Who Owns That Church?

There’s always an owner, of course — there are few concepts more disfavored in the law than real property without an owner. But when it comes to chapels and church buildings, the question of just who owns them can get messy. The latest example: a congregation in Orange County that is trying to leave the Episcopal fold and take its building with it. The congregation just lost the latest round in a fight with the national Episcopal Church and its Los Angeles Diocese over who owns the congregation’s building. [Hat tip: the Religion Clause; see also the Orange County Register story or, for all the legal details, the full appellate court decision.] This story raises a couple of interesting questions for Mormon readers.

First, who owns Mormon buildings, such as the chapel you meet in every Sunday? Unlike the local ownership arrangement of many other denominations, it is not the local LDS congregation or the stake (the rough LDS equivalent of a diocese) that owns LDS buildings. Instead, it is an organizational unit of the LDS Church at the national level. I’m pretty sure it is the Corporation of the Presiding Bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that owns chapels and the like, with other units organized to hold and manage other property, such as Intellectual Reserve, Inc. for intellectual property like copyrights. And websites (check the small print at the bottom of the page).

There’s nothing nefarious about this ownership arrangement — it is an efficient and rational (in the economic sense) way to own and manage assets. It makes perfect sense to Mormons who take seriously the LDS claim that the Church represents (as an ideal) the Kingdom of God on earth. That is a global vision. Protestants can fiddle around with local ownership and squabble about who owns the buildings in part because they don’t take such global or divine claims seriously as applied to their own decentralized ecclesiastical institutions. Still, the average Mormon attending church on Sunday and thinking of the building as “their” chapel might be surprised to learn that the ward (as a unit) doesn’t even own the staplers in the library.

To really grasp the upside of this arrangement — and to see how unique is the LDS approach to the issue of ownership and management of church property — consider what happens when the decision is made to refurbish an LDS chapel. The building is closed for a few months and the wards or branches that ordinarily meet there are assigned to other buildings. Then the ward members all troop off to the newly designated buildings for several months, where they are tolerated if not celebrated each Sunday by the new building’s regular congregations. From time to time permanent reassignments are made when required by LDS growth or other demographic changes in an area or community. I don’t know of any other denomination that could orchestrate this level of congregational cooperation or whose membership would so willingly support this sort of building reassignment.

The second question the news story brings to mind is whether there have ever been LDS fights over property. The best example I can think of is the Kirtland Temple, which was the focus of ownership fights for decades after the main branch of the Church left Kirtland for Missouri in 1838. The Kirtland Temple is presently owned and managed by the Community of Christ, which (I’m told) graciously allows the LDS (Utah) Church to use the building from time to time for special services. A more recent example is the contentious decision by the Church Building Committee and by local LDS leaders to demolish the Coalville Tabernacle in 1971 (see Edward Geary, “The Last Days of the Coalville Tabernacle,” Dialogue, Vol 5, No. 4 (Winter 1970):42-50).

52 comments for “Who Owns That Church?

  1. Jonathan Green
    June 28, 2007 at 7:25 am

    Centralized ownership of church real estate is probably essential for preventing schism. A ward that goes off the deep end literally has to leave the church, rather than continuing on in its own direction but still in the quarters it is comfortable in.

    (I understand that stake presidents also exert considerable control over building decisions, despite the centralized ownership. I have no information about how that works out in practice, beyond hearing that it happens.)

    This also gets to be an interesting issue outside the U.S. in countries where foreign ownership of real estate is frowned upon, or where churches have particular burdens. Sometimes the church has to name a local member as the nominal head of the church in a particular country for that purpose.

  2. lamonte
    June 28, 2007 at 7:36 am

    Dave – It is an interesting thing to consider. I hope my comments don’t turn into a bashing exercise of other religions but of the few other situations I am aware of, the ownership arrangement in the LDS church seems to be just one more thing that points to inspired leadership. I have a friend whose church has the task of not only maintaining their existing building but also purchasing a house for the pastor. The pastor makes some rather large demands when it scomes to his residence and it puts quite a strain on the church memebrship. Recently the pastor suggested the congregation move from the inner city to the suburbs in order to build or buy a larger church that could hold a larger congregation. This prersents several conflicts – 1. The congregation that now lives in the urban neighborhoods, close to the church would have to travel to the suburbs and many of them would not have transportation. 2. The congregation would have to go through the process of buying/building/selling property which is costly and time consuming. 3. The congregation would get larger and larger leaving less personal time for the pastor to meet and greet his congregation. Contrasting that with the LDS equivelent – 1. There is no pastor who makes outlandish demands on the personal finances of the congregation. (Yes, the bishop can sometimes make ooutlandish demands but they usually don’t involve your personal income) 2. The congregations are divided into geographics areas, or wards, which alleviates the possibility of them getting too large for the personal association of the congregation and its leadership. 3. And relating to points made in this post, no matter what conflicts arise within the membership or how many of the congregation decide to leave the church, the building remains in the hands of the church. All of this allows the church to focus on teaching and preaching the gospel instead of getting wrapped up in adminstrative matters that would only distract from the true purpose of the church. Certainly there are those in the church, primarily the paid employees of the church, who must deal with those adminstrative matters but the church member at the local level should not be one of them.

