Tuesday 6 November 2012 will be a historic election day for many reasons. The first African American President of the United States up against the first major Mormon candidate for President of the United States.
A hundred years ago the mere thought of such an election would have had people’s sides aching with laughter.
When Reed Smoot, the elected Senator from the State of Utah, first arrived in Washington D.C. in February of 1903 to take his seat in the Senate he was met by violent opposition. That opposition stemmed from the fact that Senator Smoot was also an actively serving apostle in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and was believed to still be promoting the practice of polygamy among church members. After years of government hearings, and even a prophetic appearance by President Joseph F. Smith to testify on Senator Smoot and the Church’s behalf, the opposition eventually dissipated and Senator/Elder Smoot served in the senate faithfully for thirty years.
We have come many miles as Mormons in the field of social acceptance.
The history of polygamy that plagued Elder Smoot over 100 years ago is still alive and sometimes mentioned on the campaign trail during the current presidential race. One headline I saw a few months ago read brightly:
Mitt Romney: A Mormon with a Polygamous Past
It is true.
One of Mitt Romney’s great-great-grandfathers, Parley Parker Pratt (one of the original apostles called in 1835), began to practice plural marriage during its initial inception into LDS religious faith under the direction of church leadership in Nauvoo, Illinois. In 1852 Brigham Young, the second President of the Church, publicly acknowledged the practice of plural marriage through a sermon he gave. Additional sermons by top Mormon leaders on the virtues of polygamy followed. Controversy followed when polygamy became a social cause among many in the United States, and writers began to publish works condemning polygamy. The key plank of the Republican Party’s 1856 platform was “to prohibit in the territories those twin relics of barbarism, polygamy and slavery”. In 1862, Congress issued the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act which clarified that the practice of polygamy was illegal in all US territories. Church leaders believed that their religiously-based practice of plural marriage was protected by the United States Constitution. However, the unanimous 1878 Supreme Court decision Reynolds v. United States declared that polygamy was not protected by the Constitution, based on the longstanding legal principle that “laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may with practices.” Increasingly harsh anti-polygamy legislation in the United States, which included imprisonment, fines, and voting privileges being revoked, led some Latter-day Saints to emigrate to Canada and Mexico where they believed they could still legally practice this demanding aspect of their faith.
In the summer of 1885, Miles Park Romney, another of Mitt Romney’s great-grandfathers, boarded a train in Salt Lake City with his wife, Annie Woodbury Romney, and her three young children. Wearing a disguise so as to be able allude federal authorities who wished to jail him for his practicing polygamy, Miles even sat apart from his family during their long train ride to preserve his incognito. They traveled first to San Francisco, then east through California and then into Arizona. At the San Simon railway station in southeastern Arizona near the New Mexico border, Will and Miles Archibald Romney, two of Miles Park’s older sons, met their father and Annie with a team and wagon, which would transport them to the Mormon settlements that were just beginning in Mexico.
Another of Miles Park’s sons, Gaskell Romney, also made the move to Mexico with the family. Gaskell would assist his father in establishing the Mormon colonies in Colonia Dublán, Galeana, and Chihuahua, Mexico, as more Mormon settlers moved in. While the original intent of the settlements was initially reached, to preserve the practice of plural marriage, eventually the Church itself would ban polygamy entirely in coming years.
In 1907 Gaskell’s wife would give birth to a boy which they named George. Growing up in Mexico amidst a colony of polygamy practicing Mormons, George Romney, loved his surroundings. However, the Romney families, extensive in size by this time, would lose their holdings in Chihuahua during the Mexican Revolution in 1912, and Gaskell’s family, including the young George, wound up emigrating back into the United States and eventually settling in Salt Lake City Utah.
George Romney grew up and would end up working in a number of jobs. He served as a Mormon missionary in England and Scotland, and attended several colleges in the U.S. but did not graduate from any. In 1939 he moved to Detroit, Michigan where he ended up becoming amazingly successful working in the auto industry, and would end up serving as the Governor of the State of Michigan from 1963 to 1969, and the United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development from 1969 to 1973. In 1947 George’s wife Lenore gave birth to a healthy baby boy, Willard Mitt Romney, or as I like to call him, Mittens.
