Part 61: CES Letter Other Concerns/Questions [Section C]
by Sarah Allen
Recently, we all had the chance to feast on the words of our prophet and apostles, among other wonderful speakers, as they expounded on the words and teachings of Christ. I had a beautifully moving experience, and I hope the rest of you did as well. It was interesting to see so much focus on temple work. It goes hand-in-hand with other lessons the Brethren have been imparting over the past few years to fortify our foundations and learn how to receive and recognize spiritual guidance. Conference doesn’t have much to do with the discussion topic today, but I appreciated the messages we received. The temple really is at the center of our religion, second only to the Atonement of Jesus Christ. We need to rely heavily on both if we’re going to return home to our Father one day.
Today, we’re moving on to topic header #2 in this section, “CHURCH FINANCES.” This is a topic our critics love to run with, using incorrect or at least incomplete information to frame the issue. Unfortunately, Jeremy Runnells is no exception. There are a lot of inaccuracies in the allegations I’m about to cover. He begins with several right off the bat:
There is zero transparency to members of the Church. Why is the one and only true Church keeping its books in the dark? Why would God’s one true Church choose to “keep them in darkness” over such a stewardship? History has shown time and time again that secret religious wealth is breeding ground for corruption
The Church used to be transparent with its finances but ceased disclosures in 1959.
There is plenty of transparency to members of the Church regarding finances and other issues. Its accounting books are not being “kept in the dark.”
Not only do they publish everything they are required to publish by law, both in this country and internationally, but they also hire a firm who conducts regular audits to ensure the law is being met in every regard. From Jeremy’s own source, this firm is currently Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited, a well-known, reputable firm from the UK. This source also notes that the Church’s internal audit department provides a regular certification at General Conference that financial contributions are “collected and spent in accordance with established church policy.”
Additionally, one of the Church’s various charity arms, Latter-day Saint Charities, publishes nearly a decade’s worth of annual reports on its website in multiple languages. This one charity organization alone has provided more than $2 billion in humanitarian aid over the past 35 years, and that number is out of date. You can also find a list of several other charities under the Church umbrella along with their tax ID numbers here, on the Church’s website. Googling those tax ID numbers allows you to glean quite a lot of additional information about the charities and their finances.
And, of course, countries such as the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada require additional public disclosures the United States does not, and the Church meets those obligations every year. You can see the most recent disclosures from the UK here, and here are some of the prior reports published in Australia, for example. Since the advent of the internet, most Latter-day Saints around the world have access to those reports, should they desire to go looking for them.
In a blog post shared on FAIR several years ago, Tim Gordon made the following points:
…[C]onsidering that I haven’t heard a single person mention how great it is that the Church practices financial transparency overseas, I’m guessing the number of people demanding US financial statements that know about the UK financials are in the single digits.
What do we learn from the UK financial statement, anyway? Well, the Church brings in more than it spends, and 97.66% of their expenses are related to “Charitable Activities.” It doesn’t tell us the most basic things us financial voyeurs need to know, like how much is spent on those amazing red and blue cleaning supplies.
Okay, so you’re not an accountant, and you’re not interested in stuffy financial statements made up by overweight accountants with little green visors and even smaller personalities. You just want more transparency.
What are you going to do with that information? Do you honestly believe that knowing how much the LDS Church depreciates the Salt Lake City Temple renovations every year will convince you that what goes on inside is sacred? Will seeing how much the LDS Church sends to Africa in financial aide [sic] have one bit of bearing on whether Joseph Smith talked with Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ in the Sacred Grove? Does the amount spent on basketballs each year have any relevance on whether or not the Book of Mormon is true?
I particularly appreciate the point that I bolded above. All those critics claiming the Church isn’t transparent in its financial records have nothing to say when you point out that they do publish their financial records in countries that require them. They certainly don’t praise the Church for being transparent in those countries. Instead, they simply find other avenues of attack.
But, going back to Jeremy’s claims, the scripture referenced about keeping things in darkness, Ether 8:16, is talking about the oaths and signs associated with secret combinations, not financial statements. It should go without saying that the Church of Jesus Christ is not a secret combination, but apparently sometimes you have to explain the obvious.