  3. June 28, 2007 at 9:22 am

    In the attitudes toward our buildings there’s a bit of a separation between the institutional stance and the feelings of the members. Institutionally, they’re just buildings. We should use them to serve our needs, as cheaply as possible. After some number of decades when they become worn and costly to maintain, they’ll be sold and replaced. A lot can be said for this perspective. None can legitimately accuse the LDS Church of lavishing money on wood and brick.

    For the members, however, the buildings are the homes of our wards, the places we gather with the Saints, sometimes as dear to us as the waters of Mormon. Fifteen years back, the Santa Fe New Mexico Stake held a roadshow in its stake center. Three out of seven of the little plays were about the ward or branch acquiring the building it meets in.

  4. June 28, 2007 at 9:41 am

    Although the detailed arrangements have changed, the transfer of real estate from individuals to a church corporation began with the inspiration of Franklin S. Richards in 1898. He considered the careful scrutiny of myriads of titles and transfers to be the most important work of his life, and he spent more than 30 years learning the laws of various jurisdictions, making the transfers, and checking the fine print. He believed that his life had been spared on at least one occasion specifically because his work on property titles had not yet been completed.

    Sounds unflatteringly materialistic on one level, but as Dave points out, there are consequences far beyond the dollar value of chapels.

  5. Patata Brava
    June 28, 2007 at 9:45 am

    If I recall correctly, one of the major bones of contention between Emma Smith and Brigham Young post-martyrdom was the issue of property. Joseph had the tendency to have “church” assets put in his name, so after he died both Emma and Brigham argued who owned what. Emma wanted to care for her family, and the assets were in her dead husbands name, (not to mention being concerned with all the debt that Joseph incurred). Brigham contended that pretty much all of “Joseph’s” property were intended to be donations to the church or purchased with donations to the church and were needed for the migration westward. Unhappiness followed.

    When Brigham was prophet, much of the same sort of situation occurred because many of the assets of the church were held in Brigham’s name (to avoid problems with the Morrill anti-bigamy act) and Brigham’s family argued after he died that they were entitled to more of the assets held by Brigham.

    In any case this can be touchy. My dad was asked and he willing gave a significant donation (for a blue-collar guy with 7 kids) to build the new stake center. The Sunday that it was dedicated they split the Stake and we were on the other side of the line. As a sop, the other stake let us use their building for Stake Conferences because our Stake Center really couldn’t hold people sufficiently. My dad is still unhappy with that after 20 years. The thing is that I like the old building better. The old building is unique, and I have seen that other Stake center’s design in several other places. So I guess having the church hold the property does solve many (but not all) issues.

  6. lamonte
    June 28, 2007 at 10:15 am

    In times past it was the obligation of the congregation to raise all the money for a new building. Consequently it was often the case that more aflluent wards could build better quality buildings. A former employer of mine, who is an architect, told me he was involved in a project on the west side of Salt Lake for a lower income ward. Officials from the church negotiated with the contractor, himself a church member, to allow the ward members to provide some of the labor for the new building, thereby saving some of the cost. The contractor agreed, seeing it as his obligation to help out his fellow church members.

    When the concrte foundation was poured some of the walls had “honeycombed” when they removed the concrete forms. This is a condition where the our surface of the wall, which is intended to be smoth and attractive, flakes off and shows a rough surface. This is caused by poor workmanship while installing the concrete. In this case the inspector from the city came to the site and after talking to the contractor agreed to allow the poor workmanship because it would be covered up anyway. Then the inspectors from church headquarters arrived (you know the ones who convinced the contractor to use the unskilled laborers!) and they rejected the workmanship and insisted that the contractor tear out the foundation wall and start over.

    I’m sure your wondering what this story has to do with ownership of the church buildings and so I admit that it is weak in that regard but I always like telling the story to illustrate that bureaucracies can be as cold and heartless anywhere, even at church.

  7. June 28, 2007 at 10:29 am

    In times past it was the obligation of the congregation to raise all the money for a new building.

    When did that obligation come to an end? My memory is telling me it was one of several abrupt transformations which came down in the 1970s, but maybe it was actually ended in stages over a longer period of time. Or does that obligation still exist in some form or another in some parts of the church? (And what about the stuff in the buildings; are the rules different there? In one of the wards my wife was in growing up in Michigan, the ward raised money on their own for a pipe organ in the chapel. This was in the 1980s.)

  8. lamonte
    June 28, 2007 at 10:51 am

    The last time I heard of the local membership raising money for a building was when the congregations in the Salt Lake Valley raised money for the Jordan River Temple. To my knowledge, all church buildings are now paid for by Chruch Headquarters. There are no more “building fund” to contribute to for operations and maintenance since that money also comes from church HQ and is administered by regional Facilties Managment offices. That’s why it sometimes (make that usually) takes longer than you would like to get repairs done or pianos tuned at the local ward level. Our building in Northern Virginia has a severe mold problem caused by an inept mechancial system but we will not be able to replace the system until the year it is budgeted. All building projects are paid for with tithing funds so that there is an equitable distibution of funds and affluent wards don’t have higher quality facilities than do lower income areas.

