Polygamy was not just a historical footnote but a prominent element in the family tree of the former Massachusetts governor now seeking to become the first LDS president.
Romney's great-grandfather, Miles Park Romney, married his fifth wife in 1897. That was more than six years after LDS church leaders banned polygamy and more than three decades after a federal law barred the practice.
Romney's great-grandmother, Hannah Hood Hill, was the daughter of polygamists. She wrote vividly in her autobiography about how she "used to walk the floor and shed tears of sorrow" over her own husband's multiple marriages.
Romney's great-great-grandfather Parley P. Pratt, an apostle in the church, had 12 wives. In an 1852 sermon, Parley P. Pratt's brother and fellow apostle, Orson Pratt, became the first church official to publicly proclaim and defend polygamy as a direct revelation from God.
Romney's father, former Michigan Gov. George Romney, was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, where church members fled in the 1800s to escape religious persecution and U.S. laws forbidding polygamy. He and his family did not return to the United States until 1912, more than two decades after the church issued "The Manifesto" banning polygamy.
"When you read the family's history, you realize how important polygamy was to them," said Todd Compton, a Mormon and independent historian who wrote a book about the polygamous life of the church's founder, Joseph Smith. "They left America and started again as pioneers, after they had done it over and over again previously."
B. Carmon Hardy, a polygamy expert and retired history professor at California State University-Fullerton, said polygamy was "a very important part of Miles Park Romney's family."
Hardy added: "Now, very gradually, as you moved farther away from it, it became less a part of it. But during the time of Miles Park Romney, it was an essential principle of the Romney family life."
Other LDS church members have run for the White House, including Romney's father in 1968 and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, in 2000. But Mitt Romney's stature as a leading 2008 contender has renewed questions about his faith and its doctrines.
At the same time, polygamy remains a part of current events.
HBO is airing a television series, "Big Love," that features a man in Utah where the LDS church is based with three wives. Self-proclaimed "Mormon fundamentalist" Warren Jeffs, formerly on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list, is facing multiple felony charges for sex crimes related to underage marriages among members of his breakaway church's 10,000 members in Utah and Arizona, who openly practice polygamy.
Romney has joked about polygamy, saying in various settings that to him, "marriage is between a man and a woman ... and a woman and a woman." But in serious moments he has called the practice "bizarre" and noted his church excommunicates those who engage in it.
An introductory film played at his fund-raisers and campaign appearances features his wife, Ann, talking about their 37-year marriage. Romney himself notes they started as high school sweethearts.
This month, Ann Romney tried a different tack, taking a lighthearted jab at her husband's main Republican competitors, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, as she introduced Romney at a Missouri GOP dinner.
The biggest difference between her husband and the other candidates, Ann Romney said, is that "he's had only one wife."
McCain has been married twice; Giuliani three times.
The Romney campaign had no comment for this story.
Joseph Smith, who founded The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1830, quietly introduced polygamy. He believed it had roots in the Old Testament and was necessary to reach the highest salvation in heaven. Smith is believed to have had 33 wives.
Brigham Young expanded the practice after the church's migration from the Midwest to Utah, which began in 1846. He is said to have had 55 wives. Historical texts show Young also asked Orson Pratt to publicly proclaim the church's belief in polygamy in 1852.
In 1862, while Utah was a territory, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act, banning plural marriage. In 1882, Congress also passed the Edmunds Act, an anti-polygamy law. That was followed in 1887 by the Edmunds-Tucker Act, which disincorporated the church and threatened to seize its nonreligious real estate as part of the crackdown on polygamy.
In 1890, church President Wilford Woodruff issued "The Manifesto," in which he declared the church no longer taught or permitted plural marriages.
Nonetheless, the law of polygamy Smith's revelation that God authorized polygamy remains in Article 132 of the church's Doctrine and Covenants. In addition, Mormon widowers who remarry today believe they will live in eternity with their multiple wives.
Church genealogical records, among the most detailed and complete of any religion, show that two of Mitt Romney's great-great-grandfathers, Miles Romney and Parley P. Pratt, had 12 wives each.
Compton, the polygamy scholar, disputes that. He believes Miles Romney only had one wife because the records do not show the dates for his other 11 marriages or any offspring from them.
Miles Romney and his one clearly documented wife, Elizabeth Gaskell, had 10 children. Among them was Miles Park Romney, one of Mitt Romney's great-grandfathers.
Miles Park Romney had five wives. With his first wife, Hannah Hood Hill, he had 11 children. Among them was Gaskell Romney, Mitt Romney's paternal grandfather.
Hannah Hood Hill's autobiography offers an eyewitness account of the Romney family's polygamous past. Hardy, the Cal-State historian, found it amid research for his upcoming book, "Doing the Works of Abraham: Mormon Polygamy."
Hood Hill wrote of Miles Park Romney: "I felt that was more than I could endure, to have him divide his time and affections from me. I used to walk the floor and shed tears of sorrow. If anything will make a woman's heart ache, it is for her husband to take another wife. ... But I put my trust in my heavenly father, and prayed and pleaded with him to give me strength to bear this great trial."
Miles Park Romney's final marriage, to Emily Eyring Smith, came in 1897, more than six years after "The Manifesto."
Gaskell Romney, Mitt Romney's grandfather, was not a polygamist. He married Anna Amelia Pratt, the daughter of polygamists and the granddaughter of Parley P. Pratt, the apostle with 12 wives. Their marriage took place Feb. 20, 1895, in Dublan, Mexico.
Gaskell Romney had moved to Mexico with his parents in 1884 amid the proliferation of U.S. laws prohibiting "unlawful cohabitation." Anna Pratt was born in Utah but had emigrated to Mexico and lived in one of nine colonies established by the church over the border.
Gaskell Romney and Anna Pratt had seven children, including George Wilcken Romney, the former Michigan governor. He lived with his parents in Mexico until 1912, when the family returned to the United States.
George Romney married Lenore LaFount, who does not appear to have polygamy in her family tree. The couple, now deceased, had four children, including Mitt Romney.
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