In prior versions of the CES Letter, Jeremy’s line about secret religious wealth actually said, “History has shown time and time again that corporate secret wealth is breeding ground for corruption.” In no version did he offer a citation for that claim, and corporate wealth is not the same thing as religious wealth. I’ve also never heard of “secret” religious wealth. Most religions that are wealthy are obvious about it. Everyone knows, for example, that the Catholic Church is one of the wealthiest organizations on Earth. And, if “secret religious wealth” is actually a “breeding ground for corruption,” as he asserts, why can’t he come up with even a single example to bolster his claim
Due to the discrepancy in the versions of the Letter between corporations and churches, you might also be asking why then the Church has been known as the Corporation of the Presiding Bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or the Corporation of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in tax filings?
That’s because many churches were incorporated in the past and still are today for legal reasons. In some states in the early 1800s, only incorporated churches had the ability to provide for the poor or to marry people, and they were given special tax advantages and sometimes even property over unincorporated churches.
A paper by Nathan Oman traces the path of the Church’s corporate filings and says the following:
The corporation did not become the dominant form of private business organization in America until after the Civil War, and in the early republic corporations were thought of as public institutions whose primary role was to serve the common good. … Incorporation also required a special act of the legislature. Thus, for a church to be incorporated marked it out as the recipient of special favor from the state in view of the church’s presumed promotion of the public good.
So, prior to the Civil War, incorporation for churches was a sign that the churches were recognized as forces for the good of society. Each state had different rules: some incorporated virtually all churches, others tried to disestablish all churches and treat them equally in that way, and still others had a mix-and-match approach where some churches were incorporated and some weren’t.
It seems that the Church’s formal organization in 1830 in New York was an attempt at incorporation, according to Oman’s paper, but if it was ever filed that filing has been lost. It would have given the new church some respectability and defined it as an institution, but it’s unclear whether they did officially incorporate at that time or not. Ohio treated every church that owned property as a corporation, so while it was not formally incorporated in Kirtland, the Church was treated as though it was. Missouri forbade religious incorporation. In Nauvoo, they began attempts to get a special incorporation status separate from the general one granted to most churches, but the bill was dropped without a vote and they settled for the general, lesser incorporation status that they were hoping for.
After Joseph’s death and even before, there was a lot of confusion over what property belonged to Joseph and was therefore legally Emma’s property and what belonged to the Church. Brigham Young re-incorporated the Church in 1851 to avoid that going forward. After the infamous Edmunds-Tucker Act was passed in 1887, the corporation known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was formally dissolved by the US Congress and all properties owned by the Church valued at over $50,000 were seized by the federal government. After that, the Church became an unincorporated entity in order to remain intact as an organization. The two corporations listed above began functioning as corporation soles, which means that they could pass from one officeholder to the next without problems or interruptions as callings changed or prophets died. In 2021, both corporations were merged into one, and it was renamed under the name of the Church itself.
Anyway, Jeremy’s last claim in the cited portions above was that the Church used to be transparent, but stopped that in 1959. While it’s true that they used to disclose more information than they do now in the United States, they weren’t required by law to do so. Church numbers at that time were still quite small, only 1.6 million members, and for several years the Church was spending more money than it was making. Since then, the growth has exploded, and finances have grown exponentially to meet the needs of the expanding membership.
As Tim Gordon explained in his blog post, financial reports are given to shareholders so they can gauge the financial health of an organization. That means there’s no real reason for the Church to provide detailed run-downs of their finances when we all know that there’s enough money to pay the bills and provide the humanitarian aid we do. We’re also not investors in a company when we pay tithing. We’re obeying a commandment of sacrifice. They are not the same thing, and we don’t have the right to demand a paper trail of money we’ve given away. If people do want more detailed reports, however, they can find them online from several Commonwealth countries without much difficulty.
