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).



[1] For a taste of his lectures, including the 8 most famous Joseph Smith lectures, visit his BYU Speeches page at  See also for a list of his complete works.

10 comments for “The Impact of a Scholar – Truman G. Madsen

  1. My only encounter with Truman Madsen was unique. About 15 years ago a friend of mine from Utah County dropped by my office. “There’s a new LDS splinter group that has developed down my way and a good number of people are leaving the Church to join it” he said. “They even have their own book of revelations called The Sacred Scriptures.” He said his wife had a copy of the book and found it quite interesting. I asked if he could bring the book by, and he said he would drop it by the next day.

    It only took about 15 minutes to figure out what was wrong with this book. I went home to my personal library and by 4 a.m. I had written up a paper. When my friend came by the next day I told him my findings: significant parts of the book had been plagiarized from pseudepigrapha, written mostly from the 2nd to 4th centuries. He wasn’t sure what I was talking about so I explained and he went home to tell his wife.

    A week later my wife awakens me with “you’re wanted on the phone. It’s Truman Madsen.” Now, some of my friends knew I really enjoyed his writings, but this was a pretty bizarre trick. But it was him. He opened with something like “I understand you know something about where this Sacred Scriptures book comes from. I’m a stake president now and I’ve already had to excommunicate several members because of it”. I told him that at least chunks of it was plagiarized, and asked him if he had a copy. He said “yes, I just got one” and grabbed his copy. I told him to turn to “The Secret Sayings of Jesus”. That’s all I had to say. A minute later he exclaims “THIS IS THE BOOK OF THOMAS.” I pointed out several more instances of plagiarism, he thanked me, and that was the last I heard. I never found out how my info had reached him, but he was excited…and I was excited.

    This was a seriously cool event in my life.

  2. Truman was a major influence on my life. I had Truman for what I believe was the last class he taught in the philosophy department in 1980 — an upper division ethics course. Ethics was really his forte. It was a magnificent class and I think that I learned more about philosophy and how to learn than any other class I ever took. He had a practice (one he said was practiced at Harvard) of inviting his students to his home for a dinner with his wonder wife Ann. He was very personable from he beginning.

    I had several interesting experiences with Truman. The stories are a bit more involved than care to share on a blog — but he actually was involved in procuring a scholarship to Harvard that I couldn’t take because I went on a mission. He was the one who set up my first meeting with Neal Maxwell to discuss the issue of divine timelessness to try to convince Neal Maxwell that the idea of divine timelessness just would not work in LDS thought (about which apparently he and Neal Maxwell had an ongoing disagreement). Imagine how arrogant I was to do that (and I may well still be too taken with myself).

    I was Truman’s TA for 2 semesters and learned a great deal from him. I loved interacting with him. Later he was one of the presenters when the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology was established at Yale. We had many conversations that I cherish. One small known fact is that Truman was notorious for having driving tickets. I know that he had numerous outstanding tickets and if you ever drove with him you would know why. (I bet they don’t tell you that when talk about Truman). Tor Truman the traffic and related laws were more suggestions than laws — actually more of a challenge to see how many ways one could violate them. I loved that about him. There was this bit of rebelliousness underneath the carefully managed professionalism.

    Anyway, I loved Truman and I miss him.

  3. Thanks for sharing those thoughts and experiences, larryco_ and Blake Ostler. It’s fun to hear about his tendency to break traffic laws.

    I’d love to hear more about your experience discussing divine timelessness with Neal Maxwell, Blake. I feel like he is one of the main general authorities that institute teachers would quote back at me when I’d share my thoughts on how divine timelessness doesn’t work too well with our theology.

