What about Madsen?

Last week, I was chatting with the institute teacher, and he handed me a 500-page book called Five Classics by Truman G. Madsen, and said it would increase my testimony tenfold. (My wife thinks I should be offended.) I’ve never read Madsen before, and I was curious. I’ve gotten through the first ‘classic,’ ‘Eternal Man,’ and skimmed some of the other chapters.

My general impression? I don’t read theology or serious philosophy, although I recognize his summaries of major world philosophies as being familiar-sounding; as a result, my response is not about accuracy or how it fits into the context of other such writing.

It’s clear he has a strong faith in the restored gospel. I see these essays as being well-developed testimonies by a well-read, thoughtful, generous man. But they seem a bit light. He seems to set up some very interesting questions, but doesn’t pursue them or attack them with the rigour I expected given his scholarly credentials. In ‘Christ and the Inner Life,’ I expected him to go in deeper. He seems to stay on the safe side — a sort of Nibley-light.

Mind you, this is not an attack on Madsen — I like what I’ve read, and I can see his goodness shining through.

Am I missing something? I plan to keep reading, so is there something I’m failing to appreciate? Is the problem that his insights have filtered down over the years so much that they are now just part of the vernacular of seminary teachers and mission presidents? Who was his intended audience, and who should read Truman G. Madsen today?


  1. Sam MB says:

    Think of Madsen as a Gospel teacher rather than a scholar per se, and I think you’ll not be disappointed. His PhD was a reasonably sophisticated treatment of Tillich, but he then appeared to take a different tack in his his writing. Many different groups of readers needing many different styles of writing. PS, sometimes Institute instructors say surprising things.

  2. Matt W. says:

    I really enjoy Madsen, but I originally started liking him based upon his 4 essays on love, and on his phenomenal lectures on the presidents of the church series. I think he does a great job there especially, where he is telling the story of our history. I just picked up eternal man recently, and I’d say his approach there is similar. He tells the story of theology in broad easily accessible strokes, and invites many at different levels to give him a try.

  3. I’ve been told by a number of people that his writings in regards to Joseph Smith’s biography are well-done. I still haven’t gotten around to reading them. I think they have been recorded as well for listening.

  4. danithew,

    I’ve listened to the Madsen Joseph Smith tapes on my mission. They really are fabulous and give a great perspective on Joseph. It was my first real introduction to the Prophet Joseph as a man, his real history.

    Truman Madsen was also my stake president at BYU, but I only met him once. He spoke at a ward conference, and you could tell he was an orator.

  5. Randy B. says:

    My apologies in advance for the diversion, but my first thought in reading this post was that of Aaron B. Cox.

    See http://bannerofheaven.weblogs.us/archives/136 and http://bannerofheaven.weblogs.us/archives/18

    It seems as though, for me at least, Christian has poisoned the well. ;)

  6. Thomas Parkin says:

    I have a couple of times contrasted my experience reading Rough Stone Rolling to my experience reading Madsen’s book on Jospeh Smith. Rough Stone Rolling strengthened me by giving me true information, but while reading Madsen’s book, the Holy Spirit came pouring out. So that I appreciate Sam’s comment that Madsen is better thought of as a gospel teacher than a scholar.

    These are undeveloped thoughts, for me, and I’m not really ready to contain them with words. But it is as though there is within the story that the facts of our lives tell a deeper, more (most) meaningful story. Thinking about this contrast has helped me understand my own spiritual growth as a thing contained in but not synonymous with the outlined outward details of my life. (And thinking about this tension in myself has gone a very long way for helping me think about Jospeh or any person.) It has also helped me find the vaildity of the faith-promoting history of the church as a true (if not truest) story and contained in rather than contradicting a broader exposition. It isn’t that facts are any less important for this – they are just as or more important. But facts do not speak for themselves, they are made to speak. We are aligned with the most meaningful story by more than reference to observable facts alone – and this is what Madsen’s purpose is, as compared to the wonderful Bushman.



  7. Thomas Parkin says:

    I see right off that I may have drawn too strong a distinction between the spiritual teacher and the scholar. I don’t mean to suggest that the Spirit does’t aid scholarly work, that we can’t experience It’s influence while reading or producing scholarly material. I don’t mean that, at all.


  8. Kevinf says:

    I’ve quite enjoyed both “Eternal Man”, “Four Essays on Love”, and his article “The Temple and the Atonement”. They have made good material for some deeper discussions with our kids on the plan of salvation, and some of the underlying currents in our theology. No question that he is more accessible to the average reader thanothers, such as McMurrin’s works on theology of the LDS religion.

    For a deeper experience, tangentially related to Madsen, FARMS published a book a year or two ago titled “Revelation, Reason, and Faith: Essays in Honor of Truman G. Madsen”, consisting of essays by a number of other authors and scholars, both LDS and non-LDS. I’ve enjoyed that, although much of it stretches my non-scholarly understanding.

    I believe that he represents a doorway into the more complex scholarly topics for the average church member who is seeking greater understanding of Mormonism’s root theology. That’s a very useful service for someone looking beyond much of the work available at Deseret Book.

  9. D. Fletcher says:

    Truman is my cousin.

