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Who Was Truman G. Madsen?

There was much more to Truman Madsen than meets the eye.

Truman Madsen is perhaps best known for his Joseph Smith lectures. The BYU professor thought of the Prophet as a window through which he could see Jesus Christ. But his contributions extend far beyond lectures given at Brigham Young University. Those who knew him best, like his wife, Ann Madsen, say there was much more to Truman G. Madsen than meets the eye.


Learn more in this interview with Barnard Madsen about his Truman Madsen biography.


The “G” stands for Grant

Truman G. Madsen’s middle name is Grant. His grandfather was the prophet, Heber J. Grant, and his great-grandfather was Jedediah M. Grant, a counselor in Brigham Young’s First Presidency.


Truman G. Madsen was alone with Heber J. Grant only once

Truman had only one occasion to be entirely alone with his grandfather, Heber J. Grant. The future BYU professor planned to read aloud to the prophet who had recently suffered a stroke, but was overcome by anxiety.

It turned out to be a blessing in disguise: “Slow down now, Truman,” said Heber J. Grant. “Let’s not read. Why don’t I just tell you some stories.”

That’s a luxury I can’t afford.


Grantsville isn’t where you think

Truman grew up in “Grantsville.” However, it’s not the Grantsville located near Tooele, Utah. Instead, Grantsville was the nickname given to a series of Grant family homes located in the Avenues in Salt Lake City.

The fond memories of his childhood home took root as Truman grew older:

“I think that more than anything gave me a sense of meaning and also some security. It was the anchor.”

Truman Madsen, as quoted in The Truman G. Madsen Story


Truman asked Elder McConkie about the secret to scripture study

Bruce R. McConkie famously said that he didn’t have a secret to studying the scriptures, but rather approached them with frequency, consistency, and intensity. The catalyst to his answer was a question by Truman:

Dr. Truman Madsen once asked him what his secret was in studying the scriptures, and Elder McConkie replied that he simply read them.

The Many Legacies of Bruce R. McConkie

He joked about spending time in jail

Truman G. Madsen had a lead foot, much like his grandfather, Heber J. Grant. So much so that he was in jail in the days leading up to his full-time mission. A childhood friend, Toby Pingree, said that Truman laughed about the experience in later years:

I grew up in the Ensign Ward where Truman was a legend along with his brother, cousins, and many friends. I was just entering my teenage years when WWII ended and all these guys either returned from the service or graduated from High School to go forth to serve in the mission field. Tru distinguished himself before leaving when a traffic court judge decided he needed a few days under lock and key while he pondered the multiple tickets he had accumulated.

He always remembered me when we met in various parts of the country and would chuckle about that experience. He was always warm, friendly, easy to approach and talk with about his past or the nature of the atonement.

He broke into tears as members sustained him as the new stake patriarch.


Truman had nearly 20 unpublished manuscripts

Madsen compiled several unpublished manuscripts (including a treatise on the “Varieties of Mormon Religious Experience” that was stolen). A sample of his unpublished works includes:

  • “The Bible and the Book of Mormon: A Panel Discussion” (with three Protestants ministers). Transcript of program on CHJS-TV, St. Johns, New Brunswick, Canada, 9 December 1962.
  • “The Costs of Integrity.” Lecture delivered 16 February 1978; sponsored by BYU Academics Office.
  • “The Essence of Mormonism.” Address delivered at Bates College, Lewiston, Maine, 12 February 1963.
  • Fireside address delivered 23 May 1998 at the Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies.
  • Remarks at the Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies (with Jeffrey R. Holland), in connection with a tour by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, 28 December 1992.
  • “Some Fruits of Mormonism” (with Spencer J. Palmer). Prepared by BYU Religious Study Center, 1981. Private circulation.

Truman G. Madsen solicited a powerful quote about Abraham

While in the Holy Land with President Hugh B. Brown, Truman asked a question that led to a powerful insight about the Old Testament patriarch. He asked President Brown why God would have stretched Abraham’s heart so strongly:

I put the question once to President Hugh B. Brown, when we were in Israel: Why was Abraham commanded to go up on that mountain (traditionally Mount Moriah in Jerusalem) and offer as a sacrifice his only hope for the promised posterity?

President Brown wisely replied, “Abraham needed to learn something about Abraham.”

By being tested, all of us will one day know how much our hearts are really set on the kingdom of God.

Truman G. Madsen, Joseph Smith Lecture 6: Joseph Smith as Teacher, Speaker, and Counselor

He studied about Joseph Smith at least 10 minutes each day

Truman felt a deep kinship with Joseph Smith after visiting the prophet’s birthplace during his mission. “That was day one,” he said.