ESTIMATED $1.5 BILLION LUXURY MEGAMALL CITY CREEK CENTER
Funnily enough, in the 2013 version of the CES Letter, Jeremy cited the entire Salt Lake City revitalization project number of $5 billion. While I applaud him for changing incorrect information, one wonders why he didn’t bother to update anything else in the Letter that’s been proven over the years to be incorrect. If you’re going to update this figure, why not also update the table claiming that the Book of Mormon was published in Sharon, Vermont, for example?
- Total Church humanitarian aid from 1985-2011: $1.4 billion
Absolutely incorrect. That is not the total amount of Church humanitarian aid between those years. That is the amount of cash donations given to other relief organizations for international disaster relief during those years.
As Jim Bennett pointed out in his own response to the CES Letter, there are two main types of private charitable foundations: private operating foundations, and private non-operating foundations. The difference between the two is that operating foundations provide charitable aid through their own charities, while non-operating foundations give their aid to outside charities. He also cites an old article from The Times & Seasons blog in which it’s explained that the Church’s welfare aid is listed separately from its humanitarian aid.
For something more up-to-date than 2012, I’d like to highlight this article from the Deseret News from 2020. The opening of the article begins:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints doubled its humanitarian spending over the past five years and now annually provides nearly $1 billion in combined humanitarian and welfare aid, the church’s Presiding Bishopric said this week in a rare interview.
But the church’s work and missions cannot be reduced to its humanitarian spending and charity efforts, said Presiding Bishop Gérald Caussé and his counselors, Bishop Dean M. Davies and Bishop W. Christopher Waddell. Those represent just one function of a sprawling global faith that funds 30,000 congregations, more than 200 temples and educational opportunities for hundreds of thousands of students while also providing food, clothing and shelter for hundreds of thousands of people a year.
… “The people who say we’re not doing our part, that is just not true,” Bishop Waddell said. “We’re talking close to $1 billion in that welfare/humanitarian area on an annual basis. Yes, we are using our resources to bless the poor and the needy as well as all of the other responsibilities we have as a church.”
So, right away, Jeremy is very off on his numbers. The Church currently donates nearly $1 billion every year in combined humanitarian and welfare aid. The Church also pays the budgets for 30,000 wards or branches; all of the expenses of building, maintaining, and running church houses, stake centers, Seminary and Institute buildings, temples (167 at the time of the article, with 50 more in various stages of construction), and administrative buildings around the world; subsidizes five colleges and universities, as well as the Perpetual Education Fund and Pathways program; subsidizes missions, presidencies, and numerous missionaries around the world; and maintains all of its welfare arms, including as one of the nation’s largest ranch-owners, as notated in the article.
… Among the other missions of the church is missionary work, which includes funding 399 missions and the travel and health care expenses of 67,695 missionaries.
Education is another massive expenditure that must be backstopped. Bishop Caussé said the church’s five universities and colleges, which educate 90,000 students, operate at a cost of $1.5 billion a year paid for by tuition and tithing.
… Universities are only a portion of the church’s education costs. It pays for a Seminary and Institutes program that provides religious education to more than 800,000 teens and college students around the world. The effort includes 50,000 teachers, Bishop Caussé said.
The church operates 27 wheat storage facilities and funds nine refugee resettlement agencies in the United States. It also operates more than 100 bishops’ storehouses full of food and commodities to help church members around the world.
Family history work is growing and the church allocates resources to obtain records and produce searchable records, Bishop Caussé said. There is urgency, because some of the records are deteriorating.
All those growing and varied missions of the church are part of what its leaders call preparing for Christ’s Second Coming.
“When we talk about preparing for the Second Coming, that doesn’t mean we’re hoarding money so that we have it when the Second Coming takes place,” Bishop Waddell said. “In preparing for the Second Coming, we’re talking about building temples and providing places of worship and temples where people can receive sacred and exalting ordinances so we can gather Israel, we can do the missionary work in preparation for that day. And so, when we talk about preparing for it, that means all the work that’s going on now.”
Claiming the Church is not doing enough to help those in need around the world is simply not true. Jeremy’s information is way off from the reality.
There was a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald that I didn’t cite when I posted this on Reddit, as it basically just rehashed the same claims Jeremy is making in this section. However, several people mentioned it in the comments, so I figured I should address it in this repost.