“So why the story about the Mittens’ and Mormonism’s polygamous past?” you may be asking yourself at this point.
Because Mitt Romney isn’t the first Romney to delve into the political arena, and his progenitors created a real fireball of offspring that would run for public offices from sea to shining sea. One of these Romneys being Mitt’s own cousin, Marion G. Romney.
It is Marion G. Romney which provides us with what is one of my favorite stories in all of church history.
Born in 1897 in Colonia Juárez, Chihuahua, Marion G. Romney loved growing up as a young man in Mexico among his extended family. Marion studied at Juarez Academy until his family left Mexico in 1912 as the violence from the ongoing Mexican revolution spread to their region. He spent the remainder of his youth in California and Idaho. In 1917 his family moved to Rexburg, Idaho where George S. Romney (his father and cousin to Gaskell Romney) took the position of principal of the Church’s Ricks Academy (now BYU-Idaho). Romney completed his high school studies at Ricks and graduated as valedictorian of his class in 1918.
From 1920 to 1923 Romney served as a full-time missionary in Australia, and after his return from his mission he worked in construction in Salt Lake City for his uncle Gaskell Romney (the father of George W. Romney). Marion studied at BYU for a year and while there he renewed his acquaintance with Ida Jensen, a former teacher at Ricks who was working on a master’s degree. The two wed in 1924. Afterwards he began studying at the University of Utah. He received a bachelor’s degree in political science and history in 1926. Romney then studied law at the University of Utah, but did not complete his course work there. After some time working for the postal service, he passed the Utah bar exam in 1929 and became a practicing attorney.
A hard worker and voracious lover of the political system, he was elected to the Utah state legislature in 1934 as a Democrat. – Then, like today, it was as rare to see a Democrat in Utah. – But he ran in that election and won. While running for the state legislature he also accepted a call as a bishop from his stake president, Bryant S. Hinckley (father of Gordon B. Hinckley). Due to his election to the state legislature his ordination as a bishop was delayed until after the end of the legislature’s term in April of 1935. Among the many church callings he would hold before becoming a General Authority, he was a stake president and managing director of the Church Welfare Program. During his time as director of the Welfare Program that he first became closely associated with a fellow stake president, a man by the name of Harold B. Lee.
It was during this period of life, amid trying to raise a family, serving in the Church, and trying to fulfill a variety of demanding church assignments, that another election came around.
And that finally brings me to the main story that I would like to share.
Harold B. Lee, who would later serve as 11th President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, often taught that we must all face great trials in order to prove ourselves before the Lord. Any cursory study of scripture or church history makes this plainly evident. Marion G. Romney was one who was tested most thoroughly before his sacred call came as the first Assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve ever called in the Church.
Like I stated, Marion G. Romney was a Democrat. And perhaps I cannot stress enough to those of you who are from states elsewhere, but a Democrat is a rare find in Utah. Imagine trying to find a Marilyn Manson CD for sale in Vatican City. It’s just not something you see a lot of.
Romney, like his dear friend Harold B. Lee, ran for public office. He was quite aware that his election hung on the coattails of the national election. The president of the United States at the time was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who, in the language of many journalists at the time, had “packed the Supreme Court” with his supporters. Just before the election there was a four-column, front-page editorial in the Deseret News, a newspaper owned by the Church, that blasted this move by President Roosevelt and many of his other policies. When Marion read the column he knew that, as a Democrat, his chances of being elected were over. An editorial in a paper owned by the Church had suddenly dashed all of his young political hopes and dreams.
He described his turmoil as he went to bed that night. He prayed, “O Lord, I feel all right about it and I’m going to sleep now.” Then he got into bed and thoughts started going through his mind: “Why can’t the Church lay off matters political? Why do they have turn these issues into moral issues? Why…?” The more he thought about it the more and more upset he got. So he got out of bed and prayed again: ” Father in Heaven, I want to forgive the Brethren if there’s anything here amiss, and I want to you to forgive me for my feelings, but…”
This inner debate and wrestling with himself lasted all throughout the night.
The next day as he walked down Main Street in Salt Lake City he saw his friend Harold B. Lee. Harold beamed brightly at his comrade in Christ and said, “Good morning Brother Romney!”
