Brigham Young, Emma Smith and the “corporate church”By: Stephen Marsh
Bottom line: a corporate church is sometimes a much better idea than it looks on first criticism. I know, there is a lot of discussion about the “corporate church” and how that is a bad thing.Except, well, except in many ways it is not.
In law school when we went over the legal issues in my Trusts class. Dallin Oaks who was teaching the class, was a strong proponent for approaching Emma Smith with more love and understanding than many had in the past. The issues are complicated, regardless of how often people try to make the simple black and white without shades of gray (or grey).
Brigham Young saw the property as something to help finance the exodus and avoid the handcart companies. Emma, who had mostly lived a life of hardship and loss, saw the property as (a) hers by law [everything over the maximum amount of property was the property of the trustee holding the property on his death, by law), (b) a poor compensation for the loss of her husband, the deaths of children and the hardship she had sufferred and (c) not very much.
The entire mess was the result of not having a corporate church and not having enough lawyers. That created entanglements between Joseph Smith’s property and that of the church. Hampered by a shortage of lawyers, over time, Brigham Young ended up in many of the same types of entanglements. To quote a quote about Brigham Young:
“It was finally determined that his estate was worth approximately $1,626,000, but obligations of more than a million dollars to the Church plus other debts and executor’s fees reduced the family’s claim to $224,000. When seven of his dissatisfied heirs challenged this settlement, however, that matter was settled out of court and the Church agreed to give the heirs an additional $75,000.” (The Story of the Latter-day Saints, by James Allen and Glen Leonard, second ed. 1992, Deseret Book, p.385).
Was it, in some ways, hard to tell where Brigham Young’s estate left off and the property of the church began? Obviously, to the tune of $75,000.00 in settlement after litigation broke out.
That is still a lot of entanglement, though it was, apparently, easier to untangle (or at least generated less ill will) that the first round of entanglements between Emma and Brigham. Following that the “corporate church” as a seperate entity evolved.
Is that problem with us now, when we have a corporate entity for the church? It has not been for quite some time. Would it have prevented the complications between Emma and Brigham? Probably not all of them, but it has worked very well since.
You can compare those early problems with what happened with Spencer W. Kimball, David O. McKay or Gordon B. Hinckley. Their estates were modest, and appear to have passed without much issue or entanglement.
The difference is the status of the church as a separate legal entity with a separate legal existence.
Thus John Taylor’s estate would be quite a bit less than Brigham Young’s and there were virtually no entanglement issues, since the corporate entity of the Church and the trustee in trust system had been more fully developed by then.
Everyone who comments on the “corporate church” says it is a bad thing. But seriously,would we rather have the Church hold all of its assets or that the leaders personally maintain them and pass them on at death? Is it better for a temple to have an, err, private doctrine on women’s access during certain times of the month or for there to be a clear, direct and relatively quick way to solve such an issue?
What do you think?