Friday, July 13, 2012

A Brief History of the Mormon Church

Open Salon

JANUARY 20, 2012 11:56AM

A Brief History of the Mormon Church

  Joseph Smith first vision
This really is a relatively brief History of the Mormon Church compared to the enormous amount of information available although it may seem long for a blog; there is actually more that I left out than I included, so please excuse the length.

With two Mormons running for president the Mass Media has spent a brief amount of time reviewing the Mormon religion and like anything ales they’ve done it has been a poor review. The highest profile discussion of it occurred when Robert Jeffress said that, “Mormonism is a cult.” This wasn’t taken seriously by many people, including Chris Mathews, with some justification, due to the possibility that Jeffress was more concerned about rivalries among religions that have often, gone back centuries, or in this case since the rise of Mormonism in the first half of the nineteenth century. They rarely ever consider the dictionary definition of a cult, not that it would do much good if they did since it hasn’t been used consistently throughout history and the dictionary definition is generally based on the way it has been used in practice. It isn’t uncommon for many people, primarily atheists, to sarcastically say that a cult is the other person’s religion. While reviewing the way it is often used this isn’t entirely unjustified but it isn’t the proper and consistent way that a cult should be defined. The definition that I prefer to use is that a cult is an organization that dictates the truth to the followers often using coercion or some form of manipulation tactics. I don’t expect many people to accept this definition but as far as I can tell people like Robert Jeffress don’t seem to have a better one and if they do they can explain it themselves; I certainly haven’t been able to figure out the definition that they’ve been using, nor do I get the impression that they have.
The Mormon Church was established by Joseph Smith based on many alleged revelations that he received from a variety of angels or Gods. The most famous one is from the angel Moroni who told him where to find some gold plates that held a bible written in ancient Egyptian but this wasn’t the first, although it may have been the first that he told anyone about. The first was an alleged revelation that he had in 1820 from God and his son Jesus. The following isn’t exactly what he claimed happened after he asked which church he should join:

I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; unfortunately many people have been given the wrong idea for one reason or another and they’ve come to many incorrect conclusions. Part of this may be my fault but regardless of why this happened it would be helpful to correct these mistakes so that various religions will no longer fight among each other for misguided reasons. The true path to salvation doesn’t lie in fighting one war after another to decide whose religion is right and proving it by intimidating coercing or killing those that disagree. It is far more rational to take the time to sort out the details and figure out what is true confirming all the facts one at a time so that when there are mistakes they can be corrected before they lead to serious damage. Ideally this will be taught to children from a very early age by raising them in a patient and non-abusive manner so that they can learn how to sort through details and settle arguments without fighting or ignoring inconvenient facts. It would be important not to abuse these children while raising them since doing so only teaches them violence which escalates later in life. Instead at times when it comes to minor things it would be better to let them make their own mistakes and learn from them and allow them to explain themselves so that you can find out why they made their mistakes and explain the proper way to do things.
There is more to this than that of course and I will teach it to you in time. Also, so that there will be no confusion, I will also reveal myself to several of the other leaders of a variety of the local religions and explain to them that they should meet in peace and sort out their differences, so that they will know that this message came from me and that there will be no additional persecutions of new religions that appear to threaten the beliefs of others.
To the best of my knowledge this hasn’t happened to Joseph Smith or any other alleged prophet for any major religion; in order to come up with this I had to make it up, which wasn’t very hard once I considered the possibility that the hypothetical God they worship was benevolent as they believe and then try to figure out what a benevolent God would do. If this God is also much smarter than the human race and much more powerful then there should be no reason why this God couldn’t come up with a plan that was as good as this if not much better. Whether or not it is much if any better the following is what Smith claims happened:

I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: "they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof." Joseph Smith's First Vision from
I’m not convinced that this is the best way that a benevolent, powerful and intelligent God could have handled the situation assuming he existed at all; and there is some doubt about the timing of this vision or whether it happened at all. According to some reports including one from Mormon Think that claim that this vision wasn’t reported to the public until 1842, 22 years after the vision happened and more than 12 years after the church was officially established, for all practical purposes. Mormon Think is apparently run by a group of Mormons that don’t blindly adopt the beliefs as they’re dictated from the Church; instead they seem to attempt to try to sort through the details to come as close to the truth as they can and they seem to show the work to indicate how they came to their conclusions. In fact there appear to be many more moderate Mormons like this, at Mormon Think and elsewhere, who are subject to pressure from the Church that do some of the best research on the Mormon religion for one reason or another, although, at times, some of them may have shown other biases. It is unlikely that these people would fit the definition of what I called a cult although some of the more devout members of the Church might. There might be some justification to withhold the report of this vision at a time when no one would have believed him; however it is hard to understand why he would have withheld reports of this vision after he had a group of loyal followers that believed many other alleged visions that he had. However, regardless of whether it is legitimate or not, most of the Later-day Saints believe it is true without question; therefore it is worth considering as a hypothetical even if it isn’t true.
Joseph Smith doesn’t claim to have told anyone about any vision that I know of, until after the vision from Moroni; the following isn’t what he claimed happened when he received a vision from Moroni:
On September 21, 1823 after retiring to bed, While I was thus in the act of calling upon God, I discovered a light appearing in my room, which continued to increase until the room was lighter than at noonday, when immediately a personage appeared at my bedside, standing in the air, for his feet did not touch the floor. His whole person was glorious beyond description, and his countenance truly like lightning. The room was exceedingly light, but not so very bright as immediately around his person. He called me by name, and said unto me that he was a messenger sent from the presence of God to me, and that his name was Moroni; that God had a work for me to do.
God would like to give me a collection of books which I was to share with others. These books would contain a lot of information about a variety of subjects that would enable us to improve the quality of life and understand our history much better. There would also be a variety of science books that included some about medical care that would help us teach doctors how to heal; astronomy that would enable educators to understand the universe and teach the public about it; political books that would enable us to teach the public how to establish a democracy where everyone is entitled to an education that will enable them to participate in the democratic process; and many other things.
I don’t expect you to understand this all at once but you can take your time reading these books as you go along; if you devote a portion of your time to reading and another portion of your time to work that enables you to continue to provide the necessities you’ll still have some leisure time for recreation and you’ll be able to steadily improve the quality of your life and leave an even better one for the next generation.
I will also give a copy of these books to several other people so that there will be no doubt that I am trying to educate the public in a beneficial manner that doesn’t involve any religion that forces people to believe things that don’t stand up to scrutiny. There is no reason why the information in these books can’t be scrutinized to verify their accuracy; if they are accurate then they will stand up to scrutiny; if they have any mistakes then you should find those mistakes and correct them rather than allow yourselves to make decisions based on mistaken beliefs. Also, there should be no copyrights for these books; the information should be made available to everyone in the most efficient way possible. If it is necessary to charge some people for the printing until a better process comes along that enables you to make copies cheaper that would be acceptable but there should be no “licensing fees” charged for the use of “intellectual property” which should belong equally to all.
Well, that didn’t happen; however my impression is that if this hypothetical God that sent Moroni was benevolent, powerful, and intelligent then he would come up with a plan that was at least as smart as that and one that would have helped people as much as that. What allegedly did happen actually involves an alleged visitation from Mooni which according to the official version from the Church (complete version) led to the discovery of a Golden Bible that was translated eventually with the help of some seer stones called Urim and Thummim. Moroni’s visitation according to Mormon Think provides a different explanation or at least raises some serious doubts about the official version. According to the Mormons at Mormon Think the first edition of the Book of Mormon doesn’t even mention these stones; this can be confirmed by checking a copy provided by Dale R. Broadhurst. Apparently the fist copy of the Book of Mormon that included Joseph Smith’s testimony mentioning the stones was published in 1833. However, regardless of why devout Mormons’ believe the Book of Mormon was translated with the stones it is worth considering as a hypothetical, since that is what they believe.
Perhaps they used the stones in the same manner that scholars used the Rosetta Stone to translate many ancient texts. If the traditional academics can use a stone to translate ancient Egyptian why couldn’t Joseph Smith use the same method?
The original Rosetta Stone was very helpful in translating ancient texts but, unlike more modern versions of the Rosetta Stone it was used in a relatively simple although tedious manner that can be understood relatively easily with enough time. It involved a stone that had inscriptions from three different languages including ancient Egyptian and Greek that enabled academics to develop a translation process, eventually. This didn’t involve just one man in a back room that read to a scribe the way Joseph smith allegedly did. Instead they searched many different stones that also had inscriptions and slowly developing the translation dictionary that was subject to scrutiny by many scholars including Charles Anthon who allegedly confirmed the fact that some of Smith’s translations were legitimate. One version of this story is told at the LDS web site; however I’m quite certain there are other versions of this story, including one by Mormon Think. There is even one story told by Richard Bushman in “Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism” that involves switching the stones to see if Smith would notice, which he doesn’t initially but when he tries to translate he claims that “All is dark as Egypt,” Implying that there is something magical about the stones. Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism By Richard L. Bushman p.90 This version implies that the “seer stones” that were used look like any other stone that you might find by the river which contradicts other descriptions of the stones. The implication seems to be that if they can prove the fact that a miracle occurred then they can prove the conclusions that they drew from the miracle. This logic is flawed in at least two ways; first, the proof that the miracle occurred can’t be corroborated since it comes from witness testimony that can’t be cross examined. Second, the conclusions they drew from it doesn’t involve any explanation as to how this alleged translation process occurs.
As far as I can tell though, none of these involves an open line of communication that can be confirmed in any manner; nor is there much if any speculation about why a benevolent God would communicate in such a confusing and inconclusive manner. Generally, when asked questions like this many religious people often come up with complex answers which I fail to follow or find rational. My assumption is that this is the way many cults work; when it comes to confusing mythology or miracles that are hard to understand a charismatic leader often interprets it for the followers and often intimidates many people if they raise too many questions.
That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a legitimate unsolved mystery of some sort, although it does seem to raise doubts about the interpretation that they raised about it. The strongest claims for evidence that I can think of an unsolved mystery may be the fact that they were able to create such a large religion so fast and that a simple farm boy was able to come up with the Book of Mormon at all even though it is clearly not historically accurate it still requires some sophistication for other reasons. As far as I can tell is the practical use the Book of Mormon has is as a cult book that could and is being used in combination with other tactics to indoctrinate followers. Skeptics often describe Joseph Smith as a clever fraud, which certainly seems to be true; however that doesn’t explain how he became so clever. The creation of a religion this big and fast seems to be much more than a simple farm boy should have been able to do; yet one way or another it seems to have happened. They managed to recruit thousands of people to join their religion even though it was full of absurdities. They’re not the only ones to try to do this, by far, yet they had much more success than many if any other new religions since Mohammad inspired Islam. Critics often ridicule the beliefs but that doesn’t explain how they grew so fast; in fact it should raise even more questions about how they grew so fast.
Think about it, if you heard of someone that started a religion by receiving messages from God and dictated a book while talking into his hat would you join?
Of course it wasn’t that simple, few if any people heard about it in that manner; and must have been many other contributing factors. These would include how they were taught as a child; how they were approached; whether they had a supporting religion or family; whether the Mormons had any actual legitimate complaints about the current ruling class and other religions, or at least complaints that seemed legitimate to them. But still, this doesn’t explain how they managed to convince so many people to join while so many others that were trying to do the same thing failed.
Another issue that is often cited by believers is the alleged confirmation of the translation by Professor Charles Anthon. In fact this is part of the reason they were able to convince some people that the translations were legitimate. Martin Harris took a copy of the translation to Professor Charles Anthon to have him confirm it; there are multiple reasons given for why he did this depending on which version you read. The most common one is probably that he wanted to confirm the legitimacy of the translation before financing the publishing of the Book of Mormon; however there is another explanation that seems to indicate that he supposedly received a revelation himself telling him that he should go to New York to seek confirmation. In fact many of the other leaders of the Mormon religion claim that they had revelations and many modern Mormons continue to claim they have these revelations. Regardless of why he went to ask for confirmation there seems to be some evidence to indicate that the visit did take place and that he almost certainly did believe in the legitimacy of the Book of Mormon which is why he eventually sold his farm to pay for the publishing.
According to the Church the following happened:

I went to the city of New York, and presented the characters which had been translated, with the translation thereof, to Professor Charles Anthon, a gentleman celebrated for his literary attainments. Professor Anthon stated that the translation was correct, more so than any he had before seen translated from the Egyptian. I then showed him those which were not yet translated, and he said that they were Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic; and he said they were true characters. He gave me a certificate, certifying to the people of Palmyra that they were true characters, and that the translation of such of them as had been translated was also correct. I took the certificate and put it into my pocket, and was just leaving the house, when Mr. Anthon called me back, and asked me how the young man found out that there were gold plates in the place where he found them. I answered that an angel of God had revealed it unto him. “He then said to me, ‘Let me see that certificate.’ I accordingly took it out of my pocket and gave it to him, when he took it and tore it to pieces, saying that there was no such thing now as ministering of aangels, and that if I would bring the plates to him he would translate them. I informed him that part of the plates were bsealed, and that I was forbidden to bring them. He replied, ‘I cannot read a sealed book.’ I left him and went to Dr. Mitchell, who sanctioned what Professor Anthon had said respecting both the characters and the translation.” Extracts from the History of Joseph Smith, the Prophet at
Mormon Think provides a different view of the Anthon visit. The doubts they raise involve a letter written by Charles Anthon in 1834 that contradicts Martin Harris’ version of events; unfortunately they fail to mention the fact that apparently he sent a second letter in 1841 which contradicts his first letter. As Richard Bushman puts it:

Anthon and Harris differ drastically in their accounts of what happened. Anthon wrote letters in 1834 and 1841 to critics of the Mormons, denying that he had verified Joseph’s translation or the authenticity of the characters. Anthon claimed he saw through the hoax at once, feared that Martin was about to be cheated of his money, and warned the “simple-hearted farmer” to beware of rogues. Unfortunately Anthon contradicts himself on an important detail. In the first letter Anthon said he refused to give Harris a written opinion; according to the second, the opinion was written “without any hesitation,” in an attempt to expose the fraud. Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism By Richard L. Bushman p.87-8
Fortunately, another skeptic, Jerome J. Knuijt, did address both letters and provide his explanation in “The Anthon Affair” ; however a close look at it may raise as many questions as it addresses and it is based on at least one assumption that he made without any more ability to confirm the details than the Mormon’s had. Jerome J. Knuijt speculates about the possibility that Charles Anthon was responding to two different questions in the two different letters. This seems unlikely to me, however it is conceivable that he just didn’t remember the incident that well. This leaves them open to the argument that they’re making assumptions without evidence as well. It also provides some evidence, assuming you accept the legitimacy of the letters, for some of the claims that are being debunked by other skeptics including those at Mormon think. If you accept Charles Anthon’s letters, for the most part, then it would provide evidence of the claim that martin Harris believed in the description of the stones, Urim and Thummim, as provided by Joseph Smith as early as 1828 before the first edition of the Book of Mormon came out. The fact that they didn’t mention it in the book doesn’t prove that they didn’t use them or at least believe in them or incorporate it into their story one way or another. The letters also confirm the fact that they actually met and discussed the translation. It is hard to see why martin Harris would do this and sell his farm if he didn’t actually believe in the story he was receiving from Smith. A close look at the letters also seems to indicate that Harris may have been in an emotional state when he visited Anthon on one or both visits. This may have been due to the fact that he really did believe in the new religion. Of course, I can’t prove some of my speculation any more than Jerome Knuijt could prove his but it is enough to prove that the explanation for this is at best incomplete. The confusion about this story could be enough to enable people who are looking for something to believe in to latch onto.
Another issue which skeptics seem to be willing to accept without question is the claim that Anthon was acting purely out of the best interest of the simple farmer who is being swindled. This assumption may also be attributed to other anti-Mormon skeptics who may have had ulterior motives and were trying to discredit the Mormons for other reasons. The fact that there was so much anti-Mormon literature and that they were recruiting so many new flowers indicates that there were a lot of people with the motive to discredit them due to the fact that they were disrupting the established ruling class or that they could potentially do so. Both the anti-Mormons and the Mormons routinely portray themselves as being benevolent to the people but a close look may indicate that neither one of them were as benevolent as they attempted to portray themselves. This is typical of propaganda wars that are being carried out when two or more factions are competing to control the masses. It is conceivable that this could be part of the reason why Anthon came up with two contradictory answers; perhaps he was under pressure to tell the two people inquiring about it with the answer they wanted to hear. It is also possible that he was under pressure from Harris himself during the visit to come up with the answer he wanted to hear due to a highly agitated state. If so, this agitated state could be a sign of his sincere belief, in something, even if it is misplaced.
When considering Anthon to be the more rational one of the two it isn’t without problems when you consider statements like, “to publish this letter immediately, should you find my name mentioned again by these wretched fanatics.” In the first letter and “that if he left the volume, as he said he intended to do, I should most assuredly throw it after him as he departed.” It seems to imply that he might have become almost as emotional as Martin Harris, perhaps out of frustration, but it also creates the appearance that he may have been concerned about his own reputation which leaves the opportunity to portray him, legitimately or not, as having a motive to hide his first conclusions. This seems more credible when it turns out that he contradicted his two versions.
The use of the term anti-Mormon has had its own misuses and different interpretations depending on the point of view of the speaker or listener; I’m sure some people might consider me an anti-Mormon due to some of the material that I have written here; and this would be partially correct; however a little perspective is in order. I am opposed to any cult activity that involves indoctrinating the public whether it is done by Mormons or other religions including the Evangelicals that are often the most critical of the Mormons. I’m also opposed to the anti-Mormons who intentionally distort their claims to meet their beliefs; however many of them almost certainly do this intentionally; and I don’t rule out the possibility that I will demonstrate bias any more than they, although I try to avoid it. I try not to be opposed to their good ideas and I’m not opposed to the more moderate people of the Mormon religion or any other that are trying to sort out the details and get to the real truth. From this point of view it is often necessary to sort through the details and figure out when the opposition is going to far in any direction.
A more modern review of some of the early anti-Mormon literature may indicate some of the bias that might raise additional doubts about the skeptics and class bias as indicated in the following excerpt from the first chapter of Eber Howe’s book which was one of the most popular early reviews of the new religion by opponents:
All who became intimate with them during this period, unite in representing the general character of old Joseph and wife, the parents of the pretended Prophet, as lazy, indolent, ignorant and superstitious -- having a firm belief in ghosts and witches; the telling of fortunes; pretending to believe that the earth was filled with hidden treasures, buried there by Kid or the Spaniards. Being miserably poor, and not much disposed to obtain an honorable livelihood by labor, the energies of their minds seemed to be mostly directed towards finding where these treasures were concealed, and the best mode of acquiring their possession. “Mormonism Unveiled” by Eber D. Howe
The reference to him as being “not much disposed to obtain an honorable livelihood by labor” may have some legitimacy if you look at only one part of the story. He certainly was involved in his share of superstition and fraud at times; however it was quite typical at that time and those that did work hard often didn’t benefit from it due to the fact that many other people were involved in fraud of one kind or another. This was a time when the leaders of society taught their own religions which had plenty of their own superstitions. This was a time when land speculators were often involved in fraud that robbed the poor of any opportunity they had to get ahead and many other preachers were trying to do their own recruiting for their own religion and critics like Howe almost certainly didn’t target them much if at all. This may have been part of the reason why the believers in Mormonism were able to dismiss their critics and it may have actually helped them with their recruiting if the followers knew about the other deceptions that were going on at that time. This may sound good to those that want to believe it but those that lived with the other scams that may have been ignored may have known better; and perhaps in many cases they may have responded by conducting their own scams, which seems to be the case. Absurd as Joseph Smith’s scams often were they may have come after seeing that the only people that truly got ahead were the ones involved in scams, although the successful ones usually had better political connections. The rise of the anti-Mormon literature may have been partially a result of the fact that Mormon scams were challenging the scams of the powerful.
In 1839 John Corrill first self-published “A Brief History of the Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints,” which explains his reasons for joining and later leaving the church. His brief history sheds some light on how many people are drawn into a religion or cult based on misleading beliefs. In my opinion it seems to be less biased than many of the other literature at that time. This is partly because if he was inclined to take one side or another then he probably would have shown it in a more extreme manner. It is relatively brief only about 50 pages, so it come recommended and it could be read fairly quickly.
Apparently John Corrill was predisposed to believe that God did exist and that he revealed himself through “revelations” and that the bible was his word, as many other people at that time were raised. He was also, presumably taught to believe their religious authorities and some of the people preaching it including Sidney Rigdon were considered religious authorities. Corrill explains that the reason that he came to believe that the Mormons were worth joining in the first place was because after reading the bible he came to the conclusion that there could be additional prophets and that God might reveal the truth through them in the same manner that he had in the past, and that the legitimacy of these prophets can be confirmed by miracles associated with them. The following shows his description of what he considered possible miracles, some that he saw first hand and others that he heard about while with other believers:

…..I went to Kirtland to see for myself, and whilst there, watched every movement with a jealous eye. I attended several meetings, one of which was the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost, which, I thought, would give me a good opportunity to detect their hypocrisy. The meeting lasted all night, and such a meeting I never attended before. They administered the sacrament, and laid on hands, after which I heard them prophesy and speak in tongues unknown to me. Persons in the room, who took no part with them, declared, from the knowledge they had of the Indian languages, that the tongues spoken were regular Indian dialects, which I was also informed, on inquiry, the persons who spoke had never learned. I watched closely and examined carefully, every movement of the meeting, and after exhausting all my powers to find the deception, I was obliged to acknowledge, in my own mind that the meeting had been inspired by some supernatural agency. (p.9) Many improprieties and visionary notions crept into the church, which tried the feelings of the more sound minded. Many young persons became very visionary, and had divers operations, of the spirit, as they supposed. They saw wonderful lights in the air and on the ground, and would relate many great and marvelous things which they saw in their visions. They conducted themselves in a strange manner, sometimes imitating Indians in their manoeuvres, sometimes running out into the fields, getting on stumps of trees and there preaching as though surrounded by a congregation, -- all the while so completely absorbed in visions as to be apparently insensible to all that was passing around them. I would here remark, however, that it was but a very few of the Church who were exercised in that way. The more substantial minded looked upon it with astonishment, and were suspicious that it was from an evil source. (p.16-7 “A Brief History of the Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints,” by John Corrill )
The direct evidence that he perceived as indicated a miracle seemed to involve the “speaking of tongues” which is hard to confirm especially over a hundred years after the fact with all the witnesses dead. He also saw a lot of strange behavior that could have been similar to many religious revivals which were common in those days, and in some cases they still go on today although the stories about modern occurrences aren’t as bizarre in most cases and they can be observed by many modern psychologists and sociologists to see what is happening although the participants may prefer not to be observed. Most of us probably wouldn’t consider this evidence of a miracle unless there is more to it than he was able to describe in a book; and even if it was considered a miracle most of us probably wouldn’t have jumped to the same conclusions that he did. This is just a small sample of the stories like this; if it didn’t happen as Corrill described it then we still have a major psychological mystery to explain why so many people wrote down so many similar stories. Regardless of whether or not it was a miracle, he thought it was and so did many other people and they joined the new religion.
He later goes on to describe many experiences that may be typical of many cults; when first joining them they’re often much friendlier and more democratic; then after becoming more dependent on them and isolated from the rest of their family they become more authoritarian. Corrill describes many persecutions against the Church by outsiders and he claims that the Mormons weren’t the instigators with outsiders, although other reports say otherwise. This isn’t uncommon with many religious conflicts that are trying to control a large number of people and when a new religion comes up to challenge the authority of the older one.
Jacques Vallee might interpret the portion of John Corrill’s account about how “young persons became very visionary, and had divers operations, of the spirit, as they supposed. They saw wonderful lights in the air…” as potential evidence of a hypothesis that he has developed about many ancient events dating back thousands of years having the same root causes as modern UFO sightings and many of the surrounding myths about them. He wrote the following:

It is futile to engage in a debate concerning the truth or falsity of the statements made by Joseph Smith. We are looking here for indications of a higher order, and we can define as a miracle any event, real or imagined or even faked, which creates certain paranormal but verifiable effects. The transformation of an ordinary farm boy from rural New York State into an unchallenged leader of multitudes is an unusual fact that deserves attention even if we doubt the story. When we trace the turning point of this man's life to the sighting of a strange light and to contact with an entity inside the light, I believe the account needs to be preserved along with those we have already found in other faiths and other lands. Jacques Vallee “Dimensions: A Casebook of Alien Contact”
Jacques Vallee develops this hypothesis primarily with a large amount of myths from history, some of the most recent include Joseph smith and the Miracle at Fatima; however he often fails to sort through the details of many of these myths including Joseph Smith’s story and he doesn’t address many of the issues raised by many of the skeptics. One thing I would agree with is that the “transformation of an ordinary farm boy from rural New York State into an unchallenged leader of multitudes is an unusual fact that deserves attention;” although a closer look at the history surrounding Smith indicates that he wasn’t quite unchallenged among his own followers but he did overcome the challenges that did arise faster and more thoroughly than I would have expected.
Rodney Stark a sociologist seems to agree at least to some extent; although, as far as I know he doesn’t associate Mormonism with UFOs and he thinks that the primary research should focus on the scientific within normal academic and secular research methods; but he doesn’t completely rule out the possibility of something that people consider “divine” or “supernatural.” My own opinion about things that are considered supernatural is that if they happen they’re undiscovered science that is often surrounded by an enormous amount of hype, exaggerations, and sometimes pseudo-debunking that often dismisses legitimate mysteries along with the exaggerations and superstitions. Stark thinks that Mormonism may be one of the greatest opportunities available to study a large and relatively new religion as it develops as indicated in the following quotes:

Stark thinks Mormonism may be the most important new word religion to arise since Islam appeared in the seventh century A. D., providing interesting phenomena for sociologists to observe….. For Stark the divine acts through history with human agents, and application of a social science model does not necessarily imply hostility to the supernatural. Stark thinks that ideology plays almost no role in the beginnings of conversion, which occurs almost entirely through human networking. As he sees it, questions of literal historicity are not central to the Mormon religion…. (Richard N. Ostling, Joan K. Ostling “Mormon America” 1999/2007 p.261-2)