  9. TMD
    June 28, 2007 at 10:53 am

    To my knowledge, the change in building funding came in the early 1980’s. This was, I think, of tremendous benefit to a great many wards, particularly those less well off. Another benefit was the diminution of the emotional connections to ward houses, since they were generally not things that people had struggled and really (in some cases really, really) sacrificed to build. As noted, that is in many respects a good thing.

  10. June 28, 2007 at 11:05 am

    Since you brought up the Coalville Tabernacle, that reminds of me the Spori building on Ricks college campus. This was the oldest, and last of the original buildings on campus and was set to be torn down in 2000 to make way for a new and improved Spori building. As they started demolishing a building that was dear to anyone who attended Ricks prior to it becoming BYU-Idaho, it caught fire and burned to the ground. I think that the the people and students of Rexburg should have had the state legislature declare the building a historical landmark in order to prevent the demolishion.

    There was just something that seemed immoral about tearing down the Sporil. I could not help but feel that how wrong it was to tear a monument to the sweat, toil, determination, and obedience of the resident’s ancestors. I guess this is one reason why not everyone is exactly thrilled that Ricks is now BYU-I. Especially the coaches of the intercollegiate athletic teams.

  11. June 28, 2007 at 11:05 am

    I used to attend a ward in downtown Tacoma that met at what I believe was the oldest LDS building in WA state. It was in disrepair so they did some rennovations. Rather than disbursing our ward to surrounding wards, as Dave mentions, the church rented a nearby empty chapel from another church and we met in it all winter until the rennovations were done.

    The chapel we rented was an old building in a poor part of town (this was a inner city gang neighborhood), it was probably older than our chapel, and it had no heat. I’m guessing it also didn’t have insulation. It was a lot like the school on Little House on the Prairie. You’d walk up the steps, through the door, and you were inside the chapel.

    It was often so cold we could see our breath. Someone would bring in space heaters and set them up in the back, and the little children and older people would stand near them. The rest of us wore our heavy coats and brought blankets. The day it snowed our Bishop sent us home early.

    I moved away before the rennovations on our building were done, but I heard it turned out really nice.

  12. June 28, 2007 at 11:12 am

    It is worth noting that the Church’s model of real estate holding goes against several centuries of Englsh legal tradition. During the time of Henry VIII parliament passed a series of what were called “mortmain” laws that limited the amount of property that a religious corporation could own which were designed to facilitate the confiscation of monastically owned property by the crown. This tradition got picked up in America, where most states had special statutes for the incorporation of churches that sharply limited the amount of property that churches could own. (Generally, the limit was to a church building, a parsonage, and perhaps a glebe, which was an income producing parcell of real estate that paid the minister’s salary.) During the lifetime of Joseph Smith, the church struggled with this issue. At the time of his death, the church was formally organized under an Illinois statute that limited church corporations to a church, parsonage, and — if I recall correctly — $10,000 in other property. Hence, Joseph’s propensity to hold property in his own name was not simply sloppy organization (although there was enough of that to be sure), but also a legal necessity as the church, by law, could not hold more property.

    When the church moved to Utah, the State of Deseret and then the Utah Territorial Legislature granted the church a corporate charter that notably did not include a mortmain provision, giving the church the unlimited ability to hold property. This charter was formally revoked by the Morril Anti-Bigamy Act in 1862, and thereafter the church had no formal legal existence for several decades. The Edmunds-Tucker Act contained a mortmain provision that reiterated the position taken by the Morril Act, and limited the assets held by the church to something like $50,000. Mormon historians always tell this story as a simple effort by Congress to confiscated Mormon property and break the back of the Church. This is true, of course, but congress was also harking back to a long tradition of mortmain laws that were designed to impose a protestant, congregational model on churches.

    As far as I know, to this day the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints per se does not exist as a corporate entity. Rather there are two corporations sole — the Corporation of the First Presidency and the Corporation of the Presiding Bishop — that own church property, often through various wholly owned subsidiaries like Intellectual Reserve and Deseret Managment Corporation.

  13. June 28, 2007 at 11:21 am

    Gordon Hinckley, in the April 1991 conference:

    As you know, we have followed for a year a program under which all operating costs of stakes and wards in the United States and Canada, including construction and maintenance of buildings, as well as the expenses of activity programs, are now met from the tithing funds of the Church.

  14. June 28, 2007 at 11:23 am

    I believe there’s also a “Property Reserve” corporation now.

