With rare manuscript sales, it’s always a seller’s market.
That truism worked out well for Community of Christ earlier this month when the LDS church paid $35 million for the Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of Mormon. If there’s such a thing as a founding document for Mormonism, that would probably be it.
Even though this sets a new record for a rare manuscript (topping Bill Gates’s $30.8 million paid in 1994 for Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester), it’s also true that, as CofC spokesperson Elaine Garrison put it, “Nobody’s getting rich from this.”
Most of the sale money will go to shore up the church’s employee/ministerial pension funds. Corporate, nonprofit, and union pension funds all over the USA have been hard hit in recent years. The CofC is no different. Adding to the pressure is how much the church has downsized several times over the past decade, pushing even more employees into retirement. (Full disclosure: I’m one of them, accepting early retirement in 2009 when my job as Herald editor was eliminated at International Headquarters in Independence, Missouri.)
Naturally, the manuscript sale raised new questions among members concerned about how church leaders have been managing the institution’s finances. Bottom line: Those repeated staff downsizings and program cutbacks were brought on by an over-reliance on real-estate holdings and a drop in tithing income when the recession hit a decade ago.
Earlier this year church leaders announced they would consider selling church assets (both real estate and otherwise) that did not directly support the ongoing mission of the church. And so it didn’t come as a complete surprise to history-oriented members when President Stephen Veazey announced the Printer’s Manuscript sale during his churchwide web address on September 20. It coincided with an announcement from LDS headquarters in Salt Lake City.
The news brought a mixed reaction from church members on social media. Some folks were shocked the church is “selling its heritage,” wondering what might be next to go on the auction block. Assurances have since come that neither the Kirtland temple nor the manuscript of the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible (aka “Inspired Version”) is in any danger. The former serves not only as an historic site but also as a spiritual formation center (thus tying it to mission). The latter carries a huge emotional connection to Emma Smith, who famously hid the manuscript under her skirt while escaping Missouri in the late 1830s.
In contrast, the BoM Printer’s Manuscript (and some other documents) was purchased by the then-RLDS Church in 1903 from David Whitmer’s estate. Interestingly, the LDS church passed on buying it back then.
Many CofC members were probably unaware of the Printer’s Manuscript’s existence, so President Veazey had to address why the church was selling it:
Church leaders know that letting go of this document will sadden some members. We feel sadness, too. However, the church’s use of the Book of Mormon as scripture and our appreciation for our history do not depend on owning the Printer’s Manuscript. Letting go of this document does not affect the rights of Community of Christ to publish its editions of the Book of Mormon. When a decision had to be made, we chose the well‐being of people and upholding the current and future mission of the church over owning this document.”
Multiple bidders were involved in the year-long negotiations, but unsurprisingly the LDS church emerged successful (thanks to several anonymous donors). That church’s history department has been assisting the CofC for several years with the manuscript’s preservation. The LDS church previously reproduced the entire manuscript digitally. It was published in print in 2015 as part of the Joseph Smith Papers project, with eventual digital access. The manuscript will be housed in the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City. Clearly, nobody will cherish this manuscript more or take better care of it than the LDS church.
President Veazey’s webcast remarks raise some fascinating and revealing points regarding the church’s self-identity and mission, as well as its relationship with the LDS church. It is “ironic and intriguing to me,” he said, “that our current challenges are providing added incentive for us to ask essential questions about the essence of the gospel and the church. These challenges—financial and cultural—have pushed us into a kind of spiritual labor, and the future church already is being born.”
Churches are responding to change in different ways. Some are trying to go back to the past, attempting to recover a lost feeling of certainty. Others are persisting in familiar models of congregational life, hoping that if they work harder they will be more successful. Still others are discerning the true nature of the changes. With the Spirit’s guidance they are discovering opportunities to innovate and offer more relevant ministry in a new time. The word of calling, hope, and possibility is that new ways of understanding, communicating, and living the gospel in response to changing circumstances already are happening in Community of Christ. The church’s future is related directly to our willingness to go where the Spirit is calling us to go. As we respond to the unavoidable change in the world, simply persisting in typical church activities will not take us into the future. We need to adjust how we understand, communicate, and live the gospel in a new time.”
