Sponsored by BYU Studies—RoseAnn Benson is the author of Ministry of Louie B. Felt, First General Primary President (BYU Studies Quarterly, 2019).
Welcome! Before we begin, would you tell us a little bit about yourself and your academic background?
My academic and work background are composed of many different colored threads 😊 Either judged as eclectic or all over the place—jack of all trades, master of none. I have a bachelors degree in Physical Education with minors in American history, and biology; a first masters degree in exercise science (biomechanics & physiology) with a minor in health science; a PhD in community and school health with an emphasis in nutrition; and a second masters in Ancient Near Eastern Studies with an emphasis in religious education.
I have taught high school biology and physiology, coached swimming at the age group, high school, and Division 1 collegiate levels, been an assistant professor of health science at George Mason University, and an adjunct professor of religious education at BYU and an adjunct professor of health science at UVU.
You are also the author of Alexander Campbell and Joseph Smith: 19th-Century Restorationists. What is the main thrust of this book?
The book compares two of the most well-known and successful restorationists of the 19th century.
Often authors of American religious history mention Alexander Campbell’s Disciples of Christ as the primary/only major restoration movement.
The book attempts to point more attention to an additional important American restorationist movement and to prompt American historians to recognize Joseph Smith and the Church of Christ as it was originally called as also a restoration church.
Who was Sarah Louisa Bouton Felt?
Louie, as she was known to her friends, was the first general president of the Primary Association at the young age of 30.
What affect did her attitude have on her accomplishments? Share a story or two in which her incredible attitude is on display.
I think Louie demonstrated her indomitable spirit at a young age. Within a year of her marriage at 16, she and her husband Joseph were called by Brigham Young to serve a colonizing mission to the Muddy River, a disputed territory between southeastern Nevada and southwestern Utah. Although her husband, once aware of the difficulties involved in this assignment was willing to stay in St. George, she was adamant about fulfilling the calling they had been given.
Her health was described as frail and the untamed Muddy River Valley as harsh. It was 100 degrees at midnight in the summer, insufficient rain, violent wind storms, and little civilization made for a daunting assignment. Fear of the local Piute Indian tribe meant that most everyone lived with the confines of Fort St. Thomas.
Initially Louie and her husband Joseph were lent a re-purposed chicken coop to live in until they could make their own adobe bricks to build a small home. After four years of attempting to eke out an existence, the colony was abandoned in 1871.
This was her comment: “I never felt to murmur, but to stay as long as required.”
A second example was her determination for Primary to have its own monthly magazine to communicate regularly with lessons and creative ideas for the various age groups. Initially, the First Presidency was against it because “it was too great an undertaking.”
After almost 10 years and several more requests, they were told, “you have our permission and blessing, providing you do not ask the Church for financial help.”
The feedback from others was invariably negative. The printing office told them “don’t do it. Magazines run by women always fail.”
When pressed for financial backing to secure a loan, Louie used her home as collateral. Her faith and diligence were rewarded with success in a short time—doubling subscriptions, moving the Primary Association forward, and receiving the approbation of Church leaders who pronounced it equal to the other Church publications.
She urged her husband to take additional wives since she could not bear children. Was she putting on a brave face or was she genuine? What does this reveal about her character?
Louie loved children. Doubtless she was deeply saddened that she couldn’t have any herself. She declared “having no children of my own, I was very desirous that my husband would take other wives that he might have a posterity to do him honor.”
She encouraged her husband to marry women whom she loved as friends. She claimed that after children were born to the family, “the Lord gave me a mother’s love for them; they seemed as if they were indeed my own, and they seem to have the same love for me as they do for their own mother.”
She was called “Louie ma” by the children.
She also loved the Primary children and they reciprocated with great love for her.
Her testimony of plural marriage as a blessing for her and her husband was genuine. When the federal government raided Salt Lake City looking for polygamous families, two times she took a train east to avoid testifying against her husband.
One of her friends revealed that although all were sympathetic for Louie’s childless life, but that Louie said plural marriage gave her everything, [including] children & grandchildren.
Who comprised the “unofficial female elite” of the day and what was their role in society?
An 1883 account by Augusta Joyce Crocheron titled Representative Women of Deseret, lists Eliza R. Snow as the First Lady followed by such well-known names as Zina Huntington Young, Sarah Kimball, Emmeline B. Wells, and Helen Mar Whitney.
Also included in the list of twenty-one women was Louie B. Felt.
These women were selected because of their roles in the Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary.
Crocheron’s purpose was to present a book for strangers to the church introducing some amazing women by focusing on their integrity, faith, sacrifices, and allegiance to God and the church. She was responding in her own way to the prejudices of eastern opinions regarding LDS women as weak- minded victims to a patriarchy.
In the predominantly LDS community, they were the movers and shakers in advocating for women and children in the church as well as in society.
What challenges did she face and overcome as a primary president without any children of her own?
Louie’s nature was described by her friends as fun loving, enjoying parties, dramatics, and dances, but non-assertive, and shy.
When she was initially called to serve as a ward Primary President, she was not confident in her own abilities, and believed herself too “uneducated, undisciplined in motherhood, unqualified, and unprepared.”
