SALT LAKE CITY — “The story began in 1820,” the voice in the headphones exclaimed.
A handful of people taking an audio tour of the Church History Museum here over the weekend followed exhibits, from a stained-glass window depicting the first revelation of “14-year-old farm boy” Joseph Smith, to the printing press that produced the first edition of the Book of Mormon in 1830, to the chair that carpenter Brigham Young built before joining the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1832. A few steps forward, the awed museumgoers listened to the words of Parley Pratt, a pioneer ancestor of Mitt Romney, as he imagined the establishment of Zion in Ohio, only to walk a few more feet to inspect the weapons used to chase Mormons from state to state and the death mask of the religion’s murdered founder.
A legacy of state-sponsored persecution is embedded in the identity of America’s most successful homegrown religion. In a century of assimilation, the country’s 6 million Mormons have sought to erase from their public image and museum exhibits the polygamy and early beliefs that triggered federal crackdowns. Mormons have become prominent athletes and academics, captains of industry and public officials. But nothing would mark the faith’s place in the American mainstream more than the ascension of one of its own to the presidency of a government that once sought its destruction.
“A people persecuted, denounced and mistreated could suddenly find one of their own in highest office,” said Richard Bushman, a prominent Mormon historian and a predecessor of Romney as the highest Mormon authority in Boston. “To put the nation in the hands of a Latter-day Saint is really the ultimate act of trust.”
If Romney wins, history will likely remember him not as the first private-equity president, but the first Mormon commander in chief. It is a potential accomplishment that says as much about the country’s progress as John F. Kennedy’s distinction as the first Catholic to occupy the Oval Office. Utah, more than Michigan or Massachusetts, is Romney’s spiritual home, and for many Mormons, the view from the precipice here has been dizzying.
“They’re so amped up right now they might as well be drinking coffee,” said Patrick Mason, a professor of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University.
In the days and hours leading up to Election Day, Mormons expressed their anticipation, giddiness and cautious hope that Romney, a former church leader, would make an impact on history’s timeline that would extend and ultimately dwarf the year-long Mormon Moment.
“It would be great. He holds a great power in the priesthood and could bring this nation out of the horrible mess it’s in,” Jewelle Merritt said as she dabbed tears from her eyes. The 59-year-old teacher from Brigham City had just watched “Joseph Smith: The Prophet of the Restoration,” a tearjerker — notably cleansed of polygamy — shown in the church’s Legacy Theater about the life and death of the religion’s founder. As she walked into the bright sunshine of Temple Square, she said she never doubted the possibility of a Mormon president. “I was taught growing up that when the nation is hanging by a thread, one of the elders of Israel would come to save it. “