Then, in words that might sound to LDS readers as rather “non-Mormon,” he defined the gospel in Community of Christ terms:
The gospel is essentially about how we live in relationship to God, others, and the whole creation. If we focus on truly loving others in the spirit of Christ and caring for the whole creation, we truly will know God as God is. Our souls, families, congregations, and communities will become more whole.”
As part of the conclusion to his address, President Veazey called on church members to “talk with others about what kind of church we want to be. What does it mean to focus on the primary purpose of birthing, nurturing, and multiplying communities of disciples and seekers involved in spiritual formation and compassionate ministry and action?”
That, of course, is risky business for the leader of any organization, much less religious ones. In a peculiar way, the Community of Christ is engaging in both a huge “garage sale,” deciding what of value to keep, and a major renovation of its organizational/missional structure based on the familiar meme of “form follows function.”
One could even read between the lines of his address (the full text and archived video are at the church’s website) and hear echoes of Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man, as recorded in Luke:
“A certain ruler asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honour your father and mother.” ’ He replied, ‘I have kept all these since my youth.’ When Jesus heard this, he said to him, ‘There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich. Jesus looked at him and said, ‘How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ –Luke 18:18-24 NRSV
Admittedly, putting money into retirement endowments and distributing money to the poor aren’t quite the same thing. Perhaps that’s why President Veazey didn’t reference the Luke passage in his address. Yet the principles involved in each can be instructive.
None of this is to say that the serious issues facing Community of Christ are going to go away anytime soon. The membership in North America, in particular, is aging and its faithful contributor base is dying off. Congregations are shrinking and less able to function in the ways they’ve done for decades. In many cases their buildings have considerable monetary value, yet are used only an hour or two a week by a handful of members. By the time children raised in the church reach young adulthood they are increasingly less inclined to stay.
During the past half century theological, social, and historical issues have taken a toll on the Community of Christ. Before 2001 it was known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (that name is retained for legal purposes). By the 1960s top church leaders were actively moving away from the church’s Latter Day Saint roots: deemphasizing the Book of Mormon as anything other than a 19th-century work; challenging the previously untouchable image and character of Joseph Smith Jr.; ending the Smith family succession within the church presidency; opening priesthood to women in the mid-1980s; extending the sacraments of marriage and priesthood ordination to LGBTQ persons in several Western nations just a few years ago; joining the National Council of Churches in the USA; and extending church membership to Christians who were baptized by water after age eight (they still must be confirmed by elders laying on of hands).
Meanwhile, mission work outside the church’s Western base has been extensive and rapid (the church is officially established in 58 nations now). Today, there are more CofC members than LDS members in French Polynesia, for example. The most common language spoken in CofC gatherings worldwide is French (thanks to French Polynesia, Haiti, and numerous African countries). Most of those national churches, however, depend on the North American church for financial support. Church leaders have announced they are no longer able to respond to new requests for mission work.
In short, there are no easy answers for Community of Christ. Selling assets, whether it be historical documents or unused church buildings, has obvious pragmatic limits. How much uncertainty will leaders and members handle as they move out in faith as led by the Spirit? In the meantime, utility bills and salaries have to be paid, curriculum and other resources somehow created and published, and international mission work underwritten. New staff reductions and program cutbacks are anticipated. Yet even with all this, the church is far from insolvent and organizationally will be around for quite some time.
President Veazey’s address was titled “A Time to Act!” and began with these words:
When I was ordained prophet‐president I promised to do my best with God’s help to speak truth to you. Sometimes truth is good news. Sometimes truth is hard to hear. The truth I speak today has two parts. The first part is a word of calling, hope, and possibility. The second is a description of financial issues that must be resolved so that calling, hope, and possibility can be fulfilled.”
Community of Christ is not simply “progressive Mormonism.” Church members no longer have to jokingly add “…but we’re not the Mormons” to the church’s previous, already lengthy name. Nor can it be cetegorized as just another Mainline Protestant denomination. It’s something in-between but still somehow “other.” I suspect President Veazey is correct to note that something is struggling to be born in this faith community. Nobody ever liked labor pains.
A few questions to consider:
• Why is it so difficult for a church to treasure connections with its past and be hopeful about its future?
• What does President Veazey’s definition of “gospel” portend for the CofC’s future?
• What does it say about these two churches that relations have become friendlier the more they have become dissimilar?