Gender Constructs and the Dissolution of the Religion Class Program

By January 2, 2009

A few months back, I wrote a general post about the little known Religion Class program which lasted from 1890 to 1929.[1] One of the responses to this post noted the role of gender in this male-led program’s dissolution in favor of the female-led Primary program.  This observation led me to look more closely into the role that gender played in the conflicts between the Religion Classes and the Primary.Throughout the forty year history of the Religion Classes, the program consistently came into conflict with the other auxiliaries of the Church, particularly the Primary.  There are several reasons for this conflict.  Both auxiliaries targeted the same age groups and, accordingly, recruited the same children.   The minutes of a 1901 meeting of the General Board of the Primary Association reveal the sense of antipathy that had developed between the two programs over this competition:

In answer to a question in regard to adjourning Primary meetings and let[ting] the children go to the Religion Class in the Winter, President Felt stated that it would not do to lose the children in our Primary meetings. . . .

A sister from Juab Stake reported that Religion Classes were for the purpose of getting the children who did not attend the Primary and through their influence attendance in Primary was increased.  Sister Rogers corrected those remarks, but thought they should not conflict with Primary.  Sister Clayton stated the original purpose for organizing the Religion Class was to gather boys and girls between the ages of twelve and fourteen who would not attend Primary.[2]

While some of the Primary leaders apparently disagreed that the two organizations were intended to train children within the same age groups, this overlap seems to have been a core part of the problem between the two organizations.  By teaching the same age group as the Primary, the Religion Classes not only infringed upon the Primary’s pool of children, but it also infringed upon the pool of Church members from which the Primary drew its teachers.  In some stakes, this problem was heightened as members were asked to split their time between the two programs.  Ultimately Primary officials felt compelled to complain to the First Presidency about the diminished number of effective Primary teachers.  George Q. Cannon responded to these complaints by reaffirming the importance of the Religion Classes and urging the two programs to work the problem out together.[3] These problems between these two organizations eventually became a major factor in the church’s first attempts to develop a program to correlate the curricula of the auxiliaries and to eliminate unnecessary overlap between the various programs.[4]

While organizational overlap played a crucial role in this conflict, gender also played an integral role.  The Primary was led and staffed chiefly by female members of the church.  Indeed, the very idea for the Primary had come from the consultations of two Mormon women.[5] On the contrary, the Religion Class program was a male dominated program.  While some of the teachers for the Religion Classes were female, the leadership of the program was decidedly male.   Indeed, the General Board of Religion Classes sharply chastised one stake president who had appointed a woman to serve as the Stake Superintendent of Religion Classes.  The board wrote to the stake president that “At a meeting of the General Board of Religion Classes…it was moved and unanimously carried, that in the future when a vacancy occurs in the Stake Superintendent of Religion Classes, that the Stake Presidency appoint MEN only to that position.”[6]   

Since both programs were concerned with the teaching of Mormon youth, this rivalry came down to a question of which gender was best suited to the training of children.  Some attempted to take a middle of the road approach, suggesting that “the Religion Classes and the Primary Association be united into one organization whose field shall be the teaching of manners, morals, and religion, and that these combined organizations be placed in charge of one general board comprising both women and men.”[7] Two decades later, in 1929, the programs were officially combined; however, it was a combination in name only, as the Religion Classes were absorbed into the Primary Association.  Hence, Mormon leadership concluded that women were more suited to the teaching of LDS children than were the men.  At the same time, teaching positions for adolescent Mormons in the seminaries remained decidedly male.[8] Indeed, historian Frederick Buchanan notes that in turn of the century Utah, there was a “bias towards viewing men as more capable of dealing with the intellectual content of the schools, while women were perceived as ?nurturers.'”[9] While the decision to eliminate the Religion Classes served to expand female autonomy in some ways, it also underscored and strengthened Mormon constructions of gender.[i]

Although the changing Mormon concepts of gender must not be viewed as the sole motivating factor in the dissolution of the Religion Class program, its contribution cannot be ignored.  While the Religion Class program has long since been forgotten by the vast majority of Mormons, the contributions that it made to Mormon concepts of gender are still in practice.


[2] Stake Officers and General Board Minutes of the Primary Association, 6 April 1901, as quoted in Harward, “A History of the Growth and Development of the Primary Association,” 131.

[3] Harward, “A History of the Growth and Development of the Primary Association,” 132.

[4] Joseph F. Smith, Conference Report, (April 1906): 3; James E. Talmage and Mae T. Nystrom to First Presidency, July 29, 1907, in Kenney Collection, box 9, folder 23, Special Collections, HBLL.

[5] James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, The Story of the Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City:  Deseret Book Company, 1976), 378-379.

[6] Edwin S. Sheets to John F. Tolton & Counsellors, 3 September 1914, Tolton correspondence, folder 11, LDS Church Archives.

