Tom Smart, Deseret News
The increasing visibility of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has prompted media requests for information on the church's financial structure, a level of interest underscored this week by a cover story in Bloomberg Businessweek.
However, a church spokesman said Businessweek's story contained speculative information and misperceptions. The cover illustration also offended many communities of faith, including the LDS Church. (Please see accompanying story).
As a result of the frequent media requests, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued an in-depth outline of its financial history, philosophy and structure and posted it Thursday on its LDS Newsroom website.
"The key to understanding church finances is to understand that they are a means to an end," the statement says. "They allow the church to carry out its religious mission across the world."
Noted historian and scholar Richard L. Bushman, professor emeritus at New York's Columbia University, said he believes the groundbreaking statement from the LDS Church stems from the fact that "the church has been criticized so often for its involvement in business and its wealth that it would like to dispel the impression that it is a corporate empire aimed at making money."
In Bushman's opinion, the church's impatience with this criticism is justified.
"The church is not a capitalist enterprise; it is a religious endeavor that uses the tools of capitalism to achieve religious ends," he said. "In a nation obsessed with wealth, the distinction is hard to appreciate, but to Mormons it is all-important."
In fact, the church's statement emphasized the charitable and religious purposes of all its investments.
"The church exists to improve the lives of people across the world by bringing them closer to Jesus Christ," the statement said. "The assets of the church are used in ways to support that mission. Buildings are built for members to come together to worship God and to be taught the gospel of Jesus Christ. Missionaries are sent to invite people to come to Christ. Resources are used to provide food and clothing for the needy and to provide ways for people to lift themselves up and be self-reliant.
"What is important is not the cost but the outcome. As former church President Gordon B. Hinckley said, 'The only true wealth of the church is in the faith of its people.'"
The statement on finances begins with a review of its fiduciary history, indicating that "from the very beginning, members of the church displayed a remarkable ability to set aside material things for spiritual goals." Examples are cited, including how "one of the earliest church members, Martin Harris, mortgaged his farm to pay for the publication of the Book of Mormon."
The financial sacrifices of the church's journey to the American West are outlined, along with its early struggles with debt. According to the statement, the church's renewed commitment to the principle of tithing – under the direction of President Lorenzo Snow – was critical to overcoming indebtedness.
"Tithing is an ancient biblical principle, and has been practiced by many churches through the centuries," the statement says. "Independent studies show, however, that nowhere else in America today is the principle of tithing so widely and faithfully followed as among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The vast majority of the income used to manage the church comes from tithing, not from businesses or investments."
In addition to tithing being "an enormous blessing to the church and its people," the statement also cites "sound economic principles such as avoiding debt, living within one's means and setting aside funds for a rainy day" as critical to the church's philosophical approach to finances.
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