The Prophet of the Restoration became a focus for the rest of Truman Madsen’s life.

He once told a student that he spent at least 10 minutes a day studying the Prophet’s life and teachings. It became a daily habit of “line upon line.” He kept at it.

Barney Madsen, The Biography of Truman G. Madsen

He viewed Brother Joseph as a window to Jesus Christ

Truman was fascinated by Joseph Smith. However, his interest went beyond the pioneer prophet’s character. Truman wanted to learn more about the Lord Jesus Christ through the Prophet of the last dispensation.

“It is fascinating enough to study the window; I myself have not resisted the temptation,” he said, as recorded in the Truman G. Madsen biography. “But that is not what I [want to dwell on]. I [want to dwell] on what one may see through the window.”

Truman would spend the time right after dinner killing moths.


Truman sparked new First Vision research

A controversial claim emerged in the 1960s alleging that there was no evidence for the context of Joseph Smith’s First Vision. In particular, the Reverend Wesley P. Walters said Joseph’s claim about religious fervor in Palmyra was warrantless. His words led some Latter-day Saints to wonder whether the Prophet’s accounts of the First Vision were accurate.

According to Tim Morrison, Dr. Truman G. Madsen was responsible for publishing evidence in support of Joseph’s story in BYU Studies Quarterly:

A special committee of scholars under the leadership of Truman G. Madsen went to work to address these concerns. Their research demonstrated beyond any question that Joseph’s account was accurate. An entire issue of BYU Studies (vol. 9, issue 3 in 1969) reported on various aspects of this research.


Dr. Madsen was a candidate for BYU president

Truman was considered as a potential successor to Ernest L. Wilkinson for president of Brigham Young University. The position eventually went to Dallin H. Oaks, who soon afterward created the Richard L. Evans Chair of Judaeo-Christian Understanding, first filled by Dr. Truman G. Madsen.

During the same time period, Truman was also considered for the voice of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, editor of the Ensign, dean of the College of Religious Instruction at BYU, and president of the University of Oklahoma.

He wrestled with his emotions after not being chosen for any of the positions:

To none of these responsibilities have I aspired. . . . Only through much fasting and many visits to the temple could I unknot my feelings of rejection, and vain ambition, and frustrated preparation, and worthy desires to serve.

The Biography of Truman G. Madsen

He didn’t like gossip

Truman Madsen was once with a group of friends who began discussing a juicy rumor about a high-ranking general authority. Knowing of Truman’s connections with church leaders, they asked him to share what he knew.

His response made his loyalty clear: “That’s a luxury I can’t afford.”

The song became a sacred anthem.


President Madsen doubled the number of baptisms in his mission

Truman Madsen prayed for two outcomes as mission president: to never send a missionary home with dishonor, and to never tell a missionary that a parent had died. He realized both results, while simultaneously doubling the number of annual baptisms in the mission from 600 to 1,200.

Truman G. Madsen standing on a long dirt road on his Latter-day Saint mission
Truman G. Madsen on a road in Maine during his first mission to New England. He and his wife would later by called by Henry D. Moyle to preside over the mission in 1962.

Fun fact: President Hugh B. Brown told Truman’s missionaries: “Take advantage of this man while you are near him. He knows more about the Prophet Joseph Smith than perhaps any man living.”


He inspired Daniel C. Peterson to pursue a degree in philosophy

Dan Peterson is one of today’s leading Latter-day Saint apologists. His background includes degrees in Greek and philosophy—and Truman Madsen was part of his inspiration:

I had been captivated by a series of four public lectures by Truman Madsen at a regional “BYU Education Week” in southern California—on “existentialism,” “logical positivism,” “Marxism,” and some other “-ism” that I’ve since forgotten.

Daniel C. Peterson: Meet the Latter-day Saint Apologist

He was working on a Joseph Smith biography when he died

One of Truman Madsen’s greatest desires was to publish a biography of the Prophet Joseph Smith. It was on his mind during his last days, but the pains of bone cancer prevented him from accomplishing his goal.


He got snowed into his apartment at the BYU Jerusalem Center

Snow is rare in Jerusalem, and the Madsen family was without a snow shovel when a storm left 18-inches of white powder outside their door. The rest of the city seemed just as unprepared. Upon hearing a loud noise, they discovered that the city had a novel approach to a snow plow:

It was a tank driving through the streets with some kind of attachment that turned it into a makeshift snowplow.

Ann Madsen Reflects on Isaiah, Jehovah, and the Temple
A behind-the-scenes look at Truman G. Madsen’s video lectures about the Eternal Christ in Jerusalem.

