Truman Madsen

trumangmadsen_bio160x205Truman Madsen died earlier today.  For those who don’t know, Madsen was a long-time professor of philosophy at BYU.  His intellectual influence, I think, came in two forms.  First, he produced a series of popular lectures on Joseph Smith and other gospel topics.  These were not academically rigorous productions, but I think that they opened a window into a much broader and intellectually exciting vision of Mormon history and theology for many members.  Madsen’s lectures were also a wonderful link back to an earlier, more oral Mormonism, one that placed a real premium on powerful preaching.  He was a powerful preacher.  Second, and perhaps more importantly, he provide two or three generations of BYU students with a role model of a man who remained absolutely committed to the Restored Gospel while at the same time willing to grapple with the hard questions of philosophy. 

As I have been told the story, Madsen began his graduate training at California but abandoned his program because of anti-Mormon bias in the philosophy department.  He completed his Ph.D. at Harvard, where I believe he studied under Paul Tillich.  (His dissertation, which I actually pulled from the Harvard stacks for fun while I was in law school, was on Tillich’s theology.)  Prior to graduate school he received a blessing from Elder Hugh B. Brown of the First Presidency, who promised him that his testimony would remain strong through his studies and that he would be a means of blessing the Saints and Kingdom.  It was a prophetic blessing that was fulfilled.

“I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing.” (2 Tim. 4:7-8)

33 comments for “Truman Madsen

  1. I remember listening to his tapes on Joseph Smith while on a family vacation. His tapes made the journey bearable. More importantly, his writings strengthened my testimony of the restored gospel as I formed an early testimony of the mission of the Prophet Joseph Smith.

    I echo W.W. Phelps’ words penned for Brother Joseph, which seem fitting now for Truman Madsen: Praise to the man!

  2. I agree, Truman was, and is a trueman. A true Morman man of letters. So long Truman.

    This would be a good time for those who didn’t know his work to take a look. Here is a sampling:

    Young Joseph Smith learned in the Sacred Grove that to see the Father is to see the Son, and vice versa.
    A deeper point is the relationship of these two beings. Joseph taught in the 1840s-and I think it was an extension of what he learned in the Grove that morning-that the statement of the Master about his doing nothing but what he had seen the Father do has infinite implications. How could Jesus have seen the acts of the Father as a witness? President Joseph Fielding Smith wrote: “The statement of our Lord that he could do nothing but what he had seen the Father do, means simply that it had been revealed to him what his Father had done. Without doubt, Jesus came into the world subject to the same condition as was required of each of us-he forgot everything, and he had to grow from grace to grace.”
    Again, the relationship is exact. If Christ himself was uniquely begotten and was the firstborn in the spirit, and if he was the Christ not only of this earth but also, as the Prophet taught later, of the galaxy, so before him the Father himself was a Redeemer, having worked out the salvation of souls of whom he was a brother, not a father. This is deep water. The conclusion is drawn by Joseph Smith in his King Follett discourse. Whatever else it may mean, and it is mind-boggling, it at least means this: The Father, by experience, knows exactly what his Son has been through. And the Son, by experience, knows exactly what the Father has been through. Therefore, when he says “I and my Father are one,” he is not expressing a metaphysical identity. He is speaking of oneness of spirit, harmonic throbbings of love and insight that can come only in the patterns of eternal redemption. Sown in the mind of a fourteen-year-old boy, that seed of insight blossomed and grew.
    Joseph Smith the Prophet by Truman G. Madsen, P. 12-13

  3. To this day, my favorite class ever was Truman’s philosophy of ethics class that I took as an undergrad at BYU. We had many long talks and discussions about numerous issues — mostly gospel related.

    One small fact that few know about Truman is that he always had numerous traffic tickets. He took the rules of the road to be suggestions for the weak-minded and it was his way of rebelling. It was scary to drive with him.

    I learned a lot from him and my heart is sad at the loss of my dear friend.

  4. An anecdote:

    I was a gospel doctrine teacher in my BYU student ward during an Old Testament year. While preparing a lesson on some of the Isaiah chapters, I went to Ann Madsen’s (Truman’s wife) office on campus to ask a few questions since I knew she taught courses on Isaiah. She invited me in and, having never met her, I was introducing myself when her phone rang. She saw it was Truman calling and politely asked my permission to interrupt our conversation. I was surprised when she waited for my approval before answering the phone, and even more surprised when she answered by putting him on speaker. They were planning to meet each other at the Temple that afternoon and so just talked briefly to coordinate a time and place. Ann told Truman she was with a student but she did not mention I could hear him. Throughout their conversation, including before she told him I was in the room, the language and tone he used to talk to his wife was conspicuously loving, happy and calm. He used an affectionate term to address her. Nothing of the conversation seemed out of the ordinary; and her demeanor was somewhere between content and blissful, but she was not at all surprised by the way he spoke to her.

    After Ann hung up, and before we turned back to Isaiah, I told her I had learned a great deal from several of her husband’s series of lectures. I could also have told her Truman taught me a great deal in the last two minutes via speaker phone.