“How are you Brother Romney?”
He gave the standard answer: “Fine.”
“Did you read the paper last night, Brother Romney?”
“Yes, I did, Brother Lee.”
“Well, what did you think?”
“Well, Brother Lee, I’ve had a bad night, but I’m determined to sustain the Brethren.”
It wasn’t long after this experience that both Marion and his friend Harold were both called to high and holy callings within the Church at the April 1941 General Conference. Elder Romney would end up being called as an apostle in 1951 and would serve as a counselor in the First Presidency of the Church to two different Church Presidents, and as President of the Quorum of the Twelve before his death in 1988.
So why the story?
Perhaps to show that faithful Mormons can be Democrats too?
Was I emphasizing that in the Church every Mormon is connected to every other Mormon in a weird Six Degrees of Separation way?
Or maybe I just wanted an excuse to write about The Mittens?
I think not.
My point is merely this: No matter who wins the presidential election in a few short day, it will all end up being alright.
Marion G. Romney, Mitt’s good ol’ cousin, is perfect proof of that the Lord’s purposes will all be fulfilled in the end.
And most importantly for us as Latter-day Saints: We must be determined to follow the Brethren.
Since hearing this story many years ago I’ve often thought to myself, “What would I do if my political views came in direct opposition to the Brethren? Could I be as humble as Elder Romney was?” And I’ve also wondered, “Well what if Marion had just rebelled, gone against the Church, and cursed the Brethren for fiddling with political matters? Where would he have ended up in life?”
Of course those are questions that no one will ever know the answer to.
But for Marion G. Romney, during an election many years ago, his faith was tried and tested. His greatest decision in the turmoil was in that he determined to sustain the Brethren, despite the crushing personal loss he felt at the time.
The other day The Salt Lake Tribune ran a story entitled “Mitt’s Bid: Would his loss crush Mormon backers?” The brief article said in part,
“For some Mormons, Romney’s bid is more than just a political contest, it’s almost a matter of religious destiny, an event rooted in the faith’s belief of the major role Mormons will play in saving the world in troubled times.”
Sadly, I know of a handful of people that will be wailing and gnashing their teeth come Tuesday night if Mitt Romney loses the election. It will be hellfire and brimstone, and a sure sign that our government is going to fail and Jesus will be coming to take out that Mean old Obama soon.
I think it is far safer to place our faith on something more solid than politicians whose views seem to shift as the sand.
Will I be voting for Mitt Romney? Yes. I want a person who represents my moral values and my old fashioned stance on social issues as Commander in Chief.
But will the world end if Mitt Romney loses his presidential bid? No.
As a believing Christian I believe that Jesus Christ will again come to this earth to reign as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, a time which some people dreadfully refer to as “the end of the world”. But frankly, whether it’s Obama or Romney in the Oval Office, all that matters is that I’m living my life faithfully to the covenants I have made.
I hope Mitt follows in the fine example of his cousin Marion no matter what the results are on Tuesday. The Lord will find a terrific way to use him win or lose.
6 November will be a historic day, and in the past century we Mormons have come a long way in being socially accepted, but I hope that we as Latter-day Saints can remember that there are things far greater than an election, namely our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, in His teachings, and in His living oracles
In the end I have a feeling campaign successes or campaign failures matter very little to the Lord. All that matters is that we, as His covenant people, serve Him and our fellow man with full purpose of heart. The government can fend for itself.
If you’ve stumbled upon this site and you’re not a Mormon please click here to learn more about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and what we believe.
To learn more about the Romney Family’s history you can click here to read Amy Tanner Thiriot’s excellent guest post at the blog Keepapitchinin. You can also see Todd M. Compton’s elaborate essay entitled “Plural Lives: Mitt Romney’s Polygamous Heritage“. For a full account of the experience between Marion G. Romney and Harold B. Lee on the street please see Marion G. Romney, Look to God and Live: Discourses of Marion G. Romney, comp. George J. Romney (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1971), xi–xiii. For the best overall view of Mitt Romney’s life I would recommend Michale Kranish and Scott Helman’s The Real Romney.