Romney’s rise through the ranks of the Mormon Church in Boston

August 19, 2012

Melvin Herlin, an MIT physics professor and patriarch of the Mormon Church in Boston, joined the congregation’s leaders to welcome Mitt Romney to the Longfellow Park Chapel in Cambridge. As the first-year Harvard graduate student and scion of Mormon royalty shook hands and introduced his beautiful young wife, Ann, an informal benediction burst from the patriarch’s mouth.

“The Lord loves you!” Herlin recalled pronouncing.

Romney spent the next quarter century reciprocating as a tireless servant in the houses of his Lord. After committing to Mormonism as a missionary in France and affirming his faith as an undergrad at Brigham Young University, Romney arrived in Boston in 1971 ready to honor one of the most renowned names in Mormondom, master the institution and fulfill his ecclesiastical destiny.

He did so by fulfilling a broad and time-consuming array of church obligations that deepened his connection to his church and the believers in it. Romney’s service fostered his rise through the local hierarchy, and, his mentor said, furthered his spiritual evolution toward the ultimate goal of godhood. By the early 1980s, Romney’s commitment had convinced his superiors that he had the calling of a leader — first as a bishop and then as the Boston area’s highest spiritual authority.

But it was between his mid-20s and mid-30s, as he moved from graduate school to a successful career in business, that Romney beat a path through an intellectually dynamic congregation. As some of his fellow congregants wrestled with controversy and soul-searching stirring in Salt Lake, Romney focused on organizing youth events, networking with future business leaders and impressing a powerful patron with his personal industry. He kept the bishop’s schedule, taught teenagers church-approved history and slept in a luggage compartment on a bus to the Washington Temple. In this private sphere, the touches of emotion and efforts at levity, the assertions of devoutness and affinity for rules that have tinted Romney’s campaign trail blazed in vivid color.

This story is based on conversations with dozens of church officials and members who served and worshipped with Romney.

Romney declined to comment, and his campaign declined to contribute to this account.

Joining the congregation

The Longfellow Park Chapel that Romney joined in 1971 was unlike any church he had ever attended. A handsome brick chapel on Brattle Street, the meeting house sat across from a Georgian mansion where George Washington had headquartered and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow later lived. It had a pipe organ where congregants played Bach preludes or selections from the French repertoire. Its pews felt old and heavy, and the congregants could look above the speaker in the pulpit to a rose window that flecked light around the room.

By the late 1960s the congregation boomed with graduate students who often spilled into the foyer. Harvard and MIT scholars prayed alongside taxi drivers and police officers. Some churchgoers belonged to the arch-conservative John Birch Society, which had roots in Romney’s adopted home in nearby Belmont. Others considered the Cambridge chapel a liberal Mormon heaven and its antiwar activists once got into a shouting match with the Boston Mission president. The aspiring moguls at Harvard Business School rolled their eyes at the big ideas of the academics, some of whom in turn dismissed the “B School Boys” and referred to Romney as “plastic man.”

“We had all sorts of eminent families,” said Richard Bushman, a prominent Mormon historian and the Boston church’s stake president, or chief spiritual authority, when Romney arrived. “He didn’t stand out as this rising star in the firmament.”

And yet Romney was of royal pedigree in the church. Parley Parker Pratt, Romney’s great-great grandfather was an early leader of the church and legendary proselytizer. Beginning in the 1950s, Marion G. Romney, a cousin of Mitt’s father, George, served as an influential apostle and adviser to the church president, also known as the faith’s “Prophet, Seer and Revelator.” George Romney himself led Detroit’s 2,500 Mormons.

Within the Boston church, Romney found a mentor and booster in Gordon Williams, an accomplished and kindly faculty member of the Harvard Medical School. As the congregation’s bishop, Williams and his two counselors formed a body called the bishopric, looking after the needs of the Cambridge ward, a jurisdiction not unlike a Catholic parish. Impressed by Romney’s organizational skills, Williams called the young Harvard student to join the congregation’s leadership.

At 7 on Tuesday nights, Romney reported to the first floor of the chapel, where he kept Williams’s schedule and organized his phone calls as executive secretary. After taking turns opening the meeting with a prayer, Romney and other officials sat around Williams’s desk deliberating on what needed to be repaired and built, what positions needed to be staffed and what religious messages needed to be delivered. The men kept track of who had and hadn’t tithed, who had and hadn’t received blessings, who had and hadn’t been married in the Temple.