I was careful to acknowledge the possibility that revelations actually occur. It is beyond the capacity of science to demonstrate that the divine does not communicate directly with certain individuals; there is no possibility of constructing an appropriate detector. We must, therefore, admit the possibility of an active supernatural realm closed to scientific exploration. To confess these limits to scientific epistemology is not to suggest that we cease efforts to account for religious phenomena within a scientific framework. There is no necessary incompatibility between these efforts and faith. “The rise of Mormonism” By Rodney Stark, Reid Larkin Neilson p.27 And how could any rational person make sacrifices on behalf of unseen supernatural entities? The answer: When it comes to religion, apparently reasonable beings are unreasonable- religion is rooted in the irrational. Keep in mind that claims about the irrationality of religious sacrifices have not been limited to great sacrifices such as asceticism or martyrdom. At issue are such ordinary acts as prayer, observance of moral codes, and contributions of time and wealth.
Whether it be the imputation of outright psychopathology, of groundless fears, or merely faulty reasoning and misperceptions, the irrational assumption has dominated the field. The notion that normal, sophisticated people could be religious has been limited to a few social scientists willing to allow their own brand of very mild religiousness to pass the test of rationality-as in Gordon W. Allport’s concept of “intrinsic” religion…… “The rise of Mormonism” By Rodney Stark, Reid Larkin Neilson p.86
It was not bishops but the religious “fantasies” of the masses that most concerned Engels. Freud wrote about religious illusions, not about church taxes, and Wallace asserted that “belief in supernatural powers is doomed to die out, all over the world” (1966:265), because as Bryan Wilson explained, “the rational structure of society itself precludes much indulgence in supernaturalist thinking” (1975b:265).
Third,, implicit in all is the claim that all aspects of modernization it is science that has the most deadly implications for religion…… “The rise of Mormonism” By Rodney Stark, Reid Larkin Neilson p.97
My own point of view a miracle, or perceived miracle is just a dramatic event that is probably a result of an unknown trick slight of hand or science that the audience doesn’t understand. This could just as easily apply to magic, the supernatural or paranormal. Once people understand these events then they will cease to appear like miracles. This isn’t an uncommon belief now; however there are many pseudo-skeptics that avoid real research and rely on ridicule of unsolved mysteries to “debunk” them. When these pseudo-skeptics use the same tactics they are criticizing they lose credibility when people see the flaws in their logic. Also it was a much rarer point of view in the nineteenth century; yet apparently according to the following excerpts Brigham Young the leader of the Mormons after Joseph Smith died may have held it at least to some point.

God, by his spirit, has revealed many things to His people, but, in almost all cases, He has straightway shut up the vision of the mind. He will let his servants gaze upon eternal things for a moment, but straightaway the vision is closed, and they are left as they were, that they may learn to act by faith, or as the Apostle has it, not walking by sight, but by faith. (p.264) With that God whom we serve, who holds all things in His hands, that we know anything of; He is the first and the last, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, who at one survey looks upon all the workmanship of His hands; who has the words of eternal life, and holds the hearts of children of men in His hand, and turns them whithersoever He will, even as the rivers of waters are turned; who commands the earth to perform its revolutions or stand still, at His pleasure; who has given the sun, the planets, the earths, and far distant systems their orbits, their times, and their seasons; whose commands they all obey. With Him abide the true riches.
I will now notice the character who exhibited the power of true riches on the earth, though he himself was in a state of abject poverty, to all human appearances, for he was made poor that we might be made rich and he descended below all things that he might ascend above all things. When the only begotten Son of God was upon the earth, he understood the nature of these elements, how they were brought together to make this world and all things that are thereon, for he helped to make them. He had the power of organizing, what we would call, in a miraculous manner. That which to him is no miracle, is called miraculous by the inhabitants of the earth. (Brigham Young “Journal of Discourses” v.1 p.270)
In reality there is no such thing as a mystery but to the ignorant. We may also say, there is no such thing in reality, as a miracle, except to those who do not understand the “Alpha and the Omega” of every phenomenon that is made manifest. To a person who thoroughly understands the reasons of all things, and can trace from their effects to their true causes, mystery does not exist. Yet the physical and mental existence of man is a great mystery to him. (Brigham Young “Journal of Discourses” v.2 p.91)
Our religion embraces chemistry; it embraces all the knowledge of the geologist, and then it goes a little further than their systems of argument, for the Lord Almighty, its author, is the greatest chemist there is. (Brigham Young “Journal of Discourses” v.15 p.127)
Brigham Young seems to be implying the thing that makes God so powerful is the fact that he understands things much better than people do, therefore the things we consider miraculous aren’t a mystery to him. Young seems to believe that it is desirable for this hypothetical God to provide information when and only when it suits God’s purposes. He doesn’t seem to consider the possibility that if this God does exist and he behaves in such a manner that would essentially make this hypothetical God a cult leader who is indoctrinating people and enslaving their minds through people he chooses to designate as prophets. This wouldn’t be a god that deserves to be worshipped unless the target audience has had their mind enslaved through indoctrination.
Brigham Young didn’t always act in a religious manner though; in fact, he couldn’t have or the religion he was holding together would have fallen apart. In order to maintain a growing religion someone has to make an enormous amount of decisions that keep people together and enable them to grow. If the people don’t have enough food they will die and if they are abused too much they will rebel. A good leader has to know when not to push to far especially when starting a relatively new religion and it is hard to understand where or how Brigham Young or Joseph Smith could have learned this. Neither one of them was well educated they were farmers and craftsmen; they weren’t raised in households where their father taught them to lead a large group of people, especially Joseph Smith. Brigham Young apparently had a family history where his ancestors did some preaching in addition to carpentry but they weren’t the biggest leaders or the most charismatic. The importance of a good leader that doesn’t lead a society into collapse is especially important when the majority are taught to follow orders without questions; without a leader to instruct them they often fall apart which has happened in history on many occasion when a culture relied too much on one leader without setting up a system to educate a new set of leaders. In fact this is part of the reason why many cultures have collapsed in the past including the Egyptian and Roman empires; others like the Angkor empire is probably also in this category however the records to back it up are rarer.
As indicated in some of his sermons including the ones previously cited Brigham did have some understanding of science but it wasn’t as good as those that were in the scientific field. He was unable to successfully process iron but he was able to keep his people together.
Another possible mystery is why the original witnesses that didn’t stay with the church when Brigham moved to Utah never recanted their testimony or doubted the original claims that they witnessed a miracle that led to the writing of the Book of Mormon. Most of them were excommunicated or left on their own although a couple rejoined one of the sects of the Church. This has been cited as evidence of the claim that this was the one true religion. None of them questioned why the God they believed in abandoned them and allowed Joseph Smith to be killed. This isn’t enough to establish their claims but it does leave some unanswered questions that still haven’t been resolved.
Presumably if searching for traditional explanations for cult behavior it would be helpful to include the most up to date research on any applicable fields, this should include research into abusive childhood upbringing which unfortunately Stark doesn’t seem to do at a quick glance. I haven’t read much of his material myself, I found him through Richard Ostling’s book which I read and searched through some of his other books on Google to find what I could but there was nothing on corporal punishment or child abuse; so my best guess is that he didn’t focus too much on this like many other academic researchers. Not only does Rodney Stark fail to do this but secular skeptics like Michael Shermer also pay little attention to this even though it would go a long way to explaining the superstitions and “Why People believe Weird Thing,” without anything that would be considered supernatural or paranormal; and there is plenty of research in this that he can cite to support his explanations which the majority of people could understand, assuming they’re not in denial about how corporal punishment leads to escalating violence and indoctrination. This is especially surprising since Michael Shermer is a psychologist who should keep up with this type of material in his own field. This basically involves teaching children to believe what they’re told without question by using intimidation to discourage free thinking; I explained this in further detail in previous blogs including Authoritarianism and Dobson’s Indoctrination Machine. Understanding this would help understand how followers have been kept in line as indicated in the following excerpts about maintaining order during a sermon from Brigham Young’s Journal of Discourses:

So it is with some men; and to the disgrace of some of our police, I will state that in Conference times, and when we have unusually large assemblies, they will converse right in the congregation, and just on the outside, disturbing the meeting. I would that we had a police that understood good breeding. If the police want to know how to manage to keep order, notwithstanding I have frequently told them, I will now tell them again. Instead of shouting “silence,” go and touch the unruly person. Were I a policeman I would follow a practice of my father’s it used to be a word and a blow, with him, but the blow came first. I should act upon that plan, when persons are holding caucus meetings in or about our congregations; and if they would not desist, I would rap them hard enough for them to take the hint without my speaking.
……We shall have large congregations during the Conference, and we wish perfect order maintained. Journal of Discourses by Brigham Young Volume 4 p.112-3 and Leonard Arrington “Brigham Young: American Moses” p.21 The citation from Arrington’s book isn’t complete for additional information on the quote see original source which was listed first.
If you follow the link to the full discourse you’ll see that he didn’t even want to tolerate crying babies, which annoying as they may be, are unavoidable especially when poor people can’t afford day care. This is a clear indication that he was raised in an authoritarian manner and that he thought it was right to maintain order on his congregations in a similar authoritarian manner. However, on other occasions, he has also indicated that using the rod or whip isn’t the appropriate way to raise children and maintain order as indicated in the following excerpts:

Solomon said, “He that spareth his rod hateth his son,” but instead of using the rod, I will teach my children by example and by precept. I will teach them every opportunity I have to cherish faith, to exercise patience, to be full of long-suffering and kindness. It is not by the whip or the rod that we can make obedient children; but it is by faith and by prayer, and by setting a good example before them. This is my belief. Journal of Discourses by Brigham Young Volume 11 p.117 In some families the children are afraid to see father—they will run and hide as from a tyrant. My children are not afraid of my footfall; except in the case of their having done something wrong they are not afraid to approach me. I could break the wills of my little children, and whip them to this, that, and the other, but this I do not do. Let the child have a mild training until it has judgment and sense to guide it. I differ with Solomon's recorded saying as to spoiling the child by sparing the rod. True it is written in the New Testament that “whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth.” It is necessary to try the faith of children as well as of grown people, but there are ways of doing so besides taking a club and knocking them down with it. “If you love me, keep my commandments.” “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest to your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” There is nothing consistent in abusing your wives and children. There is quite a portion of the Elders of Israel who do not know how to use one wife well. I love my wives, respect them, and honor them, but to make a queen of one and peasants of the rest I have no such disposition, neither do I expect to do it. Journal of Discourses by Brigham Young Volume 9 p.196
A closer look seems to indicate that Brigham Young wasn’t as tyrannical as many have indicated; however he still didn’t teach people to sort through the details and figure out what is true; instead he taught people to obey the will of God and in many cases the lessons they learned almost certainly involved using abusive behavior. In modern times some of the most extreme examples where children were raised in strict abusive and authoritarian manners were Mark Hoffman and Jeffery Lundgren (of the RLDS sect) who both turned into murders and they’re not the only Mormons that have resorted to extreme violence patrtially due to their upbringing and Mormon beliefs. This also leads to a congregation that follows orders without question and even votes the way the leaders indicate that they want them to as indicated in a meeting that happened in 1853.

Brigham showed an easy flexibility in handling political matters. A good example is his impulsive decision in the middle of a church meeting in 1853 to deal with the political business of reelecting John Bernhisel as delegate to Congress. It came into my mind when brother Bernhisel was speaking, and the same thing strikes me now, that is, inasmuch as he has done first-rate, as our delegate in Washington, to move that we send him again next season, though it is the Sabbath Day. I understand these things, and say as other people say, “We are Mormons.” We do things that are necessary to be done; when the time comes for us to do them. If we wish to make political speeches, and it is necessary, for the best interest of the cause and kingdom of God, to make them on the Sabbath, we do it. Now, suffer not your prejudices to hurt you, do not suffer this to try you, nor be tempted in consequence of it, nor think we are wandering out of the way, for it is all embraced in our religion, from first to last.
Brother Kimball has seconded the motion, that Doctor Bernhisel be sent back to Washington, as our delegate. All who are in favor of it, raise your right hands. [More than two thousand hands were at once seen above the heads of the congregation.]
This has turned into a caucus meeting. It is all right. I would call for an opposite vote if I thought any person would vote. I will try it, however. [Not a single hand was raised in opposition.] (Leonard Arrington “Brigham Young: American Moses” 1985 p.231)
For complete sermon see Journal of Discourses by Brigham Young Volume 1 p.188
There was no discussion about this issue which came up without any planning and the congregation simply voted the way they knew their leaders wanted them to. This was typical of the way they were taught. This control that leaders had over the votes of the masses continued at least into the 1930’s as indicated by a letter from Dean R. Brimhall.
“I am sorry that no one has even taken a picture of the [General Conference] audience voting to accept the Church leaders for a new period of office. Every hand in the audience goes up simultaneously. The question of voting “Yes” or “No” on a particular candidate is so mechanical that the hands go up in a unison that is most dramatic.” No member is ever asked to choose between two individuals; he is asked to vote “Yes” or “No” on the official or on the policies of the Church, as the case may be... The officials would be highly indignant if there were any hands raised in opposition and there have been instances where one hand has gone up in opposition and the person attempted to explain the reason for his opposition but such a person is usually ejected... “I do not want to bother you with the story but I am sure that any student of Sociology who is interested in the problem of authoritarianism would find the Mormon Church a laboratory rich in material for his studies.” Dean R. Brimhall, letter to Miss Dorothy Kahn, April 17, 1939, Dean R. Brimhall Papers, Box 26, Folder 15, University of Utah Library
source: John Heinerman and Anson Shupe “The Mormon Corporate Empire” 1985 p.198-9
also cited at Mormon Think
The control over many members of the Church probably wasn’t quite as thorough in the seventies and the eighties but it was thorough enough to sway a large number of their followers to support the position of the Church on at least a couple of issues, the ERA amendment in the seventies, and the MX missile issue in the eighties, which they were able to rally their people behind. They were able to rally enough of their people including most woman to play a key role in stopping the ERA amendment even though it was clearly in the best interest of the woman to support it. Sonia Johnson was one of the few exceptions; she led some other woman in support of the amendment and she was excommunicated for her opposition. The MX missile issue changed suddenly simply because of a statement from the Church as indicated in the following quote:

It seemed at first like another boost for the Utah economy. Government contracts would pump massive amounts of money into the state. Jobs would be plentiful for years, regardless of recessions elsewhere in the nation. But then “overnight the weight of public opinion shifted to 70 percent [of Utahns] being opposed to MX deployment in Utah.” The reason was simple: on May 5, 1981, the LDS First Presidency issued a statement condemning any basing of the MX missile in Utah and Nevada. Additional excerpts John Heinerman and Anson Shupe “The Mormon Corporate Empire” 1985 p.172-5

The Mormons also have a long history of censorship or attempted censorship; however these attempts were actually doomed to failure from the beginning partially due to a practice of keeping extensive records that was initially ordered in the early stages, probably as a result of an alleged revelation to Joseph Smith instructing Mormons to keep journals especially prominent Mormons. This came back to haunt them when the culture changed around them in the twentieth century and the things that were acceptable, and even desirable, like authoritarianism, in the nineteenth century became unacceptable. In fact, this is part of what led to Joseph Smiths assassination; while there was persecution or alleged persecution on both sides Joseph Smith ordered the press of his critics to be destroyed. These particular critics were actually fellow Mormons and it isn’t the first experience that the Mormons had with censorship. Prior to this they were actually the victims of censorship and the destruction of presses on at least two different occasions. When they were run out of both Ohio and Missouri their presses were destroyed and they were unable to obtain compensation. The problem of censorship has often worked both ways and the people with the most power often are able to get away with it at least for the short term; but in the long term it almost always backfires and leads to additional conflict one way or another. When Joseph Smith targeted his own dissenters he may have thought that he could get away with it due to the fact that they were his followers but it backfired anyway and the anti-Mormons in nearby Carthage used this as an excuse to run them off again and a mob that was ultimately acquitted participated in the murder of Joseph Smith.
Brigham Young also attempted to censor Lucy Mack Smith’s “Biographical sketches of Joseph Smith, the prophet” which he considered sacrilegious. More recently BYU refused to let woman professors issue a study of seventy-one LDS women who had suffered childhood abuse; two of the professors quit and published the research in 1999. (Richard N. Ostling, Joan K. Ostling “Mormon America” 1999/2007) Much more extensive evidence of censorship was exposed to the public when Mark Hoffman became infamous in 1985 when he was exposed in two murders and a forgery scam that he pulled on the Church. He sold them a lot of forged documents some of which made the church look good and they publicized them, others which made them look bad and they suppressed them. Ironically if the Church had done a better job checking the authenticity they could have received a public relations boost by portraying the critics of Mormons as relying on forgeries; but instead it was a public relations disaster since even though they turned out to be forgeries the Church was exposed trying to censor them. This was reported in detail in “The Mormon Murders” by Steven Naifeh, Gregory White Smith. The Mormons continue to preach obedience without question and Mitt Romney is very close to the leaders of the church; much closer than most people realize. Until recently I didn’t think Mormonism was a major part of his beliefs since he rarely, if ever, mentioned it while he was running for office in Massachusetts; nor did the mass media. Now that he is running for the presidency in a republican primary he is much more inclined to cite his faith; however he doesn’t go into details of it, presumably because the vast majority of the electorate is not Mormon and they oppose it but they do support the worshipping of God and Jesus Christ. Presumably he may be hoping that the religious followers vote without asking too many questions. This would be typical of many devout followers of religion. In fact, his father’s cousin was
"Always keep your eye on the President of the church, and if he ever tells you to do anything, even if it is wrong, and you do it, the lord will bless you for it but you don't need to worry. The lord will never let his mouthpiece lead the people astray." LDS President Marion G. Romney (of the first presidency), quoting LDS President (and prophet) Heber J. Grant "Conference Report" Oct. 1960 (cited in “The Mormon Corporate Empire” by John Heinerman and Anson Shupe 1985 p.198-9
also cited in "Having visions: the Book of Mormon translated and exposed in plain English" By Susan Stansfield Wolverton
Of course Mormons are also famous for their support of polygamy in the past. It is widely believed by many that many of them still practice this which, when it comes to the main sect, they don’t. the sects that still practice this are the break away sects that have mostly been excommunicated by the official church. The Reorganized Later-Day Saints (RLDS) based in Missouri never adopted this practice at all. When the Utah based Church first abandoned it under pressure from the US government they started by driving it underground but eventually actually stopped it and those that continued to practice it were forced to leave the official church and form their own sects. This has often been down played by saying that it was never the majority of the members of the church that practiced this and that most of those that did only had two wives but the worst part of this isn’t necessarily the multiple wives; it may be the abuse, coercion and misuse of power that has accompanied it from the beginning. Joseph Smith was apparently involved in pressuring people to give up their family members, including wives, so that he could take additional wives. The minority that had plural wives were the leaders and the ones that were involved in the abuse of power.
I’ve hardly mentioned the content of the Book of Mormon; which is worth a separate blog; in brief it tells about how a tribe of Ancient Israelites allegedly crossed the ocean approximately 600BCE and they were divided into two groups, the Nephites and the Laminites. The Nephites were the descendents of Nephi who followed the “true religion” and the Lamanites were the descendents of his brother who didn’t believe and they turned their skin dark. They’re allegedly the ancestors of the Native Americans. The Nephites more or less died off for one reason or another. Depending on which passage you read it was either because they lost their faith or they were killed by the Laminites because they refused to abandon their faith. Whether or not its true, they believed it, and it appears as if the hypothetical God that promised to bring salvation abandoned them in the end one way or another and this is still the God they’re supposed to worship. Mormons who’re taught to believe from birth presumably don’t see this problem despite the fact, in my opinion, that it should be obvious to anyone who reads the Book of Mormon without being indoctrinated into the religion. Presumably they’re taught how to interpret it as they go along and accept it without question due to the pressure they’re under.
Also, as an indicator of how the Mass Media continues to cover this, recently Ed Shultz mentioned an important verse from the Book of Mormon. It was only one but it was, or would have been, better than they’ve been covering it so far, if not for the fact that technically they took it out of context. It was the passage about God turning the color of the Laminites skin dark because they didn’t follow the right belief. Ed Shultz implied that this was a reference to African Americans when it actually referred to Native Americans. This is trivial since there are plenty of legitimate problems with both as well as woman, Gays and any other religion that doesn’t follow the “true path” however it leaves the door open to argue over trivial details which the Mass Media is very good at. Another example of the way they report on the Mormon religion is a recent article from the Boston Globe “Majority of the Mormons think US ready for a president of their faith,” where they discuss whether Mormons believe America is ready to accept their religion and how many Mormons support Mitt Romney without much if any discussion about the beliefs of the Mormon religion and their long history of scandal, some legitimate others not. They don’t do anything to educate the public about how this could effect the way Romney would lead this country or how it may have contributed to his elitist attitude and why many Mormons support him and their own religion without understanding either one of them.
I’m not aware of a thorough statistical study of the high profile Mormons that have made the news or that have been involved in violent crimes but it seems like their have been a lot and the following are just a sample of them. I don’t know whether this is more or less than that of other religions.
Ervil LeBaron Rulon Allred Bruce Longo John Singer Vickie Singer Ron Lafferty Mark Hoffman at Mark Hoffman at Jeffery Lundgren Tom Green Brian David Mitchell, abductor of Elizabeth Smart Warren Jeffs at Warren Jeffs at Mormon Voices church supporters
For additional information on Mormonism see the following:
Dale R. Broadhurst pages with extensive library
Mormon Think
Jerald and Sandra Tanner of the Utah Lighthouse Ministry
Journal of Discourses by Brigham Young
"Romney’s Mormon Problem Mitt Romney and the weird and sinister beliefs of Mormonism." By Christopher Hitchens
For some of my favorite blogs plus a summation see my one year best blog review or a complete table of context of my blogs

