Salt Lake Tribune 06/26/1999, Page: C1

The Lifelong Struggle Of a Mormon Skeptic

Brigham Madsen never found faith,
but skepticism helped him hold
history up to harsh light of inquiry


Rising to give his missionary farewell speech in 1934, a young Brigham D. Madsen stunned his Mormon friends and neighbors by politely but firmly refusing to bear his testimony.

"I'm not going to stand up here and tell you people that I believe the gospel is true and that Joseph Smith was a prophet, because I just don't know that," the gangly 6-foot-4 teen-ager declared. "I want to be honest with you," he quickly added. "Maybe I'll get this testimony sometime, but right now I don't have it."

He never would.

More than half a century later, Madsen--who would become a renowned teacher and writer of Western history--sees the incident as a spiritual and career milestone.

Eventually his doubts, informed by study, would grow into conviction that the Book of Mormon--while useful for its moral lessons--was a fictional rather than divinely inspired work.

"Losing faith is a traumatic experience. You feel as if your ego has been hurt, that you've been taken in," the 84-year-old University of Utah emeritus history professor now recalls.

Crisis of faith or not, the young missionary Madsen did Pocatello, Idaho's tiny Fourth Ward proud. He threw himself into the work, baptizing 14 converts and building two chapels for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during his mission to Tennessee and North Carolina.

Still, the two years of church service proved to be only a respite from what would be a decades-long odyssey to his eventual agnosticism. Even during his time wandering the Cumberland Mountains and Atlantic shores, there were incidents that fueled his skepticism.

One involved a member who asked to be ordained an elder in order to qualify him and his wife for their lifelong goal of being sealed for eternity in the Salt Lake Temple. It had taken years, but the farmer had finally saved enough money to make the trip.

Madsen pushed for the ordination, but was rebuffed first by local and then higher LDS officials: The man had a grandparent of African-American ancestry, disqualifying him at the time for the Mormon priesthood.

While the church would remove the ban in 1978, at the time there was nothing Madsen could do.

"I had the onerous task of having to tell him he couldn't go to the temple," Madsen said, admitting he himself "became quite bitter about this injustice."

Eventually, he would sacrifice his faith on a personal altar of truth. However, Madsen's skepticism also fired his determination to hold history up the same harsh light of inquiry.

Today, 15 books bear his name, among them controversial tomes that both exposed the little-known 1863 slaughter of 250-400 Shoshoni Indians at Bear River, Idaho, and debunked a long-accepted account of an 1861 emigrant massacre by Indians at Almo, Idaho.

In 1985, the same year he published his breakthrough The Shoshoni Frontier and the Bear River Massacre, Madsen drew a firestorm of criticism from LDS Church defenders for his editing of B.H. Roberts: Studies of the Book of Mormon.

Roberts, a lifelong defender of the church, had made archaeological studies of Central and South America in his later years. According to Madsen, Roberts wavered in his faith when he failed to find convincing evidence of the Book of Mormon's account of ancient civilizations visited by Christ.

Some Mormon scholars refuted that conclusion, hypothesizing that Roberts merely was playing the role of "devil's advocate" in writings shortly before his 1933 death.

While the book created a stir in LDS circles, Madsen had made no secret of his own disbelief. Nonetheless, Madsen said he and his wife, Betty--who shared her husband's doubts--had compromised, choosing to adopt a studied "cultural Mormonism."

They continued to participate in various ward activities, making sure they packed their four children off to Mormon Sunday School classes.

"We still admired the values taught in the church," Madsen explained. "Betty and I continued to go to church up until the children were grown. Then we stopped."

That was more than 25 years ago. Yet despite his reputation for critical research, Madsen says he has never been threatened with the excommunication visited upon other Mormon intellectuals who questioned church teachings.

That he continues to be on church membership rolls, despite his inactivity and views, is a mystery to Madsen. But he has a theory.

"If I were in [church leaders'] shoes, I would say, `This man is 84 years of age, he's going to die soon. Why should we worry about it?' " Madsen quipped.

Indeed, the octogenarian has been keenly aware of his own mortality of late. Betty, his wife of 58 years, died in 1997, leaving him alone in his St. Joseph's Villa retirement apartment. Madsen expects that someday soon, years of heart disease and his advanced age will finally conspire.

At a time of life when some rediscover faith, Madsen insists he remains at peace with his lack of it. Still, he wouldn't be disappointed to be wrong.

"Atheists are as wrong as those Mormons and Christians who say they know beyond the shadow of a doubt that the gospel is true," he said. "I'm pretty sure there's not a God, but I can't be absolutely certain."

In his autobiography published last year, Against the Grain: Memoirs of a Western Historian, Madsen used an anecdote to explain why his is "not a militant agnosticism."

In the early 1980s, while teaching at the U., Madsen and the late Sterling McMurrin, a friend and fellow historian and nonbeliever, found themselves taking a lunchtime walk on a beautiful spring day.

"The sky was blue, the grass a vivid emerald. A border of scarlet tulips and bright daffodils flamed" alongside a building as they ambled past.

"All at once Sterling stopped, looked up at the sky, and asked in a tone of genuine inquiry, `Brig, what if we're wrong?'

"He spoke for me. My reservations about my disbelief may be small, but I have them."

Still, Madsen suspects whatever measure of immortality he may have depends on the shelf-life of his books, and institutional and individual memories of his career and contributions.

Pointing to a framed 1977 Distinguished Teacher Award from the U., prominently displayed on his office wall, Madsen--who added briefer stints at Brigham Young University and Utah State University to his 19 years at Utah--says he would first want to be remembered as an educator.

Next on his list would be love of country, as evidenced by his World War II Army stint and service as a training director for the Peace Corps in Washington, D.C., 1964-65.

Madsen puts his writing third, taking particular pride in his explorations of regional American Indian history. Second only to his teaching award is one given him by Fort Hall's Shoshone-Bannock tribes, recognizing his 10 years as the southeastern Idaho reservation's official historian.

It's too soon to write any eulogies, however. Madsen continues write history, scrawling his words longhand on legal pads for typists to interpret.

His most recent project, fittingly, was revisiting the legacy of Roberts. Madsen wrote a foreword for Signature Books' upcoming The Essential B.H. Roberts, a collection of essays to be published in October.

"I rather enjoyed doing it," Madsen said. "I've come to be, well, not an expert on B.H. Roberts, but I guess I know a little bit about him."

As a fellow chronicler, Madsen said he has always admired Roberts' straightforward honesty, a quality he has tried to mirror.

"Maybe he would like me a little bit," Madsen chuckled. "I don't know, but I certainly liked him."