“He’d be responsible for closing the loop,” Williams said. “If there was a baptism, he would make sure that everything was lined up for the baptism.” Romney also served as leadership’s liaison to the annual church musical, in which he and Ann sometimes sang, and participated in Christmas carolling in local nursing homes or in Louisburg Square. He helped delegate college prep work to underprivileged high school students, according to Kent Bowen, an MIT engineer and counselor who would become one of the country’s leading business administration professors. Williams said it was a “no-brainer” to dispatch Romney, the business student, to help families trying to get their financial houses in order.

“You would send someone who could address those needs,” said Lynn Romrell, then a Harvard medical student who acted as clerk and kept minutes of the meetings.

But Romney, young and new to church service, sometimes took the plight of his congregants lightly. Williams’s other counselor, Harold Miller, recalled that in a meeting he and Romney joked about the prospect of visiting a hoarder in a dilapidated home.

Romney also showed little interest in a scholarly movement to examine church history flourishing in Salt Lake and among several of the Cambridge intellectuals praying alongside him. Miller, a Harvard doctoral student in experimental psychology who moved in academic circles, said neither Romney or anyone else in the meetings engaged the larger cultural questions.

During the early 1970s, no issue was as controversial for the church as its ban on blacks receiving the priesthood, a crucial blessing bestowed upon all worthy men in the church. According to classmates at BYU, Romney appeared to have embraced the prevailing view that the ban was the word of God and thus unalterable without divine intervention.

Miller said that more activist members in Boston argued it was an inheritance of historical racism, but that the unspoken sentiment in bishopric meetings was a “deeply held hope that the policy would be short-lived.”

The brunt of the ban in Romney’s congregation fell on its few black members, including Richard A. Lowe, a popular convert. Williams said that while his bishopric was powerless to address the ban, it appointed Lowe to run the ward’s Sunday school program, which did not require the priesthood.

“Things that could be done were done,” said Romrell, the clerk.

The Romneys did attend the Boston church’s major intellectual gatherings at the time, known as Education Week conferences. Ann Romney once invited Tony Kimball, a government professor and member of the congregation, to lecture, and he spoke about the reluctant polygamy of his great grandfather, church president Heber J. Grant.

George Romney, then secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Nixon administration, spoke about how corporations needed to act more like people. According to Leo Brown, who listened to the speech, the former head of the American Motors Corp. stressed how acting in a corporation’s interest was not an excuse for what, on an individual level, would be considered unethical.

Mitt Romney preferred more social gatherings, and distinguished himself for his ability to “turn out the vote so to speak,” Miller said. He organized events in the gym of the chapel, where he would serve as the master of ceremonies or dance the Charleston.

For one youth conference, he took nearly 100 teenagers away for a weekend of uplifting religious experiences. In addition to the two or three religious instruction meetings, a group service project and an event involving business celebrities from Cambridge who taught financial tips, Romney introduced movie night. Attendees recalled watching “Brigham Young,” a 1940 biopic starring Tyrone Power and Vincent Price, dividing pies on pizza night, another Romney innovation, and watching Romney and Ann, decked out in a chiffon dress, ballroom dance on Saturday night.

In 1974, a reorganization of the church dissolved Williams’s bishopric. A new bishop, an architect named John Romish, took over the redrawn ward. Romish relieved Ann Romney from her obligations, finding her unable to relate to the girls in the ward. But he also thought that Mitt, being from “a very well to do family,” was gone too often to serve. He also said he had “one problem” with Romney “over church policy,” although he would not say exactly what it was. “It was resolved to my satisfaction, whether it was resolved to his satisfaction, I’m not sure.”

A short interruption

For an active Mormon such as Romney, the break in church service was not a reprieve but a rut on the path to personal and spiritual self-actualization.

In the Mormon faith, leadership positions are filled with a lay clergy to promote a sense of community. In practical terms, the flock profits from having talented officeholders, who in turn benefit from a broadened experience. But for devout Mormons such as Romney, that personal growth is also a step in a spiritual transformation.

Mormonism’s most radical leap from traditional Christianity is its literal conception of God, in which the Holy Father and Jesus Christ are unique personages with perfect physical bodies. Mormons believe that they too, in part through good work, healthy living and good faith, can attain godhood. “As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may be” is an often quoted tenet. A pause in Romney’s service therefore had cosmic consequences.

“It’s an evolutionary process,” said Williams, who explained that only when service becomes second nature through continual works in the church, can Mormons undergo a change that allows them to be more like the “heavenly father and heavenly mother.”

Romney’s interruption was short-lived. Within months he had answered a calling to teach a seminary class. It was a position in which Williams said he perceived the beginnings of that deep spiritual change in his protégé. “He became more intuitive,” Williams said.