How the Mormons Make Money

Bloomberg Businessweek

Companies & Industries

How the Mormons Make Money


How the Mormons Make Money

By on July 10, 2012

(Updated with magazine version. Removes an earlier reference to a Twitter account that is not Thomas S. Monson’s official account.)

Late last March the Mormon Church completed an ambitious project: a megamall. Built for roughly $2 billion, the City Creek Center stands directly across the street from the church’s iconic neo-Gothic temple in Salt Lake City. The mall includes a retractable glass roof, 5,000 underground parking spots, and nearly 100 stores and restaurants, ranging from Tiffany’s (TIF) to Forever 21. Walkways link the open-air emporium with the church’s perfectly manicured headquarters on Temple Square. Macy’s (M) is a stone’s throw from the offices of the church’s president, Thomas S. Monson, whom Mormons believe to be a living prophet.

On the morning of its grand opening, thousands of shoppers thronged downtown Salt Lake, eager to elbow their way into the stores. The national anthem played, and Henry B. Eyring, one of Monson’s top counselors, told the crowds, “Everything that we see around us is evidence of the long-standing commitment of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Salt Lake City.” When it came time to cut the mall’s flouncy pink ribbon, Monson, flanked by Utah dignitaries, cheered, “One, two, three—let’s go shopping!”

Watching a religious leader celebrate a mall may seem surreal, but City Creek reflects the spirit of enterprise that animates modern-day Mormonism. The mall is part of a sprawling church-owned corporate empire that the Mormon leadership says is helping spread its message, increasing economic self-reliance, and building the Kingdom of God on earth. “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints attends to the total needs of its members,” says Keith B. McMullin, who for 37 years served within the Mormon leadership and now heads a church-owned holding company, Deseret Management Corp. (DMC), an umbrella organization for many of the church’s for-profit businesses. “We look to not only the spiritual but also the temporal, and we believe that a person who is impoverished temporally cannot blossom spiritually.”

McMullin explains that City Creek exists to combat urban blight, not to fill church coffers. “Will there be a return?” he asks rhetorically. “Yes, but so modest that you would never have made such an investment—the real return comes in folks moving back downtown and the revitalization of businesses.” Pausing briefly, he adds with deliberation, “It’s for furthering the aim of the church to make, if you will, bad men good, and good men better.”

The Church: The imposing Salt Lake Temple took 40 years to build 
Photograph by Nathanael Turner for Bloomberg BusinessweekThe Church: The imposing Salt Lake Temple took 40 years to build

It’s perhaps unsurprising that Mormonism, an indigenous American religion, would also adopt the country’s secular faith in money. What is remarkable is how varied the church’s business interests are and that so little is known about its financial interests. Although a former Mormon bishop is about to receive the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, and despite a recent public-relations campaign aimed at combating the perception that it is “secretive,” the LDS Church remains tight-lipped about its holdings. It offers little financial transparency even to its members, who are required to tithe 10 percent of their income to gain access to Mormon temples.

The Mormon Church is hardly the only religious institution to be less than forthcoming about its wealth; the Catholic Church has been equally opaque throughout history. On the other hand, says historian D. Michael Quinn, who is working on a book about the LDS Church’s finances and businesses, “The Mormon Church is very different than any other church. … Traditional Christianity and Judaism make a clear distinction between what is spiritual and what is temporal, while Mormon theology specifically denies that there is such a distinction.” To Latter-day Saints, opening megamalls, operating a billion-dollar media and insurance conglomerate, and running a Polynesian theme park are all part of doing God’s work. Says Quinn: “In the Mormon [leadership’s] worldview, it’s as spiritual to give alms to the poor, as the old phrase goes in the Biblical sense, as it is to make a million dollars.”

Mormons make up only 1.4 percent of the U.S. population, but the church’s holdings are vast. First among its for-profit enterprises is DMC, which reaps estimated annual revenue of $1.2 billion from six subsidiaries, according to the business information and analysis firm Hoover’s Company Records (DNB). Those subsidiaries run a newspaper, 11 radio stations, a TV station, a publishing and distribution company, a digital media company, a hospitality business, and an insurance business with assets worth $3.3 billion.

AgReserves, another for-profit Mormon umbrella company, together with other church-run agricultural affiliates, reportedly owns about 1 million acres in the continental U.S., on which the church has farms, hunting preserves, orchards, and ranches. These include the $1 billion, 290,000-acre Deseret Ranches in Florida, which, in addition to keeping 44,000 cows and 1,300 bulls, also has citrus, sod, and timber operations. Outside the U.S., AgReserves operates in Britain, Canada, Australia, Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil. Its Australian property, valued at $61 million in 1997, has estimated annual sales of $276 million, according to Dun & Bradstreet.

The church also runs several for-profit real estate arms that own, develop, and manage malls, parking lots, office parks, residential buildings, and more. Hawaii Reserves, for example, owns or manages more than 7,000 acres on Oahu, where it maintains commercial and residential buildings, parks, water and sewage infrastructure, and two cemeteries. Utah Property Management Associates, a real estate arm of the church, manages portions of City Creek Center. According to Spencer P. Eccles from the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development, the mall cost the church an estimated $2 billion. It is only one part of a $5 billion church-funded revamping of downtown Salt Lake City, according to the Mormon-owned news site KSL. “They run their businesses like businesses, no bones about it,” says Eccles.

