01.31.12

Mitt Romney’s British Mormon Ancestors

Mitt rarely mentions his heritage, which includes a great-great-grandfather who immigrated to America with Brigham Young.

The tiny town of Dalton-in-Furness, nestled in the pastoral hills of Cumbria in northwest England, has more than enough heritage to keep James Walton busy. A local historian, Walton has written eight books on his hometown, where the sloping streets wind past a medieval castle, a 12th-century abbey, and a burial pit from the era of the Black Plague, along with lush fields dotted with sheep. While watching an evening newscast on the U.S. GOP primary recently, Walton came across a fresh curiosity. “This Romney fellow,” he remembers thinking. “I wonder if he’s related to ours.”

Walton is a Romney expert. George Romney, born in 1734, was a renowned local painter and remains Dalton’s favorite son. A portrait of the artist hangs in the castle, and he’s buried down the road beside the entrance to the church. Dalton houses a Romney Park, a Romney Avenue, and the George Romney Junior School. “This is where Romney’s cottage was,” Walton says, standing in a parking lot that used to be the Romney estate.

Once a prominent local clan, the Romneys have by and large disappeared from the area. But Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, it turns out, is indeed descended from the Dalton line that Walton refers to as “ours.” Now that Mitt Romney is a regular presence in the news, people around Dalton are starting to take note of his roots—though often, like Walton, they mistakenly call him “Mick.” At the library, archivist Michael Stephens says Romney may even end up with his own display case, right beside the one for George. “It’s not every day that we get someone who has the chance to get into the White House with even the most tenuous links to this area,” says Bill Myers, who writes the local history page for the North West Evening Mail newspaper. “If he does make it there, we might get the chance to invite him over,” Myers adds, pointing out that Ronald Reagan made a famous 1984 visit to  Ballyporeen, the Irish town where Reagan’s great-grandfather was born.

Miles Romney converted after hearing a missionary preach in northern England. From that point on, the family’s trajectory became deeply interwoven with the early history of the Latter Day Saints.

The immigrant-ancestor story is a familiar one in U.S. presidential campaigns. John F. Kennedy famously took the oath of office on a Bible his forefathers had brought from Ireland, while Barack Obama’s reflections on his Kenyan father filled his best-selling memoir. Romney’s Republican rival, Rick Santorum, cites his Italian grandfather often, calling him an inspiration for his bid. But Romney seldom invokes his Dalton roots. (When he did bring up his background recently, at a debate in Florida, he focused on his father’s birthplace in Mexico and on his wife’s Welsh ancestry.) “He doesn’t emphasize it, and it’s not a recurring theme,” says Ronald B. Scott, a journalist and author whose biography, Mitt Romney: An Inside Look at the Man and His Politics, explores the Romney family’s history.

Instead, Romney seems to keep his heritage closer to home. According to a 2008 Boston Globe profile of Romney, four portraits hang in the first-floor hallway of his house in Belmont, Mass. Last in the line is his father, George, who ran a failed bid for the Republican nomination in 1968; then Gaskell Romney, who lost his home and possessions while fleeing the Mexican Revolution (and later successfully sued Mexico for damages). Next comes Miles Park Romney, Mitt’s great-grandfather, who decamped to Mexico, with five wives and 30 children in tow, after polygamy was banned stateside in 1882. First in the line is Miles Archibald Romney, born in Dalton in 1806.

While much is known about the Romney family once they arrived in America, there is little in the public record about their English roots. Miles Archibald Romney married Elizabeth Gaskell, also of Dalton, in 1830, and the couple was living in the area around the nearby city of Preston when in 1837, on their way to market, they noticed a crowd and stopped to see what was causing the fuss. Preaching to the crowd was a man named Orson Hyde, who had come to the British Isles as part of the inaugural foreign mission for the Mormon Church, which is now famous for spreading its message abroad. From that point on, the Romney family’s trajectory became deeply interwoven with the early history of the Latter Day Saints.

Preston was an impoverished and bleak place—so much so that Charles Dickens based his novel Hard Times on the city. An economic downturn had crippled the area, and some people died of starvation. Others resorted to pawning off furniture. Residents were known as “naked necks” because they couldn’t afford collars, according to Peter Fagg, who lives in Preston now and is the Mormon Church’s adviser for history in England. “Preston was quite a dire place to live,” he says.

After hearing the missionaries speak and later converting, Miles and his wife left for America in 1841 on a ship called the Sheffield, along with Brigham Young—the “Mormon Moses” who would lead the Latter Day Saints into Utah. According to an account of the ship’s journey in a book called Ships, Saints and Mariners, “the emigrants were very poor, having worked for almost starvation rations … After a 51-day passage during which there were three deaths, two births and a near-mutiny, the emigrants landed at New Orleans.”

