book review: Joseph Smith the Prophet, by Truman Madsen

I thoroughly enjoyed this book aimed at the believer.  My thoughts below, followed by notes on a number of portions of the book that struck me particularly.

a loving witness to the Prophet Joseph Smith

Truman Madsen here draws on a deep well of primary (and other) sources to bring the reader to know the prophet Joseph. Madsen writes, “If my elementary shifting of documents and sharing of impressions moves others to look not simply at Joseph Smith but through him to the Master – and, with those efforts, to take a searching look at themselves – my efforts will have been more than worthwhile” (p5).

This book is the written adaptation of Madsen’s famous Joseph Smith tapes, recorded from a series of lectures at BYU’s Education Week. I heard these tapes when I was a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in 1994 or 1995 and was deeply inspired. A few years ago, I borrowed a copy of the tapes from my brother and had a very different reaction: I found Madsen’s wildly dramatic delivery of the lectures distracting and annoying. But the stories were still powerful, so I obtained a copy of the book. I’m very glad that I did.

The book could be subtitled, “Marvelous and powerful stories you don’t know about the prophet Joseph Smith and his friends,” for ultimately – beyond the structure Madsen places on them – that is what the book entails. Much of the deliciousness appears in the footnotes, where Madsen gives his sources (again, most of them primary) and tells stories that don’t fit in the lectures.

The book starts from the assumption that Joseph Smith is a prophet and a good man. For a more historical and thorough treatment of Joseph Smith (also by a member of the Church), try Bushman’s Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling.

I found it very inspiring. It indeed led me to look beyond Joseph and the other early members to the Savior: their love for Him and for His work inspires me to seek to do and to be better.

Notes on my favorite parts below

“Wilford Woodruff is the man who wrote in a journal almost every day for sixty-three years, thereby producing perhaps the most important single historical treasure we have in the Church. … By my estimate, more than two-thirds of what we have of firsthand records of Joseph Smith’s discourses and counsels to his brethren would have been lost had it not been for Wilford Woodruff’s makeshift shorthand and then staying awake, often till past midnight, transcribing his notes into readable English” (p99).


“Heber C. Kimball…was perhaps the second most prophetic man in LDS history” (38).  Makes me want to read Whitney’s Life of Heber C. Kimball


My memory of this story is the reason I requested the book: “A woman…felt she had been maligned unjustly by gossip. … She wanted the prophet to go to the person who was the source of the story and properly take care of it.  He enquired of her in some detail and then counseled her in terms something like this: ‘Sister, when I have heard of a story about me…, I sit down and think about it and pray about it, and I ask myself the question, ‘Did I say something or was there something about my manner to give some basis for that story to start?’ And, Sister, often if I think about it long enough I realize I have done something to give that basis.  And there wells up in me a forgiveness of the person who has told that story, and a resolve that I will never do that thing again” (p94, cited source available is Andrus & Andrus, They Knew The Prophet, 1974, p144).


This struck me as funny although I imagine it’s a serious matter: “Joseph repeatedly rebuked Martin Harris for trying to apply Old Testament prophecies to him (Joseph) that did not apply” (173).  Just the idea of Martin constantly trying to identify Joseph in the Old Testament and Joseph batting him off tickled me.


Earliest indicator I’ve seen that we are the Savior’s siblings: “‘Are you the Savior?’ he was once asked. ‘No,’ he replied, ‘but I can tell you what I am – I am his brother.’” (173)


“Brigham Young, who went without bread and much else in order to hear the Prophet speak on any subject at any time, even if he was only expressing opinions…” (107)


“Of the Holy Ghost he said elsewhere: ‘If you will listen to the first promptings you will get it right nine times out of ten.’  He is talking here of the impressions – elsewhere he speaks of flashes – that come from the Spirit.” (103: source of quote is Diary of Charles L. Walker – in the Church Archives, p902)


“One of the Prophet’s gifts was that eh was a powerful listener. … There are listeners who are weak as water, not listening at all, not hearing, not interpreting from the center itself.  Joseph listened powerfully.” (95)


I have long been interested in moments when people far distant have felt each others’ afflictions and – at times – prayed for the release of their loved ones.  I saw two examples in this book.  When those of Zion’s Camp fell ill with cholera, “in spite of his prophecy, Joseph yearned to heal them.  He and Hyrum tried, but they no sooner laid their hands on the sufferers than they themselves were smitten with cholera.  They felt its ravages, fell down prostrate together, and prayed for deliverance.  Even at this moment, Mother Smith was praying for them.  In prayer they asked for a testimony that the Lord would relieve them and that healing would come.  Within minutes they arose free of the disease which, in other cases, was fatal.” (46 – source is History of Joseph Smith – probably Lucy Mack Smith’s book, 1958 Bookcraft edition, p227-29).  Another case is when the prophet was martyred: “Many of the brethren absent on missions felt forebodings that day, even at the hour of the martyrdom” (124).


The Lord speaks our language.  Joseph Smith taught, “If He comes to a little child, he will adapt himself to the language and capacity of a little child” (89: source is Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p162; Words of Joseph Smith – edited by Ehat & Cook, p12). See also D&C 1:24.  This reminds of a story early in Brigham Young: American Moses in which Brigham’s brother has a vision in which the Savior drives up in a horse and buggy.

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