Mormon church used to make it easy to follow its money

The Salt Lake Tribune/August 21, 2014

By Peggy Fletcher Stack

In 1947, the LDS Church had about a million members in 170 stakes, 1,293 wards, 132 branches (smaller congregations) — and no debt.

Education was the Utah-based faith’s largest budget item, and a fair amount of its income also went to help the needy in the U.S. and abroad.

These tidbits were in a financial report leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced during April’s General Conference (which lasted three days, rather than today’s two).

Mormon leaders routinely offered a detailed account of church finances from 1915 until 1959, historian D. Michael Quinn writes in a 1996 Sunstone article, when there was concern among some about the institution’s deficit spending.

"During a few months in mid-1956, the church lost a million dollars of tithing funds invested in municipal government bonds," Quinn writes. "Yet later that year, the First Presidency committed two-thirds of church income to continued investment in municipal bonds. The next annual financial report gave fewer details about expenditures of church funds, and the church published its last financial report in April 1959."

Sam Brunson, a blogger with By Common Consent, has analyzed that 1947 budget report to see how the church spent its funds back then.

"The salaries, office expenses, traveling expenses of church employees, and living allowances and travel expenses of [general authorities] were paid out of non-tithing income," Brunson writes. "The disclosure doesn’t go into much detail about sources of church revenue, so I don’t know where these salaries and other expenses would have come from, but apparently the church felt in 1947 paying them out of tithing funds was inappropriate."

The church’s biggest expense back then was education, Brunson writes, including Brigham Young University, Ricks College in Idaho, LDS Business College, Juarez Academy in Mexico, 15 Institutes of Religion (for college students), and 100 seminaries (for high-schoolers).

The LDS Church provided welfare assistance to 24,458 people and sent food and clothing to Europe to assist 50,000 more.

Mormon blogger Jana Riess would like to see the LDS Church again provide financial reports to members.

"The full disclosure of the Mormon past was a healthy thing," Riess writes for Religion News Service, "not just for leaders and members inside the church, but for observers on the outside who can easily be swayed into viewing Mormonism as a multibillion-dollar business rather than a religious organization with a mission to help the world."

Riess argues such reports would help show Mormonism "is not the for-profit business the media sometimes paints it as."

"What better way," she writes, "to counter accusations that tithing money is being used to fund shopping malls or wage legal fights against same-sex marriage than making those records public?"

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