review, Portland (magazine of the University of Portland), Dialogue: Journal of Mormon Thought, New Letters, and other venues. She grew up in Pennsylvania and raised her family of sons in Idaho with her husband. The best of her short fiction has been collected and published by BCC Press in Revolver: Stories by Heidi Naylor


childrYesterday was our ward’s Primary program, based on the 2018 theme for the year: “I Am a Child of God.” The program opened in a tender way: A cognitively challenged sister, aged in her mid-50s and still attending Primary, came to the podium and asserted, “I Am a Child of God.” “Yes, you are!” said our Primary president, as the sister headed back to her seat on the stand. You could feel her quiet pride as she smoothed her skirt and looked out shyly at us.

Many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints like to say the Primary program is the best Sunday of the year. I always look forward to it, since kids have become a nostalgic feature of my past. But I remember the struggle it was, wrangling young boys through three-hour church, over many years. Great boys, lots of energy, and a ward that welcomed them. I’m ever grateful to you, Mountain View Ward, Boise North Stake.

Still, as a long-ago Primary teacher who loved her little class, I remember coming home in tears more than once. The most difficult child in the room was my own rascal “Sunbean.” He’s now an energetic, married, mid-20s Coast Guard officer whom I miss every day.

So it’s worth remembering that for most kids, Primary and its attendant struggles end. To say “end” is not to dismiss the hours of teaching, the songs and talks and object lessons, the treats and sign language and sharing times, the pure love that resounds for so many fortunate Latter-day Saints. These freely bestowed gifts have powerfully blessed the minds and spirits of my kids, and my heart and thanks went out to the Primary workers on the stand yesterday. I think they have a hurdle each Sunday. Ours seem to clear the hurdle with a good dose of humor and love.

Favorite moment: the song with the lyrics Every day, I will say // I’ll have faith like Brother Joseph, and the strength of the pioneers // I’ll be brave as a stripling warrior, and like Nephi persevere . . . I will plead with my Father on my knees: I will be what I will be.

Primary programs can provide a good snapshot of the Church as a whole, I’m newly convinced. Let me explain. My parents are road and sky warriors who’ve served missions in Europe and Asia; currently they’re enjoying a vibrant and travel-filled retirement. If we measure time and travel in Primary programs, they’ve logged well past 150 between the two of them. This can be tiring, I’m sure, especially for Mom, who most enjoys being home.

Anyway, they got to Boise last weekend in time to attend the BYU game; this after a three-week western states jaunt—our house the last stop before they made it back to Portland. During our visit my folks mentioned two Primary programs they’d recently attended. The first, in the Oakland, California meetinghouse near the temple, featured a little girl who taught the congregation about prayer:

When my mother prays, she says this: Heavenly Father and Mother, we thank thee both for our many blessings. We thank thee both for our parents, and especially for our LGBTQ parents…..

Later on Dad asked their hosts, conservative friends of many years who are serving a mission in the area, about the little girl’s remarks. “Oh, yes,” Elder C. said, “This is a very progressive area.”

Next Sunday found Mom and Dad in Beaver, Utah. Over 75 children on the stand for that program. “It clicked right along,” Dad said. “Very well rehearsed.”

“Any …. progressive moments?” I asked.

“Oh no,” Dad said. “Not that time.”

“Mom,” I asked. “What did you think about the little girl in Oakland?”

Mom glances at Dad, shaking her head. “I don’t have an opinion,” she said. “I slept through the whole thing!”


  1. Sharon Stewart says:

    Well I love thank brave ward in Oakland! My son and wife lived there and Alameda and some of their best memories of kindness. Good writing!

  2. Interesting. We held our Primary Program this past Sunday too. And as a childless widow, I stayed home. I figure the parents, grandparents and others who come to see the children in the program would appreciate the seat I usually occupy AND I’m not reminded of how I don’t fit into some of the Church’s tenets. Thanks for sharing your views and article.

