The David and Jonathan of the Primary

Kristine’s description of her lunch with Esther Peterson got me to thinking about other women I wish I could have met. I was somewhat surprised that Louie Felt and May Anderson popped into my mind. These two women were the first two presidents of the Primary. Between them they presided over the Primary from 1880 (at its beginning) to 1940. Louie Felt was a plural wife; May Anderson never married. (May was quite a few years Louie’s junior.) Neither had children. I take my title from the title of an article about the two that appeared in the Children’s Friend, the magazine they edited together for decades.

I loved the story about these two women from the Friend. It described in some detail the close friendship that developed between the two, the American plural wife and the British convert. The two shared a house together from soon after their meeting until Louie’s death. Louie didn’t like traveling alone for the Primary from settlement to settlement. She insisted that May give up her tea (so the story in the Friend goes) so that Louie could call her to be secretary of the Primary. That way Louie would have a traveling companion. The article described the two women sitting in their bed in the house they shared together correcting proofs for the children’s magazine. The two also founded the Primary Children’s Hospital. The article emphasized the importance of their devoted friendship in leading the Primary.

The nineteenth-century language of friendship and love always delights me. So much to learn. Others I’d take to lunch in a minute: Emma Smith, Sarah Pratt, Emmeline B. Wells, Amy Brown Lyman. . . . . .I could make a very long list.

15 comments for “The David and Jonathan of the Primary

  1. Not Eliza R. Snow? Interesting…

    Sarah Pratt would be interesting to go to lunch with but I imagine her as very intense and constantly angry. (Obviously, she has a very difficult life, although I haven’t yet forgiven her for buring Orson Pratt’s papers.) I wouldn’t want a regular lunch date with her.

    What about Martha Hughes Cannon?

  2. Of course, an obvious implication of that title is that the two women were romantically involved. After all, David and Jonathan have long been used as symbols of homosexual love. (It’s not all that difficult, since the scriptures contain descriptions of their relationship that could quite reasonably be read as describing a homosexual relationship). I suspect that no two church leaders today would want to be described as “the David and Jonathan” of anything.

  3. Yes, and I resent the implication.

    In any case, I feel that one of the harms of the reification of homosexuality is the damage it does to intimate friendships. In Spain I was able to be close to my Spanish companions without drawing nervously back.

  4. The very fact that title was used in the Children’s Friend, the church’s magazine for children, marks a clear difference between our contemporary language of love and friendship and that of the previous century (I believe this article was published in 1903; it turns out I don’t have my notes on this here in Seattle). Those encountering this title a century ago obviously would have read it very differently. I think they came to my mind precisely because there are so many questions I have about the very female world these women lived in. The Primary at that point in time was very independent (raised its own money, went its own way). The male leadership very seldom involved themselves in what was considered women’s business. Their household was quite independent–as a plural wife Louie had relatively little interaction with her husband it seems. Though Louie and May worked with children, neither of them had children. I continue to find it fascinating, for example, that the Primary was led for its first 60+ years by childless women. So much to learn. . . .

  5. You do not need to look to the nineteenth century to find examples of women who are in essentially loveless marriages and meet all of their needs for emotional intimacy with close women friends — at least one such woman is close to me. I once made a mocking comment about “those creepy nineteenth century ‘friendships’ between women who write each other mushy letters about how much they miss each other and love each other” and didn’t realize I struck a nerve, and had to do a lot of apologizing. I wasn’t sensitive to the fact that not everyone has the super-close, equal-partners-and-best-buddies marriage that I have. I think that such women would probably be happier in lesbian relationships, but if you are a faithful Mormon who wants a family and a comfortable life within the Mormon community that obviously is not an option.

  6. Another thing I find really interesting about Felt and Anderson is their openness and embrace of educational methods and theories from outside the church, and their work at adapting them for Primary. Sunday School was taught in a very catechistic, sit-the-children-down-and-drill-them-until-they-can-regurgitate-orthodox-answers way, while Primary tried hard to teach children through activity, through singing, and by other developmentally appropriate methods. When you compare the initial attempts at a Primary curriculum by Eliza Snow to the program developed by Felt and Anderson, the change is really dramatic. People often attribute Eliza’s, er, clumsiness with children and her rather unrealistic notions of how they can and should be to her childlessness, but Felt and Anderson were amazingly sympathetic and understanding and skillful in dealing with kids, so clearly it’s a skill-set that can be acquired by other means than giving birth!

