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The fact that Sen. Mitt Romney, instead of publishing his own memoir next month, worked with the Atlantic’s McKay Coppins on a biography—Romney: A Reckoning—tells us two things. First, Romney knows that he’s never going to be president. Second, on his way out, Romney is still responding to a calling—one that comes in part from his own Mormon faith—to try, one last time, to dislodge the GOP from Trump and save the American republic from Trumpism.
It’s not a surprise that Romney has turned to Coppins to help author his farewell address. Coppins, an excellent storyteller and chronicler of Republican politics in the Trump years, is a fellow Latter-day Saint who came of age in Massachusetts when Romney was governor of the state. That shared background is important. We found out last week, when Coppins published an excerpt of the biography on the Atlantic’s website, that in 2021 Romney and Coppins began meeting in Romney’s Senate offices or in his tony Washington town house, and had long conversations during which, Romney told Coppins, “no subject would be off-limits.”
Romney also gave Coppins access to a space even more intimate, and perhaps even more Mormon: Romney’s personal journals and other papers from his time as a senator. On these pages, Romney presents himself as a vestige of a mostly mythic past, when senators spoke and voted based on their principles, not party expediency. As Coppins writes in typically vivid prose:
[Romney] handed over hundreds of pages of his private journals and years’ worth of personal correspondence, including sensitive emails with some of the most powerful Republicans in the country. When he couldn’t find the key to an old filing cabinet that contained some of his personal papers, he took a crowbar to it and deposited stacks of campaign documents and legal pads in my lap. He’d kept all of this stuff, he explained, because he thought he might write a memoir one day, but he’d decided against it. “I can’t be objective about my own life,” he said.
Historians of Mormonism can relate to Coppins’ implied feelings of joy and overwhelm. We’ve all had cabinets full of papers dumped in our laps. To be sure, it’s not only Mormons who collect and compile written records of their lives, with the idea of one day turning that archive into a narrative for personal, familial, and historical posterity, or turning that archive over to a biographer to do that sorting for them. But journaling is a particularly Mormon pastime.
The Book of Mormon, the faith’s foundational text, reads like a series of journal entries penned by ancient prophets who recorded the goings-on of ancient history with the expectation that future generations would read them to know the past and to learn what to do in the present and future. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, declared at the first official meeting of the church on April 6, 1830, “Behold, there shall be a record kept among you.” This revelation established the position of the church historian and recorder, the person in the hierarchy responsible for taking the minutes of meetings and speeches of church leaders, compiling membership information, organizing sacred and mundane records of the church, and narrating the history of the church.
To paraphrase prominent historian of Mormonism Jan Shipps, Latter-day Saints don’t have a theology; they have a history. The mandate of the church historian and recorder was to capture on paper the trials and blessings of the people of God as their history unfolds in what Mormons describe as the latter days, before the second coming of Christ. On these pages, church historians and recorders show how, from their perspective, God speaks to and intervenes in the life of the church, and how in turn members of the church leadership act to create a kingdom of God fit for Christ’s (somewhat) imminent return.
It’s not just the official church that has kept journals that chronicle the unfolding history of Mormonism. Individual Mormons have, and still do, with the same spirit—looking to identify God’s involvement in their lives, often in the face of religious persecution, and to discern how they should act godly, to “choose the right,” as the Mormon saying goes.
Journaling has been an integral part of the Romney family’s Mormon faith ever since Mitt’s great-great-grandfather Miles Romney (1806–1877) became the family’s first Mormon convert after he heard missionaries preach in his native England in 1837. Soon after, Romney immigrated to the U.S., eventually joining the Mormons in Utah, where he served as an architect, designing temples, tabernacles, and the homes of the church’s second prophet Brigham Young.
