Of all the letters Truman G. Madsen received over many years from people who read or listened to his Joseph Smith the Prophetlectures, one from a man in Australia stood out to Madsen.
In a 2005 email, Adam Carthew, of Melbourne, told Madsen that 16 years earlier when he was 15, he was the only member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in his school. One day while riding with his companion to a home teaching visit, one of Madsen's Joseph Smith tapes was in the car's cassette player. The young man became engrossed in what he was hearing and asked to borrow the tapes.
Listening to Madsen's Joseph Smith lecture seriesbecame a turning point in his young life and solidified his desire to serve an LDS mission and marry in the temple, Carthew wrote to Madsen.
"Listening to those tapes provided an environment for me to gain a testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith," Carthew wrote. "I look back on my last 16 years and so many decisions and experiences have been influenced by that home teaching visit. I am not sure if you have even heard of Geelong in Victoria, Australia, but you influenced a young man there."
In his reply, Madsen wrote: "No letter I have received on the Joseph Smith recordings has meant more to me than yours."
While Carthew's letter held a special place in Madsen's heart, there were many others who penned meaningful thank yous, and countless more who didn't, after similar experiences with the Joseph Smith tapes.
This month marks 40 years since Madsen first used his golden voice and unique speaking style to give eight, one-hour lectures over four days at BYU Education Week in 1978. Madsen's Joseph Smith lectures recorded on tapes, CDs, MP3s, and book have continued to be popular items for over four decades, bringing the Prophet's mission to life and strengthening testimonies for what could be millions of listeners.
Speaking at Madsen's funeral in 2009, the late Elder Richard G. Scott, a member of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles from 1988-2015, summarized Madsen's legacy with a reference to the hymn, "Praise to the Man."
“I don’t know of anyone who has done more to fulfill the statement that: 'Millions will know Brother Joseph again’ than your beloved Truman.”
Building a Cabin
Truman Madsen, the grandson of the seventh LDS Church President Heber J. Grant, died at age 82 in 2009, following a productive career as a scholar and BYU professor of philosophy and religion, director of the Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies, orator and prolific writer, among many other achievements and accolades.
Ann Madsen, Truman's wife, said the Joseph Smith lectures are one of the centerpieces of her husband's work, and that his love and testimony of the Prophet was based on a lifetime of research. She has no doubt the lectures were inspired.
"He knew all the bad, he knew all the good, and he loved Joseph Smith with all his heart. I think that really comes across in the lectures," Ann Madsen said. "All he wanted to do in his life was help people gain testimonies of the gospel, the restoration, the Prophet Joseph, but most especially Jesus Christ."
Truman Madsen apparently drew upon that stored-up knowledge for four days in 1978 when giving the Joseph Smith lectures at BYU Education Week, because his family doesn't remember seeing him skim over any notes or revise any outlines, his son Barnard N. Madsen said.
After a good morning's work at their Brighton cabin site, Barnard Madsen remembers his father looking at his watch and saying, "Whoa — gotta go!" Barnard then drove his father down the canyon to Provo in their old truck, with Truman Madsen changing from overalls to a shirt, tie and sport coat along the way. They pulled up to the curb of the Marriott Center with only minutes to spare, Barnard Madsen wrote in his father's biography, The Truman G. Madsen Story: A Life of Study and Faith, published in 2016.
"He wasn't reviewing anything. We were building a cabin," Barnard Madsen said. "He just kind of did it, which is really impressive to me."
Over the years when Truman Madsen stood to speak, he rarely carried notes, his wife said.
"He was blessed with the ability to speak," Ann Madsen said. "He would just stand up with nothing in his hands and deliver these inspired moments."
Little did Truman Madsen know how influential the Joseph Smith tapes would be.
In a 2008 interview for a Wheatley Institution video, "Eternal Man, Reflections on the Life and Thought of Truman G. Madsen," longtime Deseret Book CEO Sheri Dew said most products sell on a bell curve, going up for a while before coming down, but always coming down. Truman Madsen's Joseph Smith lectures have been the exception.
"Almost nothing stays in print forever. Authors do not understand this. The reality is that not many stay put forever," Dew said. "Those tapes, the bell curve defies all description. They have just gone up and have never ever come off a certain level. So what that says is it's been years since they were ever promoted, they're long past their promotional stage. . . . It's all word of mouth and that is so rare. I can probably count on my fingers and toes the number of things published in the years I've been in the publishing world where that applies. That's a short, short list. And that's the only series of tapes that fit that category."
Why have the Joseph Smith lectures been so successful?
John W. Welch, professor of law at Brigham Young University and editor and chief of BYU Studies, was a student and longtime friend of Truman Madsen. He said Madsen's extensive academic background combined with his rigorous research, which contributed to the inception of the Joseph Smith Papers, along with his personal experience as a missionary and mission president in New England, where Joseph Smith grew up, are all contributing factors.
