The Mormon Corporate Empire

It’s funny how the mind works. Like 600 million other people I keep in touch with friends around the world on Facebook. Several of my friends posted a link today to a YouTube video from Alex Boye, the Relief Society Birthday tribute song. Yes, I know it’s steeped in Mormon culture, but I like what Alex is doing with his talent.

One of the comments on the video made reference to Mormon Inc. My mind went back, way back to a flood of memories from my younger days when I was much more interested in the business ventures of the church. At one time I spent several dozen hours conducting first-hand research in the Utah Division of Corporations.

I made copies of all the original articles of incorporation for the Corporation of the President, Corporation of the Presiding Bishop, Deseret Management Corporation, Zion’s Securities, Beneficial Financial Group, Bonneville International, Deseret Book, Deseret News, Hawaii Reserves, Farmland Reserve and on and on and on.

Many Published Resources

I made a master list of all entities I could find that were owned by or associated with the church and then spent literally hundreds of hours researching each one of them. I intended to publish a book on businesses owned by the LDS Church but Heinerman and Shupe beat me to it in 1985 with The Mormon Corporate Empire.

John Gottlieb and Peter Wiley had a chapter on the subject in their 1984 book America’s Saints. That was followed by the Arizona Republic’s series in 1991, “Mormon Inc. Finances and Faith,” Time Magazine’s “Mormons Inc.” in 1997, and a chapter in Mormon America by Richard and Joan Ostling published in 1999.

Of course, another great source for information on church finances is the chapter from D. Michael Quinn’s book, The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power published by Signature Books in 1997. I don’t care what you think about Quinn, he did some serious research. The footnotes alone are more than half of his book.

Successful Church Businesses

Let me make it clear. My interest in researching the financial and business interests of the church was not to try to dig up dirt, make accusations or slant things in any kind of an unfavorable light. To the contrary, my intention was to highlight the great successes of the church in creating and maintaining prosperous businesses.

However, I soon learned that I was wasting my time. The majority of people I talked to about my project simply were not interested in LDS Church finances. Despite the fact that most people were surprised when I shared just how extensive the business holdings were, invariably they asked, “So what does all that matter?”

So even though I put that project aside in favor of concentrating on my new family and career, I have always had an interest and sense of pride at how well the church has managed its finances and business endeavors. It’s an amazing success story if you’re curious about that kind of stuff. Every so often it pops up in the news again.

Statement on Church Finances

I like President Hinckley’s statement on church finances that he shared back in 1985 in a priesthood session of General Conference. This was just after I decided that my book project would not produce results. He answered the question, “Is the Church an institution of great wealth, as some claim?” Here is his response:

“The Church does have substantial assets, for which we are grateful. These assets are primarily in buildings in more than eighty nations. They are in ward and stake meeting facilities. They are in schools and seminaries, colleges and institutes. They are in welfare projects. They are in mission homes and missionary training centers. They are in temples, of which we have substantially more than we have ever had in the past, and they are in genealogical facilities. But it should be recognized that all of these are money-consuming assets and not money-producing assets.

“They are expensive to build and maintain. They do not produce financial wealth, but they do help to produce and strengthen Latter-day Saints. They are only a means to an end. They are physical facilities to accommodate the programs of the Church in our great responsibility to teach the gospel to the world, to build faith and activity among the living membership, and to carry forward the compelling mandate of the Lord concerning the redemption of the dead.

A few Income-Producing Properties

“We have a few income-producing business properties, but the return from these would keep the Church going only for a very short time. Tithing is the Lord’s law of finance. There is no other financial law like it. It is a principle given with a promise spoken by the Lord Himself for the blessing of His children. When all is said and done, the only real wealth of the Church is the faith of its people.”

He then went on to address the issue of why the church is involved in commercial ventures of any kind, pointing out that the majority were formed out of necessity many years ago in the Pioneer days of our history. Of course some have grown while others, like banks and hospitals were sold off as being no longer needed.

Communications Businesses

I like the fact that the church has hung onto and strengthened the business ventures that involve publishing and broadcasting. Bonneville International and Deseret Book help to fulfill one of the primary missions of the church, which is to bring people to Jesus Christ through proclaiming the message of the restored gospel.

The church has made an obvious investment in their Internet properties over the years, which I have watched with some trepidation at first, but with growing pride over the years. I am amazed at how well the church has embraced and now uses this technology to communicate both internally and externally to the world at large.