  4. Chad:

    You can actually check out a footnote in an article that I published in Dialogue that Elder Neal Maxwell reviewed and approved to be published. See footnote 30 of this article:

    What happened is that Truman arranged for me to meet with Neal Maxwell after I had written a paper about divine timelessness for a class. After Truman read it he told me that I had expressed it better than he thought he could (that sounds arrogant to say, but that is what he said) and he asked me to go discuss the issue with “Neal” because they had discussed the issue and he had never been able to convince “Neal” that timelessness would not work. I met with Elder Maxwell and explained why timelessness may work for Boethius who he had quoted, but not for Joseph Smith. I explained why I thought that the idea of timelessness per se was incoherent and contrary to scripture. I explained why, from my POV and the historical context, the statement about God’s time being one eternal now did not mean what he had quoted it to mean. After our discussion Elder Maxwell stated that he had not understood how the idea interacted in different theological systems and how it would work for Boethius but not for a God who had a body. He asked me to publish a footnote about our discussion as a way of clarifying and clearing up the matter. That is what you see represented in this article.

    I believe that after I published this article Elder Maxwell later returned to quoting the “eternal now” quotation and D&C 130:7 about the past, present and future being “before God” and God’s time being measured only to man to support a more or less classical idea of timelessness. None of these entail such a view IMO, but how Elder Maxwell saw it is what you asked about.

  5. He was one of my influential teachers at BYU. As I lacked much confidence as a thinker, I was impressed by his.
    I remember — who knows how inaccurately, as I cannot find a written record — his presenting a list of 20-some testimony-building things by which one could “know” the truth of the restoration. One struck me as such an epistemological irrelevance that I remember it: the French horns carrying the melody above the rest of the orchestra in a Crawford Gates hymn arrangement. (I played in the BYU Symphony under Gates his last year at BYU). As I recall, when pressed on such possible irrelevance of items on his list, Madsen’s response was that, in the end, you make your choice and take your chances.

    Can anyone confirm or correct this memory from more than half a century ago?

    In any event, that idea was one of the truly long-lasting takeaways from my brief acquaintance with a master teacher.
    I made a choice — influenced by much more than and different from the French horns, but I can also still be moved by a horn melody rising out of the orchestra.

  6. Visiting this kind, patient man in his office is one of my best BYU memories. I asked him once if philosophers, LDS & otherwise, were “making any progress” toward something akin to “figuring it all out.” He smiled, as I recall, and answered in the affirmative.

  7. Here are some pieces of my experience as a student with Truman. I audited his class on existentialism during my freshmen semester (1969) and took copious notes. Post mission I took the class for credit where he delivered essentially the same lectures that I could track in my original notes. I could see where he was going so I would wait for a build-up then raise my hand and offer the conclusion thereby robbing him of the moment. Here’s an example: Truman circled around the psychological issues relating to Nietzsche’s dismal outlook on life that colored his philosophy. After a lengthy exploration of peripherals he was about to zero into his conclusion but just at that moment, I raised my hand to suggest the reason was because Nietzsche suffered great pain during his productive years due to dental agonies that saw no relief. He finally called me aside and I confessed what I was doing then he asked me to stop and I did.

    On another occasion, my personal spiritual mentor and a former excommunicated BYU religious department professor who was a good friend of Truman’s wrote my term paper for me and I submitted it as original. Truman extolled it to the class as not only brilliant, but the foundation for a likely fresh perspective on Kierkegaard’s faith. I confessed quickly thereafter and rewrote the paper without my mentor’s assistance. During my office confession to Truman he only wanted to get updates on his old friend and made no mention of his insights on Kierkegaard.

    One day Truman told our class that the ground in Provo would never be the same again because of the newly dedicated Provo temple. I have never been able to wrap my mind around his observation.

    One parting reminiscence: Dr. Madsen was famous for pacing in front of the class and flailing his arms when lecturing. We got used to it. In defense of this behavior he cited Pascals’ saying “I think therefore I am” but adding his own twist: “I walk, therefore I think I am.”

  8. I had the privilege of transporting Truman Madsen from the Oakland Airport to the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley where he taught a weekly class on Mormon Theology to the graduate students in the mid 1970’s . I was an underclassman in Economics so a lot of the concepts were beyond me, but I remember his knack for laying out a theological premise that led to an enlightening conclusion. I remember thinking that the grad students taking that class came away with a real appreciation for the positive implications of Mormon teachings on the purpose of life, salvation and eternal progression. . His teachings made gospel principles relevant and elevating at the same time. I was sorry to learn of his passing.

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