  5. #10 your comment seems a bit odd. At first I almost collapsed with shock because it looked like “Good, bye” but even without the comma I don’t get it, it strikes me as a really odd reaction to somebodies passing.

  6. Truman’s legacy as a scholar, husband, father, Saint is enviable and intimidating. His *Eternal Man* is still and may always be required reading for the serious student of Mormon philosophy and theology. As President Hinckley said of Elder Maxwell at his passing, we may never see one like him again.

  7. First, he produced a series of popular lectures on Joseph Smith and other gospel topics. These were not academically rigorous productions, but I think that they opened a window into a much broader and intellectually exciting vision of Mormon history and theology for many members.

    That definitely describes my first encounter with Truman Madsen — listening to “the Joseph Smith tapes” on my mission. It opened a whole new world of Church history outside of what I’d learned in Sunday School and seminary. It was one of the things that kick-started my love of gospel study.

    Thank you, Brother Madsen, for the inspiration. Fare well on your journey to the next world.

  8. I would suggest for anyone who has never read it, Madsen’s “Radiant Life.” It addresses a number of powerful gospel topics but does it in a way that is totally unique for each topic. His chapter on honoring the Sabbath day was the most powerful essay I have ever read on the topic.

  9. Bro. Madsen’s classes were quickly filled, so I was thrilled to have a space in his New Testament class at BYU. He had a soft, yet intense presence. He fostered our learning and growth. He could be personal and profound. After weeks of thoughtful discussions and lectures about Jesus Christ, he handed us our study guide for the final exam. It was comprehensive and thought-provoking. I remember hours of study and reviewing my notes.

    On the day of the exam, we all arrived ready to think and write and respond to the questions. We expected a difficult and demanding examination. Once we had all arrived, he quickly discovered who had cars and got us organized so that we could all meet at his house. Instead of a written exam, we sat in a circle in his peaceful home, he offered us each a crisp red apple and he invited each of us to share an insight that we had gained about Jesus Christ as we had studied the gospels during the past semester.

    It was a sacred moment and the most memorable final exam of my studies. Transcendent.

  10. Madsen may go down as the greatest LDS popularizer of his generation. What Gerald Lund did for history, Madsen did for Joseph Smith. His talk tapes are everywhere. How many LDS missionaries did these tapes light a fire under? Countless.

    Nate mentions that his works were not academically rigorous productions. I think there are three reasons for this. First, Madsen’s interests spanned disciplines: philosophy, of course, but also world religion (ancient and modern), Judaism and Near Eastern studies, and intellectual, American, and Mormon history. His work on B. H. Roberts has very little to do with his writing on the symbol of olive or his work on JS. It seems doubtful that anyone, let alone someone as gifted as Madsen, would have either the time or the patience to keep up to date on the literature and major debates of all of these disciplines simultaneously.

    Second, Madsen addressed primarily an Latter-day Saint audience. Despite his work in the Evans chair, his written work almost exclusively addresses the Saints, and so do his tapes. His most productive period came during a time when the Brethren were relying on intellectuals like him, and using them up in some sense, in everything from Know Your Religion to a steady round of symposia in the Mormon heartland. In this sense he his much like the later Nibley, who likewise layed his gifts on the altar of the church. (Madsen may have thought he was doing for philosophy and religious history what Nibley was doing with ancient and middle eastern history.) They both wrote at a time when it was assumed the Saints needed help finding their way through the bewildering maze of worldly sophistication. And in each case, the product was the same: the wisdom of the world confirms the Gospel rather than refutes it. They both wrote in the consensual spirit, playing up similarities and playing down differences, and very much in opposition to Mormonism’s overly bedazzked Lost Generation.

    Third, Madsen’s style did not lend itself toward rigor. He was more artist than scientist, more wordsmith than logician, more impressionist than realist. He loved to make the truth witty and clever. Like many intellectual historians, he found it more to his liking to write an essay than to carry a thesis along to 250 pages. Much of his work hints or gestures at possibilities rather than actually proves or argues them. His great gift in writing, as well as speaking, was to evoke. But that is no small gift, and there was no one, ever, in our history did it better than he did. His life was far too short.

  11. My contacts with Dr. Madsen were quite mundane compared to others who have shared theirs here. I had to work my way through BYU in the 1970’s, and I was his stereo repairman. He had an older vacuum tube FM receiver which he enjoyed, and it happened I knew a lot about it as I had been a service manager in California prior to coming to BYU. I was very impressed by his “spirit”, in that he seemed to invoke a peaceful atmosphere when he entered a room. I only spoke with him briefly, a few times (I should not have repaired the stereo so well), but I was so impressed by him that I have thought of him as my friend since then. After nearly forty years, the spirit of my brief moments with him are still strong; I will miss knowing that he is here and still sharing his insight and experience in the more spiritual aspects of Mormon life and theology, especially, his comments about the life of Joseph and of course, the Savior, were always so tender, as though he was actually remembering moments with them, rather than expressing his opinion of them. I loved him and will miss him greatly.

