James Edward Talmage. Superman.

[Cross-posted at Boap’s blog.]

James E. Talmage, a name that lives in legend among LDS missionaries for the last 60 years, was British born and converted to Mormonism in 1873. Talmage was a talented scholar from childhood. After emigrating to the US he ended up finishing four years at Lehigh in one year and went on to Johns Hopkins in 1883. Ph.D. at Illinois Weslayan even though he wasn’t in residence. At home in Provo, he was a city councilman and then judge. (Some of his court cases are a crackup.)

During the period of his return to Utah through 1911 when he became an apostle, Talmage developed extensive consultation work with his own lab for (and against) mining and industrial interests in Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Oregon and elsewhere. By 1900, most weeks he was either testifying in court cases (often hired by one side, he would essentially testify for the other if he found wrongdoing) or taking train trips (his journal unfailingly lists them as hours behind schedule – arriving or leaving at ungodly hours intentionally or not). Wherever he went he was constantly speaking at planned or ad hoc church gatherings.

Talmage gave a talk in DC. Smoot wouldn’t come.

A member of the Deseret Sunday School Union board, he always called ahead to whatever place he was landing to schedule time with Sunday School staff, even if there were one or two staff members. Every Sunday, whether at home in Salt Lake City or on some job, he usually spoke at least twice and often three or four times. He gave these talks funny names that made it difficult to guess the contents, like “failure and success.” When home, every morning he was at the Salt Lake temple for a prayer meeting or fast Sunday service. Guess who spoke. As often as not, he followed up with an address in the tabernacle in the afternoon and/or a talk in a ward later.[1] When on the road he was sleeping in an array of hotels whose names make a wonderful litany of hostelry in the west one hundred years ago.

In January 1905 he was subpoenaed by the US Senate to appear in the Smoot hearings. Traveling to DC via Chicago he gave testimony (everyone seemed to know that Talmage was a confidant and trusted friend of church president Joseph F. Smith) and gave some interesting (ok, unflattering – he wasn’t too flattering of Smoot himself, or at least his testimony) commentary on the proceedings.

Reed Smoot couldn’t tell the senate committee about the endowment because he couldn’t remember it.

On the return he was caught in a record blizzard that paralyzed New York and Philadelphia for a week. While stuck there he took advantage by meeting two old pals and former students, J. Reuben Clark Jr. and Fred Pack (titillation: Pack’s dad appears in the upcoming pre-conference series). Clark getting a JD and Pack getting a Ph.D. at Columbia. Hanging out with Pack and his friends, Talmage said he felt like it was intellectual heaven. Fred, by the way, was one of the first to equate Coke and Coffee for Mormons. Drat him.

Talmage kept up with professional society meetings. One incident in Oregon involved an attempt by the Utah delegation to move a professional society’s meetings to Utah. Ambushed by Colorado who hired a professional verbal hit-man (non-scientist) at the last minute to take the place of their “ill” advertised speaker, the meeting was subjected to a chronicle of Mormon sins and weirdness. It got the speaker exposed as a felon eventually, but too late to save the Utah vote. The meetings went to those rotten Coloradans. Typical. Talmage was livid and gave his own response at the meeting, referring to the guy as a cannibal and as coward. Didn’t help. The Utah support faded away, particularly when the local women’s group sent roses to the scoundrel in a public display the next day, writing, “thank you for speaking up for our homes and virtue” or something to that effect.

Joseph F. liked Talmage’s “New Mormon” image. Stick to the scriptures, boy.

Once when the family left him for the summer to vacation in southern California, his oldest got pneumonia. Talmage had been climbing up smokestacks several hundred feet high, taking measurements of gases and was about to ascend another when he got word. Scheduled for preliminary hearings in a few days, his data was vital for his testimony in a pollution case regarding a local industry giant (a lot of his cases involved ground water and air pollution – not just “where’s the gold?”). Talmage caught a midnight train to the family, getting off at each stop to telegraph his wife for updates. Then he took over as nurse from his exhausted wife, getting about an hour of sleep each night for a week or so. On Sundays, he took a break to speak or visit Sunday schools when they got wind he was down there. (Talmage’s other California experiences were pretty interesting — for example, his first exposure to Venice and being introduced at a speaking event by the local head of “the anti-polygamy crusade”).[2]

One day a week during 1904-1906 he taught a religion course in a series of lectures some of which became his book, Jesus the Christ. Then there were weekday university courses – he held a named chair in geology. And those train rides? Sometimes he slept, but often he worked, you know, like revising the Pearl of Great Price, or cataloging the passing geologic features or catching up on his heavy correspondence: “Dear Brother Talmage, Elder So and So says that in heaven there is no blah, blah, blah. He’s wrong isn’t he?” And then business and political hoo hah too. He once wrote: I have no leisure moments.