  3. Leftist thears r tasty h says:

    Guess that’s one little girl who won’t ever get baptized…

  4. I too am a child of God. I love them and they love me.

  5. Sidebottom says:

    You’re a better person than I am. That “faith of Brother Joseph” song makes me want to tear out my eardrums.

  6. The Primary program is my favourite Sacrament meeting of the year. The thing that impresses me most is to watch the progress of the children at public speaking through their sojourn in Primary. To watch the little child too shy to utter a word but stands there for a few agonizing moments until her teacher kindly leads her away. Then older children speak their little part until finally the 11 year olds stand and confidently speak their pieces. It is an amazing development to behold.

    Of course it doesn’t stop there. There are the short talks by the teens and then they stand and bear their testimonies as they set out on their missions and finally when they return, wonderfully polished as they complete their missions and report. It is an incredible preparation for the rest of their lives.

    It is an amazing experience to watch these children develop.

  7. Kristin Brown says:

    I hardly watch the children anymore. My favorite part is watching the parents beam when it is their child’s turn to shine. I remember my own and feel their joy.

  8. Depressingly, our program recently was a display of “prayer as vending machine” child testimonies.

  9. We had our primary program this Sunday as well. A number of the children sang in small groups, or even as soloists, at certain moments. One particularly memorable such moment was when a three-year-old child took the microphone with her older brother for the second verse of “Families Can Be Together Forever,” and belted it out with an enthusiasm that far exceeded her powers of articulation.

    Another was when a four-year-old said his one line, punched the air, and jumped off the box the younger kids stand on chanting, “I did it! I did it!”

    Also, I was released from primary earlier this year so it was kind of nice for me to see “my” class members in action.

  10. Rosalynde Welch says:

    As Primary president in my ward, I’m grateful for the goodwill with which the congregation invariably receives our (hilarious, chaotic, adorable) Sac Mtg offering.

    Small correction: the final lyric of the song you heard is “I will be what I believe.” I’m not actually sure what that is supposed to mean, but the song is wildly popular on the FB group for Primary music leaders. :)

  11. Heidi Naylor says:

    The song was new to me and I have to say I prefer the lyrics as I heard the kids sing them (“I will be what I will be”)–the affirmation that “my destiny is up to me and my choices,” even in a church where choice has been compromised (as Leftist thears well notes). It felt like an assertion in the face of that compromise.

    But what I love most in the song is the heritage the kids must feel–theirs is the unique legacy of Joseph Smith, pioneers, Book of Mormon heroes, and pleading with their Father to help them as they become.They are part of a worldwide tribe that expects God to walk beside them, one by one.

    My husband felt that the Savior was missing from the song, that it bordered on Joseph-Smith-worship, and he has a point. Cue “I’m Trying to Be Like Jesus,” my all-time fave Primary song.

    Thank you all for reading and commenting on the post!

  12. I love the primary program! I am worried with the new changes it will go away, and that breaks my heart. It’s the best sacrament program of the year. A church that doesn’t value and focus on children will be weak in a single generation. They are our future leaders.

  13. nobody, really says:

    And the entire bishopric and Primary presidency in every ward in Oakland, California, will be released in three, two, one….

    For our Primary program this year, every active child in Primary gave a two-minute talk about Jesus. He did a great job.

  14. Love it. I’m a primary teacher and we sang the same song. Just a note… the lyrics are “I will be what I believe”…

  15. Rosalynde Welch – just want to tell you we used your ‘This Way Up’ temple/priesthood prep in our stake and it was such a hit with children and grown-ups! Beats anything else I’ve seen by a country mile. Thank you for it.

    ‘I will be what I believe’ – doesn’t that just mean I’ll be honest, true, chaste, virtuous, benevolent, and do good to all men?

  16. One of the highlights (for our side of the chapel) was after the kids went up to the stand, our two year old demanded “Where’s Penny?” and then after having her pointed out proceeded to shout his greetings at her. People were turning around to admire his effusive love.

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