Madsen memorized the endowment

Truman and his wife, Ann, memorized the Latter-day Saint endowment ceremony early in their marriage. It served as a great blessing when they moved to Boston and went four years without access to a temple:

We used to lie in bed at night and review the temple. We wouldn’t say it out loud, but we’d each be there walking through it in our minds because we were far away from the temple.

Ann Madsen Reflects on Isaiah, Jehovah, and the Temple

He also memorized the Doctrine and Covenants

Truman was known to have memorized all of the meaty sections in the Doctrine and Covenants. However, an account by Greg Sears after Truman’s passing suggests that he may have memorized the entire book:

During a question and answer period afterwards, one of the missionaries asked Truman if he had the D&C memorized. . . .

Truman responded by saying, “If I tried to quote the entire D&C I would get some things out of order, but I can quote every line in the D&C.”


Truman wrote a B. H. Roberts biography

B. H. Roberts is one of the most influential intellectuals in Latter-day Saint history. Unsurprisingly, Truman felt drawn to the 19th century pioneer, and spent years writing his biography, Defender of the Faith: The B. H. Roberts Story.

He also recorded a lecture recounting highlights from Roberts’ life entitled, “The B. H. Roberts Story: Triumph Over Adversity.”


You may not be familiar with his greatest essay

Most people think of publications like Eternal Man, 20 Questions, or House of Glory when thinking of Truman G. Madsen works. And each makes a substantial contribution to Latter-day Saint thought. But, according to Ann Nicholls Madsen, one of his greatest written works is called “The Latter-day Saint View of Human Nature.”

It’s a transcription of a lecture Truman gave at a BYU Jerusalem Center Symposium entitled On Human Nature. The entire symposium is available in book format, and includes chapters by scholars such as David Noel Freedman, Abraham Kaplan, and R. J. Zvi Werblowsky.

Madsen’s chapter weaves together the teachings of Joseph Smith and the divine nature of humanity, concluding with the Prophet’s words, “If men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves.”


Truman and Richard G. Scott attended the temple together

Elder Scott and Truman G. Madsen attended the temple together for many years. Bill and Dixie Linn recall:

We will cherish the memories we have of those wonderful evenings at the Jordan River Temple where we, along with Ann, Truman, Elder Scott and numerous others performed many sealings. Truman had a way of telling a story that made sure you would never forget it. We will never forget his stories or HIM!


He had an animated teaching style

Truman’s teaching style wasn’t boring. In addition to explaining philosophy in a way that connected with students, Truman was also known for his enthusiastic approach.

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.”

Lee Williams, The Impact of a Scholar – Truman G. Madsen

Truman understood bad thoughts

Truman Madsen understood the challenge of impure thoughts. He found solace in turning to Christ as the Savior commanded in D&C 6:36—even in the middle of temptation:

You doubt? You fear to open up your own caldron to the Christ? Then go on pretending.

But hear in the distance what, if you will, you can feel in the marrow of your bones. It is a contemporary voice the Lord expressed in the Doctrine and Covenants: “Look unto me in every thought; doubt not, fear not.”

Truman G. Madsen, “Christ and Conquering Thoughts,” in Christ and the Inner Life.

Dr. Truman G. Madsen yearned to teach with the Holy Ghost

Truman sought the influence of the Holy Ghost in every aspect of his life—including his academic lectures. He wrote of the Spirit’s companionship in the classroom as feeling like “sea spray”:

That He aligns and provides and sweetens. That He wants more for us not less. The sheer mechanical delight of having all I wanted of spray. . . . The symbol stayed and lasts and, I pray fervently, will last.

Brother Madsen, as quoted in The Truman G. Madsen Story.

Truman Madsen said Hugh Nibley was a terrifying teacher

At least at first. Jeff Bradshaw shares Madsen’s classic description of Nibley’s teaching style:

(Hugh Nibley) does not lecture; he explodes. He brings source materials in the original to class, translates them on the spot, and lapses into spasms of free association as he sees linguistic connections.

Once a student asked him the question, “What is a symbol?” The answer slowly expanded to cosmic proportions, and Nibley stopped for breath an hour and twenty minutes later.

Truman G. Madsen as recounted in “Hugh Nibley Observed

Truman was constantly in pain during graduate school

Truman Madsen’s lectures sometimes reference his severe back pain, but the challenge was far worse than most realize. He once told a friend that there was never a moment during graduate school when he wasn’t aware of his pain—and yet he also never complained.

I do not ask why I suffer. I only ask, Do I suffer for thee?


