Review: Joseph Smith: The Prophet

My brother started his mission in Vienna and had been learning Czech in order to teach the many refugees. Then the Velvet Revolution, and he, with a small band of fellows, crossed the border to preach in the former Soviet satellite. His mission was remarkable in many ways, but it still shared regular aspects of the traditional evangelist’s life. One item from this trans-mission culture that he brought home and shared with the family was Truman Madsen’s “Joseph Smith tapes.” At the time, we lived a significant distance from our chapel and as my mother and I drove we listened. She didn’t appreciate Madsen’s smooth Kirkian refrains; but I was struck by his oratorical finesse and seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of the Prophet. Struck!

Truman G. Madsen, Joseph Smith: The Prophet, Illustrated ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2010). 248 pp. Color illustrations, endnotes, bibliography, index. Cloth: $49.99 ISBN: 978-1-60641-224-4

In 1978 Truman Madsen gave a series of lectures at BYU on Joseph Smith. These lectures were recorded and distributed by Bookcraft first on tape and then later on CD. Madsen was intimately involved with research into the prophet’s life and teachings—he first hired Andrew Ehat as a research assistant and then was his graduate adviser. Each lecture recounted an aspect of the Prophet’s life, filled with wonderful stories and quotes and all punctuated with Madsen’s trademarked intonation, dramatic pauses and loquacity (as a side note, Madsen was my Stake President for one year at BYU and his earnestness and style were perceptibly consistent and genuine).

So popular were the recordings that in 1989 Madsen prepared a book version with sources for all of those lush tales. Last month, in the year following his death, Deseret Book released a new edition, filled with images of the prophet created by Mormon artists.

I re-listened to the tapes as I read this posthumous edition. How could I not love again Truman Madsen as I quoted along in ritual recapitulation not dissimilar from Mormon audiences of Napoleon Dynamite or Princess Bride. I’m a different person now, though. Years of writing and critically evaluating Mormon history has changed how I listen and how I read.

Madsen crafted a modern hagiography of the Prophet Joseph. He was profounder than Plato; he is among the world’s greatest producers of literature; he was an athlete and a oracle; he knew more and saw more than any other in the last 2000 years. This is the mythic Joseph, not a rough stone rolling. And as much as I find approaching the historical Joseph more gratifying intellectually and devotionally, the mythic Joseph as presented by Madsen is an old friend, worth visiting.

In creating the book, Madsen had the chance to correct a number of the mistakes from his presentation, and temper or remove some of the flagrantly unreliable anecdotes. In transforming the spoken word to the written, he also had to edit significantly. Many of the charming phrases will not be found or will be read in a manner quite differently than the audio source.

By reading the Bible Joseph had been “struck”—in fact he says, “Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine.”

And the response was, “Shucks, boy, it’s all of the devil.” The boy’s smile slowly disappeared. And he learned early that to testify of divine manifestations was to stir up darkness and to call down wrath. That wrath finally evolved into bullets.”

A man who had developed a certain falsetto came to Joseph. In our generation we are not familiar with this phenomenon, but in preaching without public address systems in those days some Methodists—for example, in the role of exhorter—would pitch their voices high and shout so loudly that it could be heard a mile away. Sometimes they prayed that way. One man with exactly that tone came and said, with a kind of supercilious reverence, “Is it possible that I now flash my optics upon a prophet?” “Yes,” the Prophet replied, “I don’t know but you do; would not you like to wrestle with me?” The man was shocked.

On one occasion a man of that same stripe, Joshua Holman, a former Methodist exhorter, was out with some other men cutting firewood for the Prophet when they were all invited to lunch at Joseph’s home. When the Prophet called on Joshua to ask a blessing on the food, he set about a lengthy and loud pray that incorporated inappropriate expressions. The prophet did not interrupt him, but when the man was though he said simply, “Brother Joshua, don’t let me ever hear you ask another such blessing.” Then he explained the inconsistencies.