Miles Romney’s journal from the early 1850s is largely mundane. Reports of the weather. Descriptions of various infrastructure projects. Summaries of sermons. Births, sicknesses, deaths among the Mormon brethren and family members. Reports of attacks of Native Americans against mail trains. Romney also wrote into his journal transcriptions of anti-Mormon newspaper clippings, especially about Mormon polygamy. In April 1852, Romney recorded, “A Massachusetts paper says, a lady from Lynn, who has recently returned from the Mormon settlement at the Great Salt Lake confirms the statement that the laws of the community permit the men to have as many wives as they can support—the young being able to take five [or] six only, and the older twenty-five to thirty.” Miles Romney married as many as 12 wives before he died in 1877. One of his sons, Mitt’s great-grandfather Miles Park Romney, married five wives. During the U.S. government’s anti-polygamy campaigns of the 1880s, Miles Park Romney led a party of polygamists to Chihuahua, Mexico, to escape imprisonment. It was there, a generation later, that Mitt Romney’s father, George Romney, was born into a monogamous family, after the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ended polygamy in the first decade of the 20th century.
In his journal, the elder Miles Romney wrote about his own sacred work, and recorded prophecies about the work his sons Miles and George would have to take up to preserve the faith in the face of persecution. “My son George you are born to a great man,” Miles Romney wrote in May 1852. “I have commenced the work of regeneration and am trying to lay a foundation which you will be called to finish and build the building, to the patriarchal government ere long will devolve to govern your brethren in rightious. May the Lord give you wisdom and power to accomplish it.”
For the diarists in Mitt Romney’s family tree, journals might have been personal. But they were never meant to be private. Instead, they were always fashioned with an audience in mind. That’s why in their biography of another of Mitt Romney’s great-great-grandfathers—Parley P. Pratt, the most beloved Mormon in the early church who was not named Smith—Terryl Givens and Matthew J. Grow turned not to Pratt’s copious journal for details of his spiritual doubts and troubles in his family life, but to his private correspondence with family members.
The fact that many among the faithful penned journal entries with an eye toward future readers did not mean that Mormon writers were all necessarily making things up in their diaries. In her book The Polygamous Wives Writing Club, historian Paula Kelly Harline compared journals of polygamous Mormons, most of whom were not the wives of famous Mormon leaders, to the autobiographies that these women wrote for their children and grandchildren. Harline found that these journals revealed more about their trials and tribulations—pregnancies getting in the way of intimacy, potential job prospects out of the home, and jealousy among fellow wives were common preoccupations in their day-to-day musings—than the stories of triumph that their more polished and edited memoirs immortalized.
To the contrary, Mormon journals, especially the ones written by those outside the “patriarchy,” have long served as correctives to the “official” histories written by Mormon men. Take, for example, Adelia Almira Wilcox’s journal entries from October 1853. That fall, Utah was in the midst of the Walker war, a sporadic series of violent encounters between the Mormon settlers and the Utes, who were then led by Wakara, the famed horse thief and slave trader who was alternately friend and foe to the Mormons.
According to the official account penned by Major George W. Bradley, a military commander at Fort Nephi in central Utah, the Mormon militia tried to question a group of Utes (or, possibly, Goshutes—we aren’t entirely sure) about the murder of a Mormon wagon team the previous month. The Natives refused to lay down their arms. Instead, they “showed fight” and began shooting arrows at the Mormons, wounding a few. Bradley had no choice, he said. He wrote in his report, “I ordered them to be fired upon. Several Indians were killed and the squaw [w]as taken prisoner.”
Wilcox, a Mormon settler, was also at Nephi during this “skirmish,” as Bradley referred to it in his report. But Wilcox wrote in her journal that the Mormons, not the Native Americans, had been the belligerents. “They were shot down like so many dogs, picked up with pitchforks, put on a sleigh and hauled away,” she wrote. “It was afterwards [I] learned that they … had no hand in murdering our brethren.” What Bradley called a “skirmish” between two warring parties was, according to Wilcox, really a massacre of innocents. In 2006, during an excavation of a foundation for a new house in Nephi, a mass grave was unearthed; archaeologists connected it to the violent encounter in October 1853. An examination of the remains proved Wilcox correct: The Native Americans had been bound, tortured, then assassinated at close range, likely while they were forced to kneel or lie on the ground.
