Millionaire 'Missionary' John Templeton Testifies to His Faith with His Riches

According to what the learned professors tell us about the stock market,” a financial writer once noted, “John Marks Templeton couldn’t exist.” Yet the 67-year-old self-made multimillionaire very much exists—both in the world of Wall Street and in more spiritual realms. Anyone with the foresight—and the wherewithal—to have sunk $50,000 in the Templeton Growth Fund 25 years ago would be a millionaire today. Templeton, however, would like to be remembered less as a money manager and more as a missionary—”one who influenced educated people to wake up to religion.”

Few missionaries have Templeton’s resources. In 1972, three years after going into semiretirement from Wall Street, he set up the Templeton Foundation Prize for Progress in Religion, the largest annual award in the world, to take up the slack left by Alfred Nobel. “I thought Nobel had a blind spot when he made no provision for religion,” Templeton explains. “What was needed was a prize larger than his to say that spiritual growth is most important of all.” Ironically, the first prize money bearing Templeton’s name went to Mother Teresa of Calcutta; six years later, she won the Nobel Peace Prize. The 1980 Templeton award, worth $200,000, will be presented by Prince Philip in May to author-scientist Ralph W. Burhoe of Chicago, who has worked for nearly two decades toward the reconciliation of religious and scientific thought.

The donor plays no part in choosing each year’s winner—he leaves that to an international jury—but has stipulated that believers of all faiths are eligible. A Hindu, former Indian President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, won in 1975, and a Buddhist, Japanese religious leader Nikkyo Niwano, in 1979.

Templeton himself is a Presbyterian elder. His father was a lawyer and cotton merchant, his mother a church activist in little Winchester, Tenn.—”near Dogpatch,” he jokes. Young John sold magazines door to door after his father was wiped out in the Depression and worked his way through Yale on a combination of odd jobs and scholarships, and continued his studies as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford. By that time, he says, the lessons of genteel poverty had taught him an appreciation of finance. “I decided that if I was going to do something to benefit the world,” he says, “I needed something to buy groceries first.”

As an economics Phi Beta at Yale, Templeton had been startled to discover how little information was available to help investors determine the true value of a company’s stock. “I decided to be a specialist in what a corporation is really worth,” he says. “I bargain-hunt. Then I buy what others are overlooking. Whenever 12 security analysts agree, you can be sure the decision is wrong, because their opinions are already reflected in the market prices.” Templeton first tested his theories in 1939 when he borrowed $10,000 and bought $100 worth of every stock on the American and New York exchanges selling for less than a dollar a share. He held the stocks an average of four years, and parlayed his original stake into more than $40,000. He founded his own investment firm in 1941, and by 1968 was managing $350 million, counting his eight mutual funds.

Since cutting back on his business activities, Templeton has set up a small shopping-center office in Nassau, where he shares a stately home on Lyford Cay with his second wife, Irene. His first wife, Judith, was killed in a motorbike accident in Bermuda in 1951. They had three children: John Jr., now 40, a pediatric surgeon in Philadelphia; Anne, 37, a surgeon in Tucson; and Christopher, 32, leader of a charismatic religious community in Jamestown, N.Dak. Scrupulously punctual (“I don’t like to upset people, so all my life I’ve attempted to be 10 minutes early”), Templeton bathes daily in the ocean at 11 a.m. He doesn’t smoke, rarely drinks and opens all his business meetings with a prayer. “Of course, we don’t pray that our stocks will go up,” he says. “We pray because it makes us think more clearly.” Does he have any advice for those who would follow in his footsteps financially as well as spiritually? “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” he says, quoting the Bible, “and make a resolution to save 50 cents out of every dollar.”

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