    The fact that Primary moved away from these methods and ideas fairly quickly after Anderson’s departure from the Primary Board suggests to me that these women had enormous *personal* influence, and I’ve wondered a lot at whether subsequent Primary presidents were less original in their thinking about educating children, or just didn’t have as much time as Felt and Anderson to influence the direction of the curriculum, or whether the brethren started to get nervous about those crazy progressive ladies running the Primary and put more pressure on the presidents who followed Felt and Anderson. The early Primary is such an interesting case study in organizational behavior…

  7. Kaimi,

    I see what you are getting at on the “David & Jonathan”/homosexual connection, and it’s sad. We live in a culture that is so saturated with sex (of all sorts), that even those of us who try to maintain a Gospel walk can find our speech and though patterns following the world’s grooves. Just look at how the expressions “gay” (happy, carefree, what we as Christians should be), and “make love” (which is what you did when you sat fully clothed on the grass with a beautiful sunset and read poetry to your beloved) are now used. What’s more, if one simply says, “Well, I don’t mean it that way, I’m going to use these expressions the right way,” it’s like swimming against the tide, because hardly anyone will understand you.

    Obviously, we know as Latter-day Saints that it is entirely possible, and desirable, for people of the same sex to deeply intimate friendships that are completely non-sexual (Jesus and John, David & Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi). For that matter, such relationships can be between people of opposite sexes. I find it interesting that I didn’t gain any really close male friendships until after I joined the Church, and I think was a pretty typical, believer-in-christ-but didn’t-do-much-with-it non-member. Also, I think it’s interesting that those homosexuals and lesbians that I have known, in and out of the church, who have tried to break free from same-sex attraction, all have commented on the therapeutic effect has been of building truly close non-sexual friendships with those of the same sex. (Sorry for the missing words and spelling; once you’ve typed something here, you either leave it or backspace and obliterate it, no spell check!).

  8. Gary,

    Without delving into Jesus/John or Ruth/Naomi, I think that the case of David and Jonathan presents special problems. A straightforward reading of various passages, especially 2 Samuel 1, gives the very strong impression that David was referring to something more than just friendship.

    Of course, it’s possible to spin this any which way. But my impression ever since first reading and studying those verses, years and years ago, was that their most natural interpretation was that David loved Jonathan in a sexual way.

    (Not that this reading does not require one to believe that the verses are an endorsement of homosexual activity — after all, King David’s violation of the law of chastity is well-documented).

  9. Kaimi,

    I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree here, because I’ve read that same passage too (and I’ll re-read it again tonight to be sure), and I’ve never gotten a sexual connotation out of it, though I can see how one could draw it in today’s world. Try this: if Jonathan had actually been a brother of David’s, rather than a friend, does the passage make more sense? In any case, other than pride, which I think is manifested somewhat early in David’s career, I don’t see any sexual sins for David shown until Bathsheba. Joseph Smith stated that David, before that sin, had progressed to the point where he had received the priesthood, an exceedingly rare privledge in Mosaic Israel. I doubt the Lord would have permitted David to have priesthood, in effect making him a prophet, if David had any secret sexual sins at the time (the Lord exercises considerably less micromanagement today, I know).

  10. Nate,
    I wouldn’t turn down a lunch date with Eliza Snow. But I’d be most interested in the Eliza of the 30s and 40s. In fact I’d love to talk to any of the Relief Society women from Nauvoo in 1842–such an amazing period. It’s the Sarah Pratt from that period I’d like to meet as well.

    Eliza Snow became such an institution in later life, so guarded and public even when in private, it seems. The Eliza who captures my imagination is the one who wrote these lines (part of a larger poem) in the summer of 1842. In the poem, she is describing an angel looking down on Nauvoo’s “vague scenery”:

    He’s be apt to conclude from the medley of things:
    We’ve got into a jumble of late—
    A deep intricate puzzle, a tangle of strings,
    That no possible scheme can make straight.

    Tell me, what will it be, and O, where will it end?
    Say, if you have permission to tell:
    Is there any fixed point unto which prospects tend?
    Does a focus belong to pell mell?
    From the midst of confusion can harmony flow?
    Or can peace from distraction come forth?
    From out of corruption, integrity grow?
    Or can vice unto virtue give birth?

    Will the righteous come forth with their garments unstained?
    With their hearts unpolluted with sin?

    The poem ends with these lines–italicized:
    Oh yes; Zion, thy honor will still be sustained,
    And the glory of God, usher’d in.

    Obviously these lines are won through a lot of contemplation and suffering. In later years, you mostly just get lines like the final ones, not lines like those in the body of the poem.

  11. I don’t know if she would tell you, but maybe you could ask Eliza in a roundabout way if there’s any truth to the story that Emma threw her down a flight of stairs after she caught her kissing Joseph Smith.

  12. How about Susa Young Gates? When I was a Mia-Maid and YW lessons got too smarmy sentimental about motherhood, I used to love to point out that one of the first presidents of YW was a divorcee whose husband had successfully argued in court that she was an unfit mother. My teachers just loved that : )

  13. I do not mean to be antagonitstic (sp), but do you realize that david and johnathon are used by gay men as an example of a godly life…could we use these two women as well ?

  14. I do not mean to be antagonitstic (sp), but do you realize that david and johnathon are used by gay men as an example of a godly life…could we use these two women as well ?

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