A tradition of religious instruction ran through the Romney family. Mitt’s mother, Lenore, taught his Sunday school class when he was a child. In Cambridge, Ann taught girls in the Young Women organizations how to avoid drugs and pregnancy and throw a proper dinner party. In 1974, a group of high school students, including the children of some of the congregation’s most prominent members, climbed to the second floor of the Longfellow Park Chapel for their weekly lesson. The kids took their places on couches and newly arrived vinyl-upholstered furniture. Their teacher stood in front of the blackboard in white shirt and tie. The students, used to honorifics such as brother or elder, were pleasantly surprised to find themselves on a first name basis with him.

“He was just Mitt to us,” said Kristen Haines, a student in the class.

Romney showed off his ability to speak French, regaled his class with old war stories from his days as a missionary and boasted about a 1967 Town & Country article that included him among “America’s most eligible young men.” (“Tall (6’ 2”), dark hair and eyes. . . . A serious chap.”) He also passed down some of his father’s tales as a missionary in England. When the British gave George Romney grief about him trying to steal their women for his “harem” in Utah, John Peters, another student in the class, recalled Mitt saying, George held up a picture of his wife, Lenore, and said: “ ‘With this at home, why would I want to touch your English girls?’ ”

Laurie MacNeill, a recent convert, recalled that Romney was happy to see her join the church at a young age, and that his engagement and encouragement extended beyond the classroom. When she received her driver’s license, Romney entrusted her to drive his car.

Haines, who was 15 when she took the class, described herself as “from the other side of the tracks” from the Romneys. She said he treated her as an equal and helped compensate for a void at home by encouraging her to go to college. When the students asked the Harvard law student if he was excited to become a lawyer, he answered, “ ‘No I’m going to go into business, but I think every businessman should understand the law.’ ”

The central lesson of the class, though, was that despite the flack Mormons often caught out in the world for the peculiarity of their ways and theology, they could be smart and successful and also believe in the teachings of Joseph Smith.

Romney taught the basics of that belief system, that in the 19th century Smith received a series of revelations in New York, first from “God the Father” and his “beloved Son,” and then the Angel Moroni instructing him that all the existing churches were an “abomination” and “corrupt” and directing him to buried golden plates.

The plates told the story of Israelite tribes, the dark-skinned Lamanites, and the more faithful and favored Nephites, who, in migrations beginning more than 4,000 years ago, took ships from the Holy Land to the Americas. The two sides go through periods of war until hearing Jesus Christ, upon his resurrection in Jerusalem, preach and establish his true church in the Western Hemisphere. It is that church that the latter-day prophet Joseph Smith claimed to restore.

Romney also taught about the pioneer saga through the American wilderness. For Mormons, those tales of grit and perseverance are a modern day Exodus imbued with religious significance. Salt Lake’s ecclesiastical arm protected that history and, along with sometimes conflicting revelations from successive church presidents, edited out inconvenient chapters such as polygamy and an 1857 massacre perpetrated by Mormons. Romney followed this “faithful history” perspective.

“The materials Mitt would have been working with would have been the sanitized pabulum approach,” Kimball said. “It would have been noncontroversial ‘this is the way it was,’ even though the new church history has shown this wasn’t the way it was.”

Romney brought much-appreciated levity to the heavy subject matter. He introduced a Mormon version of the television game show “Concentration,” in which he would put up a visual clue and quiz the class on its meaning. Once, he held up a cartoon drawing of a cow with a thought bubble above its head that read “No Milk.” From that, the class was supposed to identify Oliver Cowdery — as in Cow Dry — who was one of the first people baptized by Joseph Smith.

To ingrain the students with knowledge of the chapter and verse necessary to compete at “scripture chases,” the gospel-quoting contests at Stake-wide conferences, Romney taught mnemonic devices. “7:47 will get you to heaven” the students learned as a way to recall the Book of Mormon passage that teaches that charity “endureth forever and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him.”

Gordon Clay, another student in the class, recalled that Romney taught Moroni 10:4 in terms of an affirmative CB radio sign off, saying “that’s a big 10 - 4,” because that scripture in the Book of Mormon affirms the book’s truth. “I would exhort you that ye would ask God . . . if these things are not true . . . he will manifest the truth of it unto you.”

When the class playacted scenes from Mormon history, Romney participated with gusto. In one scene depicting the imprisonment of Joseph Smith in Carthage, Illinois, where he was killed by a mob, Romney played the part of jailer. “He hammed it up,” recalled Clay. “He came in and said, ‘You Mormons!’”