  15. Danno Ferrin
    June 28, 2007 at 11:30 am

    I can confirm that it is the Corporation of The Presiding Bishopric of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, at least that\’s what the deeds say…


  16. June 28, 2007 at 11:37 am


    The obligation for local congregations to pay for their buildings actually happened over several decades, as the Church reduced the percentage of the building’s cost that it required local members to pay for. IIRC, by the 1960s/early 1970s, the percentage was below 50%, and was as low as 10% in the early 1980s? TMD is correct that they dropped any requirement for local contributions in the 1980s.


    I don’t think we should forget the sense of ownership that many members feel for a building, especially one they have attended for decades and for which they have strong emotional ties due to the events (spiritual and otherwise) that occurred there. We are in these buildings weekly and we celebrate major events in our lives in these buildings. We form major friendships there, sometimes even meeting our spouses there, and we even clean these buildings now. Of course we feel ownership for them.

    For my family the Lincoln Center building here in New York City holds such a tie. Although we haven’t attended Church there in about a decade, we attended there when we first moved to New York City, and it served as our stake center until about a year ago.

    My son has the distinction of having received nearly every LDS ordinance in that same building. He was blessed there as an infant, baptized there at age 8, and received his patriarchal blessing there also. Now that the building also houses the New York Temple, he will likely receive many of his Temple ordinances there also.

    While everyone agrees that centralized legal ownership of buildings has huge advantages and avoids many problems, it also means that local members have less control over maintaining this kind of emotional connection to the buildings where they worship. As a result, local disappointment over the management decisions of the bureaucracy are legion, and they extend back decades.

    As a result, I’m not sure that we have the best system for managing buildings. I admit that it is better than the protestant local control system. But I wish local members had a little bit better control over their buildings.

  17. manaen
    June 28, 2007 at 12:10 pm

    It makes perfect sense to Mormons who take seriously the LDS claim that the Church represents (as an ideal) the Kingdom of God on earth.

    Mormons take it as more than an ideal: the last phrase in the BoM’s Introduction is, “…The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the Lord’s kingdom once again established on the earth, preparatory to the second coming of the Messiah.”

    8. The last time I heard of the local membership raising money for a building was when the congregations in the Salt Lake Valley raised money for the Jordan River Temple.

    The temple in Newport Beach, CA was funded solely by local members’ contributions.

  18. June 28, 2007 at 12:29 pm

    I seem to remember that all the titles of Church buildings in the Colonies were held by individuals. Same with many properties in Utah after the Edmunds-Tucker act, if I remember correctly. Ardis mentioned Franklin S. Richards. That is something that I need to take a closer look out. Things like that are fascinating to me.

    Also, as Mansfield pointed out, I believe it was in 1991 that local ward budgets were dissolved (a great sacrifice for many well-off wards) and mission expenses where normalized. That was the end of as Kent describes, decades of change. For a fascinating comparison, check out Andrew Jensens’s Encyclopedic History and look up the various pioneer wards and Jensen lists fun thing like the cost and history of the various chapels, RS buildings, Social Halls, etc., and sometimes who paid for them.

  19. Ray
    June 28, 2007 at 12:45 pm

    I currently am involved intimately in the maintenance of the buildings in our stake, and I see both sides of this coin. Overall, I am glad for the central ownership – for all of the reasons articulated by everyone else.

    As to personal connection to the buildings, the worst thing is my mind is the way that lack of perceived ownership affects the treatment of the buildings – both physically and spiritually. As emotional attachment to the actual buildings wanes, so does the way that many members take care of them – both in physical maintenance and in reverence for the chapel. That, in my mind, can only be addressed by a concerned and persistent bishop or branch president. I see the change that occurs when the leadership emphasizes it – and the neglect that continues when they don’t.

    Just as a procedural point: lamonte (#8) – Your ward should not have to wait until the scheduled year to fix a severe mold problem. The building inspection guidelines are written and clear, and they lay out specific descriptions of conditions that may or must allow for repairs and replacements prior to the scheduled maintenance. Your Stake High Council should have a member who oversees Facilities Maintenance, and that High Councilor can request a tour with the FM supervisor in your area to inspect a building for such an issue – with the written guidelines in hand. These decisions are supposed to be made mutually by the FM Group and the Stake, and they are supposed to be based on the written guidelines – open in front of the High Councilor so the solution is clear. If the mold problem causes visible and significant staining, it can be fixed prior to the normal time frame – sometimes immediately and sometimes during the next repair / replacement cycle the following year. The proper flow of information is the Bishop to the FM Group directly or to the ward’s assigned High Councilor – to the High Councilor over FM – to the FM Group; the involvement of the Stake President should not be necessary, but it is an option of last resort.

  20. Jeremy
    June 28, 2007 at 12:47 pm

    It’s my understanding that the Nauvoo temple was constructed largely with funds provided by an anonymous donor.

    When the Palmyra Stake Center (which sits opposite the Palmyra temple and a short distance from the Sacred Grove) was built, the church paid for the building but asked local members to assist in making the building a little more special by donating funds to install a pipe organ.

  21. June 28, 2007 at 12:49 pm

    In recent years I have attended sacrament meetings twice in Third World countries. I don’t know how typical this is, but in each of the two cases the church building seemed to built to near U.S. standards, and in each case the building was probably the nicest in the neighborhood. Certainly, the wards themselves wouldn’t have have had the resources for such construction.