[7] Talmage and Nystrom to First Presidency, 29 July 1907, Kenney Collection, Special Collections, HBLL.

[8] See “LDS Seminary Teachers at Brigham Young University 1929,” PH 6124, LDS Church Archives.  This picture demonstrates that during the late 1920s, the seminary and institute faculty of the church remained primarily male.  A picture 5 years later, in 1934, reveals little change in this trend.  Sainsbury Photo Co, “Department of Education Seminary Teachers Convention 1934,” PH 2640, LDS Church Archives.

[9] Buchanan, Culture Clash and Accomodation, 17.

[i] First Presidency to Presidencies of Stakes, 29 May 1929, in Clark, Messages of the First Presidency, 5:267.


  1. Brett, any ideas why the conflict developed between Religion Class and Primary, and not between Religion Class and Sunday School, or between Primary and Sunday School? On the surface, I would think the content of Religion Class was more similar to Sunday School than Primary; and if Primary and Religion Class were held on different days, I don’t understand why the two organizations felt like they were poaching each other’s members, without feeling the same way about a children’s program on yet a third day of the week.

    (From what I can see, the gender division in Sunday School was pretty much the same as you outline it here, with women teaching the younger classes and men the older classes, although occasionally women did teach the older classes, too.)

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — January 2, 2009 @ 8:42 pm

  2. Thanks, Brett. We need more gendered analyses around here.

    Comment by David G. — January 3, 2009 @ 12:59 am

  3. This problem would raise its head again as the Church adopted Boy Scouting and particularly Cub Scouting. The difficulty of ‘what to do with those big boys’ and who would do it with them continues today. When the Church picked up Cubbing and slid it into the Primary program, the lower age limit for Boy Scouting was 12, which made a nice match; due to the general structuring of Primary as a female-led organization, LDS packs were among the first to have female Cubmasters. But when the national program moved Boy Scout eligibility down to age 11, it brought with it for LDS units the problem of how to handle mesh male leadership within the scope of the Primary organization. It is an uncomfortable fit that continues to this day. Although women can be 11-year-old Scout leaders, the calling requires Scoutmaster training, including Outdoor overnight camping training; it is a rare woman who is willing to do this, and rarer the priesthood leadership who authorize it.

    Guess I’m just saying these issues of territoriality of organizations are still with us.

    Comment by Coffinberry — January 3, 2009 @ 2:06 pm

  4. Ardis, I may (probably) be remembering incorrectly, but it seems to me that there was a good bit of hemming and hawing from the Sunday School about the Religion Classes.

    Brett, (anyone?) am I making that up?

    Comment by Kristine — January 4, 2009 @ 9:20 pm

  5. If so, Kristine, what does that say about the gender issues at work posited by Brett? The Sunday School certainly used a lot of female teachers, but the policy leadership was all male.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — January 4, 2009 @ 9:35 pm

  6. Interesting stuff, Brett. How does this gendering of religious instruction and education fit within larger American religious (Protestant or Catholic) educational efforts at this time? Who was teaching primary-aged children in Catholic schools of the day, for instance?

    Comment by Christopher — January 4, 2009 @ 11:46 pm

  7. Probably it says that gender issues are always hard to tease out, and that it’s difficult to distill a complicated history in a single paragraph in a blog post 😉

    If I were speculating wildly, I think I’d say that the gender of the various organizations’ leaders was probably less important than their relative tenacity and energy. Primary also had a chronological head start over the Religion Classes, and didn’t have complicated turf battles to fight with public schools.

    However, I think Brett is probably right about the effect of the Primary coming to dominate the education of children: it served to reinforce the idea that women were better at teaching children and that women’s proper sphere in the church involved attention to children, as well as to other kinds of benevolent work.

    Comment by Kristine — January 4, 2009 @ 11:54 pm

  8. Those are all great questions. As far as who was teaching primary-aged children in other religions, I’ll get back to you on that. Concerning the Religion Classes and the Sunday Schools, they did have conflictual problems from time to time, but nearly as frequently as with the Primary. I can think of at least two reasons why these programs got along better. 1) Karl G. Maeser was both the superintendent of Religion Classes, and a member of the Sunday School General Board. For Maeser to have emphasized the conflict among the two programs would have been counterproductive. 2) Maeser posited the Religion Classes as a feeder program to the Sunday Schools, calling the Religion Class “the best friend of the Sunday Schools.” Thus, whereas Religion Classes were in competition with the Primaries, they were generally cooperative with the Sunday Schools.

    Comment by Brett D. — January 5, 2009 @ 11:31 am

  9. Thanks Brett. I look forward to what you’re able to find out. And that’s interesting about Karl Maeser’s position in all of this. Did Maeser ever comment on the relationship between the primary and the religion classes?

    Comment by Christopher — January 6, 2009 @ 1:38 pm


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