In short, the guy was a machine. Family man? Not precisely, though he and his wife (who he affectionately termed Maia — Merry May) were still producing babies up to 1911.

So what, you may ask, does this have to do with Joseph Smith and funeral sermons? Its buried in one of those typical days:

July 19. Arrive at Moapa, Nevada about 2am on train due here at 5.30 yesterday afternoon. Was met at station by Brother Levi Syphus of St. Thomas, at whose instance I have undertaken this journey. To take advantage of the cooler hours we set off at once. Drove to Overton, arriving about 6am. After breakfast we rode horseback to the hills on the east between Overton and St. Thomas, examining certain deposits of kaolin and magnesite, samples of which I have already analyzed. Excessive heat prevailed. Spent night at St. Thomas, at Bro. Syphus’s home, which is also that of his sister and her husband– Henry Gentry and wife. Temperature reported today–110F in the shade.

July 20: Drove to Bonnelli Copper Canyon, by way of Granite Springs valley. Camped about 9pm.

July 21: Field examination of the mining properties. Steep climbs, intense heat. In the evening drove back to Granite Springs and camped. Here as in fact all through this region, crested quail are seen in great flocks. Many desert plants, among which a yucca, mescal, the curious Joshua, cacti in great variety, etc.; and in the region of water there are mesquit “mescrew”, and “cat’s claw”.

July 22: Sunday; We have planned to resume journey at 3am by 2.30 we were astir, and soon discovered that one of the horses had left us. Brother Syphus showed his skill and resource in emergency. With lighted matches he soon found the tracks of deserter; following such down the valley he learned that the horse had started for home. Returning to camp he hitched up the remaining horse, then took the other’s place at the end of the wagon tongue to hold up the neck yoke, and ordered me to the driver’s seat to control the brake. The road was wholly a descending grade, and ply the brake as I would there were frequent warnings from the biped member of the team that they were running away. After a mile or more had thus been covered a whinny from the horse told of the nearness of his mate. The escaped animal was soon in harness. Reached St. Thomas shortly before ten o’clock. On Friday last I had enquired as to Sunday School arrangements here; and had learned that no school sessions were usually held during the hot weather. It was understood that the school would be convened today, and to be present in time I had made a forced journey back. On arriving this morning I was informed that no school could be held, as yesterday had been an unusually warm day and the melon picking was greater than had been expected. An afternoon meeting was suggested as a possibility; but this failed of realization for today’s melon business is as heavy as yesterday’s. An evening meeting was appointed, but the melon packing was not completed until after 10 o’clock, so no meetings were held. Early in the day I found that most of the children and many adults paid frequent though hasty visits to the well on the home lot of Brother Gentry where I am staying. This was a waterless well when dug; the excavation is over 30 feet deep; the walls have been plastered, and at intervals the muddy water from the irrigating streams is turned into the pit. A well frame with roap and bucket have been added, and the water as drawn is translucent, and perhaps a degree or so cooler than the ditch water. This is the only “Well” in the town, and hither the thirsty come to drink. I took my place under a spreading osage-orange tree shading the well, and thus captured the children as they came and talked to them and with them on Sunday and Sunday-school. During the evening three adults came for brief consultation; each of these was engaged in disputation on theological or church-administration affairs.

Out of this we find that one unknown forever isolated man with a question can change the course of church literature and doctrine in the twentieth century. To see how, well, you’d have to be me. Undoubtedly, I’ll let you in on it eventually. In the meantime, Talmage was an interesting guy.
[1] About 1905, the First Presidency took over Sunday tabernacle services from the Salt Lake Stake presidency. Talmage got even more face time then. In spite of all the adulation, Talmage was a fairly modest person. About the only things he bragged about were his children or when The Articles of Faith went into a 2nd printing. Little did he know.