  22. JKC
    June 28, 2007 at 1:15 pm

    Yeah, Jeremy’s right. The building itself was paid with tithing from SLC, but the SP wanted to do a few things to make the “cradle of the restoration” chapel unique from the standard plan. Wrangling with the building department produced an attractive crown moulding in the chapel rather than the old soffit style, which was incidentally a bit more appropriate in a New England chapel, anyway. He also asked for a pipe organ, which was approved if paid for by local members. Interestingly enough, the most complaints about having the pay for the organ came from the most affluent ward in the stake.

  23. JKC
    June 28, 2007 at 1:21 pm

    oops, hit return too early.

    And the contributions, I think, really contributed to a sense of ownership, especially for the newer members that couldn’t reminisce about the days when they got the first chapel in Rochester, etc. We felt like we finally had some part of what was a significant thing for the church in that area.

  24. Kevin Barney
    June 28, 2007 at 1:36 pm

    May I recommend for your reading pleasure on this subject the following:

    Dennis L. Lythgoe, “Battling the Bureaucracy: Building a Mormon Chapel,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15/4 (Winter 1982): 68-78:


  25. June 28, 2007 at 1:44 pm

    In the mid-1960s, three wards built a new chapel in White City (Sandy), Utah. My father walked over to the site every day or two and took photographs, when he wasn’t even a church member yet. He made a great pictorial record from the bare ground with the sign saying “future home of …” all through construction and up to dedication by Joseph Fielding Smith. There are some great shots of ward members working in the rafters, and doing things like the old dime-a-dip dinners to raise funds.

    About five years ago Dad donated his hundreds of first-class negatives (he was a pro) to LDS Archives. They’ll probably sit there for decades unnoticed and unwanted, but someday someone is going to do a study of 20th century building techniques or member-constructed LDS chapels or some related topic. That shout of joy you will someday hear coming from the direction of downtown Salt Lake will mark the moment that unknown scholar discovers my dad’s volunteer documentation project.

  26. MrClark
    June 28, 2007 at 1:46 pm

    I am certainly not an expert on our stakes’ current situation, but the Church has owned land for our chapel for close to 10 years now, but still no chapel. There are many reasons why it hasn’t been built yet – SLC has dragged its feet, easement issues with the city, etc. However, there are some other more interesting reasons why it hasn’t been built that are specific to this discussion. Apparently when buildings are purchased they (at least until a couple years ago) that is done through the Stake President. The process gets complicated when the Stake Pres. is changed half-way through the process.

    Also, apparently Virginia wants the Church to incorporate in the state before they’ll let them build the chapel. My guess is that the Church won’t budge because they want to run everything from the Church Office Building. To make things interesting, (this is hearsay) apparently a congregation near Richmond went ahead and incorporated to move along the process and now the state is saying something like, “Well, they did it, why can’t you?”

  27. Paul Mouritsen
    June 28, 2007 at 2:10 pm

    Just out of curiousity, does anyone know how the Church holds property outside the United States? Do we have some analogous corporate structure in, say, Mexico or Brazil?

    Does our practice of central control of property make us vulnerable to expropriations by hostile governments?

  28. June 28, 2007 at 2:17 pm

    While serving my mission in Guatemala, I heard about a branch president or bishop who went rogue and was practicing polygamy. The story I heard was that he had more than one wife and he was teaching the local congregation to practice polygamy.

    What does this have to do with building ownership? Well – he was using the church’s chapel to preach these things. The story I heard was that this bishop or branch president or whatever he was, was refusing to give up the keys to the chapel. In a sense, he was using church-owned facilities to preach doctrine the church now opposes.

    So how did the church deal with this? One night they sent a bulldozer and razed the chapel to the ground.

    [This is the story I heard. Maybe someone else who has served a mission in Guatemala could support or refute this story – as I never served in the actual area where this happened.]

  29. anonymous
    June 28, 2007 at 2:29 pm

    re 28, that’s why the manti temple was rededicated, i’ve heard, because it had been used by some off-shoots for polygamous sealings…

  30. Melanie
    June 28, 2007 at 2:47 pm

    #11- Susan, about $300,000 was pumped into the Stadium ward building several years back. It is a beautiful, unique building, finished in 1951, after 7 years of fundraising and construction. I’m not sure that it is the oldest in the state (one of the Seattle stake centers is pretty old) but I do think you would be hard pressed to find any in Western Washington built before 1950.

    Unfortunately, the Church has sold most of the surrounding yard to MultiCare as it continues to expand its healthcare facilities connected to Tacoma General hospital. There is speculation that the building will eventually be demolished for these same purposes– a much older Methodist church was torn down this year for that reason. The thought makes me sick. I wrote a paper on the construction of our buildings in Tacoma and the amount of work the members put into it blew my mind. There are still people that worship in that building that helped to build it and they take great pride in it.