  12. Over the course of many years and two degrees, I have taken over 75 classes at BYU. The one that to this day–22 years later–that still stands out as the most impressive and memorable was the class I took from Truman Madsen. Jewish Philosophy. It was a summer block class so we met every day. That class, even though scheduled for an hour, seems to fly by in mere seconds. The spirit was strong, the teaching was inspirational. After the bell rang on the last day of class, there was not the usual rush to leave. Everyone sat in there chairs in quite reverence for what we had just been through. We did not want to leave, we did not want the moment to be over.

    The other side of him was just as telling. I happened to be in the MTC and one day while standing in line for lunch we met a group of newly arrived missionaries. it was their first day in the MTC. One of those missionaries was a Sister Madsen, Truman’s daughter. Everyone was filled with awe and jealousy as the mail runner came back to line with a single letter in his hand. A letter written by Dr. Madsen and his wife to their daughter on her first day in the MTC.

    He was caring, a loving father and husband, but most of all he was a good man. He will be missed, but his legacy will go on forever.

  13. Truman was a delightful friend and an incredible scholar with a monster testimony. I was privileged to travel with him and a group of 18 LDS women in 1981 to Eqypt and Israel, and I treasure the almost 80 audio tapes I have of his dissertations as we wound our way aroung and through Israel tracing the life and teachings of the Savior. I will forever draw on the things I learned and experienced while being with him on that trip. I will miss him and look forward to seeing him on the other side some wonderful day. My heart goes out to his family and I pray the Lord will ease their loss and provides joy and comfort in the knowledge that he now walks with his old friends, prophets and colleagues on the other side continuing his wonderful work

  14. As he has touched thousands of others, Truman Madsen has also touched my life, and the lives of my family. My first meeting was as an impressionable teenager at a Stake Education Week in California. As a university freshman in Cambridge Massachusetts, I also remember his speaking at Sacrament meeting, as he served as President of the New England Mission. While I don’t remember the words he spoke, I will always remember the impression, as a powerful intellect fully committed to the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ and with a profound feeling for the Atonement. He will be missed. Our prayers for comfort go out to his family at this time.

  15. Brother Madsen opened up the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Restoration to my mind. I collected any article, talk, or production that was made available to the public. I consider them treasures of testimony. I jokingly refer to myslef as a “Trumanite.” However, I know that he would prefer disciple of Jesus Christ. Brother Madsen – thank you! Thousands, including myself, have been brought to Christ through your inspired words.

  16. I had a class from Madsen my freshman year at BYU. Made Mormon theology exciting, stimulating, interesting, serious. That has remained a constant in my life.

  17. Thank you for a wonderful essay. I never had a class with Dr. Madsen, but he had a profound influence for good in my life though his writings and through those with whom he had a more direct influence. See Truman Madsen Tribute. He will be remembered for a very long time to come.

  18. I will miss him alot. thank you Truman for helping me wan t to know allveryI can about this gospel and all the goes with it. I was raised in the church but left when I was 17 and knew everything. Having fathered a son at 18 and living a very worldly life while playing in heavy metal bands for 17 years,I knew something was not right .I tried getting a career in the film industry and make a very comfortable live. stil I felt empty.One day I was telling my son to get ready fo church with his grandma and he said”why,you don’t go!” ,oh boy. so after getting myself ready(which took several months) I went back to church(of course over the past few years I had been looking into several other religion)so I go back to the right religion! Anyway, to wind things up,I used to take long trps and go(temple hopping) and try a go to as many temples and cemetaries as possible(I have the family history bug bad) but,in the background always playing,if it was conference or book of mormon it was Truman madsen,talking about Joseph Smith,Church History ,Marriage and my favorite one the lecture series gosel answers to timeless quetions and the presidents of the chuech series!I learned alot from Brother Madsen and will really miss him. Even though I only got to meet him once at a know your religion event ,I can’t wait to thank him again beyond the veil,I’ll just have to wait till he’s finished talkng to Brother Joseph.

  19. After I had spent a year in an Intellectual Traditions of the West course at the University of Utah, where we studied an overview of philosophy and religion from ancient times to the present, I came across Truman’s little book Eternal Man. His insights into how the single doctrine of the premortal existence solved so many of the problems we had reviewed in philosophy was tremendously exciting. It was the first time I appreciated that the Prophet Joseph Smith simply knew things that other intelligent men had struggled toward with all the best intent.

    An article a couple of years ago in BYU Studies reviewed how many modern philosophers and theologians were increasingly concluding, after their thoughtful research and analysis, that God’s love and justice favors certain things: A social trinity founded on mutual love, an opportunity for all mankind to receive the saving Gospel after death, an understanding of salvation as the process of becoming like the Son of God.

    Truman Madsen’s special insight lay, for me, in his explication of how Joseph Smith, in his intellectual innocence, offered us the answers at the end of these long pondering journeys, demonstrating that the revelations received by Joseph were also intellectually respectable and justifiable. They were not anti-intellectual, but rather anticipated intellectual searching.

    Truman Madsen’s teachings have for me reaffirmed what Henry Eyring said defined God: He is the smartest person around. The best intellectation moves toward finding out the understandings that God offers us through revelation.

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