(RNS) At age 19, Mitt Romney was a typical college student, schmoozing about politics, pulling pranks and sneaking away to see his girlfriend. Then he went on a 30-month Mormon mission in France.
He returned to the U.S. in 1968 ready to start a family, steeped in his faith and eager for more responsibility in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“On a mission, your faith in Jesus Christ either evaporates or it becomes much deeper,” Romney later said. “For me it became much deeper.”
Romney’s political rise — he is the first Mormon presidential nominee from a major political party — excels that of other Latter-day Saints. But the hard knocks and homesickness, the mishaps and spiritual maturation that characterized his mission are shared by many in his church.
Today, some 57,000 Mormon missionaries march across the globe, proselytizing in public squares, knocking on doors and handing out religious tracts, often for nine or 10 hours a day, in fair weather and foul.
More than a million Mormons have served missions since Joseph Smith founded the church in 1830, LDS leaders say, volunteering for a duty once described as “a mix between monastic life, a fraternity pledge and pest-control salesmanship.”