In response, I would first point out that the Church has many highly skilled international lawyers who navigate the different responsibilities in each country where the Church has a presence. They are fully complaint with each of those nations’ laws.
Second, the article makes claims it does not back up with documentation and contradicts itself on several points. The major claim, that the Church gives less than 1% of its income to charity each year, is incredibly inaccurate. Those numbers referred to are taken specifically from the Australian arm of Latter-day Saint Charities, not any of its other charitable donations or offshoots. As we discussed earlier, Latter-day Saint Charities is where the cash donations to outside organizations such as the Red Cross come from. It does not include any of the other charity or welfare the Church gives, and does not even include the US arm of LDS Charities.
As Reddit user HandwovenBox pointed out, the common figure thrown around by critics is approximately $40 million per year that the Church gives in charity, a number given in 2016 by the Deseret News. That’s roughly equivalent to the $70 million Australian dollars referenced in the 2022 article when accounting for inflation and exchange rate fluctuations. Whether they’re referring to the same figure or not is unclear, though the Sydney Morning Herald is apparently trying to make that association:
That $70 million a year is close to the amount the global church – whose strongest following is in the United States – itself says it gives each year on average throughout the world, according to its own annual reports.
The Deseret News got its number from President Oaks giving a speech at Oxford University, a transcript of which was also provided by HandwovenBox. In that speech, President Oaks makes it clear that the $40 million amount was for emergency response and medical care:
For example, in the year 2015 we had 177 emergency response projects in 56 countries. In addition, we had hundreds of projects that impacted more than a million people in seven other categories of assistance, such as clean water, immunization, and vision care. For more than 30 years the magnitude of these efforts has averaged about 40 million dollars a year.
That’s just humanitarian aid, mostly from LDS Charities as he explains later in the talk, and doesn’t include welfare—which, again, the Church keeps separate from its humanitarian relief—or other charitable arms under the Church’s umbrella organization. It’s only a fraction of what it actually gives.
- Something is fundamentally wrong with “the one true Church” spending more on an estimated $1.5 billion dollar high-end megamall than it has in 26 years of humanitarian aid.
He doesn’t say who he’s quoting with the “one true Church” comment, but if he’s trying to quote D&C 1:30, it’s “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth,” which is a statement from the Lord Himself and is more than simply being the one true Church. It means that Jesus Christ is at its head. He directs its path. That is an important distinction.
More than that, however, as we’ve already seen, Jeremy is incorrect in his statement that the Church spent more on the City Creek Center than it did in “26 years of humanitarian aid.” The Church spends nearly that much on aid every year, and Jeremy was only looking at cash donations to outside charities for disaster relief.
- For an organization that claims to be Christ’s only true Church, this expenditure is a moral failure on so many different levels.
Why? Salt Lake City isn’t the only area the Church has paid to revitalize. They’ve put hundreds of millions of dollars into Hawaii’s economy, for example. And City Creek did indeed revitalize downtown Salt Lake. The New York Times reported:
“The center has added 2,000 jobs and brought more than 16 million visitors into downtown,” according to the Economic Benchmark Report of 2013, paid for by the real estate firm CBRE. Taking into account the improving economy, the report credits the mall, at 50 South Main Street, with helping downtown retail sales increase by 36 percent, or $209 million, in 2012.
The “mall is the single most important thing to happen to Salt Lake City in 50 years, maybe more,” said Bruce Bingham, a partner with Hamilton Partners, a Chicago-based real estate developer. “It revitalized downtown.”
Other than the mistaken belief that the Church only spent $1.4 billion in humanitarian aid since 1985, I have no idea why this is supposed to be a “moral failure.” That part of downtown was well on its way to turning into a slum, leading right up to the edges of Temple Square. It’s the headquarters of the Church. It’d be like if Vatican City turned into a slum. The Brethren did nothing wrong by taking steps to keep that from happening.
For a Church that asks its members to sacrifice greatly for Temple building, such as the case of Argentinians giving the Church gold from their dental work for the São Paulo Brazil Temple, this mall business is absolutely shameful.