[2] Maybe it was anti-polygamy league. Something like that. Talmage wrote a pretty extensive bit on polygamy for his The Articles of Faith. It got cut. Also, J. Stapley will be happy to know that Merry annointed and blessed the boy a day or two before Talmage arrived.


  1. J. Stapley says:

    You are dang right I am happy. Now, I’d be happier if you sent me a transcript, but I would settle for the entry date. And what a cliff hanger! Can’t wait for the rest of the story.

    I had read elsewhere that Talmage was sort of…driven…but wow.

  2. it's a series of tubes says:

    Also, Talmage’s name makes a great profanity substitute. Try it the next time you stub your toe, or hit your finger with a hammer. “Talmage!”

  3. Ben Johnson says:

    Really? You are going to leave me hanging like that? I’m so angry…Talmage!

  4. I always liked how Talgmage was the geology chair but the math building at BYU is named after him. The building where geology rides is named after Eyring, a chemist (even though chemistry isn’t in that building). :)

  5. it's a series of tubes says:

    Talmage it to Pack!

  6. John Mansfield says:

    My grandmother was born between Overton and St. Thomas in a town called Kaolin. Like St. Thomas, it was crowded out of existence by Lake Mead.

  7. I’ll have to look it up, J., I can’t recall, but sometime during 1905, 1906 is as close as I can come off the top of my head.

  8. WVS, I am assuming that the well figures prominently in part 2. And Superman, indeed! Good stuff.

  9. That’s cool, John. I found some photos of St. Thomas when the water was coming up to doorsteps. Kind of creepy. The guy who ran the post office stuck around until the water started into the door.

  10. kevinf, the well was just a funny bit I included because it made me laugh.

  11. I thought someone was going to die in the well.

  12. Joseph, that was Carl Eyring, a physicist. Not Henry the chemist. But yes, the math building after Talmage is odd. Orson Pratt is a much better choice. At this point it would be akin to renaming Mt. Timpanogos I imagine.

  13. I thought somebody was going to die *from* the well.

  14. I had no idea about all these details. I had heard his name all over the place, but never looked into him. I like that you found that connection; through small and ‘simple’ things huh?

  15. Left Field says:

    Back in my day, Chemistry was in the ESC.

  16. Fascinating. (Where can one find the deleted (polygamy) part of the Articles of Faith these days?)

  17. Hunter, the bulk of Talmage’s papers are in the Perry Special Collections Library at BYU. And it could have been Jesus the Christ, but I have this image in my head of Articles. He goes through a rather interesting argument on the subject.

  18. Central Standard says:


    Could you provide a link to an article / paper that discusses the Smoot Hearings and Talmages’ differences w/ the Honorable Senator from Utah?


  19. Central Standard, no link that I know of. Diary from January 1905 is where you’ll find his thoughts.

  20. come on, that’s a really mean way to end. What a cliffhanger! So are you going to do a follow up post(s)?
    James Talmage is seriously one of my ultimate heroes. I’ve just started re-reading Jesus the Christ, so your post came along at an ideal time for me. I don’t think a lot of people realise what an extraordinary impact Talmage has had on our theology. Pretty much the whole concept of the Godhead we have today can be traced to this man’s brain. Granted, he based his concept on his interpretations of the scriptures and the teachings of the Prophets, but it was his writings that finally put an end to the debates and squabbles over Adam, God, Jesus, Jehovah, Eloheim, the Holy Ghost, Michael and the relationship between them all. It was essentially the theological model that he developed that was outlined in the First Presidency’s The Father and the Son doctrinal exposition. He adapted the Augustinian concept of a God who can comprehensively foresee the future with certainty without compromising our free will for a Mormon audience, and his compatibilist and somewhat deterministic understanding of agency remains alive and well in modern Mormonism.
    I’m sure you know all this already, I just felt the need to sing the guy’s praises a little. he was indeed a true superman.
    Awesome post for an awesome man. Thanks so much for this.

  21. I guess I can be at least a little proud of my high school nickname, even if it seemed kind of strange at the time. Ironically, having my seminary teacher teasingly call me Talmadge, kept me from doing much more than read his books.