One of the most important aspects of the book is that it includes annotation. Madsen even introduces his readers to some important texts such as Words of Joseph Smith. With few exceptions, Madsen gives sources, though critical readers will be disappointed with how he weighs all positive sources the same, whether recorded contemporarily or sixty years later.

Madsen also should be recognized for introducing readers to some complex issues of Mormon thought. For example, in treating the King Follet Sermon, Madsen quotes from contemporaneous accounts and describes the belief that God the Father was not a man like us, but a man like Christ—an atoning savior of worlds—at some point in the infinite past. And though he does not broach the more difficult (to us modern readers) aspects of the Prophet’s life, he does hedge a bit, informing those with ears to hear.

This volume is the “Illustrated Edition” of Madsen’s work. After every few pages is a color image of the prophet by one of the Mormon favorites in the popular sentimental style. The book is printed on extra fine paper, is sewn and cloth-bound in an oversized format. It fits the increasingly common Church coffee table niche.

Truman Madsen was a great man. He has been more influential in doctrinal matters than most would suspect and we are all better for remembering his contributions. Blessed are the dead that die in the Lord. I hope he has found Joseph as interesting in person as he did in life.

Comments

  1. Thanks for this, J.

  2. Struck!

  3. Hey is there a source for the statement he made about Hyrum Smith, I believe it was, that would minister to multiple worlds? Where is that found?

    I loved listening to that section as a missionary.

  4. Tod, Madsen used a late recollection about JS blessing Orson Pratt with such a prophecy; however, there are a number of contemporary examples of similar blessings in the Patriarchal blessings of JS Sr.

  5. Jared T. says:

    Struck! Love it.

    Great review, J.

  6. Fantastic clips. Thanks for the review.

  7. “Then he explained the inconsistencies.” I like the original much, much better. Thanks for putting this up J. I especially appreciate you sharing your early memories of this.

  8. Those tapes were great. Whenever I am in Vermont, I always notice that even today the skies are dark and the milky way is milky.

  9. Aaron R. says:

    I’d be interested in thoughts upon whether there was a discernible change in Madsen’s thought between these early tapes and the later ‘Life and Teachings of the Prophet Joseph’. Thoughts?

  10. Aaron, that is a great question and one that I am not able to address, not having read or heard that later work.

  11. Aaron R. says:

    From memory, there is vast stylistic difference in presentation (he certainly tones down the dramatic pausesand emphasis) and I wonder whether this is a reflection of changing fashions in speaking or whether it is linked with a change in how he wanted to present the Prophet.

  12. Stapley,
    In line with Aaron’s question, do you know how Madsen viewed recent works on JSJ, like RSR–less “mythical” as you mention?

  13. Aaron, I suspect that when Madsen first delivered his discourses on Joseph that he didn’t realize that they were going to be such a phenomenon. I imagine he was speaking to the crowd and “riffing.” When producing something for mass consumption there is the tendency to think things through a bit more; and perhaps that lead to something less enthusiastic.

    Unfortunately, I never got to know Madsen personally and can’t really speak to what he thought.

  14. I used to listen to LaTotPJoseph almost every morning while I cooked myself breakfast in my last area of my mission. Loved it.
    I can’t remember if its in the introduction or possibly on the liner notes for it, but I’m pretty sure that Truman Madsen addresses your question himself somewhere in there, Aaron.
    If I remember correctly, in the first one he was mostly telling stories from the prophets life. In the second one he was a little more focused on using the stories specifically to emphasize the teachings for the 8 subjects which he talks about. Or in other words, the first was focused on the man, the second was focused on his teachings. But I may be remembering a little fuzzily, its been a while.

  15. I was listening to part of the new DVDs released by DB in which Madsen visits the Holy Land and talks of the Savior. Of course, he often refers to unique insights provided by Joseph. This caused me to reflect on recent posts on various blogs noting that many prominent writers (e.g., Talmage) did not care for or use Joseph’s non-canonical insights. Madsen’s early books and lectures probably did the most to pique my interest in what Joseph had to say about doctrinal topics (as far as the reminiscences are “translated” correctly). For that, I will always be appreciative.

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