Romney did not entirely avoid touchy subjects. There are passages in the Doctrines and Covenants, a scripture collecting Smith’s post-Book of Mormon revelations, in which Mormons are instructed to live in a utopian United Order, in which they share resources and renounced ownership, wore uniforms and ate at set times. They fail to do so and, partially as a result, turn to tithing.

“That was an economic issue, which was the sort of thing he knew about,” said Brick Bushman, one of Romney’s students. “The complexity of it was: How could these guys, with Joseph Smith right there with them, not be able to do it?”

The Washington Temple

“We praise thy Holy Name, our Beloved Father,” church President Spencer W. Kimball said at the 1974 dedication of the new Mormon temple that hovers over the Capital Beltway. “We are grateful that thou didst cause this land to be rediscovered and settled by people who founded a great nation with an inspired constitution guaranteeing freedom in which there could come the glorious restoration of the gospel and the Church of thy Beloved Son.”

The Boston stake president required the wards to pay into a temple fund to charter a bus to Washington so that the area’s Mormons could regularly practice the religion’s holiest rites. The bus would leave at 8 p.m. on Thursday, making various stops to pick up the faithful before heading down to Washington. Some of the smaller women on the bus slept in the luggage racks above the seats, and one night, Romney, who often studied on the bus, tried to do the same.

“He didn’t have too good an experience,” said John Romish, who said that the passengers had a laugh when Romney lowered himself in the morning, rubbing his back.

The bus arrived in Washington early on Friday morning, and Romney and the other members would seek to get hours of endowment sessions in before an afternoon break. After lunch, the Romneys and others would return to pray in the temple. After another morning session on Saturday, the Bostonians returned to the bus in high spirits for the ride back north. Romney would join a group telling stories and singing hymns, but also Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin songs.

By then, Romney had gained the reputation as a model Latter-day Saint. In 1975, a police officer named Agostino Manderino converted to Mormonism after decades of marriage to a lifelong believer. Soon after, his bishop assigned him to be a Home Teacher to the Romneys. That responsibility required Manderino to visit the family with a spiritual message in the early evening, when the Romney children were still awake. After opening the meeting with a prayer, he often let the Romney boys play with his handcuffs, billy club and police badge.

Manderino’s widow, Betty, recalled that he would always come back to the house energized in his faith and report how the Romneys were “really great LDS people.” She added that the church probably provided the Romneys as a role model to her newly converted husband. The Boston hierarchy, she said, “probably thought that they would help fellowship him a little more.”

After teaching seminary class, Romney returned to leadership, sitting on the council of 12 men who hold the church’s higher Melchizedek priesthood. Clad in suits and ties, the elders met regularly around an oblong conference table, surrounded by gospel scenes, a chalkboard and rolling rack of hymn books in the Weston Stake Center.

The stake president and his two counselors, who had an office directly adjacent, would join the high council at the head of the table, echoing the composition of the three-man church presidency when it met with the quorum of the 12 apostles in Salt Lake. Seniority dictated the seating down the line, and Romney sat at the end as one of the most junior members.

A hymn and prayer would open the hour-and-a half proceedings, conducted by stake president Bushman, who received reports about the activities similar in jurisdiction to a Catholic diocese. Romney sat on committees looking after the Aaronic priesthoods, or the young boys in the stake, helped organize a concert in Boston by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and delivered 10-minute sermons.

“There was a joke about how the high council should be called the dry council because everybody thought the talks were so boring,” joked Dennis Lythgoe, another member of the council who became a political history professor and book critic.

Romney occasionally sat on a disciplinary council judging sinners; mostly adulterers but in rare cases child abusers whom the body excommunicated. They also had less serious duties. When the church leased a nearby farm to grow and sell vegetables to aid the church’s Welfare Program, Romney joined members of the high council in a failed effort to grow squash.

“Maybe we were a little arrogant thinking that we would be successful no matter what we did,” Bowen said.

During breaks in the council meetings, Romney would work the room, seeking out the other budding businessmen on the council. He became friends with Robert Gay, who eventually joined Bain Capital and founded Huntsman Gay Global Capital; Kim Clark, the future Harvard Business School dean, and Paul McKinnon, who would run human resources for Dell Inc. and Citigroup. According to D. Richard McFerson, who went on to become the chief executive of Nationwide Insurance, Romney would discuss clients and marketing plans and ask “a question or two.”

“His conversations were not interesting to me because he was all about money,” Lythgoe said, explaining that Romney would capitalize on the close confines to talk over “an opportunity at a company and things like that.”

The stake presidency

In 1977, Romney’s mentor and former bishop, Gordon Williams, had risen to stake president. Concerned primarily with safeguarding the flock’s youth in the face of Boston’s escalating drug and alcohol problems, Williams called on his youth-oriented protégé to sit beside him as one of his two counselors.

