The Neglected Louie B. Felt

RoseAnn Benson’s book Alexander Campbell and Joseph Smith: 19th-Century Restorationists compares the two best known and successful figures in the broad restorationist movement of the 19th century. While those familiar with Latter-day Saint history know the relationship between the two movements, oddly in broader religious history only Campbell and his Disciples of Christ are considered restorationists. The book was warmly received and helped broaden the sense of restorationists as a more significant movement. Benson’s own background is ecclectic. She minored in history but her degree was in Physical Education and her first Masters was in Exercise Science. She then got a second Masters in Ancient Near Eastern Studies. She’s taught at BYU, George Mason University and UVU. Her new work which we’re focusing in on in association with 12 Questions is “Louie B. Felt, First General Primary President” published by BYU Studies.[1] Felt is a neglected figure in Church history. Her history, brought out by Benson is fascinating. This is an interview that definitely is worth a read.

Who were the leading women of the late 19th century?

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.
[…]
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.

One of the things that makes her so interesting is that she was herself unable to have children yet was called to be a ward Primary President. Two years later she was called as general Primary President.

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.”

That this leading figure from a stereotypical view was so unsuited for her calling certainly makes me think of my own callings I felt unprepared for. I think what I love of these late 19th century figures such as Huntington or Snow is how they didn’t let their weaknesses limit them in magnifying their callings. Today we see so many people that at best half heartedly do their callings. So many have come to see Church as a place they should be served rather than serving. The leading women of this era never let lack of formal power or limits in their knowledge or background prevent them from rising up. As such, they are in some ways the greatest examples of the restoration. It’s unfortunate we don’t spend more time on the history of the “leading ladies” as they were called. Zina Huntington in particular has been a hero of mine since I first learned her history in college.

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.

Why are these figures so unknown? Part of it is the general Church membership not caring. Part of it is that only a few figures have been focused upon in our resources.

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.

Louie’s struggles, often with getting resources, never held her back. She wanted the Primary to have its own magazine. The Friend today isn’t quite as significant as it once was. Mainly due to the abundance of resources for children online. However when I was a child the arrival of the Children’s Friend was a major event. There were things you could cut out, stories written to a young reading level, and more. It’s surprising how much difficulty Louie went through trying to start up the magazine.

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.

Her own history was both tragic and fascinating. In a reversal of the usual pattern she urged her husband to tak an additional wife so they could have children. (This was obviously before the end of polygamy) The story made me reconsider some of the positives of the practice since normally we only focus on the many, many negatives.

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.

I’d strongly urge you read the full interview. I’m looking forward to the full article being available online as well.

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