  10. Mark B. says:

    Good grief, D. Is there anybody that you’re not related to? :-)

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    Truman Madsen has tremendous contacts in the scholarly world. When I was at BYU post-mission in the early 80s, BYU sponsored a number of scholarly conferences that, through Madsen’s influence and contacts, attracted some of the top religion scholars from across the globe. Those were heady times, and I attended a number of these. The first resulted in the fine volume Reflections on Mormonism: Judaeo-Christian Parallels, from the BYU Religious Studies Center (Truman wrote a forward to each study in that volume).

  12. cj douglass says:

    I’ve heard him speak on tape and in person. He has a great way of teaching profound truths in a simple, narrative sort of way. I would say calling him a “gospel teacher” is pretty accurate. Funny story about him: He was my MP’s MP and I was told that he used to fast for multiple days and taught his elders and sisters to do the same. A GA came to the mission and told them all to stop fasting so much. The missionaries listened – Truman did not.

  13. D. Fletcher says:

    I’m not related to Mitt Romney.

  14. Oh, I just heard your heart breaking, D. It’s okay you’re still a good person.

  15. I like Bro. Madsen because he sounds like Captain James T. Kirk.

  16. My impression of Madsen is that he is very conscious of his audience. When he is around philosphers he slips easily into more philosophically technical language. However, in many of his writings he is targeting a more general audience and he just comes across as thoughtful, rather than as a philosopher. It is interesting to compare Madsen’s approach to Ostler’s. Blake challenges his readers to learn the lingo and deal with a more technical presentation (i.e. you find formal proofs in Ostler’s writings, I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in Madsen’s writings). I have always appreciated Blake’s approach because I take it as a compliment as a reader that I can be expected to keep up despite the more philosophy-speak. On the other hand, Madsen’s writings have a much broader appeal. I am sometimes frustrated that Madsen avoids tougher philosphical issues rather than taking them head on, but it seems there are some virtues to this as well.

    In Madsen’s “Joseph Smith and the Ways of Knowing” or “Joseph Smith and the Problem of Ethics” I found his presentation more like I would have expected given his background, because the audience was (aspiring) philosophers.

    Despite my quibbles, I love Truman Madsen. I read everything I can get my hands on from him. And I love the Captain Kirk voice.

  17. Thomas Parkin:

    Just in case you were thinking that no one noticed, that is, once again, a fabulous insight. Thanks.

  18. Joanne says:

    Regarding Madsen’s scholarly contacts and BYU-sponsored conferences 25 years ago — I heard Robert Millet tell the following story. One of the people Madsen invited to the conferences and kept in contact with was the dean of Harvard Divinity School (at the time of the conference). I think his name was Stindell (sp?). Years passed, and he was eventually appointed a Lutheran bishop in Sweden. Shortly after our church announced plans to build a temple in Stockholm and the public balked at the idea, Stindell called a press conference at an LDS stake centre and chastised his countrymen and the media for failing to try to understand the Mormons. He admonished them to “leave room for holy envy.” I don’t know much else about Madsen, but I like that he cultivated the kind of respect that inspired this Lutheran leader to stick up for the Mormons. (I don’t doubt that Stindell knew other good Mormons, too…)

  19. Kevin Barney says:

    Joanne, that’s Krister Stendahl, and you are quite right about what happened in that instance. It was a very important relationship.

  20. I also came across his J.S. tapes (the first set, not the sequel)on my mission and have since purchased them and listen to them with my kids on road trips (although to me it isn’t James T. Kirk, it is the animated voice of He-Man). I have found many of the anecdotes about J.S. very poignant and inspiring. They have made quite an impression on how I view Joseph Smith even to this day.

  21. Thomas Parkin says:


    Gracias. Glad something came through those awkward sentences. I should really take the time to read what I’ve written before sending.

  22. I don’t wish to derail the discussion, nor do I have any focused agenda in mind, but I’ve heard that the University of Utah historian Brigham D. Madsen is Truman Madsen’s brother. Is this true? A number of years ago I had a series of fascinating conversations with Brigham Madsen about Utah and western U.S. history, and it was my impression he was of an earlier generation that had left the LDS faith – or at least the BYU faculty – over scholarly and theological issues involving church history.

    If so, I sense an interesting family biography.

  23. Norbert says:

    A lot of what y’all are saying confirms what I was thinking. Thanks.

  24. By the way, if you haven’t read this post from J. Stapley, it is right on topic. What J. describes in that post vis a vis history is very much in line with what I have seen in regard to philosphy (he has more depth and nuanced understanding than comes across to the layman reading his stuff, but hints of it are there if you are looking).

  25. Ummm, I meant that “he [Madsen] has more depth…”

    By contrast, Stapley’s depth and nuanced understanding is obvious to the laymen who read his posts.

  26. D. Fletcher says:

    Truman drives me crazy, actually. He’s full of his own testimony, if you know what I mean.

  27. I wish that the series of lectures “Timeless Questions, Gospel Insights” was still being published. While many tout his work on the presidents to be his best, this work showcases is ability to understand related philosophical ideas to the gospel. I have been a fan from my second area as a missionary to the present. When he dies, he will leave a void that will be impossible to fill.

  28. Jiro Numano says:

    “Reflections on Mormonism” is one of the most important books on my bookshelf and Krister Stendahl’s “The Sermon on the Mount and Third Nephi” is the article I read carefully and learned much about the nature of the Book of Mormon. I found many informed members here and enjoyed reading the comments.—A Japanese Mormon,65, almost 50 years since conversion.

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