The two became closer than ever. Williams said Romney confided in him that when his mother, suffering from a mysterious ailment, consulted a doctor in Britain, the physician suggested a hypertension specialist back in Boston named Gordon Williams. (Williams added that both church and professional protocols prevented him from further commenting on her case.)

As an official in the stake presidency, Romney cared deeply about events starting and ending on time, about people being appropriately dressed. At one meeting, he approvingly remarked that an event was “well-organized, everyone had name tags,’ ” according to Richard Sherlock, a philosophy professor who acted as the assistant stake executive secretary. Romney proved deeply engaged with how much individual wards and the members of those wards were contributing to the church and expressed concern that teachers in the various organizations within the church were straying from the lesson plans approved by Salt Lake City. When a leader of the young men’s organization proved disappointing, Romney and others “eased him out,” according to Kimball, who sat on the high council at the time.

McFerson, Romney’s fellow counselor, proved so impressed with Romney’s performance and charisma that he confided in his wife that he thought Romney had what it took to run for president of the United States.

As before, Romney expressed little interest in the larger cultural questions facing the church. Sherlock couldn’t recall the ban on blacks in the priesthood coming up within the stake presidency meetings, though it did in the less formal Sunday religious education classes, called priesthood meetings, that he took with Romney.

“ ‘I don’t know about the rest of you, but it doesn’t make sense to me that God plays favorites like that,’ ” Sherlock recalled saying. Romney, he said, “did not want to talk about that. You could just see that it made him uncomfortable. For him, religion was a box, it was the safe box.”

In 1978, a revelation by Kimball lifted the ban on blacks in the church. Romney has talked about how he wept with joy at the announcement, and the stake presidency, to which he belonged as counselor, immediately moved to bestow the priesthood on Lowe. When the rite occurred at a testimony meeting in the Longfellow chapel, the leadership embraced and, according to Williams, tears welled in Romney’s eyes.

It didn’t take long for church officials to demonstrate a sense of humor about the former ban. Soon after it was lifted, a young MIT student fulfilling his mission in Los Angeles reported to the stake presidency and high council about the doors he was now able to knock on in black neighborhoods like Watts.

“ ‘After the revelation on blacks in the priesthood,’ ” the missionary said, according to Kimball, “ ‘the complexion of our mission changed greatly.’ ”

Romney and others in the room, Kimball said, burst into laughter.

Other issues had replaced the ban as the most controversial in the church. Mormon feminists, many of whom were based in Boston, challenged the church’s opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment and suggestion that a woman’s place was in the home. Romney was made uncomfortable by the protests. When he heard a teacher had brought women into a men’s priesthood meeting to talk about their religious experiences, he called it “ ‘inappropriate,’ ” according to Sherlock.

Even as a burgeoning church leader, Romney preferred talking in business terms. During one address to the congregation in Cambridge, Romney gave a spiritual talk about investment spending, telling the Mormon graduate students that their borrowing of money for an education would pay off with a degree that would help them earn their money back. But he counseled the congregants not to leverage their church duties. “Don’t give up on church attendance thinking you will be able to make it up later, because you will definitely lose something,” Romney said, according to Steve Rowley, then a graduate student at MIT.

At another larger meeting of several wards, Romney, arriving in his work suit, proudly declared that he had taken time out from a corporate takeover to address his brethren. “ ‘And after it was over,’ ” Romney said, according to Rowley, he would have to “ ‘tell a bunch of people whether or not they had jobs.’ ”

Rowley recalled thinking that Romney spoke about those in his faith and those outside it differently. “Those other people are people too,” Rowley recalled thinking.

At the end of the decade, Salt Lake halted the questioning of church history, purging academics in Utah and upsetting members elsewhere, including in Romney’s congregation. Romney, himself, was unaffected and continued on his path.

Williams had begun telling members of the high council that he wanted Romney to succeed him as stake president, but first he felt Romney needed the transformative experience of being a bishop.

When it came time to choose a new bishop for the Cambridge ward, Williams made a pilgrimage to the Washington Temple in search of inspiration. Romney was not the logical choice. He was young and serving effectively as a counselor. And yet as he meditated on the question in the temple’s Celestial Room, Williams said of Romney, “the name that came up was his name, and all of the other names faded into the background.”

On one winter evening, Williams called Romney, then 34, over to his house and instructed his wife that the two churchmen were not to be disturbed by phone calls. Behind closed doors, the mentor called upon his protégé to be the new bishop of Cambridge.

“He had never seen Mitt speechless,” Kimball recalled Williams later telling him. “But Mitt was speechless.”

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