The Impact of a Scholar – Truman G. Madsen

Throughout the twentieth century, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has seen several academic figures who had an impact on the collective thought of church members.  Hugh Nibley and Eugene England are a couple examples of this group, but one other well-known academic figure in 20th century Mormonism that stands out is Truman G. Madsen.  A philosopher and an educator, Truman G. Madsen is best known for his lectures on the Prophet Joseph Smith and some of his other works on Latter-day Saint theology, philosophy, and history, such as Eternal Man, Defender of the Faith: The B. H. Roberts Story, and Presidents of the Church: Insights Into Their Lives and Teachings.[1]  After passing away in 2009, his son, Barnard Madsen, was tasked with writing Truman G. Madsen’s biography, which was published in 2016.  Barnard recently sat down with Kurt Manwaring for a 10 questions interview about the life and impact of his father, which can be read in full here.  What follows is a summary of his remarks with some commentary.

When asked “what is Truman Madsen’s greatest legacy?”, Barnard responded that it was “the character of Joseph Smith, and that he [Joseph Smith] was the clearest window to the Living Christ.  For over sixty years, Dad studied his life and teachings, every original and second-hand source he could find of those who knew Joseph best.”  Studying the life and teachings of Joseph Smith was something that Truman Madsen made a part of his daily life.  As Barnard noted in the interview: “He once told a student that he spent at least 10 minutes a day studying the Prophet’s life and teachings.”  As a result of this study, he was able to do much to introduce Church members to the Prophet.  As Barnard noted:

The most common experience my sisters and I have had when strangers learn we’re related to Truman Madsen is for the person to say that they love his “Joseph Smith tapes” (now CDs, or MP3s).

From what thousands of people have told me in my life, I conclude that the recordings of the eight one-hour lectures he gave at the 1978 BYU Campus Education Week have had the greatest impact on other people of any of his work.

The lectures on Joseph Smith remain popular and, for many people, are the first introduction to a more in-depth view of the life and teachings of the Prophet.  Madsen continued to work on materials relating to Joseph Smith after those lectures, even up to near the end of his life.  Barnard notes that Truman’s “unfinished magnum opus” was “a definitive multi-volume biography of the Prophet Joseph Smith.  He worked on it up until his final illness and until he was physically unable to work on it any more.”

Part of the reason that Truman Madsen spent so much time and effort on studying the teachings of Joseph Smith was that he felt it was a way to nurture his faith while engaging in academic pursuits.  Barnard Madsen said that:

Before he left for Harvard, his father told him, “Give religion equal time.” So the more he studied philosophy, the more he studied the revelations of the Prophet Joseph Smith.

At Harvard, and for the rest of his life, he balanced learning by study and by faith.

Studying religion was an important part of Madsen’s life.  He also was known to state that “life is designed to drive us to our knees” and made sure to find special places he could go pray, such as Memory Grove in City Creek Canyon and the Salt Lake Temple.  Prayer and study were important habits Truman G. Madsen maintained throughout his life.

In addition to his work with the Prophet Joseph Smith, Truman G. Madsen had connection to another president of the Church.  President Heber J. Grant was Madsen’s grandfather.  Barnard Madsen spoke of a time that his father was able to be alone with his (Truman’s) grandfather:

After President Grant suffered a stroke, family members would take turns reading to him each evening and helping prepare him for bed.

Dad substituted one evening for his father when he unable to make it. Instead of Dad reading, President Grant told him stories, including how he met, courted, and proposed to Emily Wells.

The shortened version:  Orson F. Whitney also courted Emily and asked her if he converted her to the principle of plural marriage, would she marry him. She said if he ever converted her to the principle, she would marry Heber J. Grant.

And he did, and she did.

Dad was impressed that President Grant told him matter of factly that “when I see Orson on the other side, I’m going to have to thank him for converting your grandmother.”

It’s an interesting anecdote about the life of Heber J. Grant through the eyes of his descendants.

In writing the biography of his father, Barnard Madsen found that he had plenty of source materials available to use.  He said:

Like his dad, my dad was a storyteller, so I had access to his stories growing up as his son. During my dad’s final illness, my sister Emily went through my dad’s papers to assemble his Joseph Smith files so he could continue to work on them. During that process she also found and assembled his journal files. They filled 12 boxes, and they were the primary source material I used — and they were full of surprises.

Only after I started writing did I discover my dad’s missionary journal.  Also invaluable were transcribed interviews of my dad and others who knew him by Liz Thomas and Marcie Brown during the last year of my dad’s life.

These were the raw materials used in preparing the official biography of Truman G. Madsen.

For more insights into the life and work of Truman G. Madsen (including an interesting story about President Spencer W. Kimball), read Barnard Madsen’s interview with Kurt Manwaring, available here.  You may also consider reading the full biography, The Truman G. Madsen Story: A Life of Study and Faith (SLC: Deseret Book, 2016).

 

Footnotes:

[1] For a taste of his lectures, including the 8 most famous Joseph Smith lectures, visit his BYU Speeches page at https://speeches.byu.edu/speakers/truman-g-madsen/.  See also http://trumanmadsen.com/new/?page_id=45 for a list of his complete works.

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