John Templeton

One of the world’s most successful mutual-fund managers, John Templeton eventually dedicated much of his money and energy toward funding research into the relationships between two of his deepest fascinations: science and religion.

Born in 1912 in Winchester, a small town in rural Tennessee, Templeton was a straight-A student whose parents encouraged his healthy curiosity. They let him buy dynamite to dispose of backyard tree stumps, and gunpowder to manufacture his own fireworks. They took him on cross-country road trips in the early days of automobiles. Raised in the liberal Cumberland Presbyterian Church and influenced by the Unity Movement—which taught that one must employ positive thinking and self-discipline to harmonize one’s life with the principles of the universe—Templeton was inspired by religious idealism throughout his life.

Templeton studied at Yale and Oxford (the latter as a Rhodes Scholar), and then took a job on Wall Street. His investing strategy was guided by the principles of thrift and positive thinking. “Bull markets are born on pessimism, grown on skepticism, mature on optimism, and die on euphoria,” he said. “The time of maximum pessimism is the best time to buy, and the time of maximum optimism is the best time to sell.” In 1939—on the eve of World War II, a time of maximum pessimism—Templeton purchased $100 worth of every publicly traded stock available to him that was trading for less than a dollar. He bought into 104 companies, only four of which never panned out. After an average holding period of four years, that portfolio had returned 400 percent. Templeton often mentioned that he wished he had held those particular stocks longer.

Templeton developed a methodical investment philosophy based on his own valuations of companies. “Templeton’s basic formula is to divide the total value of a company by the number of shares the company has distributed,” wrote biographer William Proctor. “This calculating will give you the true value of a company’s stock, and if the market price is lower, it’s a bargain.” This method was used to operate the Templeton Growth Fund, opened in 1954. It was spectacularly successful, with the fund producing an annualized return of 14 percent over several decades. According to John J. Miller, a $10,000 investment in 1954 would have been worth $2 million in 1992, when Templeton sold the fund.

Templeton attributed his success in part to his diligent research and in part to his relocation to the Bahamas in 1968, where he felt insulated from the groupthink on Wall Street. (There he also adopted British citizenship and avoided what he likely felt were punitive U.S. taxes.) Templeton also attributed his success to the blessings of God, with whom he felt a closeness and unity.

As he grew financially successful, Templeton began to dabble in philanthropy. He built on his boyhood interests in science, philosophy, and religion. One of his first philanthropic initiatives was the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, which he created in 1972 out of the conviction that Alfred Nobel’s prizes neglected metaphysical wisdom, and specifically the role of religion in progress. He offered a purse calculated to be larger than that of the Nobel Prizes, and stipulated that the award was to be ecumenical, with at least one judge from each of the five major religions “so that no child of God would feel excluded.”  To maximize attention to the winners, Templeton arranged for Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, to award the Templeton Prize at Buckingham Palace.

The first honor was given to Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who six years later would win the Nobel Peace Prize. Other notable Templeton laureates have included Frère Roger, Cicely Saunders, Billy Graham, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Stanley Jaki, Baba Amte, Charles Colson, and the Dalai Lama. Since 2000, laureates have tended to be philosophers, physicists, or biologists with insights that bear on religion.

Templeton believed that material, social, evolutionary, and religious progress were bound together, and that society advanced when these spheres moved together in unity. Templeton denied that there was any fundamental conflict between science and religion, and believed that each field has ground-breaking insights to share with the other. He wrote:

Is our human consciousness only a tiny manifestation of a vast creative consciousness that is often referred to by . . . names such as God, Allah, Spirit, Yahweh, Brahman, or the Creator? Has our human concept of this creative source been too small? . . . How can we learn to encourage progress and discovery in ways that tap the deep symphonies of divine creativity and involve us in God’s purposes? Perhaps future generations will use scientific methods to speed up the search.

In 1987, Templeton established the John Templeton Foundation as a philanthropic vehicle for these inquiries. Through the foundation, he funded ventures ranging from an essay contest for youngsters to explore the spiritual principles of life, to an “honor roll” for character-building at universities, to a new college at Oxford University. Today the foundation has an endowment exceeding $2 billion, and funds research in four principal areas related to Templeton’s “big questions”:  science (in particular math, physics, biology, psychology, and sociology), character development, free enterprise, and genetics. Speeding the pace of religious inquiry so that it might match the progress in science is a particular interest.

Templeton remained closely involved with the Templeton Prize and his foundation until his death in 2008 at age 95. He was married and widowed twice, and had three children, and as he aged he felt an urgency in his philanthropic work. “Evidence indicates that the rate of spiritual development is accelerating,” he wrote. “Throughout the 200,000 years of our history as a species, there have been periods of gradual growth, followed by rapid development. . . . Now, a new vision of our place and purpose in the cosmos is unfolding. Possibly, we may be setting the stage for a giant leap forward in our spiritual understanding.”

Templeton received many honors and awards during his lifetime, including a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II. But the man known for his humility and belief in unity might well have preferred the bilblically inspired tribute offered by Princeton Theological Seminary:  “There was a man sent from God whose name was John.”

~ Evan Sparks


Further reading:

  • Robert Herrmann, Sir John Templeton: Supporting Scientific Research for Spiritual Discoveries (Templeton Press, 2004)
  • William Proctor, The Templeton Touch (Templeton Press, 2012)

Return to the Philanthropy Hall of Fame.

023 John Marks Templeton hero