Mitt Romney's Mormon faith has been thrust back into the political spotlight after a Democrat governor reminded voters that the presidential hopeful's great-grandfather practised polygamy.
Brian Schweitzer, the governor of Montana, said Romney rarely spoke about his family's connection to Mexico because his father was born there into a polygamous commune founded by early members of the Romney clan.
The governor noted that women voters were not great fans of polygamy and suggested that the issue may haunt Romney, who will officially seal the Republican nomination within weeks, as he approaches the November election.
The claim has left his aides in a quandary about whether or not the candidate should address his beliefs at length, as he felt obliged to do in his failed bid for the party nomination four years ago.
The Obama campaign has distanced itself from the comments, but Democrats will not be sorry that Schweitzer has shed light on what most Americans regard as unpalatable elements of Romney's family history.
Romney felt moved to respond, saying in a television interview: "My dad's dad was not a polygamist. My dad grew up in a family with a mom and a dad, a few brothers and one sister."
Having been married to Ann for more than 40 years, the millionaire former management consultant has always expressed revulsion at the historical practice of polygamy that forced his ancestors to flee from the US to Mexico in the 19th century.
In 2007, in one of his few comments on that chapter of his family's background, Romney said, "They were trying to build a generation out there in the desert and so he took additional wives as he was told to do." He added, "I must admit I can't imagine anything more awful than polygamy."
The first Romney to arrive on American shores was his great-great-grandfather, Miles Archibald Romney, a carpenter from Penwortham, Lancashire, who moved his family to the US in the early 1840s. He was among the first Britons to convert to the new faith of Mormonism after hearing missionaries tell of how Jesus Christ had come to the US and that American Indians were the true descendants of the tribe of Israel. Romney's ancestors arrived in Illinois to find their new religion persecuted for its polygamous habits by both Christians and an American government suspicious that the Mormons intended to start an independent religious state.
Less than four years after the family arrived in the US, Joseph Smith, Mormonism's founder, was killed by a mob that stormed his prison cell.
Within a generation on the new continent, Romney's great-grandfather, Miles Park Romney, rose to become one of the faith's most important figures and was tasked with founding new outposts. With the mission came a specific order: he was to take multiple wives and have enough children to guarantee the spread of the religion. Miles Park dutifully married five times and had around 30 children as he moved between Western territories.
According to a biography of Romney by reporters from the Boston Globe, Miles Park would often force some of his wives to hide in the cornfields to avoid arrest by US Marshals. Convicted bigamists would be sent to a special prison in Michigan, the state where Mitt Romney would eventually be born. The continual harassment led church leaders to order Miles Park to begin a new Mormon colony in northern Mexico. From dirt-poor beginnings he and his son, Gaskell, soon established a thriving community where Mormon men came to marry several times without fear of prosecution.
Even after the Church disavowed polygamy in 1890, it continued in the Mexican outpost, where Miles Park took his fifth and final wife. While Gaskell, Romney's grandfather, was only married once his wife was descended from Parley Pratt, one of the early Mormon apostles and the husband of 12 wives. After the Mexican Revolution, the Romneys returned to the US, settling in Utah.