“We Are All Descended From Grandfathers!”

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The Word, that is, the Word according to Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, reached its first Romneys at an outdoor market-day meeting in England in 1837. Let all those who hurry by street-corner evangels, thinking them of little consequence, consider the results of that event. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as Smith called it, was less than ten years old when it began sending its missionaries abroad, and one of them, the Apostle Orson Hyde, was preaching in Preston, Lancashire, when Miles Romney, a skilled carpenter, and his wife, Elizabeth, came by. The carpenter and his family stopped, listened, attended more meetings, underwent baptism, and took ship from Liverpool for New Orleans in 1841, heading thence up the Mississippi to the Mormon colony at Nauvoo, Illinois. Romney went to work on the new temple being built, and at Nauvoo, Miles Park Romney, grandfather of Governor George Wilcken Romney of Michigan, was born on August 18, 1843.

Less than a year later, Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were murdered in the jail at nearby Carthage. Two years later the Saints, as Mormons called themselves, were ejected from Nauvoo and, at different times, made their arduous way across the Plains to the new promised land. The Romneys, too poor to go at once with Brigham Young, started in an ox-team party from St. Louis in March of 1850, arriving at Salt Lake City in October. Seven-year-old Miles P. walked during most of the long, exhausting journey, on which near-starvation, disease, Indians, and harsh weather thinned the ranks to those best adapted to pioneer life.

In Salt Lake, the father became foreman of the “Public Work Shop,” and was put to work on a new temple by President Young; the son was spared much formal learning (he acquired a good deal later, informally) and also became a carpenter and builder. Old Miles was sent back to England in 1856, to gather new converts, putting in the two years or so of the missionary service that so many Mormons perform to this day; he had scarcely returned from this strenuous journey when Young asked the whole family to help colonize the southern part of Utah Territory. There, at the new Mormon town called Saint George, Miles Romney died in a fall in 1877, leaving six children and fifty-seven grandchildren.

To Brigham Young in those days the greatest crop Zion could grow was children—children by the score, children by the hundreds. “Let every man in the land over eighteen years of age take a wife,” he announced. On another occasion he said, “Young men, fit you up a little log cabin, if it is not more than ten feet square, and then get you a bird to put in your little cage.…” To these commands the young Miles Park Romney listened devoutly; at eighteen he married Hannah Hood Hill, who was nineteen and came of a family of Canadian converts. The young couple had spent only three weeks together in the cage, however, when, in the words of a Mormon account, “the Prophet of God by the voice of inspiration asked Miles P. to leave his newly-wedded bride and depart for a Mission to the British Isles.” (It might be observed that the Michigan governor also made his youthful mission there, pushing doorbells in Scotland and speaking on street-corners in England.)

Young Romney arrived in Liverpool in 1862. In the course of his missionary travels he saw a good deal of the world, and much that horrified him:

In the cities and towns of the world [he wrote from England for the paper back home] gin palaces are found on every corner of a street, where they sell slow poison to the people.… In despised Utah, her towns and cities are free from such wicked dens of corruption.… Behold that female as she slowly staggers through the streets, pale, haggard and careworn, clothed in tatters and rags, with a young babe in her arms; without a home, perhaps, she has nowhere to lay her weary head.… Thank God, this scene cannot be beheld in the streets of Utah’s fair towns and cities. Her brave sons are taught from their infancy to respect and protect female virtue as they would their lives. Hence, the wicked and corrupt, because their deeds are evil, do not like the society of the people of God.…

The quality of the man comes through, as does that of the religion: seventeenth century in fundamental intensity, nineteenth in morality, twentieth in boosterism. Yet he was capable of pleasure, loving amateur Mormon theatricals, which he often staged and managed, and strait-laced but vigorous dancing.

In April, 1865, he sailed home on a ship laden with 636 new Saints. Back in Salt Lake City, Romney had barely settled down again to secular pursuits, as a workman on the new tabernacle, when Brigham Young again called him to duty, which this time involved taking a second wife, Carrie Lambourne. “Nothing short of a firm belief in the divine origin of the Revelation of plural marriage could have induced Miles P. Romney to take a second wife,” says his pious biographer (writing full-blown mid-Victorian prose in the year 1948), “and certain it is that Hannah would never have permitted such a heart-breaking thing to come into her life had it not been for the testimony she had of the divinity of the mission of the Prophet Joseph Smith.”