Though Mitt Romney has been getting a great deal of coverage due to his presidential campaign, a lot of the media’s focus has been on his religion rather than his politics. Not much has been said, though, about the Romney family history in Arizona, which goes back a long way.
In the 1880s, Arizona became a pivotal center of religious persecution for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (which church is frequently misnamed the Mormon Church). The LDS Church had made efforts to colonize Arizona, sending many of its members from Utah to establish colonies along several rivers in Arizona from 1876–1881.
Things began to spiral downward for the Latter-day Saints (Mormons) in 1882, when the federal Edmunds Act was passed. This made the practice of polygamy a felony and made polygamists ineligible for public office. One local election judge refused the right to vote to at least one Mormon bishop.
Mormon polygamy is a practice which is largely still misunderstood. Though the LDS Church has not condoned its practice since 1890, many people still think that Mormons practice polygamy, which is not true. Those who practice polygamy today are fundamentalists and are not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, though many refer to themselves as Mormons.
However, in 1880, polygamy was being practiced by a small percentage of the membership of the LDS Church, and those who obeyed what they truly believed to be a direct commandment from God (and a right they felt was protected under freedom of religion in the U.S. Constitution),were severely persecuted. After the Edmunds Act was passed, more than 1,000 Mormons were imprisoned because of their faith, according to an estimate by Carmon Hardy, a professor emeritus of history at Cal State Fullerton who is an expert on Mormon history.
Though many people opposed to Latter-day Saints (“Mormons”) used polygamy as an excuse to persecute the Saints because the real fear was that the large numbers of Saints would take everything over politically and economically. “They soon found themselves under attack, ostensibly because they practiced polygamy, but actually because their growing population threatened the status quo,” according to “Prosecution of the Mormons in Arizona Territory in the 1880s,” a 1977 article in “Arizona and the West,” a quarterly journal of history put out by the University of Arizona.
Battles over land lot jumping were common, as were disputes for control of the communities’ land and water. In 1879, Ammon Meshach Tenney bought land, under the direction of the Church, to establish a Mormon colony at St. Johns, but Mexican squatters were already living there and existing white settlers tried to jump the claim. In 1882, Ammon’s father, Nathan, was shot and killed while trying to keep the peace. At this time, the Saints’ enemies tried to use the new, stronger polygamy law to drive the Mormons out.
During this tumultuous time, several Mormon leaders were arrested and sentenced to 3.5 years in the federal prison in Detroit, which they referred to as the “American Siberia.” Their trials took place in Prescott, the territorial capital.
It was at this time that Miles Park Romney, Mitt Romney’s great-grandfather was arrested for practicing polygamy. After witnessing his fellow Saints’ unfair trials, Romney fled to Mexico along with hundreds of other Mormons, trying to escape religious persecution.
“The Mormons were subject to land-grabbers, cheats and deceivers, denied the right to vote, harassed by the local law enforcement, and involved in gunfights where one bullet went through Miles’ home while his families were in it,” said Larry Romney of Chino Valley, another great-grandson of Miles Park Romney.
In addition to the charges drawn up against practicers of polygamy, many Church leaders were accused of perjury. Though many were arrested on these charges, a grand jury would not indict them. However, after a few men were convicted on polygamy charges, some federal authorities decided to revive the perjury charges and brought them against Romney, Joseph Crosby, and David King Udall in 1885. While Romney escaped to Mexico and Crosby was acquitted, Udall was convicted. He was crushed. He said he would rather have been convicted on a polygamy charge, because the charge of perjury attacked his character. He was worried that his family was languishing without his financial support.
Ammon Tenney, Peter Christofferson, and Christopher Kempe refused to plead guilty to their charges and were convicted in December 1884 to 3.5 years in the Detroit prison. Two months later, Mormon prophet John Taylor was publicly encouraging Arizona polygamists to seek refuge in Mexico.
In addition to the persecution they were already facing, Mormon polygamists were prohibited from voting or holding public office by the territorial legislature in Prescott. Church leaders began to fight back by getting key witnesses to plead on Udall’s behalf that he had not perjured himself. They then appealed to President Grover Cleveland to pardon Udall at the end of 1885.
Next, Church leaders gained support from other territorial leaders to get a presidential pardon for the three men sent to Detroit. After they had served nearly two years in prison, Cleveland signed their pardons in October 1886. This led to other polygamists being pardoned. Eventually, in 1887, the territorial legislature repealed its own anti-polygamy law.
To try and decrease tension, local Mormon leaders even encouraged the Saints to split their votes by becoming Republican. This continues today, with many political Udalls remaining Democrats while the Flakes, Romneys, and Tenneys are mostly Republicans. When The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints officially stopped practicing polygamy in 1890, even more of the tension died down.
However, many who were persecuted didn’t live to see the benefit of peace. Miles Park Romney died in Mexico in 1904 before his family returned to the U.S. during the Mexican Revolution in 1912.
Mitt’s father George, a Michigan governor who also ran for president, was born in Mexico in 1907. Mitt Romney descends from Miles Romney’s first of five wives.
It is because of stressful histories like these that many misconceptions still exist about Mormons today. The attention the media has given to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints due to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, has done a lot to educate the public on Mormon beliefs.
Doris White is a native of Oregon and graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in English and a minor in Editing. She loves to talk with others about the gospel of Jesus Christ.