She felt even more so when she was called to be the general Primary President. Her comments were similar to those she made twoyears earlier, “I am not worthy and am so ignorant.”
But with her characteristic fortitude of marching forward with whatever she was asked to do she was by all accounts very successful.
One of her best friends declared that her charming magnetic personality, sweet winning ways and adaptability in handling the children and appealing to their good nature made her loved by both women and children.
Nevertheless, even after many successful years, she felt someone better qualified should take her place.
Likely this was the result of overhearing some mothers unkindly remark, “It is all very well for Sister Felt to stand up and tell mothers what they should do when she has never been a mother”?
Surely she was stung by this criticism about which she could do nothing. But after 25 years of working in Primary she responded, “in one sense I have not been a mother; but after all, my husband has children and I have tried to do my duty to thirteen of his children, and I know I have the respect and love of all of them. And after all I am mother over more children than any woman, for I claim 50,000 children as mine, while I hold this position; and I pray every night and morning of my life that God will give me strength and ability to help to train them.”
What was the nature of her relationship with Eliza Snow? How did Snow’s death in 1887 catalyze the development of Felt’s leadership skills?
Eliza R. Snow was integral to the starting of the primary association. Although not officially called or sustained as the new Relief Society president after the saints left Nauvoo, she was a trusted leader by both her husband Brigham Young and the women of the church.
At Brigham Young’s urging, she helped organize a retrenchment for his daughters by eliminating frills, vanity, and the frivolity advocated in the world and manifest in fancy dresses. In time this led to an organization called the Young Ladies Mutual Improvement Association (YLMIA) (later shortened to Young Women) and focused on both cultural and spiritual aspects).
In 1878, she helped organize the first ward Primary Association in Farmington under the leadership of Aurelia Rogers. A few weeks later, under the direction of President John Taylor, Eliza helped organize the second Primary Association in Salt Lake City. having selected Louie as its’ president. Eliza continued organizing YLMIA and Primaries throughout the territory.
Within a year, Eliza recognized the need for a central organization led by someone living in Salt Lake City. In May 1880, with the blessing of the Primary originator Aurelia, Louie was visited by some of the “leading ladies,” Eliza, Presendia Kimball, and Zina Young” and told she had been selected for that responsibility.
In June 1880 at a special meeting of women and children, and presided over by President John Taylor, defacto presidents, Louie Bouton Felt and Eliza R. Snow were officially sustained to their respective callings as general superintendent over the Primary Associations and General Relief Society President.
Eliza as general Relief Society president was considered the presiding leader over the children and the women. She continued to travel throughout the territory and organize YLMIA and Primary Associations, apparently the only one with the authority to do so.
Initially Louie only traveled as invited and likely paid her own way each time. Eliza’s output of hymns, poems, stories, and catechism based on the scriptures organized the large group meeting of all the children together in their respective primaries until her death in 1887.
Primary was not universally recognized as an important organization—boys had to help their fathers in the fields, and it was difficult for both children and adult leaders to work with one large group of children ranging in age from four to 14 sitting together for an hour.
One of Louie’s most important innovations in the 1890s and new century included centralizing the organization, adopting what was going on in kindergartens and education: such separating and teaching children by age, and creating Primary’s own monthly magazine, The Children’s Friend.
How did support for the Primary among the Apostles evolve over time? Did any of them stand out as strong advocates of Primary?
President Taylor demonstrated his support by attending the Women and Children’s meeting in 1880. By 1990, with a new president of the church, the Priesthood leaders on the General Board of Education responded to the Public School Act disallowing the teaching of LDS doctrine at school by organizing a weekday religion class, ignoring the Primary Association that was already doing this.
Louie also began leadership training and then teacher training. With centralization, an excellent publication, and conferences organized for training leaders and teachers, the Primary Association began to thrive.
President Joseph F. Smith was invited to attend different association meetings and was duly impressed by the children and their gospel knowledge.
One stake president testified that the Primary Association was “one of the most important organizations in the Church . . . [and] there is no greater work [because] you are laying the foundation for lives of purity of men and women.”
Why do you think her story is relatively unknown today? How do you think she would most want to be remembered?
Sadly, many early women leaders have been relegated to obscurity. We know a few names—Lucy Mack Smith, Emma Smith, and Eliza R. Snow, but beyond that I would imagine only LDS historians, and especially women historians would know the names of countless other women who were crucial to the restoration.
I think Louie would want to be remembered as a mother. Her comment that she claimed 50,000 children as her own, and that she prayed for them daily, as well as the ability to train them properly illustrates what she had become in God’s eyes and finally in her own eyes.
If you could go back in time and witness any event from her life, what would you most want to see?
If I could go back in time, as interesting as it would be to see her in Connecticut ice skating and digging for clams, or see her in the Muddy River Valley hike up her bloomers and barefooted mix the clay for adobe bricks.
I’d like to see her when she became what God and a few of her friends noted as latent talents. I would want to watch her in her element interacting with Primary children and drawing out of them their very best with her very kind and gentle ways.
 Children’s Primary Tune Book (later revised and called A Children’s Primary Hymn Book) a book titled Bible Questions and Answers and Primary Speaker Book numbers 1 and 2.
This interview is made possible through the generous sponsorship of BYU Studies.