The São Paulo temple was built in 1976-77, when the Church had considerably less money than it does today. Because of that, at the time members were asked to help raise 1/3 of the cost of new temples. It often served the purpose of making them value the temple more than if they hadn’t had to sacrifice anything for it. Even so, there’s no indication that the Church asked them to go so far as to donate their dental work, and in fact, the missionaries presented with the golden dental bridge tried to decline it:
Saints throughout Latin America were overjoyed by the announcement. At the time, members were expected to raise one-third of the cost of a new temple. With so many having so little, members made extraordinary sacrifices to raise money. One memorable donation was a gold dental bridge presented by an Argentine man to a pair of missionaries. They declined the gift at first, saying they couldn’t take the man’s teeth, but he responded, “You can’t deny me the blessings I will receive by giving this to the Lord for his temple.” Elder James E. Faust, who was serving as the South America area supervisor for the Church, heard the story and paid a generous sum of money for the gold. From that day on, he kept the dental bridge as a reminder of the Saints’ countless sacrifices.
But hey, let’s not let the truth get in the way of a good narrative, right, Jeremy? Again, there is nothing shameful about the Church helping an area to improve. It’s not like they did it through gentrification, forcing poor residents out of the area to make way for new, wealthy residents the way that so often happens in other cities. Instead, they brought 2,000 jobs to the neighborhood, in addition to the construction jobs necessary to build it, as well as $200 million dollars into the local economy. It absolutely did revitalize that part of downtown, and it’s far less run-down than it was ten years ago. That is not a bad thing, you guys.
Of all the things that Christ would tell His prophet, the prophet buys a mall and says “Let’s go shopping!”?
The picture quality of the video is poor enough that it’s hard to tell if President Monson said anything at all, but even if he did, so what? They had every right to be excited and pleased to turn around that part of the city and to bring in new growth and development to the area. They put a lot of time, money, and energy into that project, just like they do everywhere they take similar measures, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to celebrate a job well done. It was a press conference, the entire point of which is to advertise the shopping center and attempt to get people excited for its opening.
Of all the sum total of human suffering and poverty on this planet, the inspiration the Brethren feel for His Church is to get into the declining high-end shopping mall business?
Why wouldn’t they receive inspiration on a wide variety of things? Alleviating human suffering is not their only responsibility. In fact, it’s not even their first responsibility. Their primary job is to preach the Gospel of Christ, including to help spread that Gospel as far and wide as they can.
Temple Square draws more visitors each year than the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Park. It’s one of the top 20 most visited tourist attractions in the United States, and brings in more tourists than all five of Utah’s national parks combined.
A lot fewer people are going to flock to the Salt Lake Temple if it’s in the middle of a dangerous, dilapidated slum. That harms the ability of the Brethren to spread the Gospel as effectively as they can with the area being a bright, vibrant location.
Remember Mark 14:7, which tells us that the poor will always be among us and while we should do what we can to care for them, that shouldn’t be the only thing we spend our time or money on. We can honor God in other ways, and that includes keeping the headquarters of His Church clean, safe, and well-maintained. That’s exactly what the Brethren were doing when they helped restore downtown Salt Lake.
Jeremy doesn’t list the common criticism you often see about the Church using tithing funds to build the mall despite saying they’d keep it separate. I’m running short on space so I don’t want to delve too deeply into this, but it does warrant clarification. To begin with, in the same talk in which he explained that tithing funds would not be used, President Hinckley also explained exactly where the money was coming from:
I call attention to that which has received much notice in the local press. This is our decision to purchase the shopping mall property immediately to the south of Temple Square.
We feel we have a compelling responsibility to protect the environment of the Salt Lake Temple. The Church owns most of the ground on which this mall stands. The owners of the buildings have expressed a desire to sell. The property needs very extensive and expensive renovation. We have felt it imperative to do something to revitalize this area. But I wish to give the entire Church the assurance that tithing funds have not and will not be used to acquire this property. Nor will they be used in developing it for commercial purposes.
Funds for this have come and will come from those commercial entities owned by the Church. These resources, together with the earnings of invested reserve funds, will accommodate this program.
