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.”