The Biography of Truman G. Madsen

Sponsored by BYU Studies— Truman G. Madsen is one of the most influential Latter-day Saints of the last 100 years.

In this interview, Barnard Madsen talks about writing the biography of his father, shares stories from behind-the-scenes, and ponders the legacy Truman left behind.

Who is Barnard Madsen?

I’ve been married for 38 years, and Cindy and I have 4 children and 8 grandchildren. I went to BYU as an undergraduate and for law school. I’ve been practicing law for 34 years and am a founding partner of a Provo, Utah law firm (FSlaw.com). 

How did you decide to write a biography of your father, Truman G. Madsen?

About a year after my dad died, my mom, my two sisters, and I had been discussing who should write Dad’s biography. We had a couple of candidates, but it turned out they had other commitments. So I drafted a rough chapter outline, sent it to my mom and sisters, and suggested that whoever wrote it should include the topics in the outline.

About a week later, my mom called me at my office and said she, my sisters, and Sheri Dew had decided I should write the biography.  

What kind of source material did you have writing the biography of Truman G. Madsen?

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.

Truman Madsen as a missionary on a road in Maine. Credit: Barnard Madsen.

A young Truman Madsen had a personal “sacred grove” where he would often go to pray. Where did he go for this alone time with the Lord?

It was in Memory Grove in City Creek Canyon below the home where he lived on the Avenues in Salt Lake City. He often said, “Life is designed to drive us to our knees.” He set a pattern there of seeking and finding answers and peace in prayer.

After receiving his endowment in the Salt Lake Temple, he also found a special place for prayer in that temple. 

When was the only time Truman Madsen was alone with his grandfather, Heber J. Grant?

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 was 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.”

Truman Madsen in front his his 1936 Ford. Credit: Barnard Madsen.

Tell us about the time you tried to slip a $20 bill into President Spencer W. Kimball’s pocket.

Dad had been a missionary, student, and mission president in New England, and in 1970 we were on sabbatical from BYU in a carriage house in Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts where Dad was focusing on writing the B. H. Roberts biography.

Brother Kimball was organizing  a stake in Merrimack, Maine, so we drove up to attend the Sunday morning meeting. Brother Kimball spoke powerfully about young men saving for and serving missions.

Because of a blizzard, there were no flights out of Maine, so Dad offered to drive the Kimballs to the airport in Boston. We were in a Volkswagen station wagon with my parents in the front seats, Brother and Sister Kimball and my older sister Emily in the back seat, and my little sister Mindy and me in the “way back”.

Our parents had asked us to fast for the Kimballs, but my sisters and I began whining in the car about getting something to eat.  So Brother Kimball told Truman to stop at a restaurant.

We ate, the Kimballs continued to fast, but Brother Kimball insisted on paying even though they didn’t eat.

On the way back to the car, Dad gave me a $20 bill and told me to try to slip it in Brother Kimball’s suit jacket. I got it in his pocket, but as I was pulling out my hand, he reached in and put the bill back into my hand.

Later we learned that he was on his way back to New York City where his doctors had told him he needed to have surgery to remove the rest of his vocal chords. It’s the trip where he called President Lee, who told him, “Come home, Spencer.”  

He never had the surgery, and later became President of the Church, his voice a miracle. And yet in that time of personal crisis, he cared enough about my sisters and me to buy us a meal to break our fast for him. 

How did Truman Madsen nurture his faith while studying at Harvard?

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. 

What happened to Truman Madsen’s manuscript, “Varieties of Mormon Religious Experience”?

Dad wrote his master thesis at the University of  Utah on William James who wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience.

Dad gathered materials and prepared a full manuscript on Latter-day Saint religious experience and left it in a briefcase in their car when he and Mom went into a restaurant for a meal.

When they came out, the manuscript was gone.

He never tried to reconstruct or rewrite it. 

Truman Madsen produced a manuscript on his Latter-day Saint religious experience that was never published. After eating at a restaurant one day, he returned to his car and discovered the manuscript was gone. Credit: Barnard Madsen.

How did Truman Madsen study the life of Joseph Smith?

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.

What effect did Truman Madsen’s lectures on Joseph Smith have on people?

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. 

What positions was Truman Madsen considered for and how did it affect him not be chosen?

They included dean of the College of Religious instruction at BYU, editor of the Ensign or New Era, president of the University of Oklahoma, and president of BYU.

He wrote in his journal,

To none of these responsibilities have I aspired. But, when it seemed to be really in the offing, the BYU presidency did most to release intellectual adrenalin. And it was for some days after the announcement, a bleak and bitter pill for me. . . . More than I was conscious of, deep and compelling, one could even say obsessive, dreams had builded in me. 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.

Truman G. Madsen

The rest of the story is these perceived failures prepared him for what followed immediately after:  his 20-year role as an emissary of the gospel as the Richard L. Evans Chair of Judaeo-Christian Understanding. 

Why did Truman Madsen often use the phrase, “love and blessings,” as a greeting?

“A man’s wealth,” said Heber J. Grant, “consists of the number of persons he loves and blesses and who love and bless him in return.”

So when he said goodbye on the phone or otherwise, Truman most often used a phrase he got from both his grandfather and his father: “love and blessings.” 

The Truman G. Madsen family: Mindy Davis, Barnard Madsen, Ann Madsen, Truman Madsen, and Emily Reynolds. Credit; Barnard Madsen.

What was Truman Madsen’s unfinished magnum opus?

He aspired to write 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. 

What is Truman Madsen’s greatest legacy for you and the general membership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

For both:  the character of Joseph Smith, and that he 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. 

In Dad’s own words:  

“It’s the character of Joseph Smith that’s being assaulted and vilified. You go on the web, you’re going to find every kind of vicious statement about how rotten a man he was. These [the Twelve] are people who knew him daily and intimately and in most sacred circumstances, and they leave no question that his life was noble and true and that, in my way of summing it up, he went through the veil without spot and blameless. I not only have a testimony that he was a prophet, I have a testimony of his character, which then gives me confidence in everything else he did and everything else he said. That leads me then to the testimony that Jesus is in fact the Christ and that He really is the beginning and the end of everything great and good in our lives. …”

“Joseph Smith learned in his own growth process in the kingdom more about the appearance of the Lord Jesus Christ, about his powers, about his character, about his very person and personality, about his feelings and concerns, about his role and relations, and finally, about his virtues, which are at the core of the atonement, than any other man. When people ask me: ‘Why are you so preoccupied with reading the life and teachings of Joseph Smith?’ One answer, and it is the most powerful one, in my heart, is because he is like a window, through which I can see the living Christ. He was no mystic, he was a prophet, he gave us the truth, he recognized the limitations imposed upon us by ancient creeds, and he frees us for direct experience ourselves.”

Truman G. Madsen

This interview is made possible thanks to the generous sponsorship of BYU Studies.

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