Critics only focus on the statement that tithing funds wouldn’t be used, but entirely ignore the rest of President Hinckley’s comment. The Church paid for the shopping center the way he said they would. As FAIR explains, “Some claims are made that tithing really was used because some of the money came from earnings on invested reserve funds, which funds were set up using tithing donations. However, financial documents have shown that only earnings on invested funds, not the original funds themselves, were used to finance the development project.”
PRESIDENT HINCKLEY’S DISHONEST INTERVIEW
President Hinckley made the following dishonest statement in a 2002 interview to a German journalist:
Reporter: “In my country, the…we say the people’s Churches, the Protestants, the Catholics, they publish all their budgets, to all the public.”
Hinckley: “Yeah. Yeah.”
Reporter: “Why is it impossible for your church?”
Hinckley: “Well, we simply think that the…that information belongs to those who made the contribution, and not to the world. That’s the only thing. Yes.”
Once again, there’s only a tiny snippet of video removed from all context. I found a transcript of the entire interview on a website critical of the Church, so there’s no guarantee it’s accurate when the full video is not available. Assuming it’s accurate, though, here is the relevant portion:
REPORTER: Yes. Another critic about finances, I read in different magazines the rumor that your church is very wealthy, and I’d like the number of 30 mill…billion dollars, us dollars, what do you respond?
HINCKLEY: That’s somebody’s guess. That’s just a wild guess. Well, the fact of the matter is, this, yes…if you count all of our assets, yes, we are well-off. but those assets, you have to know this, are not money-producing. Those assets are money-consuming. Those assets, including meeting houses, churches, thousands of them across the world, they include temples, they include universities, they include welfare projects, they include educational facilities, they include all the missionary work, they include humanitarian work, they include all these things which use money. Which don’t produce money. The church is…the income of the church comes from the consecrations of the people, who tithe themselves, pay their tithes, the ancient law of the tithe is the church’s law of the manse. And that’s where the money comes which operates the church. If you look at our balance sheet, that shows all the facilities that we have, and the programs we carry, we appear very wealthy. But you must realize that all of those programs consume money, they don’t produce it. That the money which we use comes from the consecrations of the people.
REPORTER: In my country, the…we say the people’s churches, the Protestants, the Catholics, they publish all their budgets, to all the public.
HINCKLEY: Yeah. Yeah.
REPORTER: Why is it impossible for your church?
HINCKLEY: Well, we simply think that the…that information belongs to those who made the contribution, and not to the world. That’s the only thing. Yes.
I could be wrong on this, but it seems to me that he’s saying that because the income of the Church comes mainly from the consecrations of the members, the members have access to their individual contributions at tithing settlement, and the Church keeps that information private whenever possible for the members’ sake.
Where can I see the Church’s books? I’ve paid tithing. Where can I go to see what the Church’s finances are? Where can current tithing paying members go to see the books? The answer: we can’t. Even if you’ve made the contributions as President Hinckley stated above? Unless you’re an authorized General Authority or senior Church employee in the accounting department with a Non-Disclosure Agreement? You’re out of luck. President Hinckley knew this and for whatever reason made the dishonest statement.
If Jeremy wants to see what the Church’s finances are, I provided a link for him to see the UK disclosures, as well as some prior Australian ones and the ones from Latter-day Saint Charities. Anyone with internet access can google that information if they so choose.
But again, it doesn’t seem to me that President Hinckley was being dishonest. I think Jeremy just misunderstood what he was saying because he only looked at the small, out-of-context snippet. To me, it really does seem like President Hinckley was talking about individual contributions and our ability to know what we have personally donated.
Anyway, I’m going to close this one out here. Next week, we’ll finish the “Church Finances” topic header and might have room for the third topic as well, since it’s a short one.
Sources in this entry:
Sarah Allen is brand new in her affiliation with FAIR. By profession, she works in mortgage compliance and is a freelance copyeditor. A voracious reader, she loves studying the Gospel and the history of the restored Church. After watching some of her lose their testimonies, she became interested in helping others through their faith crises and began sharing what she learned through her studies. She’s grateful to those at FAIR who have given her the opportunity to share her testimony with a wider audience.