You’re probably familiar with his work

Whether you grew up listening to the Truman Madsen tapes or found a kindred spirit in his philosophical works, chances are you’re familiar with something he wrote, said, or did:

Truman Madsen books

BYU Speeches: Truman G. Madsen

TGM Audiobooks and DVDs

Joseph Smith Lectures by Truman Madsen


Truman didn’t have any memories of his mother

Emily Grant Madsen died at the age of 33 when her son, Truman, was only 2 years old. He didn’t remember anything about his mother, but his father kept her memory alive.

“I had a father who was a born romantic,” Truman said. “He would fill us full of stories about our mother and idealized her.”

Truman G. Madsen Biography, p. 36.

He gave kissing advice

James E. Faulconer is one of today’s leading Latter-day Saint philosophers. For example, he’s published an article on the King Follett Discourse for BYU Studies, and several theological works for the Maxwell Institute. But his legacy of deep thinking also includes the practical subject of kissing:

Like other undergraduates in my day I was concerned about whether it was appropriate to kiss women I was dating. It wasn’t uncommon to hear people say in Sunday School, Priesthood, and Relief Society of student wards that your first kiss should be over the altar.

I thought the advice was ridiculous, but I also knew that I couldn’t count on my moral sensibilities to settle such questions.

So, I asked Truman one day. His answer was “If you don’t kiss a woman before you marry her, how do you know whether you are going to like her kisses?”

I took that as license to kiss. I didn’t take it as license to extend the argument to other behaviors.

Jim Faulconer, email to Kurt Manwaring

Truman engaged in a unique honeymoon activity

Truman and Ann enjoyed a delightful honeymoon as they started their new lives together. It was during this short period that Truman learned of his admission to Harvard—and when he demonstrated a unique proficiency for killing moths:

We propped open the doors to carry in our luggage and groceries—and let every moth for miles into the house. When we closed the doors, we had attracted hundreds of them.

So, every night on our honeymoon, Truman would spend the time right after dinner killing moths. And I’d hear him in the room.

Ann Madsen, Who Was Truman Madsen’s Wife?

People could tell he was different

Truman Madsen wasn’t just an example in the later years of his life. According to Claudia Bushman, people could tell that Truman was different during his years at Harvard University. In particular, she said that he was then notable for his “elegance and eloquence.”


His influence goes back even further

There are those who saw greatness in Truman even before his college years. For example, Elizabeth Gates Dailey shared her memory of Truman Madsen as a young man:

I knew him as a child and as a college student, and long before I was enriched by his marvelous insights in print and video, I was blessed by his vicarious friendship. I will always remember the warmth and hospitality I felt in his presence. I will always remember the radiant way he smiled. My mother used to say that whenever she was around her friend Truman Madsen, she never wanted to say anything, so she could listen more.


Truman shared an elevator with the prophet

One day, Truman was riding the elevator in the Church Administration Building with the prophet, Joseph Fielding Smith. Historian Bill Smith overheard Truman’s unique account of what happened:

He said he had taken the elevator up and happened to be a co-passenger with Joseph Fielding Smith, then church president. He said in a low voice that while they were coming up (Pres. Smith had pushed the button) that he (JFS) exclaimed something like “darn, I meant to go down!”

Truman said that the elevator stopped mid-floor and went down. I thought he was telling a joke and was going to laugh but I looked up and saw [a] strange expression on his face, no laughing.


He and his wife got different answers about getting married

Truman Madsen and Ann Madsen were married for many decades, and had three children, plus an adopted Navajo child. But their story could have turned out differently.

The couple knew they would eventually get married, but they had different thoughts on the timing. After praying, Truman felt it was best to wait several years, while Ann was in favor of quickly tying the knot. “It felt like I hadn’t been in tune enough, and that the Lord had told Truman the right answer, but I got the wrong one,” said Ann Madsen.

A visit to Spencer W. Kimball resolved the issue when he counseled them to marry immediately. His insight would become apparent only a few years later when Truman and Ann were no longer able to have children.


Spencer W. Kimball asked Truman Madsen for a blessing

Truman Madsen and his wife Ann owe their decision to marry when they did to Spencer W. Kimball. The future prophet also looked to the Madsens for help. For example, Elder Kimball asked Truman for a priesthood blessing prior to leaving for surgery in New York.


Truman G. Madsen was a patriarch

Truman kept notes of conversations with patriarchs throughout his life, always curious about their preparations and premonitions. On October 17, 2004, Madsen assumed a mantle of his own when he was called to serve in what James E. Faust referred to as the “scariest calling in the Church.”

He broke into tears as members of the Sharon East Stake in Provo, Utah, sustained him as the new stake patriarch.

