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LDS historian, philosopher Truman G. Madsen dies at 82

Published May 28, 2009 7:47 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Some years ago, Truman G. Madsen agreed to give a series of lectures about Mormon founder Joseph Smith at Brigham Young University's annual Education Week. At the time, Madsen and his family were building a cabin in Brighton, so he would work all morning in Big Cottonwood Canyon, then drive to Provo, change out of his overalls, dash into the Marriott Center and deliver a lively, stimulating lecture without a single note.

"It just came pouring out of him," Barney Madsen said. "It was part of him, in his bones."

Such spontaneity and speech-making were hallmarks of Madsen, a Mormon essayist, speaker, historian and philosopher who pioneered interfaith dialogue and influenced a generation of LDS thinkers. The 82-year-old died of cancer Thursday at his Provo home.

Madsen's lectures on Smith were an instant hit, widely reproduced and distributed among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"My father fought for Joseph, defended Joseph and loved Joseph," Barney Madsen said Thursday.

Madsen was born Dec. 13, 1926, in Salt Lake City, the second of three sons of Axel A. and Emily Grant Madsen and a grandson of LDS Church President Heber J. Grant. He was fascinated by Mormonism and how LDS teachings compared to other faiths. He studied the history of ideas, and particularly of philosophy, earning an undergraduate degree at the University of Utah and a doctorate at Harvard University.

For 37 years, Madsen was a revered teacher at BYU, where he held the Richard L. Evans Chair in Religious Studies. He also directed BYU's Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies and was a guest lecturer at Northeastern University, Haifa University and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

Reaching out to the nation's top religion scholars, Madsen sponsored several BYU symposia on comparative religion, later published as Reflections on Mormonism, The Temple in Antiquity, and Chosenness and Covenant in Judaism and Mormonism.

Among his volumes on Mormon thought are: Eternal Man; Christ and the Inner Life; Four Essays on Love; The Highest in Us; The Radiant Life; Five Classics ; and a biography of LDS authority B.H. Roberts.

"I read Eternal Man as a freshman at BYU, and it was really a revelation to me," said Russell Arben Fox, who directs the political science program at Friends University in Wichita, Kansas. "I had questions about the nature of God and man, but only Sunday school answers. Truman used the tools of epistemology, logic and ethics to show how these issues were relevant to Mormon beliefs and that Mormonism had good answers for them."

Madsen's death touches many Latter-day Saints, but has a special resonance for the Mormons in Massachusetts.

"It is ironic, haunting even, that Truman Madsen would die the same week the Cambridge Ward burned," said Ron Scott, a Boston-based journalist. "He was and is so much a part of everything that is New England and Mormon."

Madsen was a 19-year-old missionary in the New England Mission under S. Dilworth Young, of the LDS First Council of the Seventy. Young required the missionaries to labor in their assigned areas, "like the disciples in the primitive church, without purse or scrip," according to Madsen's Web site, http://www.trumanmadsen.com" Target="_BLANK">http://www.trumanmadsen.com. "This daunting challenge planted in the young missionary a robust faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. At the age of 35, he was called to preside [with his wife] over the same mission where he had earlier served."

The lives of those who served under him in that area "are the richer for it," Scott said, "in ways that some of us cannot fully fathom, even now."

Despite his impressive scholarship and prominence, said Ann Nicolls Madsen, he saw no distinctions between people.

In Jerusalem, for example, Madsen "was equally at home among the heads of state," said Ann Madsen, who earned a master's degree in ancient scriptures and often collaborated with her husband on lectures and essays, "and the people who cleaned the center's floors or took care of the gardens."

Madsen is survived by his wife, four children including a Navajo foster son, 14 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.

The funeral will be held at noon on Tuesday, June 2, at the Provo LDS Tabernacle.