James Sawyer: Saving for when Latter-day Saints run the world?

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Members of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, from left, Dallin H. Oaks, Russell M. Nelson and Henry B. Eyring lead the spring General Conference Saturday, April 1, 2023.

No money. No mission. In the world of nonprofits, it means churches and other tax-exempt charitable organizations cannot deliver programs without finding money to pay for them. But what about a church that accumulates a large surplus, doesn’t report appropriately to the government, and doesn’t use the surplus in a timely way for delivery of mission-based programs?

Such is the question arising from actions of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its investment arm, Ensign Peak Advisors.

Recently, David A. Nielsen appeared on “60 Minutes” to explain his actions. He worked as investment adviser for Ensign Peak and then four years ago became a government informer.

“I thought we were going to change the world,” he said regarding why he blew the whistle on church finances. Nielsen joined the faith’s investment arm, he said, inspired that he might help advance the global denomination’s charitable outreach. However, he continued: “It was really a clandestine hedge fund. Once the money went in, it didn’t go out.”

One wonders then about the mission of the Utah-based church? What is it and why aren’t surpluses used immediately to pay for current programs?

Is it possible church leaders are preparing for a future event when they believe surpluses will be needed to fulfill some sort of prophetic mission? Indeed, could it be a so-called end times strategy? Could church leaders be using invested, untaxed tithing surpluses to prepare for how future generations of Latter-day Saints will run our world?

Historically, the church subscribes to a tripartite mission of preaching the gospel (missionary work), redeeming the dead (temple ceremonies and rituals), and the so-called perfecting of the saints. Pejoratively, some “not-so-saintly members” refer to perfecting the saints as “pay, pray, and obey.” Reference, of course, is to an institutional requirement for members to donate one-tenth of their income, to pray, and to toe-the-line within an authoritarian organizational environment.

But what if — digging deeper — there is something more, motivating financial concealment? Perhaps something related to the beliefs of some Christians that an immortalized Jesus of Nazareth will return to Earth?

To go deeper, a serious reader might investigate LDS Church-related publications, including “Mormon Doctrine” by Bruce R. McConkie. His second edition was released in 1966, six years before his elevation to Latter-day Saint apostle.

McConkie describes how the world will end according to a doctrinal LDS scenario. In October 1838, he reflected, church founder and prophet Joseph Smith decreed that a site in Daviess County, Missouri, is the geographical location of the biblical Garden of Eden. It was here also, said Smith, that the End Times Council would be held as a prelude to the “great and dreadful coming of the Lord.”

Accordingly, at this anticipated post-mortal council, Jesus will make his reentry, followed by the earth being burned or purified as stubble. Then, a millennial advent of one thousand years will ensue.

Throughout, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reigns as the kingdom of God on earth, according to McConkie. It is the church hierarchy that exercises secular as well as ecclesiastical dominion over all of the Earth’s creatures and inhabitants. The church’s leadership will be in charge, globally.

One wonders. Is this some sort of concealed mission for which Ensign Peak Advisors is accruing unreported surpluses, under direction of church leadership?

Of course, though Bruce McConkie’s assessment is based upon authentic church scholarship, it is not a “known.” It is something “believed.”

Distinguished philosopher of science Karl Popper laid out criteria by which a known could be differentiated from a belief. The former, Popper said, could be invalidated through objective inquiry by impartial observers. In other words, one would not need be a Latter-day Saint in order to subscribe to McConkie’s restatement of the end times thesis.

Subscription by non-Latter-day Saint would be unlikely, of course. Mormon beliefs as well as the beliefs of other churches, organizations, and individuals, ought not to be marketed as knowns when they are not.

A public space is one in which democratic objectivity should prevail. It could be a school board meeting or a town council. It would not be a Latter-day Saint testimony meeting.

Regarding appropriate decorum in public spaces, one ought to lean toward humility, and away from arrogant conflation of what is believed — personally — with what is known — publicly. Humility holds the promise of pulling Latter-day Saints — indeed all of us — back from the brink of pseudo-realities and haughty self-righteous aggrandizements. It can pull us also away from being certitude-confident (state of mind that is free of doubt) that one’s belief about how the world is perceived to work, or end, aligns identically with how the world works, in actuality.

This, I propose, should be the mindset of the LDS Church and the investment work done for it by those designated as Ensign Peak Advisors.

James Sawyer

James Sawyer, Fort Collins, Colorado, grew up in Ogden, served as adviser to Utah Gov. Calvin Rampton and holds a doctorate in economics from the University of Utah.