Truman Madsen speaks about patriarchal blessings at a Ricks College devotional on February 29, 2000.

Truman tried to live the law of consecration

Truman Madsen took the law of consecration seriously and was quick to part with his possessions. Madsen’s selflessness caused his wife some financial stress during the earlier years, but Ann N. Madsen found herself yearning to live a more consecrated life as she approached the end of her mortality. She looked to Truman as her exemplar.


He consecrated his suffering

A letter Truman wrote to a friend in 1988 portended his approach to suffering, including the agonizing bone cancer that consumed his final days:

As we walk to the Garden of Gethsemane . . . we are struck with the prayer of the Jewish sage, “O Lord, I do not ask why I suffer. I only ask, Do I suffer for thee?”

Letter to Lynda Willey Collings, as quoted in The Truman G. Madsen Story

Truman experienced a personal Zion’s Camp

Brigham Young said that Zion’s Camp gave its participants “just what we went for,” referencing hard-won knowledge and experience. Truman thought of his missionary summer in Prince Edward Island as a crucible of his own. It was during those months that Madsen learned to turn to the Lord in new ways.

His summer on The Island was less an event, than the beginning of a process. It began many seasons of planting the seed of faith and proving the Lord . . . [and] provided a glimpse of the man Truman would ultimately become.

Barnard N. Madsen, The Truman G. Madsen Story: A Life of Study and Faith

He found solace in song

Truman Madsen loved good music, and his wife recalls years of classical melodies filling their home on the Sabbath. In his last months, Truman repeatedly listened to “O Light of Life!” by Mack Wilberg:

The song became a sacred anthem for Truman and his family. They played it over and over: in the car on the way to his treatments, in their homes when they were apart, when they were alone, and when the family gathered. Its brief stanzas perfectly captured the very real struggle of their faith, the role of Christ’s light in the plan of happiness, and the ultimate reward of his love.

Barnard N. Madsen, The Truman G. Madsen Story
Truman Madsen and his family constantly listened to “O Light of Life!” during Truman’s final year. Barney Madsen records, “Truman closed his eyes, slowly smiled as he listened, then hit the “back” button to listen again and again and again.”

O Light of Life (Mack Wilberg) lyrics

O Light of Life!
O pure Light Divine!
Thou art in us;
Our ember is Thine.
Kindle our faith,
Give hope when we fear,
Deepen our love—
Thy fire appear!
Light of our souls,
Thou spark at our birth—
Grow bright in us,
Shine in all the earth!
O Light of Life!
O true Light of Peace!
Storms will arise,
Let Thy light increase.
Pierce through dark clouds,
Give pause to the proud,
Let Thy shafts fall,
Lift humble heads bowed.
Answer our pleas,
Melt hearts in Thy flame.
Make us as one—
As one in Thy name.
O Light of Life!
O sweet Light of Grace!
Thou bids us come,
We follow apace.
Send the bright Tree!
Behold the white fruit!
Fasting we weep,
We witness the root.
O Light of Life!
O dear Light of Love!
Come, wash us clean,
Send forth Thy white Dove!
Fill us with Fire,
Enlighten our eyes;
Help us to love—
'Tis price of the prize.
Then let us come,
Enrobe us in white.
Cleaving to Thee,
Light unto Thy Light.
Light unto Light,
O Light of Life!
Amen.

He died at the age of 82

“When Truman was dying and I knew only a miracle would save him, that was probably the darkest time in my life,” said Ann Madsen. He made three last requests before passing away on May 28, 2009, and Ann spent the final decade of her life seeking to fulfill his wishes:

  1. Keep strong family relationships
  2. Be one in love
  3. Learn to live separately
Truman G. Madsen was a lifelong student of the Prophet Joseph Smith
Truman Madsen pleaded with his wife, Ann, to learn to live without him. She spent the last decade of her life learning to live separately until she passed away on October 26, 2022.

Truman is buried in the Salt Lake City Cemetery

Madsen mowed lawns at the Salt Lake City Cemetery in his younger years, and is now buried there alongside his wife, Ann. Perhaps symbolic of his life, Madsen’s tombstone is shaped so that it doesn’t easily fit within the frame of a standard photograph.


Further reading

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

3 replies on “Who Was Truman G. Madsen?”

Given his extensive study and writings on the life of the Prophet Joseph, I am surprised to be unaware of any elaborating commentary by Truman Madsen on Joseph Smith’s polygamy. Did he simply choose to ignore the topic, or am I incorrect in my observation?

@Stephen Hays Russell. You are incorrect in your assumptions. He talked about it in his DVD version of Joseph Smith’s life. That part of it is on youtube.

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