Mitt's LDS roots run deep

Published: Monday, July 2 2007 12:00 a.m. MDT

The series
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NANTES, France — Elder Romney didn't even have time to put on his shoes.

The 19-year-old missionary was in his apartment when a woman burst in to say some Frenchmen were beating up one of his fellow Mormons down the street.

The barefoot Mitt Romney, who had been in France for just six months, joined his roommates in rushing into the snowy night.

They found a team of rugby players, drowning their sorrows after a lost match, hassling two female missionaries. The women had cried out "Allez-y!" which means "go on," rather than "Allez-vous en," meaning "go away." The male missionary who leapt to their defense had been punched out. Romney ended up with a badly bruised jaw.

"There were about 20 guys, very large and very muscular, and we were a group of very young and very small American guys," Romney would recall 40 years later. "If you get into a fight with Muhammad Ali, you don't return the punch, you just put your arms up."

In a lifetime of good fortune, the January 1967 rumble in Nantes stands out as a rare moment of defeat. But as a snapshot of his 30 months as an LDS missionary, it is less exceptional: His time in France posed one of the great challenges of his life. It was marked by frustration and, ultimately, tragedy. The victories were visible only in hindsight.

Day after day, he knocked on doors urging people, most of them Catholic but many of them hostile to religion and often to the United States as well, to join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormonism was a religion of mystery to most French people, recognized mostly for its history of polygamy and, in a country that takes its wine seriously, for its prohibition against alcohol.

Serving as a missionary was an LDS tradition. From the very start, in the 1830s, the Latter-day Saints had sent out missionaries to preach the gospel.

"Your presiding officers have recommended you as one worthy to represent the Church of our Lord as a Minister of the Gospel," said the letter sent to missionaries in 1966 by David O. McKay, who as church president was revered as a living prophet by Mormons.

For 2 1/2 years, Romney would wear the dark suits and white shirts of an LDS missionary. He would be allowed to call home only on Christmas and Mother's Day. There would be no drinking, no smoking, no sex and no dating. He would be alone only in the bathroom — Mormon missionaries are paired always with a companion to reduce the opportunity for mischief. All of his time, all of his energy, would be devoted to trying to persuade the people of France to join the LDS Church.

France was, of course, glamorous and beautiful, and the missionaries had half a day off each week for "diversions," which often meant a chance to visit a chateau. But France was also one of the most inhospitable countries to Mormonism.

The first Mormon missionary had arrived in 1849, but the missionaries had been evicted during the reign of Napoleon III and fled again during World War II. By the time Romney arrived, there were just 6,500 LDS Church members in the entire country.

"Being in a foreign place in a foreign language with a foreign faith, you really do a lot of soul-searching about what you believe and what you're going to do with the rest of your life," Romney would recall decades later.

Romney said he found inspiration in the story of a Utah chemist, Henry Eyring, who, hobbled by cancer, nonetheless struggled to help his church weed an onion patch, only to learn that the row he had worked on didn't need weeding. Eyring, as Romney tells the story, responded, "Well, that's OK, I didn't come here for the onions."

"He came to respond to the call of service," Romney said, "and I think that's what happens to young men or young women who go on a mission."

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