The Megamall: The Mormon-owned City Creek Center, completed in five and a half years 
Photograph by Nathanael Turner for Bloomberg BusinessweekThe Megamall: 

The Mormon-owned City Creek Center, completed in five and a half years
In addition, the church owns several nonprofit organizations, some of which appear to be lucrative. Take, for example, the Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC), a 42-acre tropical theme park on Oahu’s north shore that hosts luaus, canoe rides, and tours through seven simulated Polynesian villages. General-admission adult tickets cost $49.95; VIP tickets cost up to $228.95. In 2010 the PCC had net assets worth $70 million and collected $23 million in ticket sales alone, as well as $36 million in tax-free donations. The PCC’s president, meanwhile, received a salary of $296,000. At the local level, the PCC, opened in 1963, began paying commercial property taxes in 1992, when the Land and Tax Appeal Court of Hawaii ruled that the theme park “is not for charitable purposes” and is, in fact, a “commercial enterprise and business undertaking.” Nevertheless, the tourist destination remains exempt from federal taxes because the PCC claims to be a “living museum” and an education-oriented charity that employs students who work at the center to pay their way through church-run Brigham Young University-Hawaii.

“There are religious groups that own radio stations, but they don’t also own cattle ranches. There are religious groups that own retreats, but they don’t also own insurance companies,” says Ryan Cragun, a sociology professor at the University of Tampa and co-author of the recently published book Could I Vote for a Mormon for President? “Given their array of corporate interests, it would probably make more sense to refer to them as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Holdings Inc.”

As a religious organization, the LDS Church enjoys several tax advantages. Like other churches, it is often exempt from paying taxes on the real estate properties it leases out, even to commercial entities, says tax lawyer David Miller, who is not Mormon. The church also doesn’t pay taxes on donated funds and holdings. Mitt Romney and others at Bain Capital, the private equity firm he co-founded in 1984, gave the Mormon Church millions’ worth of stock holdings obtained through Bain deals, according to Reuters. Between 1997 and 2009, these included $2 million in Burger King (BKW) and $1 million in Domino’s Pizza (DPZ) shares. Under U.S. law, churches can legally turn around and sell donated stock without paying capital-gains taxes, a clear advantage for both donor and receiver. The church also makes money through various investment vehicles, including a trust company and an investment fund called Ensign Peak Advisors, which employs managers who specialize in international equities, cash management, fixed income, quantitative investment, and emerging markets, according to profiles on LinkedIn (LNKD). Public information on Ensign Peak is sparse. In 2006 one of the fund’s vice presidents, Laurence R. Stay, told the Mormon-run Deseret News, “As we trade securities, all of the trading happens essentially with a handshake. … There’s lots of protections around it, but billions of dollars change hands every day just based on the ethics of the group—that people know that they can trust each other.”

According to U.S. law, religions have no obligation to open their books to the public, and the LDS Church officially stopped reporting any finances in the early 1960s. In 1997 an investigation by Time used cross-religious comparisons and internal information to estimate the church’s total value at $30 billion. The magazine also produced an estimate that $5 billion worth of tithing flows into the church annually, and that it owned at least $6 billion in stocks and bonds. The Mormon Church at the time said the estimates were grossly exaggerated, but a recent investigation by Reuters in collaboration with sociology professor Cragun estimates that the LDS Church is likely worth $40 billion today and collects up to $8 billion in tithing each year. 

Quinn, a faithful Mormon who spent 12 years on the faculty at the LDS Church’s Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, before being excommunicated for apostasy related to research he published on Mormons, has been gathering financial information for years. Several high-ranking church insiders told him that the church’s finances are so compartmentalized that no single person, not even the president, knows the entirety of its holdings.

If anyone is in a position to know the ins and outs of the LDS businesses, it’s Keith McMullin. He’s spent the past 17 years serving as the No. 2 counselor in the church’s so-called Presiding Bishopric, a three-man team that officially controls church finances and business endeavors and now presides over DMC. At 70, McMullin is mostly bald, with watery blue eyes behind his unrimmed specs. He stands about 5’5” and wears fine-quality suits. A gold band on his right ring finger, set with a red stone the size of a Chiclet, was a present his parents gave him decades ago for passing the ninth grade. After college, McMullin worked for three years as an investment and financial analyst at Ford Motor (F). He subsequently worked for a few smaller companies before being called to serve as managing director of the church’s Welfare Services Department and eventually the Bishopric.

Last April, after completing a 17-year stint, McMullin presumed he was headed for retirement. It came as a surprise when Monson, the church’s highest-ranking official, called McMullin into a board meeting and asked him to become CEO of DMC. McMullin immediately said yes, moving into his new office days later.
DMC, housed in a boxy complex that also contains some of its subsidiaries as well as the LDS Business College, sits two blocks west of Temple Square. On the ground floor, a receptionist greets visitors from behind a plexiglass wall—the kind that requires people on opposite sides to talk through a telephone. (The safety glass was added in 1999, after a mentally ill woman entered the building and shot employees, killing one.)

The CEO: Deseret Management's Keith McMullin in his Salt Lake City office 
Photograph by Nathanael Turner for Bloomberg BusinessweekThe CEO: Deseret Management's Keith McMullin in his Salt Lake City office

McMullin’s fifth-floor office overlooks an empty parking lot. Sparsely decorated, the room is entirely clutter-free. A Bible and a Book of Mormon lie beside a photo of a smiling McMullin and his wife, Carolyn. Seated at a conference table in late May he told me, “I haven’t had much time to settle in.”

McMullin says the Mormon Church has “two or three or four for-profit entities under the Presiding Bishopric,” and names DMC, AgReserves, and Suburban Land Reserve. He says DMC has about “2,000 to 3,000 employees.” He also confirms Hoover’s estimate that DMC has annual revenue of roughly $1.2 billion, but a church spokesman later writes to say that McMullin retracted his estimate, claiming that $1.2 billion is “vastly overstated.” He did not offer a new one.

To understand DMC’s place in the church’s financial structure, it’s important to start at the very top: The Mormon Church is owned and run by what is called the Corporation of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This entity is a “corporation sole,” which is an obscure legal body owned entirely by one person. In the case of the Mormon Church, that person is Monson, the prophet.

The Mormon presidency is not an elected position, and while the president is considered a prophet, it’s also not considered a direct appointment from God. When one president resigns or dies, he is replaced by the longest-serving member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, an ecclesiastic group commonly referred to as the Apostles. Each new president handpicks two counselors to help him lead. The three-man team is called the First Presidency.

The church’s “General Authorities”—of which there are more than 100—consist of the First Presidency, the Presiding Bishopric, the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, and two other groups, the so-called Quorums of the Seventy. Although the LDS Church is largely run by a lay clergy, most General Authorities work full-time and receive salaries from the Corporation of the President. Until the 1960s, salaries were based on hierarchy, with the prophet receiving top dollar. This changed when then-President David O. McKay decided that all General Authorities, including the prophet, should receive equal pay. 

The businessmen who run the church’s for-profit arms, by contrast, likely hold salaries comparable to what they’d receive in the secular world, says Quinn. In some cases, individual General Authorities augment their salaries by serving as board members of the church’s for-profit companies. Several have business backgrounds. Monson, for example, has a bachelor’s degree in business and once worked as a newspaper advertising executive.

DMC is overseen by 10 directors: the members of the First Presidency, the Presiding Bishopric, three senior Apostles, and McMullin. “They give direction to the overall or umbrella company, but they do not give direct supervision to the corporate enterprises,” McMullin says. “That’s done through the respective boards and their executive teams.”

DMC’s decision-making process is fairly standard. “Just as in any corporation, there are established levels of authority,” explains McMullin. “I can make decisions up to a certain level, either determined by financial implications or strategic or tactical implications, and once that limit as defined is met, I go on to the board of directors for further guidance.” At that point, “strategic questions are posed, asked, and charted, so the board has a clear idea what the pluses and minuses are. Those closest to the problems will make recommendations, and they will be discussed. Often the recommendations will be accepted. Not always.” That was the process, for example, when DMC decided last year to sell 17 of its 28 radio stations for $505 million and focus more on Internet ventures.
Besides having final say on major transactions, the church owns all of DMC’s shares. And each year the holding company, like all church businesses, donates 10 percent of its income to a church fund. In some cases money flows in the opposite direction, from the church’s treasury to the businesses. “From time to time, if there is a particular need, there would be some monies available, but fortunately over the years that has not been the case very often,” says McMullin. “If you have a particular reversal in an enterprise, you need to have some additional cash flow until you work through a difficult time. I’ll give you an example, we’re going through one right now: It’s called a recession.” McMullin declined to elaborate on whether the church has been bailing out subsidiaries.

The Publisher: Deseret Book's Sheri Dew, author of 'If Life Were Easy, It Wouldn't Be So Hard' 
Photograph by Nathanael Turner for Bloomberg BusinessweekThe Publisher: 

Deseret Book's Sheri Dew, author of 'If Life Were Easy, It Wouldn't Be So Hard'
Asking your prophet to fund a flailing business can be stressful. Sheri Dew, chief executive officer of the DMC subsidiary Deseret Book, pulled the publisher and distributor out of the red 10 years ago. It’s now profitable. “There’s, like, nothing worse on the planet than to go back to your owner and say, ‘Uh, we didn’t do what we told you we’d do,’ especially because one of the interesting things we deal with is that the owner is also an ecclesiastical leader whom we revere,” she says. “That’s the toughest thing about an organization that’s owned by the church, because you don’t want to disappoint them, and you don’t want them to have to worry about what you’re doing, because they have better things to think about.”

