Mormonism’s top moneyman credits members’ sacrifices and sacred financial principles for faith’s prosperity

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bishop Gérald Caussé speaks during the 187th Annual LDS General Conference at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City, Saturday, April 1, 2017.

In its fledgling years, the LDS Church was poor, many of its converts giving up everything to follow founder Joseph Smith’s vision of a “restored” gospel.

Today, says the faith’s presiding bishop, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints enjoys prosperity due to the sacrificial giving by multiple generations of devout Mormons and the implementation of sound, spiritually informed financial principles by LDS leaders.

However, the nearly 16 million-member church’s journey from scarcity to sufficiency was never an easy one, Bishop Gérald Caussé said Friday in addressing the “2018 Church History Symposium” at the LDS Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City.

“This abundance of temporal blessings was built upon the painful physical and financial trials that punctuated the first decades of church growth,” said Caussé, who oversees the faith’s financial, real estate, investment and charitable operations.

One of those first struggling Latter-day Saints was a recently widowed father of two named Brigham Young. He wore a tattered homemade coat against the cold of the 1830s Mormon settlement in Kirtland, Ohio. The future pioneer leader had no shoes, so he borrowed boots, Caussé recounted, and when his own pants wore out, others loaned him a pair.

Young was in good, if destitute company in those earliest days of Mormonism. Converts flocked to Ohio, then Illinois and, eventually, followed Young to the Salt Lake Valley, sharing in common what little they had.

“The Lord used each of these experiences,” Caussé said, “to [teach] his people ... the guiding principles, spiritual and temporal, that would allow them to become a strong and self-reliant people, endowed with the temporal capacities and resources necessary to accomplish the Lord’s work in this last dispensation.”

Mormons are taught to “practice provident living, live within their means, avoid unnecessary debt, and prepare for the future,” he added, by putting aside both financial assets and food against hard times.

Caussé and his two counselors sacredly apply the same principles corporately for the church as a whole, he said.

“It is not an easy task,” the French general authority added, noting that comparisons of the Presiding Bishopric’s duties with the secular business world fall short. “It is anything but a human organization. It is based on spiritual principles that grew out of ... church history and revelations received by the Prophet Joseph Smith.”

Those four principles, Caussé said, include:

Paying tithing. Faithful Mormons donate 10 percent of their income to their church.

Practicing self-reliance and independence. When budgeting, the presiding bishop said, LDS leaders make sure that “total expenditures” do not surpass projected revenue and that operating costs “[do] not increase year to year at a more rapid rate than the anticipated growth in tithing contributions.”

Living providently. Latter-day Saints are urged to prepare for “possible famine, disaster, financial depression or any other unforeseen adverse circumstance.”

Making all such decisions “in the Lord’s way” through prayerful revelation. This directive, Caussé said, “fills me with humility” every day.

“In its finance and investment policies, the church as an entity simply practices the principles that it teaches to its individual members,” he said. “ ... For example, grain silos and warehouses filled with basic emergency necessities have been established throughout North America. The church also methodically follows the practice of setting aside a portion of its revenues each year to prepare for any possible future needs.”

Fiscal decisions can stir controversy, such as the LDS Church’s $1.5 billion, multiblock City Creek Center mall, office and residential complex in the heart of Salt Lake City. Caussé showed slides depicting that investment — along with farming, ranching and other holdings — as a financial footing helping to prop up the faith’s overall fiscal structure.

In his latest book, “Mormon Hierarchy: Wealth & Corporate Power,” historian D. Michael Quinn wrote that the LDS Church’s melding of the spiritual and material has always been an essential element of Mormonism.

Quinn, who was excommunicated in 1993 for apostasy over his writings about polygamy, credits the church’s financial acumen and the self-sacrifice of its top leaders with giving birth to “an enormously faith-promoting story.”

A leaked 2014 memo from the Presiding Bishopric’s office showed that all Mormon general authorities — from the senior apostles to the lowest Seventies — received a modest base living allowance of $120,000 a year.

While Quinn says the church is not a “profit-making business,” he estimates that in 2010 the global faith — which does not release its overall financial records — took in $33 billion in tithing alone, with another $15 billion from its investments in stocks, bonds, taxable business ventures and other commercial enterprises.

“It is an American success story without parallel,” Quinn told The Salt Lake Tribune last year. “No institution, no church, no business, no nonprofit organization in America has had this kind of history.”

Caussé acknowledged Friday that while today’s worldwide LDS Church is seen by outsiders as “a powerful and prosperous institution,” its true strength is not measured merely by “the number or beauty of its buildings or by its financial or real estate holdings.”

Rather, Caussé declared, Mormonism “is all about people ... all about individual members who are bound together by common beliefs and covenants. They are its strength and its future.”

After all, even Brigham Young’s fortunes reversed. By the time of his death in 1877, Quinn’s book notes, the net value of the pioneer-prophet’s estate was pegged, in 2010 currency, at nearly $35 million.