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Early Influences of the Prophets—Their Dads

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In the midst of conducting an interview with Russell M. Nelson for their recently published book Fathers of the Prophets: From Joseph Smith Jr. to Russell M. Nelson, authors Emily Madsen Jones and Rebecca Madsen Thornton were surprised to find that the tables had suddenly been turned. 

Rather than learning more about the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his relationship with his father, the two sisters were presented with something Nelson had written about their grandfather, longtime USU economics history professor and renowned church historian Leonard Arrington.

Nelson was a trailblazing cardiologist prior to being called as an apostle at General Conference in April 1984, and in his office in Salt Lake City, he still maintains a large collection of leatherbound books which contain a record of all of the procedures he performed during his 30-plus-year career as a surgeon.

And near the end of the last book on Nelson’s shelf are his recollections of the heart bypass surgery he completed on Arrington in the spring of ’84, a record that he shared with Jones and Thornton. According to Thornton, Nelson had tried to encourage Arrington to have the operation for quite some time, but he resisted until the announcement that Nelson had been appointed to a lifetime position in the Quorum of the Twelve, a full-time calling which would quickly lead to his retirement from medical practice.

two blonde sisters smile into the camera, framed by green bushes and sunlight

Sisters and USU graduates Rebecca Thornton, left, and Emily Jones co-authored Fathers of the Prophets along with their mother, Susan Arrington Madsen.

“When my grandfather heard President Nelson’s name over the pulpit as a new apostle, he called the doctor’s office the next day, and he said, ‘I need that surgery,’ because he knew (Nelson) was going to be done practicing and he didn’t want anyone else to do it,” Thornton recalls. “So, the church actually sent photographers in and took photos of (Nelson) during the surgery, which gave my grandfather many more years of life.”

Arrington, who taught at Utah State from 1946 to ’72, passed away in 1999, but his legacy has certainly lived on at Utah State in many ways, including the university’s annual Leonard J. Arrington Mormon History Lecture and the Arrington Chair of Mormon Studies. His passion for history has also carried over in the writing of his daughter, Susan Arrington Madsen, and two of his granddaughters, Jones and Thornton – all three of whom graduated from Utah State University.

Madsen completed a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1975, while Jones graduated with a communicative disorders degree in 1998, and Thornton finished a degree in early childhood and elementary education in 2002.

About two years ago, the trio were commissioned by Deseret Book to write Fathers of the Prophets, a 304-page book that contains stories, pictures, and information about the life and influence of the fathers of each of the 17 Presidents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Designed as a follow-up to Mothers of the Prophets, which was originally written by Arrington and Madsen in 1987 and updated by Madsen and Jones in 2009, Fathers of the Prophets was initially set to go to press in January 2018, but former church president Thomas S. Monson passed away on Jan. 2. In an effort to add a chapter on Nelson and also put out a another book written by the church’s new prophet, Deseret Book postponed the release of Fathers of the Prophets until May 2020.

Future president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Russell M. Nelson poses for a 1941 Father’s Day newspaper photo with his father, Marion, and siblings, Marjory, Enid and Robert.

“In what has been fascinating to study, we found that each of these men espouse a wide variety of interests, personalities, opinions, circumstances, challenges, strengths, and parenting styles,” Thornton says. “From the heart-rending to the humorous, no two were exactly alike and yet each had a profound impact on their son and his ministry.”

But the delays in publishing for Fathers of the Prophets ended up providing an opportunity for Jones and Thornton to interview Nelson in person about his father, Marion, something they weren’t able to do with any of the other presidents of the church.

Marion Nelson wasn’t an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for the majority of his life, but he did place a great importance on family and worked hard to provide his children with a good education. Eventually, at the age of 80, Marion Nelson was ordained an elder in the church by his son, and shortly thereafter the Nelson family was sealed together in a temple.

“You see that throughout the book in these different lives,” Thornton says. “I think sometimes we think we need this perfect set of circumstances to be able to have the comforts and joys that we want, but in these stores, you see the struggles. You see that having to come together as families really built a lot of character in these sons, and down the road it would help them offer the kind of service and leadership the church needed at a particular time.”

Fathers of the Prophets is the 10th book written by Madsen, who is probably best known for I Walked to Zion: True Stories of Young Pioneers on the Mormon Trail, which was published in 1994. But unlike her previous books, Madsen was without the aid of her longtime first-read editor – her husband, Dean.

A well-known music teacher and department head at Utah State University, Dean Madsen also conducted the Aggie Marching Band and the USU Symphony Orchestra during his 37 years at USU. But before diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, Dean was also the first person to read Susan’s manuscripts.

A family of 8 is photographed in 1987, none smiling in the way that would become common later.

Andrew and Olive Kimball pose for a photograph with her children in 1897. Two-year-old Spencer W. Kimball, who would go onto to lead the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1973 to ’85, is sitting on his father’s lap.

And when he passed away in November 2019, it added another level of significance to the book his wife and two of his four daughters were writing together.

“I’m grateful that we got to work on it during that time,” Thornton said of her father’s final days. “I think it helped bring out the heart of real life, the struggle for joy and the gratitude for the very simple things. And you do see that as a common thing that happens in these prophet-sons in their lives is that there is a return to the love of simple things.”

In the process of writing Fathers of the Prophets, Madsen and her daughters divvied up the chapters, with some of the chapters being obvious selections.

“I did Mothers of the Prophets and now Fathers, so I know the families of the prophets pretty well,” Madsen says with a chuckle. “That definitely helped. And, of course, I did Brigham Young’s father because my father wrote the definitive biography of Brigham Young, American Moses, and I had heard stories about him since I was a kid.”

But after the trio’s writing was compiled together, their publisher felt that the book needed one voice rather than three. So, it was decided that Jones would take on the challenge of editing the entire manuscript, and then re-write portions of it to provide the book with a consistent style.

a row of 6 brothers wearing suits are lined up from youngest to oldest stand alongside their father

The eldest of 11 children, Ezra Taft Benson (second from right) is joined by his father, George, and six of his brothers for a photograph. Benson embarked on his academic career at Utah State Agricultural College (now USU) in 1919.

“Emily did a great job,” Madsen says. “She worked it from front to back, so it was like the same person. And I think the preface that she wrote is one of the finest prefaces I’ve ever read for a church book. She did a beautiful job.”

At the end of the preface for Fathers of the Prophets, Emily Jones wrote a paragraph that seems to reference not only the fathers of the presidents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but also the beloved fathers of the writers – Leonard Arrington and Dean Madsen.

“It is our great hope that this long-overdue collection of their stories will stand in tribute to the magnificent role of fatherhood. For, in many ways, these remarkable men are a microcosm of faithful fathers the world over who, notwithstanding imperfections and human frailty, seek to mirror the Father in their indispensable role in the great plan of happiness.”   

By Jeff Hunter ’96

Fathers of the Prophets: From Joseph Smith Jr. to Russell M. Nelson is available in hardcover and audiobook formats from Deseret Book booksellers.

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