Both McMullin and Dew say that working for the church is more rewarding than working in the secular world. “When you move from a work environment that’s made up of salaries and titles and benefits to a work environment that’s focused on building people and strengthening the lives and well-being of individuals, you have an entirely different purpose,” says McMullin. Dew, who has the friendly, no-nonsense manner of a high school basketball coach, concedes that “some days just drive us all nuts … but you come to work here saying, ‘I feel like I’m doing something I really care about.’ That’s the difference, and that’s huge. That keeps me going days when I think, ‘You know, I hate these 70-hour weeks.’”

Other than the unique pressures and joys of working for your spiritual leader, church executives say their enterprises aren’t so unusual. “Do we go around in frocks and pray all the time? The answer is no, we run these like businesses,” says McMullin. “I have over there a set of scriptures—see those black books over there? Do I consult those scriptures every time I make a decision? The answer is no. Do I look to them for guiding and eternal principles on which good, sound decisions are made? The answer is yes.”

The Mormon belief in the spiritual value of financial success goes back to 1830, when the religion’s founder, Joseph Smith, announced to his followers that God had told him the following: “Verily I say unto you, that all things unto me are spiritual, and not at any time have I given unto you a law which was temporal.” In other words, historian Quinn translates, “whether it’s investing in a merchandising store, or tannery, or a lumber mill, or a hotel, or a bank—all of which occurred under Joseph Smith’s leadership—according to that 1830 revelation, it’s all spiritual.” 

In its early days, the church’s entrepreneurial rigor was fueled by necessity. Mormons, who clashed with neighbors and government authorities over practices such as polygamy, often had to fend for themselves. The group also espoused separatist financial goals of “erecting and maintaining an improved economic system for its members,” according to historian Leonard J. Arrington, who points out that 88 of Smith’s 112 revelations deal directly or indirectly with economic matters. When Mormons arrived in Utah in 1847 it was a barren territory, still under Mexican jurisdiction. To settle the land, Arrington writes, over a 15-year period in the late 1800s, “Mormons constructed 200 miles of territorial railroad, a $300,000 woolen mill, a large cotton factory, a wholesale-retail concern with sales of $6,000,000 a year, more than 150 local general stores, and at least 500 local cooperative manufacturing and service enterprises.”

Today, Temple Square is filled with statues glorifying the industry of those pioneers. The state emblem is a beehive, in honor of diligent work, and the term “deseret,” used in the titles of many Latter-day enterprises, derived from the Book of Mormon, means “honeybee.”

These days Mormons use their businesses in part to spread church values. “I think the reason to have businesses is to communicate and try and have influence, whether it’s through a book, or through a blog, or a website, or a TV station, or radio stations, a newspaper, whatever it is,” says Dew, who has courted controversy in the past for her views opposing gay marriage. “We here at Deseret Book think families are important, and kids are important, marriage is important, and values are important … and if there are ways we can communicate it, whether through nonfiction or fiction, we want to do it.”

Many Mormons see their church’s economic success as a sign of good stewardship, but at least a few I spoke to say they are uneasy about the price tag of the new Mormon mall, the church’s lack of transparency, and its centralized finances. “The money may be perfectly administered, for all we know,” says Ron Madson, 57, a lawyer and lifelong Mormon who once served as a church bishop. “But we don’t know. … When we see these expenses for the City Creek Mall, for the hunting preserves, these commercial enterprises, Ensign Peak, we don’t know where it’s going.”

Until the 1990s, wards—the Mormon equivalent of parishes—kept some donated member money locally to distribute for aid and activities as they saw fit. Today all money is wired directly to Salt Lake City. McMullin insists that not one penny of tithing goes to the church’s for-profit endeavors, but it’s impossible for church members to know for sure. Although the Mormon Doctrine and Covenants says “all things shall be done by common consent in the church,” members are not provided with any financial accounting. Daymon M. Smith, a Mormon anthropologist, points out that tithing slips read, “Though reasonable efforts will be made globally to use donations as designated, all donations become the Church’s property and will be used at the Church’s sole discretion to further the church’s overall mission.”

According to an official church Welfare Services fact sheet, the church gave $1.3 billion in humanitarian aid in more than 178 countries and territories during the 25 years between 1985 and 2010. A fact sheet from the previous year indicates that less than one-third of the sum was monetary assistance, while the rest was in the form of “material assistance.” All in all, if one were to evenly distribute that $1.3 billion over a quarter-century, it would mean that the church gave $52 million annually. A study co-written by Cragun and recently published in Free Inquiry estimates that the Mormon Church donates only about 0.7 percent of its annual income to charity; the United Methodist Church gives about 29 percent.
“Members of our faith are very generous and very sacrificing, very charitable—they pay tithes and fast offerings, and when they see needs, they address those needs,” says Madson, the former bishop. “When we see the church not doing the same things it asks the members to do, we recoil. We wonder, is this looking more and more like a corporation and less and less like a church?”
Micah Nickolaisen, a 29-year-old photographer and devout Mormon, says City Creek catalyzed his growing concern about the church’s corporate empire. He worries that the church gives too little money to humanitarian causes, even though its leaders like to boast about Mormon welfare programs. “They spent more money on a mall in three years than they did in 25 on humanitarian aid,” says Nickolaisen. These Mormons spoke on the record despite fear of repercussions from family, friends, and church authorities.

Asked about the $1.3 billion estimate of the church’s humanitarian efforts over the last quarter-century, LDS Church spokesman Michael Purdy writes in an e-mail, “Though the church’s monetary donations are significant, much of the ‘value’ of our service is not monetary, but in the hundreds of thousands of hours of service and the talent and expertise given by church members to help others around the world.”

The LDS Church’s legions of missionaries and volunteers don’t merely spread the Mormon message around the world; they’re also vital to the church’s businesses. According to McMullin, DMC alone employs 1,400 “people who are volunteering their time and their services—some are part-time and some are volunteer.” Many of these members being asked to serve full- or part-time are retirees. “They’re making use of the Baby Boom generation, getting them to serve ‘missions’ doing data entry and all sorts of things,” says Mormon anthropologist Smith.

Wildlife biologist Clair Huff, for example, took on a two-and-a-half-year unpaid “senior mission” at the age of 68 to transform 11,000 acres of church-owned desert into a revenue-generating hunting preserve. At the time, Huff admitted to Deseret News that he was “reluctant to take on such a monumental task at first.” He told the paper, “It’s been tough … but we’re making it work. We don’t see many people out here, except during hunting season.” Today, Huff and his wife remember the unpaid mission as a wonderful experience. He says plenty of volunteers came to help, and that they enjoyed collaborating with six other senior missionary couples who were working on a nearby church property, farming and building houses. By the time he and his wife were relieved by another couple, the private hunting preserve was generating $100,000 annually. 

Asked whether there’s any conflict of interest in having devout Mormons volunteer their services to for-profit enterprises, McMullin says, “Oh, I surely don’t—no, not in the least. … When you look at what these companies do, they are for the purpose of lifting and strengthening people. If individuals want to come and enlist and participate in that endeavor and do so voluntarily, and the paid enterprises can provide resources and expertise to help them, I think it’s a wonderful marriage.” He also says that none of the DMC’s volunteers are senior missionaries. After my interview with McMullin, a church spokesman clarified that the majority of the 1,400 “are part-time employees, not volunteers.”

Back in Salt Lake City, at Deseret Book’s headquarters, it’s business as usual for Sheri Dew, the CEO. A plaque on one wall of the publisher’s entrance foyer celebrates Joseph Smith as a best-selling author. An identical plaque celebrates Dew, whose works include two biographies of Mormon Church presidents, one of a Mormon Miss America, and one book titled If Life Were Easy, It Wouldn’t Be So Hard.

A lunch meeting in Dew’s office begins with bowed heads. “We ask you to bless our business discussions and our food,” prays one attendee. After saying grace, the small group launches into a conversation about potential new titles for Deseret Book’s general audience imprint, Shadow Mountain, which is sold through Mormon outlets as well as Wal-Mart Stores (WMT)

For each proposal, Dew asks, “How does this fit us?” at which point a pitch is made about the book’s treatment of faith, family, marriage—or at the very least themes as general as the battle between good and evil.

Dew is proudly working to bring both honor and profit to the church. The more time you spend with Mormons like her, the less there seems to be a distinction between the two. Munching on salads and turkey club sandwiches from the new City Creek Cheesecake Factory (CAKE), Dew and her colleagues consider aggressive marketing strategies for an author who has contracts with both Deseret and Simon & Schuster (CBS). “Who wouldn’t want to show up Simon & Schuster?” asks Dew. “I mean, this is capitalist America, isn’t it?”

With Katherine Burton, Nick Tamasi, and Anita Kumar

Winter is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.