Sir John Templeton: Successful stock investor who gave millions to encourage the rational exploration of spirituality

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The Independent Online

John Templeton was a highly successful stock investor who, starting in 1937, made a fortune on Wall Street and by mid life had become a philanthropist noted for encouraging rational exploration of spirituality. His name is synonymous with the annual Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion which this year stood at £820,000 and was awarded to the Polish physicist and theologian Father Michael Heller.

The John Templeton Foundation, founded in 1987 currently dispenses tens of millions of dollars a year, mainly to university-based research projects. At a time when scientists like Professor Richard Dawkins have sought to challenge the reconciliation between religion and science, Templeton's foundation leads the world in funding research that seeks connections between science, spirituality and faith. Templeton once stated: "If spiritual leaders would begin to use scientific research, experimental scientific research, there is no reason we couldn't multiply spiritual information like we have multiplied scientific information."

The son of a businessman, Templeton was born in the small town of Winchester, Tennessee in 1912 and raised in an atmosphere of southern Presbyterianism. The family was impoverished by the Depression, so he worked his way through Yale on scholarships and part-time office work. In 1936 he was awarded a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford where he read law at Balliol College.

Back in the United States he began to invest in the stock market. At the outbreak of the Second World War he borrowed $10,000 and invested $100 in every one of the stocks on the US market selling for under $1. After a year he repaid the loan and founded his own investment company. He went on to create some of the world's largest and most successful international investment funds. Money magazine once described him as "arguably the greatest global stock picker of the century". He not only employed a strategy of buy low, sell high, but counselled investing in countries, industries and companies that appeared to be at their "lowest points of maximum pessimism", as he termed it.

The motto he espoused for his charitable foundation was, "How little we know, how eager to learn." He liked to say that this exemplified his philosophy in the financial markets as well as his attitude towards giving. He established the Templeton Prize in 1972, first awarded to Mother Teresa for her work in alleviating poverty. Later recipients included the evangelist Billy Graham and the Russian author in exile Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

He was insistent that the value of the prize should exceed the Nobel Prizes – his way of emphasising that advances in the spiritual domain are as important as those in other areas of human striving. Other noted winners have been the Princeton-based British physicist Freeman Dyson, the Cambridge priest-physicist John Polkinghorne, and more recently the Cambridge mathematician John Barrow. Representatives of all of the world's major religions have been on the panel of judges throughout the prize's history, and recipients have included Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus.

A naturalised British citizen, based in the Bahamas, Templeton was in 1987 knighted in recognition of his philanthropic work, which included the endowment of the former Oxford Centre for Management Studies as a full college, Templeton College, of Oxford University in 1984.

His John Templeton Foundation, based in West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, currently enjoys an endowment of about $1.5bn and dispenses some $70m in annual grants throughout the world. Templeton wanted the foundation to stimulate research into what he termed the "Big Questions". Many awards have been made for research projects in theoretical physics, cosmology, evolutionary biology and cognitive neuroscience. Grants have been made, too, for social science relating to love, forgiveness, creativity, and the nature and origin of religious belief. Templeton money has also supported projects for dialogue between scientists and theologians.

Templeton wrote and edited a dozen books through his life, including an anthology of wise aphorisms, and a volume of advice on investing. He criticised American stockholders for failing to invest abroad.

He had entered the mutual fund industry in the early 1950s by establishing the Templeton Growth Fund. It was incorporated in Canada in order to reduce shareholders tax liability (Canada then had no capital gains tax). It was one of the earliest global funds specialising in securities of companies deriving income outside the United States. In 1956 he joined with the marketing consultant William Damroth to launch the Nucleonics, Chemistry and Electronics Fund, which enabled him to exploit his interest in science and technology.

In a bid for rapid expansion, Templeton took his funds public in 1959. He sold his stake in Templeton Damroth in 1962 and, over the next 25 years, created some of the world's largest and most successful international investment funds. Each $100,000 invested in the flagship Templeton Growth Fund in 1954, with distributions reinvested, had grown to total $55m in 1999. The fund posted a 13.8 per cent annualised average return from 1954 to 2004, well ahead of the Standard & Poor's 11.1 per cent.

While open to the spirituality of many different faiths and Christian denominations, Templeton maintained his links with the American Presbyterian Church. He would start his mutual fund's annual meetings with prayers, explaining that these were not petitions for financial gain but a way of clarifying the minds of managers and stockholders. Competition in business, he liked to say, matched the compassion of religious activists. "For one thing," he once remarked, "it enriches the poor more than any other system humanity ever has had." Yet business is not ethical, he would add, "it will fail, perhaps not right away, but eventually".

In matters of religious doctrine, Templeton was undogmatic – asserting that relatively little is known about God through scripture and theology. He believed, however, that "scientific revelations may be a gold mine for revitalising religion in the 21st century".

Sometimes credited with espousing evangelical views, he was in fact open-minded in his attitudes towards spirituality and ethics. He favoured the Unity School of Christianity, which takes a symbolic, or metaphorical, view of heaven and hell and the divinity of Jesus Christ. "We realise," he wrote, "that our own divinity arises from something more than merely being 'God's children' or being 'made in his image' ".

John Cornwell

John Marks Templeton, investor and philanthropist: born Winchester, Tennessee 29 November 1912; vice-president, National Geophysical Company 1937-40; president, Templeton Dobbrow and Vance Inc 1940-60; president, Templeton Growth Fund 1954-85; Founder, Templeton Prizes for Progress in Religion 1972; president, Templeton Investment Counsel Ltd of Edinburgh 1976-92; president, Templeton World Fund Inc 1978-87; Founder, Templeton UK Project Trust 1984; Secretary, John Templeton Foundation 1985-2008; Kt 1987; chairman, Templeton, Galbraith and Hansberger 1986-92; married 1937 Judith Folk (died 1950; two sons, and one daughter deceased), 1958 Irene Reynolds Butler (died 1993; one stepson, one stepdaughter); died Nassau, Bahamas 8 July 2008.