In fact, I would venture to guess that we actually reach more people through our websites than our missionaries talk to each day. Add the thousands of individual efforts to those of the church and you have a wealth of favorable information now available to combat an equal amount of misinformation that can still be found.

The Church is not a Business

The idea that the church is more of a business than a church is laughable but you can still find it as one of the silly things that detractors of our mission continue to raise any place where they can get an audience. If they would bother to take a few moments to do some basic research they would see how ridiculous their claim is.

We will never have a lack of fault-finders, detractors and critics who are certain we are a deluded people. The most vociferous of them are former members who have been hurt in some way and now seek to inflict pain in retribution for their own discomfort. Painting the church as an impersonal corporation serves their needs.

I had invested a lot of time and energy in my research on church businesses and how they had come about. I was feeling disappointed. I had done so much work with nothing to show for it and wondered why. Sitting in that Priesthood session of General Conference so long ago, President Hinckley was speaking directly to me.

Build the Kingdom

He said in conclusion of the matter, “When we are called before the bar of God to give an accounting of our performance, I think it unlikely that any of us will be commended for wearing out our lives in an effort to find some morsel of history, incomplete in its context, to cast doubt on the integrity of this work.

“Rather, I believe we will be examined on what we did to build the kingdom, to bring light and understanding of the eternal truths of the gospel to the eyes and minds of all who are willing to listen, to care for the poor and the needy, and to make of the world a better place as a result of our presence.”

And that is why I just smile now whenever we are referred to as the big Mormon Corporation, with untold wealth being used to wield secret power and influence in America and on the world. I have studied this one out in great detail. Trust me, there is no secret agenda. There is no desire to conquer and control; only to bless.

8 comments for “The Mormon Corporate Empire

  1. March 22, 2011 at 7:05 am

    After your research, did you come to any understanding of why the Church keeps its finances so quiet and vague?

  2. March 22, 2011 at 8:14 am

    Hi Tim, I just came across your blog and I really I think that your post is quite interesting, if not unique. Every single other post I have read about the Church’s finances has been negative and accusatory. Mostly what it comes down to is, “I can’t believe the Church actually uses the money given to it. Surely they can do something better with it, like give it to me, or throw it down a rat hole where no one can see it or ever use it again. Or better yet they can just stop demanding tithing and stop operating and just go away. That would be so much better.”

    My thought is, and apparently yours is as well, what is wrong with the Church actually using the money that it has, in order to do the work that it has very publicly stated that it intends to do? The Church has stated since its beginning that it will take its message to every living (and dead) person on the earth. So why are people surprised (and/or offended) when the Church actually commits the physical resources, and a lot of resources, to do just that? The Church has also very publicly stated that it intends to survive, spiritually, culturally, physically and socially for at least 1000 years, so why should it be surprising or offensive when the Church invests its resources in such a way that it makes that possible?

    As I have mentioned most of the people I read who criticize the Church because of its finances, are offended because 1) the Church has a lot at its disposal, 2) the Church actually uses its resources, 3) they (the people complaining) don’t have that kind of money, and they really want it, and/or 4) they think they can use the money better than everyone else.

    I think your final quote from President Hinckley sums it up nicely. It is about building the kingdom and not about how much the dollar amount is. It is intended to make the world a better place and not about “controlling a bigger share of the pie”.

  3. Paul 2
    March 22, 2011 at 8:59 am

    Hello Tim, I am glad you are happy with the church’s actions with respect to it revenue producing activities. I ended up feeling differently about some of what it does.

    To me, it is painfully obvious that there are fairly large disconnects between some of the business operations and the teachings of the church. Some of the radio station content of Bonneville International stations was extremely raunchy when I lived in Chicago. It is just plain immoral to profit from that kind of stuff.

    Another example: the church is politically neutral, but some of its radio stations predominantly broadcast un-neutral right wing content, i.e. “The Truth” in Seattle. I feel their claim of political neutrality is hard to accept, when they have invested much in political indoctrination of Americans.

    I don’t mean to cause an argument, just to offer my opinion about some aspects that I would like to see changed. I do understand that it is hard to pin the tail on the donkey, so to speak, as there are lots of people involved in these kind of decisions. But in the end responsibility belongs with the people who have the ability to make the changes that would fix these problems.

  4. Mike S
    March 23, 2011 at 11:01 am

    I suppose it is all a question of priorities. I have nothing against the church building businesses, but I see the role of religion as helping people as being more important.

