August 18, 2016

9: Selling Salvation

I studied accounting at Brigham Young University, the Mormon-run college in Provo, UT. In one of my introductory accounting classes, we were shown a financial statement mock up as it would look if it were filled out the way the US government would fill it out. We made notes on all of the financial trouble the government would be in if it were a business and discussed strategies that could improve the government's financial situation. It was an interesting exercise using a real-world example to show that accounting could help us better understand an organization.

I was surprised that we didn't look at the financial statements of our church. Professors at BYU tend to bring Mormonism into the classroom as often as they can, and this seemed like a missed opportunity to dig into the workings of our own religion.

In my marketing class, we had talked about the church's "I'm a Mormon" video campaign. The idea came up that the videos were an advertising campaign for the church, which struck me as odd. An advertising campaign? For the church? Why would the church need to make commercials unless it was selling something?

But it actually made sense. The missionaries are the sales force. They go out to find converts, who could be considered customers. The "I'm a Mormon" commercials were meant to create a positive brand image of Mormonism in the minds of potential converts the way all businesses use commercials to create positive brand images of their products in the minds of potential customers. All of that was easy for me to swallow.

But if missionaries are the sales force of the church, doesn't that imply selling something?

That's when the thoughts started getting uncomfortable.

I once attended a youth church activity, a Q&A with the bishopric, where someone asked the question, "Isn't paying tithing the same as buying blessings?" At the time everyone laughed it off and skipped to the next question. But now that I was thinking of the church as a business, that question popped back into my head. 

The idea of buying blessings reminded me of what I had read in history books about the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages. There had been a time when the Catholic priests sold "indulgences" to the lay people. Selling "indulgences" was essentially selling salvation because these indulgences represented the forgiveness of sins. The outrage over misuse of the indulgence system helped lead to Martin Luther's 95-Thesis and eventually the Protestant Reformation, which protested corruption in the Catholic Church.

Selling salvation was an old-fashioned deception used by clergy to get money from the members back in the Middle Ages. It was obviously immoral. But if the objective of missionaries is to sell blessing, were they really any different from the medieval Catholic priests who sold indulgences? This was a problem.

"Missionaries aren't selling blessings," said my Mormon brain. "They aren't trying to get people's money. They are just trying to convert people to the Gospel!"

But there's no denying the church receives money from its converts. Lots of money.

Everything in Mormonism revolves around going to the temple. It is the only place in the plan of salvation where ordinances are performed that allow members to live at the highest levels of the celestial kingdom and to be with their family. Paying 10% of your income as tithing is a requirement to get a temple recommend, which means that if you want to reach the highest levels of heaven you regularly make payments to the church. If you don't make those payments, your leaders will find out when they check up on you in annual tithing settlements or during your temple recommend interviews.

For the church, this system virtually guarantees that they will receive 10% of millions of paychecks for decades, or as long as people are willing to pay tithing. And why wouldn't members be willing to pay? Getting into the temple to perform saving ordinances for only 10% of your income for life? What a bargain! 

So why didn't we learn more about church finances in my accounting classes? Financial statements are all about assets and debts, revenues and expenses, and cash flow. The Mormon church certainly has all of these things. In addition to the tithing revenue, they also own lots and lots of real estate. Members are told:

"Tithing funds are always used for the Lord’s purposes—to build and maintain temples and meetinghouses, to sustain missionary work, to educate Church members, and to carry on the work of the Lord throughout the world." -

But members just have to trust that that's where their tithing money is going. There's no a way of verifying it. This interview with President Hinckley is from 2002:

Reporter: "In my country, 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: "We simply think that information belongs to those who made the contribution, and not to the world." [1]

This seems like a perfectly reasonable statement. It seems fair to say that only members need access to what happens to tithing funds. But members don't have access to that information in the US today, and they haven't since 1959 when the church got into a lot of debt and didn't want to report anymore. [2] In an interview where it was important to sound as open as other churches, Hinckley hinted that the church does give tithe-paying members special access their financial data, but in reality, that information (the information about where tithing funds are spent) is not available to anyone outside of the church office buildings. That's why we didn't study it in the accounting classes. It wasn't available to us or to anyone else who might have questions.

At this point, I had decided that it was important for me to be skeptical of claims made by the church and to be willing to question. My business classes left me with very skeptical questions. The church has a sales force and marketing campaigns. Doesn't this mean the church is selling salvation? How was the concept of tithing any different from the idea of indulgences? If the church is using tithing for "the work of the Lord" then why hide that information?

Needless to say, I stopped paying tithing as soon as possible. I feel really uncomfortable with the idea of "buying blessings," and specifically in Mormonism the idea of "buying" a temple recommend. I don't think money should be a part of spirituality at all and I think that the Mormon church needs to remove the requirement to pay tithing from the temple recommend interview. I don't think anyone should donate to an organization because they are under threat of losing their temple recommend if they don't donate. And if I chose to donate money to an organization, I want it to be an organization that doesn't feel the need to hide its finances, which means the church doesn't qualify.

2. "During the late 1950s and early 1960s, the church greatly increased spending on buildings under the leadership of Henry Moyle. Moyle's reasoning was that by building larger meetinghouses the church would attract more converts. The accelerated building program led to a $32 million deficit in 1962. It was Moyle who convinced David O. McKay to discontinue publishing an annual financial statement in order to hide the extent of the spending."


  1. You are spot on. I think that if the Church did disclose it's actual spending and handling of donations, it would be difficult to think of it as anything but a business that benefits a very few and literally hurts millions, financially speaking. I would like to see that openness, because doctrine aside, this seems the most compelling way to reach the membership of the Church in a way that can't be ignored or explained away. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks! Yes, one of the things that the accounting program stressed was how important financial reporting is for openness and honesty even if it's not legally required... It was ironic.

  2. Look up the service called Heartsell that used to be offered by a Church-owned company.