WOLFEBORO, N.H. — Republican Mitt Romney, the first Mormon presidential nominee of a major political party, sat in the Wolfeboro Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Sunday as, one by one, members of his congregation credited him for bringing the faith more into the public eye.
"There has never been as much positive publicity about the church...thanks to the wonderful campaign of Mitt Romney and his family," J.W. "Bill" Marriott, the chairman of Marriott International, said. Marriott was the first in the congregation to take the podium to offer testimony — examples of his own life experience and how it's affected his faith, a tradition on the first Sunday of every month in the Mormon church.
"Everybody is looking at us and saying, 'Are you as good as the Romneys?'" Marriott said. "Today we see the church coming out of obscurity, and we see that 90 percent of what has been written and said ... 90 percent of it has been favorable," he said. "And that's a great tribute to Mitt and Ann."
Many Americans have long viewed Mormonism skeptically, and the Salt Lake City-based church has fought for decades for recognition and acceptance as a faith.
In the eyes of Mormons gathered here Sunday, Romney winning the nomination has been overwhelmingly positive for their church.
"He's a marvelous ambassador of who we are," said a member of the Archibald family, another large Mormon clan that, like the Marriotts and the Romneys, vacations in Wolfeboro.
The Marriotts and Romneys are close friends; the hotel magnate is a major campaign donor and the candidate used to serve on the board of Marriott International.
Although Romney has long shied away from talking about a faith that has shaped his life, from his childhood to his college years as well as his marriage and business career. He occasionally has recounted his time counseling families who were struggling members of his Boston congregation. He usually doesn't touch on his two years serving as a missionary in France for the church. And he typically doesn't mention that he at one point rose to a rank equivalent to a bishop and presided over a group of congregations.
In recent weeks, Romney has started to open up about his faith and directly mentioned it during his Thursday night acceptance speech after members of his congregation took the convention stage to praise his work in the church. Said Romney that night: "We were Mormons and growing up in Michigan, that might have seemed unusual or out of place, but I really don't remember it that way. My friends cared more about what sports teams we followed than what church we went to."
Mormonism began in the mid-1800s when, according to believers, an angel presented another book of scripture to Joseph Smith, the church's founder, called the Book of Mormon. With 14.4 million members, the church is among the fastest growing in the world, supported by a full-time missionary force of about 55,000 young people.
At church Sunday, Marriott talked about the church's efforts over the years to explain its mission to Americans who don't understand the faith.
He recounted serving on a committee based in Salt Lake City with Romney's father, George Romney, and then later being featured in a "60 Minutes" piece on the Mormon Church. During the interview, Marriott said he was asked about the specific undergarments, which he described as a t-shirt and boxer shorts, that Mormons are encouraged to wear. He said he told interviewer Mike Wallace that he wore the garments, and about a time when he caught fire in a boating accident. His polyester pants burned, though his undershorts were untouched.
Marriott said he told Wallace: "These holy undergarments saved my life."
Later, another church member rose to offer an example of Romney's influence in publicizing the faith.
She recalled a time when she visited a sick church member in the hospital and a non-Mormon nurse asked her why they had come to visit a woman who wasn't a relative.
The woman said she told the nurse she was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
And the nurse, clearly recognizing the faith, responded: "Oh, Mitt! Oh, Mormon!"
Sitting in the pews, Ann Romney laughed.