    And BTW… The neighborhood is in much better shape these days– the gangs are more active in East Tacoma.

    Ardis– member constructed chapels are very near and dear to my academic heart… we will have to chat when I get down to SLC for school.

  31. bbell
    June 28, 2007 at 3:31 pm

    I wish I owned that church building for purely selfish reasons.

    I would like to get my hands on the church balance sheet and figure out how much all the real estate holdings are worth in the US.

    I always think its fun to visit member funded and designed buildings from the past. They all have their own unique personality. Of course they are also because of age very expensive to maintain. There are some sweet buildings up on the bench in SLC.

    When I was in HS one of my buddies was dating the SP’s daughter while a new stake center was being planned. He claimed that he sat in on a FHE where the SP threw open the building plans and the SP’s family voted on what features and colors to go with in the new construction.

  32. June 28, 2007 at 4:32 pm

    Paul: I suspect that it varies from country to country, but I know that in many nations there laws against the ownership of real estate by foreigners or foreign corporations. Accordingly, church buildings in those countries are titled in the name of — I believe — a locally incorporated entity. I know that there are independently created church corporations in a number of countries. Interestingly, the UK requires public disclosure for charitable institutions, which means that you can get the reports and get a rough sense of church finances in the UK. I don’t know if other countries do this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they did.

    The centralized structure of the church, I believe, has the effect of making it more legally vulnerable in the United States. For example, in contrast to many congregationally structured churches, the Church has deep enough pockets to be wrth suing. I suspect that many protestant congregations are effectively judgment proof. It also makes the Church a much easier target for IRS regulators. For example, if evangelical churches across, say Ohio, start engaging in activity that crosses the line into political advocacy, revoking their tax exempt status would require hundreds of individual actions by the IRS. In contrast, if the Church steps over the line, the IRS has single big target to go after. I suspect that this is one of the reasons why the church is more aggressive about poltical neutrality than many other denominations. Even the Catholic church is not a good analogy, as its corporate and governing structure is extremely fragmented compared with LDS structures — e.g. lots of self-governing religious societies with seperate corporate entities, independent corporate entities for each diocese, etc. etc.

  33. John Taber
    June 28, 2007 at 4:43 pm

    I know the corporation the Church uses in Italy was set up when I was on my mission there, in 1993 – it is the “Ente Patrimoniale della Chiesa di Gesu Cristo dei Santi degli Ultimi Giorni” and the stake and mission presidents were set up as its trustees (or somesuch.) Before that everything was in the name of the Corporation of the Presiding Bishopric (usually written in Italian as “Ente del Vescovo SUG”), as an American company doing business in Italy.

  34. manaen
    June 28, 2007 at 6:25 pm

    21. In recent years I have attended sacrament meetings twice in Third World countries. I don’t know how typical this is, but in each of the two cases the church building seemed to built to near U.S. standards, and in each case the building was probably the nicest in the neighborhood. Certainly, the wards themselves wouldn’t have have had the resources for such construction.

    … and the Palos Verdes Stake’s center in SoCal is standard Church construction — not an eyesore, but one of the most humble buildings in the neighborhood. (See Nate’s earlier posting on the Church as a mechanism for redistributing wealth throughout the world.)

    28. So how did the church deal with this? One night they sent a bulldozer and razed the chapel to the ground.

    Why not just change the locks?

  35. MikeInWeHo
    June 28, 2007 at 7:58 pm

    re: 28

    That sounds apocryphal to me.

  36. jjohnsen
    June 28, 2007 at 9:42 pm

    “None can legitimately accuse the LDS Church of lavishing money on wood and brick.”

    I can see steeples for three chapels from my home (with a rumored forth being built 200 yards from where I stand). It seems a little lavish to me when overlapping schedules or slightly shortening a meeting bloc could get rid of one of those building.

  37. June 28, 2007 at 10:16 pm

    Wow, thanks for the comments everyone. I’m still getting reacquainted with the “group blog comment tsunami” effect.

    jjohnsen (#36): Yes, shorter meeting blocs would solve a lot of problems …

    John (#33) and Nate (#32), thanks for the information on foreign country scenarios. I’m sure there’s a long post (or a book?) waiting to be written on how the Church has dealt with and continues to deal with that problem.

    danithew (#28), when I read your comment, my first thought was, “Were the Three Nephites driving the bulldozer?” I have heard a similar story about how a Polynesian landowner refused to extend a lease for land on which an LDS chapel was constructed, so the Church dismantled the entire building brick by brick before the end of the lease (so the landowner wouldn’t get a free building). No bulldozer in my story, though.

    Nate (#12), the mortmain statute history is very interesting. It’s another example of how firmly and effectively Protestantism was informally established in America up until rather recently. This, despite the formal provisions of the Free Exercise Clause and the No Establishment Clause.

    Patala (#5), yes the property disputes that followed the death of Joseph and, later, of Brigham Young are additional examples from the 19th century I didn’t think of when writing the post. As I recall, Newell and Avery in Mormon Enigma provide a nice disussion of the property disputes following Joseph’s death.