Such bald-faced truth telling has long been part of Mormon journaling culture. Church leaders from the 19th century to the present have encouraged Mormons to keep journals to discern the right in one’s own life, alongside chronicling the wrong in others. As Matthew Bowman, the Hunter chair of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University, told me, “Mormon journaling is a reflection of the impulse to record keeping present in the church from the beginning, the sense that cataloging and marking events and times is key for the reordering of life and society the church hoped to accomplish.” Still, the focus has moved toward the interior in the generations of Latter-day Saints during which Romney came of age. “There’s a deep impulse toward self-examination and self-discipline that runs through the church,” Bowman said, “and that’s the individual as opposed to the social aspect of record keeping.”
From the public nature of Mormon journaling, which has remained a constant, a new wrinkle has emerged along with changes in technology. In the 2000s, Mormon mothers turned their journaling practices into “Mormon mommy blogs,” in which the audience was no longer imagined and in the future. It was known and in the now. And even more recently, YouTube and other social media have made stars of (and fortunes for) Mormon women who share their experiences raising children in the faith, experiences that in previous generations would have been recorded in journals. But audiences can now talk back to these content creators. Take the case of Mormon mommy vlogger Ruby Franke, who last month was arrested for child abuse. Members of her audience had long raised concerns about the apparently abusive nature of her child-rearing practices and declared themselves unsurprised after her arrest. Sometimes, the audience becomes the truth teller.
Even when they never intend to make their journals public, many of the Mormon journalers I have spoken to about the practice felt as if someone was always watching as they wrote. One Mormon friend, who has been journaling since he was in high school, told me he believed that angels would read his journals. Ironically, for some others, journaling became a way out of the church. As she learned more about early church history, including the origins of polygamy—when Joseph Smith married several teenage girls—and witnessed what she viewed as the church’s continued lack of concern for the plight of LGBTQ+ Latter-day Saints, one friend who is now a former Mormon told me that journaling became a space where she discerned what the right thing was. “And that right thing for me was to leave,” she said. Another friend who has also left the church explained that he never wrote about his doubts in his journals. “I was nervous someone in my family would find it.”
In the journals that he shared with Coppins, Romney does not chronicle a loss of faith in his church. But he does chronicle a loss of faith in his Republican Senate colleagues. Romney kept a tally of all the GOP senators who in private thanked him for criticizing Trump and told him they would have done the same if they had his constituency of voters. In his journal, Romney also recalled how, in March 2019, at a weekly lunch of the Senate Republican caucus, Trump was greeted with a standing ovation, and the senators listened to Trump ramble on about the Russian investigation, among other grievances. But as soon as Trump left the lunch, the senators burst into laughter.
Later, during Trump’s first impeachment trial, Romney wrote in his journal that he was dismayed that Mike Pence had shown up to another Senate luncheon in which the vice president outlined the White House’s plan of defense. As his fellow Republican senators failed to act with the kind of “impartiality” he believed that the trial warranted, Romney presents himself in his journals as going through a kind of dark night of the soul as he grappled over how he should vote. He went back and forth: “Sometimes I think I will be voting to convict, and sometimes I think I will vote to exonerate.” He made lists of “for” and “against.” He was so weighed down by examining the right thing to do that he lost sleep. He did not want to vote to convict. But on the pages of his journal the night before the vote, he wrote “page after page,” Coppins explains, “until finally the truth was clear to him: Trump was guilty.”
The next day, from the Senate floor, Romney, through tears, gave one of the most powerful speeches in recent American politics, explaining why he was voting to convict. He did so even in the face of calls that he “stand with the [Republican] team.” Even though he knew that it would not lead to Trump’s removal from office. Even though he knew that the vote would make him a pariah among his party. His vote, he said, was made based on faithfulness to the Constitution and on his “promise before God.” And echoing the same sentiments found in his great-great-grandfather Miles Romney’s journals, about the legacy of faithfulness in the face of persecution, he added: “With my vote, I will tell my children and their children that I did my duty to the best of my ability, believing that my country expected it from me.”
And now we’re about to get a biography that tells more of these kinds of stories. If you look at him as the latest in a long line of Mormon diarists, you can see that Romney’s deliberations are both deeply personal and meant for display; discerning, but also created for posterity’s eyes to see. These journals might not always reveal ultimate “truth,” though that’s what Mormon diarists believe they are writing themselves toward. Still, Mormon journals do reveal a lot about the lives of members of what is perhaps the most American of religions—lives that, like Romney’s, have sometimes changed the course of American history.