Artifact 12: Letters From Romney’s Mission to France



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romney letter


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In the lead-up to The Choice 2012, FRONTLINE’s hotly anticipated dual biography of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, we’re publishing “The Artifacts of Character,” a series of rarely seen objects that elucidate key moments and experiences in the candidates’ lives. This week we’ll be publishing three artifacts for each candidate, on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday. Check back tomorrow for our last pair of artifacts.

click on a letter to enlarge

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Source: Bentley Historical Library. (Note: the library only has a fragment of the first letter from George Romney)

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At age 19, Mitt Romney set out for France to begin 30 months of missionary work for the Mormon church. Each day, he would wake at 6 a.m., eat breakfast, study his bible, and then go door-to-door searching for converts.


conversion map

His task wasn’t easy. In a mainly Catholic country that prides itself on its wine, few were eager to embrace Mormonism’s strict prohibitions, including its rules against alcohol. Rejection came so often that George Romney would write to his son with words of encouragement. In a fragment from a February 1967 letter, George quoted Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Treasure Island, counseling Mitt to “Despair not, but if you despair, work on in your despair.”

conversion map

Click map to enlarge. Credit: Michael Bush

Romney emerged as a standout missionary. In the “Conversion Diary,” a newsletter published by the mission, he is often found outperforming his peers in stats like time spent proselytizing and the number of Mormon bibles distributed.

The experience was pivotal for Romney, who has said, “I came to know my faith a great deal better by virtue of my two-and-a-half years in France.”

The growing importance of that faith comes through in a July 1968 letter back to his father in which Romney describes his work to spread Mormonism through “singing,” “basketball exhibitions,” and even venturing into bars with “a message of great happiness and joy.” It is, he wrote, “Amazing how that builds ones [sic] courage!”

With that courage came leadership skills that would later propel Romney to success in business and politics. When the mission president left France following his wife’s death in a car accident — a crash that nearly killed Romney as well — the mission was left leaderless. Romney responded by embracing an expanded role, helping the mission to reach a goal of 200 new recruits.

The experience “allowed that which was naturally in him to then come to the fore,” Dane McBride, who served alongside Romney in France, told FRONTLINE. “He went from being an exuberant young man to being a seasoned leader who had been through a world of experiences, and had accomplished some great things, not by himself, but by his leadership,” said McBride.

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