    Ardis (#4), I had forgotten the contribution of Franklin S. Richards (I do now recall hearing a speaker relate some of the fine but now largely forgotten legal work he did for the Church related to property issues). I’ll have to look for a source that discusses what he did.

  38. John Taber
    June 28, 2007 at 11:06 pm

    The way I look at it, the Church isn’t a corporate entity as such, but rather acts through several such entities. Just in the United States there’s the Corporation of the Presidnet of The Church . . . , Corporation of the Presiding Bishopric of The Church . . . , Temple Corporation of The Church . . . , Property Reserve, Inc.; Intellectual Reserve, Inc.; and Deseret Management Corp. (though the last may be a subsidiary of one of the others.)

    And so in each country, the easiest thing long-term is to set up such an entity, so that the government there recognizes it as a “native church”.

  39. Bill MacKinnon
    June 28, 2007 at 11:54 pm

    For those interested in the colorful family, legal, accounting, and ecclesiastical intricacies that accompanied the sorting out of church versus personal property ownership in the wake of Brigham Young’s 1877 death, I refer you to pp. 422-30 of Leonard J. Arrington’s “Brigham Young: American Moses” and his earlier article, “The Settlement of the Brigham Young Estate, 1877-79” in “Pacific Historical Review” 21 (February 1952): 1-20. As Dave mentioned earlier, BY had left a personal estate so entangled with church properties that it took the First Presidency, several Apostles, and an accountant two years to work out what they believed to be an equitable settlement between church and family. The unintended but scandalous consequences of this arrangement included a brief prison term for three of the apostolic executors for contempt of court and the excommunication of seven Young offspring, who challenged the fairness of the settlement by “going to law” in Salt Lake City’s U.S. district court — a definite no-no in those days. Whew! A friend of mine in San F., the late Sidney Hooper (Skip) Young, Jr. (one of the three direct descendants of BY to graduate from West Point), used to chuckle that somehow the trickle-down theory of economics had escaped him in the wake of this settlement, of which his grandfather was a presumed beneficiary.

  40. Brian
    June 29, 2007 at 12:04 am

    The stake president is responsible for each building and designates one bishop as the agent bishop who is responsible for the building. The Facilities Management (FM) Group implements most of the upkeep.

  41. ukann
    June 29, 2007 at 4:15 am

    In the early 60’s in UK, a week after I joined the church, the small branch broke ground for the new chapel. We worked our socks off every spare minute on the building. The members had a percentage to pay and we could work our debt off by labour. Each hour was meticulously recorded against the debt. I spent every Saturday there, and many evenings. Though as a young teenager my main job seemed to be sweeping half completed rooms and moving bricks around from place to place. Even after completion we still didn’t have it paid for. Our Bishop did all the electrics. He was a young man, an electrician, with three young children, he was our Bishop (sometime during the building we were made a Stake). Because we were a poor ward with not much money between us to give to the budget, the Bishop became the (paid) janitor, and gave all the janitorial earnings to clear the debt. We eventually paid for it and then it could be dedicated. What a marvellous example he was of dedication. I reckon he earned his place in the Celestial kingdom for all he gave. – And incidentally during the construction two of the building missionaries stayed with and were fed by his family. Again, the expenses for looking after them was supposed to come out of the budget – but again, there was never anything much in the budget so I’m sure they took on that expense on too. I can still remember the location of the brick in the chapel the ‘brickies’ let me lay (it’s deep inside a cupboard!), so I could say I laid a brick in the chapel. I also remember visiting the Stake Centre being built some 30 minutes away and laying the strip flooring in the cultural hall.

    When I moved a few years later to a neighbouring ward, they were still paying off the debt of their new building so I spent many an evening collecting old clothes and holding ‘jumble sales’ where we raised money to pay off the debt.

    The system had its disadvantages, but I think the greatest advantage was bringing the Ward together in a united purpose. Of course, a couple of more generations have come and gone again since then, and I think the present occupants of the chapels don’t have a sense of ownership.

    Incidentally, we never feel like it’s our chapel when it comes to refurbishment, etc. We see the need on the ground, and what would be useful, but no notice is taken of that. Contractors just seem to come along and replace things and do things the Bishop and Stake President know nothing about. Usually something quite unnecessary. But I stopped a long time ago getting upset about it. C’est la vie.

  42. June 29, 2007 at 2:30 pm

    In regards to the bulldozer story – a companion I trusted told me about it. But maybe it’s a loony story.

    I hope I left enough room for doubt in the telling – there are enough other bloggers in the ‘nacle who served in Guatemala that I thought someone might be able to say if the story is true or not.

  43. June 29, 2007 at 2:40 pm

    For those that are interested, I use the Leonard Arrington article “The Settlement of the Brigham Young Estate” referenced by Bill at #39 as an illustrative example of what I call “First Generation Mormon Legal History” in my paper “Three Generations of Mormon Legal History: A Historiographic Introduction” available via SSRN here.

