Strange thing: Simply by working to accomplish their primary mission, large institutions develop skills and capacities somewhat or even entirely unrelated to that primary mission. So, for example, the US Army is very good at education, because it has to teach thousands of average (or less) students how to do complicated tasks like repairing a tank or hitting the right sequence of buttons to fire an advanced weapons system. Now the LDS Church is a very large and well-funded organization that has developed a number of institutional skills or capacities largely unrelated to its primary religious mission. The more you think about that, the longer the list becomes. But first, some background.
I ran across this interesting idea reading historian Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (WW Norton, 2011). The book recounts the discovery, publication, and impact of On the Nature of Things, an Epicurean philosophical text in poetic form written by Lucretius, a Roman. I first read it in a philosophy class at BYU, of all places. The text, you see, was lost for a thousand years until rediscovered in a dusty old monastery library in 1417 by Poggio Bracciolini, a talented scribe who rose to become a papal secretary. Late in life, he turned to hunting ancient manuscripts. But in the course of adequately recounting that series of events, Greenblatt covers a lot of the culture and history of the early modern period, particularly details of how manuscripts were produced, copied, and stored. Here is the interesting quote, from pages 28-29, explaining how the Catholic Church got into the book business:
[M]onastic rules did require reading, and that was enough to set in motion an extraordinary chain of consequences. … [R]eading required books. Books that were opened again and again eventually fell apart, however carefully they were handled. Therefore, almost inadvertently, monastic rules necessitated that monks repeatedly purchase or acquire books. In the course of the vicious Gothic Wars of the mid-sixth century and their still more miserable aftermath, the last commercial workshops of book production folded, and the vestiges of the book market fell apart. Therefore, again almost inadvertently, monastic rules necessitated that monks carefully preserve and copy those books that they already possessed. But all the trade with the papyrus makers of Egypt had long vanished, and in the absence of a commercial book market, the commercial industry for converting animal skins to writing surfaces had fallen into abeyance. Therefore, again almost inadvertently, monastic rules necessitated that monks learn the laborious art of making parchment and salvaging existing parchment. Without wishing to emulate the pagan elites by placing books or writing at the center of society, without affirming the importance of rhetoric or grammar, without prizing either learning or debate, monks nevertheless became the principal readers, librarians, book preservers, and book producers of the Western world.
For the LDS Church, skills and resources in genealogical research stands out as an example of this dynamic. There was never a revelation on genealogy, but the existence of temples, the doctrine and practice of sealing as it evolved over the course of the 19th century, and the emerging 20th-century need to provide thousands upon thousands of names of deceased persons to dozens and dozens of LDS temples every day just to keep them operating has, almost inadvertently, pushed the Church to acquire genealogical expertise. I’m no more familiar with the actual operation of the LDS program that the average Mormon, but I think that at the very least this has meant gathering documents from all over the world; learning to microfilm (now digitize) and store millions of documents; building and operating a huge climate-controlled bombproof (think nukes) storage site somewhere up Little Cottonwood Canyon to safeguard all these records; and now extending all these resources to the Internet in an accessible and usable app that allows Church members and others to go online and construct their own genealogical history. It is a huge commitment of time and money that has, over time, resulted in the Church possessing an unrivaled array of genealogy skills and resources. Almost by accident.
You may think this is an example of God moving in mysterious ways his wonders to perform. Or you may think it is just a colossal example of mission creep, always more of a problem for not-for-profit enterprises. As the quotation shows, this phenomenon is not limited to the LDS Church or to churches in general.
Can you think of any other examples of institutional skill and capacity that the LDS Church has developed over the years?