    In over 25 years, the church has spent around $350 million on humanitarian projects – or around $15 million per year. They then add to that in-kind donations (ie. member’s time, etc) to get a higher number, which brings it up to around $40-50 million per year.

    When I see the Church spending $15 million in helping the least unfortunate among us each year, yet an estimated $2-3 BILLION on a mall in downtown SLC, I wonder where true priorities really lie. We can say all we want, but at the end of the day the old saying “Put your money where your mouth is” seems to apply.

  5. Closet Doubter
    March 25, 2011 at 1:16 pm

    Tim have you read “The Book of Mammon: A Book About A Book About The Corporation That Owns The Mormons” ?

    Kind of a hard read due to the authors writting style, but lots of inside info on the Church Corperation.

  6. March 25, 2011 at 7:45 pm

    Ridiculous and Sublime: Bait and switch? I don’t think so. Just using the name of a previously published book on the subject got your attention, didn’t it? Sounds a lot better than “Why I don’t think the church is really a business like some people say it is.” But, then, that’s just my opinion. Thanks for stopping by and sending so many people my way. I’m honored. I see you’re just getting started. Keep up the good work.

    John Mansfield: I think the church keeps its finances so quiet and vague because too many people don’t understand the intricacies of managing large funds of money. All they see is the conjecture of the large amounts of money coming in and not the expense of maintaining so many properties and programs. The bottom line is that we sustain the Brethren to manage the money we give to the Lord via his church. Frankly, I don’t care how my tithing money is spent. They will be held accountable for being wise stewards with what the members donate. I trust the Brethren and the professional money managers they employ. It’s a tough job and I wouldn’t want to do it but I’m glad they take it seriously. Consecrated funds mean more than lip service to those who work in the COB. Am I naïve? I don’t care. I’ve done my part. Let them do theirs.

    QuantumLeap42: Thanks – great observations. My stewardship is so small compared to what flows through the banking system of the church each week. And my assets are miniscule compared to what the church controls but I am confident that the expenditures are just what we hear in General Conference every six months in the Church Auditing Department report. I don’t need to know the details and I appreciate the reassurance that the funds have been accounted for properly. As a ward clerk that endures an audit every six months, I appreciate the fact that there are tight controls in place at the local level. I imagine they are just as tight at the COB.

    Paul2: Your point about questionable advertising on Bonneville-owned stations is well taken. Radio properties come and go in their line-up. Here in LA it used to KBIG but that was too much of a sleeper. Now it’s KSWD. Go look at what’s on their website. Yeah, if I were an apostle I would also wonder why we own that station. Why do we need radio stations anymore anyway when the message can be so much more effectively delivered over the Internet these days?

    I also agree with your comment about political un-neutrality. I mean just look at that lineup on KTTH: Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Medved, David Boze (local guy), Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, John Gibson and Lars Larson. Oh well, conservative talk radio is big right now and let’s face it, a large percentage of active members of the church are conservative in their political leanings (at least in my neck of the woods).

    Mike S: Yep, I also see the role of religion as being to help people more than to build malls. I know the money used to build the mall did not come from tithing funds. But that’s going be a pretty nifty mall once it’s completed. You’ve got to admit that it does add value and beauty to the downtown area of Salt Lake City which was suffering. I’m looking forward to visiting the City Creek Center after it opens next year just as I enjoyed the Main Street plaza after it opened.

    It’s a fact that as the church has grown, we have made a more obvious effort in humanitarian efforts. I think that’s wonderful and I’m sure the Brethren would agree that we should do more. I am confident that we will continue to increase our charitable operations in the years to come. We are already receiving favorable publicity for our outreach in this area and yes, you could argue that we shouldn’t sound a trumpet when we give alms. But we are working so hard to improve our image and charitable operations are a very visible way to do so.

    Closet Doubter: I decided against purchasing Daymon Smith’s book when it came out. I have always wondered if he worked for fellow blogger Larry Richman during his one-year stint in the COB. I’ve read reviews that it was funny and irreverent, but I just couldn’t compel myself to fork over $25 for a rehash of old stuff that I already knew. I know the culture of the COB. I have family that work there. But not everybody sees life in the “great and spacious building” as Daymon did during his brief stay there. It was probably a mistake to hire him. I don’t think he “got it”. I’ve read enough reviews and excerpts of the book along with interviews with Daymon that I think I can safely conclude that he has no respect for or comprehension of what the Brethren are trying to do.

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