  44. June 29, 2007 at 2:42 pm

    That bulldozer story is true. It happened in my mission. Gordon Romney ordered the bulldozing.

    The guy owned a dairy. He was a gringo from the US. He took a 2nd wife.

    I think he took Joseph and Brigham a little too seriously. :)

  45. June 29, 2007 at 2:44 pm

    P.S. As I understand it, the chapel had been built on his property.

  46. Joe
    June 29, 2007 at 2:49 pm

    John, where was that? I served during Romney’s last year (89-90) but don’t remember ever hearing that story.

  47. June 29, 2007 at 3:14 pm

    I believe it was in Coban, but I’m not sure. The guy’s name is Cordell Anderson. If you google: “Cordell Anderson” Guatemala you can read all about the guy. There’s even a 1971 Ensign article about him:

    “In 1967 Cordell Anderson, a former LDS missionary, set up the Paradise Valley Plantation in Guatemala where he “had to use every trick he knew to convince them (Indians) that they should let their children attend the plantation school” and he would unofficially adopt dozens of parentless or malnourished children in hopes of “converting Indian Israel” and fulfilling the prophecy “that they will become a white and delightsome people.” Ensign, July 1971, p. 24.

    I actually think that part of his motivation (in his mind) for practicing polygamy was to help fulfill the prophesy of the natives turning whiter skinned (Spencer W. Kimball’s dream). You may laugh, but I think that he took Joseph and Brigham a lot more seriously than any of us here, which perhaps is to be admired (at least on some, odd level).


  48. June 29, 2007 at 3:16 pm

    From a 1971 Ensign Letter to the Editor:

    “Awakening Guatemala”



    I was touched by one of your articles in the July Ensign, entitled “Awakening Guatemala” [p. 24], and the work Cordell Anderson is doing. I would like to know his address in Guatemala. I feel it is my obligation to send him help by whatever means possible. Many of the other articles about our Lamanite brothers showed how we have been neglecting them and taking them for granted. May God help us to be more diligent in our labors toward them.

    Don Fisk
    Ferron, Utah

    For those who are interested, Cordell Anderson may be reached at:

    Paradise Valley
    Apt. #25
    Coban, A. V.

  49. June 29, 2007 at 3:28 pm

    I’m just glad to know the bulldozer was real.

    I’d hate to learn I was suckered into believing one of those false and wacky missionary stories – when there are so many true wacky missionary stories to believe in.

    Dave, for what it’s worth, I don’t think we’ll ever be sure which of the Three Nephites was behind the wheel.

  50. Joseph Lynn Lyon
    July 1, 2007 at 2:24 pm

    I have fond memories as a small boy of spending many evenings helping with the building of the Rosecrest Ward (Salt Lake County) during the late 1940\’s. There were ward members with many building skills and the volunteer labor made a ward building possible. I also saw the change away from this as Mormons became city dwellers. Some of this continued into the 1980’s. I watched my older brother build a huge lodge with all volunteer labor and donated materials at Syndermill east of Salt Lake for the Canyon Rim stake. (The Church also took it over in 1991 but the stake has first priority on scheduling.)

    One of the driving forces behind standardized ownership occurred when a ward in a wealthy area of Salt Lake in 1965 wanted a much higher level of internal finish (extensive woodwork, opera seats, etc.) the cost of which would have built several wards. They proposed to fund it themselves, and were told no by the Church. The issue of significant differentiate in buildings between poor and wealthy areas is a never ending problem, and the Church has come down on the side of as little differentiation as possible. We don\’t see organs and stained glass windows with donors\’ names on them any more. (We use to, just look at the Yale Ward.)

  51. Joseph Lynn Lyon
    July 1, 2007 at 2:24 pm

    I have fond memories as a small boy of spending many evenings helping with the building of the Rosecrest Ward (Salt Lake County) during the late 1940\’s. There were ward members with many building skills and the volunteer labor made a ward building possible. I also saw the change away from this as Mormons became city dwellers. Some of this continued into the 1980’s. I watched my older brother build a huge lodge with all volunteer labor and donated materials at Syndermill east of Salt Lake for the Canyon Rim stake. (The Church also took it over in 1991 but the stake has first priority on scheduling.)

    One of the driving forces behind standardized ownership occurred when a ward in a wealthy area of Salt Lake in 1965 wanted a much higher level of internal finish (extensive woodwork, opera seats, etc.) the cost of which would have built several wards. They proposed to fund it themselves, and were told no by the Church. The issue of significant differentiate in buildings between poor and wealthy areas is a never ending problem, and the Church has come down on the side of as little differentiation as possible. We don\’t see organs and stained glass windows with donors\’ names on them any more. (We use to, just look at the Yale Ward.)

  52. queuno
    July 3, 2007 at 6:29 pm

    I must say, the Yale Ward Building is one of the coolest buildings in the Church. But it *only* works in a shrinking area like the Yale wards in SLC. The Yale Ward building just wouldn’t work in the Southwest, where you have 300 people in an average sacrament meeting and 3-4 wards sharing a building.

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