In a little more than a decade, the Mormon Church rapidly expanded its presence in England—by 1850, it had become the largest evangelical movement in the British Isles, converting more than 50,000 people. As it grew, the movement provoked a virulent backlash: The Times of London attacked the new religion as a “strange form of fanaticism,” “this debasing delusion,” and “utterly repugnant.” “It was treated with suspicion, it was treated as fraudulent, and it was treated as hostile—particularly because it was American,” says Seth Wilkins, a graduate student at the University of Lancaster who is specializing in the history of the Mormon Church in England. Converts risked ostracism—in one letter sent from an early British convert, the writer laments, “My parents have turned their backs on me, because I would not leave the Saints.”

Complicating matters was the sect’s practice of polygamy, which caused a scandal back in England as well as in the United States. The Millennial Star, a Mormon journal, felt the need to specifically deny the rumors of polygamy in an 1842 article, though the church officially recognized the practice nine years later. “The spirit of apostasy has been quite prevalent of late, principally among those who have emigrated from England to America,” the journal stated. “And they write back to this country of evil concerning them.” The article was written in response to letters from a woman who had recently emigrated from Manchester; in her correspondences she accused Mormon founder Joseph Smith and Brigham Young of preaching polygamy. “[She] wrote to England that the men had been trying to seduce her, by making her believe that God had given a revelation that men might have two wives,” the Millennial Star wrote. “By these disreputable means, she sought to overthrow the saints here, or at least give a stern persecution of them, and prevent others from joining them … no such principles have ever existed among the Latter Day Saints, and never will.”

In 1863, Charles Dickens paid a visit to a Mormon ship about to leave for America, with the intention of lambasting converts and their strange beliefs. Instead, he was impressed by the emigrants’ passion and their commitment to the upcoming journey to the States. In The Uncommon Traveler, he wrote, “What is in store for the poor people on the shores of the Great Salt Lake, what happy delusions they are laboring under now, on what miserable blindness their eyes may be opened then, I do not pretend to say. But I went on board their ship to bear testimony against them if they deserved it, as I fully believed they would; and to my great astonishment they did not deserve it; and my predispositions and tendencies must not affect me as an honest witness. I went over the Amazon’s side, feeling it impossible to deny that, so far, some remarkable influence had produced a remarkable result, which better known influences have often missed.”

British officials also praised the Mormon Church for organizing orderly immigration efforts in a time of mass exodus from the country; in its first 50 years of preaching in England, 85,000 converts would make the trip to America, drawn by the promise of a fresh start abroad. Mormon missionaries “weren’t just offering a religious message but the promise of a new life,” says Douglas Davies, an anthropologist and theologian at Durham University. “The promise of a new life in the New World was a very attractive part of the religion.” These waves of immigrants from Britain would end up playing a crucial role in the early church. “Those converts were vital to the future of Mormonism,” says Malcolm Thorp, a professor of history at Brigham Young University, explaining the immigrants reinvigorated the movement at a time when it was suffering social persecution in the States. Miles Romney, a carpenter by trade, went on to help build some of the  church’s most famous monuments in Utah. His descendants would go on to become pillars of the church, high-profile politicians, and successful businessmen.

Scott, the Romney biographer, thinks with the GOP base proving hesitant to embrace Romney’s religion, Romney may be reluctant to delve too deeply into his heritage during the primary campaign. “If you’re a Mormon with genes going back to the very beginning of the church, you can’t talk about your family history without talking about Mormonism,” Scott says. “I’m pretty certain that his campaign advisers have told him to stay as far away from his church connections as he can.”

While Romney may not be emphasizing his British roots though, some people in Dalton have been paying close attention to the race. At the small Mormon chapel nearby, where the small congregation is gathered for a Sunday service on a recent January morning, Neil Campbell, one of the ushers, says he’s keeping up with the campaign and pulling for Romney. He even gripes about a recent spate of negative attacks from the man he refers to, perhaps not unintentionally, as “Newt Grinch.”

Trace Rodgerson, a 20-year-old Salt Lake City native, says he’s rooting for Romney too. Rodgerson arrived at the church recently as part of his missionary tour. The going in England is much tougher now than it was in the church’s early days. That night, he heads out into the bitter cold in a suit and overcoat to make his rounds of a sleepy neighborhood down the road. A few residents make polite conversation, but many quickly shut the door. “You get used to it pretty quickly,” Rodgerson says as he approaches another house.