"Truman's spiritual experiences led him to testify genuinely and authentically of the truthfulness of Joseph Smith's prophetic calling," Welch said. "Truman's command of both historical and doctrinal dimensions made his lectures electrifying."
Robert L. Millet, a professor emeritus of ancient scripture at BYU, offered another possible reason — Madsen's focus on Joseph Smith's doctrinal contributions. While some have "vexations of the soul" linked to differing accounts of the First Vision, how the Book of Mormon was translated, DNA studies, and Joseph Smith's polygamy, too few look at the "fruits of Joseph Smith," Millet wrote in an email to the Deseret News.
"In my mind, it was Truman’s effort to give attention to Joseph Smith’s teachings that invited the Spirit of the Lord into the homes and apartments of impressionable missionaries and more seasoned members of the Church," Millet wrote.
Brad Wilcox, author and associate professor of ancient scripture at BYU, admires how Madsen "graded" Joseph Smith using a rubric of intellectual gifts. He also appreciates Madsen's immense depth in studying the prophet's life.
"It frustrates me when Joseph Smith is brushed off so easily by people reading and sharing posts on social media. Their comments reveal only a surface understanding of the Prophet and the times in which he lived. They have not bothered to go deeper. Truman went deeper," Wilcox said. "The deeper I go, the more impressed I am with the Prophet. There is nothing that anyone could study in depth about Joseph that would shake my testimony. The problem is that too many are content to settle for the sensationalism and surface-level sound bites that fly around the internet."
Another engaging element of the lectures was Madsen's voice, which some called a "golden voice," along with his manner of speaking and emphasis placed on certain words and phrases, Millet wrote.
"Truman was a gifted orator," Millet wrote. "Young and old listened intently to his messages."
Madsen majored in speech at the University of Utah, "emphasizing courses in the psychology of speech, persuasion, discussion and radio techniques." He also participated in debate and did some radio announcing, according to his biography.
In the early 1970s, Madsen was asked to audition as a replacement for Richard L. Evans, the voice of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's Music and the Spoken Word, but was not selected, according to his biography.
A person once told Ann Madsen they listened to her husband every night because his voice helped them to fall asleep. The family laughs about that, but to them, each recording of Truman speaking is a cherished treasure.
"My children love to listen to his voice," Ann Madsen said. "His voice was special. It was a gift that God gave him so he could do this, so he could teach."
A Missionary's Letter
More than a decade after he gave the lectures, Truman Madsen realized the influence his Joseph Smith tapeswere having on a vast audience of listeners, according to his biography.
"More than anything else I have written or recorded, these cassettes have engendered a return wave, international in scope, of responsive letters and comments," Madsen wrote in 1989.
When introducing themselves, the Madsens are almost automatically asked first if they are related to Truman, followed by comments like "the Joseph Smith tapes changed my life" or "I got my testimony of Joseph Smith on my mission from those tapes," Ann Madsen said.
Truman and Ann Madsen were not upset when they learned some mission presidents were circulating pirated copies of the tapes.
"I'm really glad they did," Ann Madsen said. "Having them available to people is very important to us."
Dane Church is one such missionary who gained a stronger testimony of Joseph Smith after listening to the lectures as he served in Santiago, Chile, in 2003.
In an interview with Wilcox, his mission president, Church said he wanted a better understanding of who Joseph Smith was. Wilcox handed him his copy of Madsen's Joseph Smith lectures on CD. When Church returned the CDs, he was a different man.
"I went back and said I’m convinced. This man is a prophet. I was very struck by it. I had a conviction that I’d never had before. I made the comment, something to the effect of if Brother Madsen were here now I’d kiss his face," Church said. "I don’t know what I would do to tell him how much I appreciate what he had done. It’s changed my life. That’s how grateful I was."
Wilcox suggested Church write to Madsen, and he would make sure he received the letter. Church poured out his heart and soul on paper, and in less than a month, was surprised to receive a reply. Church described Madsen's letter as "congratulatory," with a reminder that the Holy Ghost is the true and ultimate teacher, Church said.
"I never met him, but he was essentially a spiritual mentor for me," said Church, now attending the School of Medicine at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
40 Years Later
One question people may ask today is how well has Truman Madsen's depiction and profile of Joseph Smith held up? What would need to be changed in light of the Joseph Smith Papers?
Welch believes if Madsen were still around, he would certainly be keeping up with the newest material.
"I think that Truman’s intimate understanding of a lot of Joseph as a whole, a complete human being, gives his work its staying power even today," Welch said. "Truman is good in print, great on tape, and unforgettable in person. For 40 years he has inspired, blessed and changed people forever."
At a time when some young people are questioning everything, it would be great for this new generation of listeners to hear these Joseph Smith lectures, Ann Madsen said.
A tribute to 40 years of Madsen's Joseph Smith lecture series will be part of the annual Wheatley Institution Truman G. Madsen Lecture on Eternal Man on Oct. 4.