    When I originally asked why the nicknames he said because I never slept, always knew the answers in class and won debate tournaments. I always took it as an insult, and certainly my peers teased me as if it was. Now I want to know more. It might have been more of a badge of honor than I thought.

  22. Tmb, Talmage was the force of post-polygamy theology.

  23. Julia, no insult there.

  24. WVS-
    As a teenager it was, but 20 years later, lots of things look different. :-) It actually fits way better now than it did then. Although I don’t do too much with science or advanced math these days.

    Did he publish non-theological work?

  25. Julia, coming from someone I assume was a traditional, orthodox Mormon, I think it was meant as a high compliment. The kids probably teased you about it because they were immature kids.

    Fascinating post.

    Elder Talmage and Bro. Nibley were the inspirations of my youth – members who showed me it was OK to think deeply about topics and reach my own conclusions (especially when I saw how some of their conclusions differed). Reading “Jesus, the Christ” shaped my theological life in an important way – not necessarily by giving me an exact ideology but by giving me an example of someone who obviously had thought deeply about things and wrote about them in an incredibly scholarly way. I had to think hard as I read for the first time in my life, and my religious studies were changed fundamentally as a result.

  26. Hunter, friend Google points out to me this:

    J. Stapley may find this of interest as another source on rebaptism practice:

    Both from The Essential James E. Talmage.

  27. Ray, I think the impact you felt was shared by many. His reasoned normative Mormonism is in many ways a textual foundation for our present public face. Though it’s his life that inspires me most I suppose.

  28. J. Stapley says:

    I am very interested. Thanks, WVS. I’m disappointing that I had been unaware of that entry. It is very complementary to AH Cannon’s journal entry describing those meetings and it appears from Talmage’s account that he was the source of the decision, which was then ratified…interesting.

  29. Mr. Modern.

  30. In a Gospel Doctrine Class taught by Hugh Nibley around 1989, Hugh said: “Talmage had a lot of vanity, teaching 44 courses at BYU at age 17. Shows what he thought he knew, that busy little Welshman.” Plus he made “changes in the Book of Mormon that weren’t improvements at all.”
    That’s the extent of my notes from that class.

  31. I almost forgot. Something I found really interesting while reading the opening chapters of Jesus the Christ – specifically “The need for a Redeemer” was that Talmage seems to embrace Origen’s Ransom Theory of Atonement. The Ransom Theory (or Ransom Model) is the idea that the way the Atonement works is that because we sin, the Devil has a claim over us. In that sense, physical death comes about because we sin, and as we all sin, we are all subject to Satan’s dominion and he is able to inflict physical death upon every single one of us…except Jesus. Because Jesus never sinned, He did not have to experience physical death, as Satan had no claim on him. So, basically, He did a deal with Satan, whereby Satan delivered over His captives (ie. the rest of humanity), thus freeing us from his control over us and our permanent physical death, in exchange for Jesus. In other words, Jesus takes our place as Satan’s captive. However, now in this position where we are freed from Satan’s power and grasp, and Jesus is under Satan’s dominion, He uses His almighty power as a God to overthrow Satan and vanquish the Devil, sin and physical death. If any of you are familiar with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C S Lewis it’s basically the Atonement model that Lewis uses allegorically in that book.
    I just thought that was pretty interesting, and it came as one more surprise for me. I’ve never really come across a prominent Mormon theologian, General Authority or Doctrinarian who described the Atonement in such a Ransom-model style before, although of course it is one of the most prominent models in traditional Christianity. Just one more evidence of Talmage’s incredible stature as a robust theologian and his incredible impact on Mormon theology. I wonder if there would be so much Ransom-esque language and vocabulary in our hymns if it weren’t for the influence of James Talmage.

  32. Here is a link to the hearings that Talmage testified at in regards to Reed Smoot. http://books.google.com/books?id=b0Tu76jv7jQC&printsec=frontcover&dq=reed+smoot+hearing&source=bl&ots=ZiZuZyCKeT&sig=LGhkzhf0YhiMqTG-lvi8Hg_DXvo&hl=en&sa=X&ei=92JPUJXhO4SWiQKsnYGQCA&ved=0CD0Q6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=reed%20smoot%20hearing&f=false

    It was interesting reading at times, completely boring at others. You do get a bit of a taste of Talmage.

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