Mitt Romney flies in – but why isn't he going to Preston?

The US presidential candidate's visit is hardly setting the country alive – except in Mormonism's British heartland

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Earlier this month on the banks of the river Ribble in Preston more than 1,000 Mormons gathered in faltering sunshine to celebrate the anniversary of an event which come November could have far reaching implications for the future of the United States and the rest of the world.

One hundred and seventy years ago a mission was dispatched from America by Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to bring word of a new religion to the teeming slums of Victorian Britain.

Preston with its choleric hovels and belching cotton mills was to prove a fertile recruiting ground.

Among those that found salvation in their vision of a new Zion waiting for them in the American Midwest were carpenter Miles Romney and his wife Elizabeth, who joined the procession of converts trooping into the chilly Lancashire waters to be baptized into the faith.

Today the couple's great-great-grandson Mitt Romney will meet David Cameron, Tony Blair and others in the first leg of a European tour as he bids to beat Barack Obama to become the 45th President of the United States and the first Mormon to hold the keys to the Oval Office.

Yet while Mr Romney's wife Ann is celebrating her British origins by visiting Porthcawl close to where her Welsh grandfather toiled in the South Wales pits, Mr Romney will not be travelling to the north-west which is home not just to the largest Mormon temple in Europe at Chorley but which at Preston ward boasts the oldest continuous unit of the church anywhere in the world.

It seems that while Mrs Romney's back story is considered an electoral boon by the Romney camp, Mormonism continues to pose challenges for the Republican candidate both in and outside the US.

However the lack of "homecoming" was being greeted with benign acceptance in Preston yesterday.

Dr Roger Kendle, a retired business studies lecturer and Mormon chaplain at the University of Central Lancashire said Mr Romney's campaign made it a fascinating time even if many people were largely ignorant of the faith he shares with 190,000 Britons.

"We are not excited in terms of his politics but feel like Catholics in the 1960s did when it seemed President Kennedy might become the first Catholic President," said Dr Kendle. "A lot of people are not very understanding of what we stand for and there are some very stereotypical views out there. To some extent we have been quite defensive in the past," he added.

By the time the Romneys had decamped to Nauvoo in Illinois to build their new lives, Britain boasted more Mormons than the US where the faith found itself under persecution. Today the UK membership is only a fraction of 14.5 million followers spread across 176 countries worldwide.

The church continues to send missionaries across the Atlantic and is actively seeking new recruits via the preaching power of the internet. It also continues to be one of the largest landholders in the UK with more than 15,000 acres to its name ranking it alongside the Crown Estate and Railtrack.

Such holdings are however only a tiny proportion of its overall global holdings, currently estimated at $40bn.

Professor Douglas Davies of Durham University, an expert on Mormonism, said it was hard for British people to appreciate the unique American frontier mentality of the sect which was once described by the sociologist Max Weber as halfway between monastery and factory.

It appealed to those with a practical and ambitious nature caught in the white heat of the industrial revolution in places like Lancashire and South Wales. It also helped prepare them for the hardships and physical threats of pioneer life.

Mormonism: A brief history

The church was established in 1830 in New York by a poor treasure hunter, Joseph Smith, after he witnessed a vision of God. The church outlawed polygamy a century ago but only in 1978 agreed that blacks could hold positions of the priesthood. Its emphasis on family life and marriage has seen it heavily criticised by gay rights campaigners.