Book review: “The Talmage Story” by John R. Talmage

Elder James E. Talmage has been on my radar for a while as a Church leader I would like to get to know better since I first read Jesus the Christ shortly before leaving on my mission. It wasn’t just his beautiful prose that got me though. His understanding and explication of the gospel, though written over a hundred years ago, hadn’t gone stale and dry with time– unlike many conference talks today that often have a short shelf life. I liked this explanation of Christ’s statement “be ye therefore perfect” hidden away in a footnote that helped me tackle a toxic perfectionism I struggled with for a long time:

Our Lord’s admonition to men to become perfect, even as the Father is perfect (Matt. 5:48) cannot rationally be construed otherwise than as implying the possibility of such achievement. Plainly, however, man cannot become perfect in mortality in the sense in which God is perfect as a supremely glorified Being. It is possible, though, for man to be perfect in his sphere in a sense analogous to that in which superior intelligences are perfect in their several spheres; yet the relative perfection of the lower is infinitely inferior to that of the higher. A college student in his freshman or sophomore year may be perfect as freshman or sophomore; his record may possibly be a hundred per cent on the scale of efficiency and achievement; yet the honors of the upper classman are beyond him, and the attainment of graduation is to him remote, but of assured possibility, if he do but continue faithful and devoted to the end.

Later, I learned about Talmage’s background as a scientist, along with John A. Widtsoe, and as a scientist myself, it was inspiring to find someone firmly dedicated to their faith alongside rigorous scientific endeavors. If we expand scientist beyond someone with a PhD in the physical sciences, I have been “collecting”, so to speak, LDS intellectuals who were able to reconcile their beliefs with their knowledge: Henry Eyring, B H Roberts, Karl Maeser, and Lowell Bennion. Inspiring individuals.

My interest in Talmage was recently rekindled when there was a small anecdote of his in a talk a few conferences ago by Elder Gay, Taking Upon Ourselves the Name of Christ:

As a young professor, before he became an Apostle, in the height of the deadly diphtheria epidemic of 1892, Elder Talmage discovered a family of strangers, not members of the Church, who lived near him and who were stricken by the disease. No one wanted to put themselves at risk by going inside the infected home. Elder Talmage, however, immediately proceeded to the home. He found four children: a two-and-a-half-year-old dead on the bed, a five-year-old and ten-year-old in great pain, and a weakened thirteen-year-old. The parents were suffering with grief and fatigue.

Elder Talmage dressed the dead and the living, swept the rooms, carried out the soiled clothing, and burned filthy rags covered with the disease. He worked all day and then returned the next morning. The ten-year-old died during the night. He lifted and held the five-year-old. She coughed bloody mucus all over his face and clothes. He wrote, “I could not put her from me,” and he held her until she died in his arms. He helped bury all three children and arranged for food and clean clothing for the grieving family. Upon returning home, Brother Talmage disposed of his clothes, bathed in a zinc solution, quarantined himself from his family, and suffered through a mild attack of the disease.

It was a moving story, but not one I had recalled every hearing before. The selflessness, the Christlike love shown by this man for someone he didn’t even know. And it broke the almost tribal tendencies of Latter-Day Saints of taking care of our own with little thought to those outside of our faith (the common excuse given to missionaries by members, for instance, that “all my friends are members!”). If you check the footnotes of Elder Gay’s talk, the story is found in The Talmage Story written by James Talmage’s son, John Talmage. It’s still in print, and I was glad to read it. I wasn’t sure what to expect: John Talmage wrote the book after combing through Elder Talmage’s meticulous journals throughout his life, so he definitely has done his research. But I’ve seen some of the family history work done in my family, and while well meaning and informative, it isn’t the best writing. John Talmage does justice to his subject, and it was a treat to read.

The book is able to capture the character of Talmage from a very young age, and show moments that shaped the character of a man. For instance, one that John probably correctly identifies as an incident that shaped his entire life trajectory was when James accidentally blinded his younger brother Albert when he was only eleven. James recounts the story when he was 15 years old:

On October 10, 1873, while working after nightfall-a very dark night-a fearful accident occurred. My brother Albert, then about six years of age, came quietly towards me as I was still working with a digging fork in my hands; he gave no notice of his approach and until he screamed I had not an idea he was near me; then to my horror I discovered that while in the act of pitching with the fork I had struck him with the tool, one grain piercing the ball of his left eye. This organ was finally entirely removed, though not before the right eye had become sympathetically affected and he was almost absolutely blind, being only enabled to distinguish very bright colors, and then only when within a few inches of the eye. … True, “evils must come, but woe unto them by whom they come.” I need say nothing in regard to my feelings and reflections at this mishap; but that my relief lies in the promise pronounced on him by the priesthood of God that he shall recover.

I wouldn’t say it left him guilt-ridden his entire life, but it probably left him more sober about how his actions can impact the lives of those around him.

James Talmage’s life straddles the 19th and 20th centuries, spanning 2nd generation pioneer Utah to the Great Depression. Things were changing, and Talmage was one of the characters who were making changes for the better. Back in the day, there weren’t a lot of trained doctors, so Talmage who considered himself a chemist, but had an interest in medicine too, sometimes found himself tending the sick and wounded. As a young man (already making a tour of the Church school system and he wasn’t even 20!) he extracted a bullet from a young boy who had accidentally shot himself. After studying at universities back east, Lehigh and Johns Hopkins, he, like a bee bringing honey back to the hive (his favorite metaphor) brought expertise back to a growing territory in Utah. He ended up serving as the president of the University of Utah saving it during difficult financial times and a professor of geology. Here’s a few tidbits I found entertaining along the way:

  • Though a scientist, Talmage always hated math (For some reason, I have always been inclined to shirk all mathematical studies which do not admit of direct application. It is a humiliating confession to make, yet my mind is so trained as to abhor all but the concrete.)
  • Back in the day, Elder Talmage was able to pay off his home in less than a year. Those must have been the times! No 30-year mortgages. And his home on 7th E and 9th sound was considered “the country” or at least the suburbs. Wow!
  • James Talmage would pull out his microscope for family home evenings showing off all his specimens to his kids. Respect.
  • Elder Talmage rode a bike to work back in the day when bikes were new! And he took it very seriously. Read this funny excerpt though when he had a terrible mishap:

May nearly went into shock, for her husband was a frightening sight. Battered, bruised, and bleeding profusely, clothes torn m a dozen places and covered with dust and mud, James looked as though he had been caught in a riot, or at least a fight of unusual violence. Neither, it developed, had been the case.

Half a block from the Talmage home a single-plank footbridge crossed the ditch of running water that separated the street from the footpath. Until now, James had dismounted when he reached this point in a homeward journey, and crossed the narrow bridge on foot. Today, he had decided that he had reached the point in his development as a cyclist where he should no longer resort to this prudent maneuver, but rather ride over the bridge in the manner of an accomplished veteran of the two-wheeler.

Having so decided, James approached the bridge resolutely, confident that he would negotiate the tricky passage in a manner to be proud of and to impress neighbors, if any should chance to be watching, with his skill and casual daring. He turned sharply from the road toward the bridge with scarcely any diminution of speed. The result was spectacular and observers, if any there were, must indeed have been impressed, but in a very different way from that intended. The professor’s bicycle went onto the plank at an oblique angle and quickly slid off the side, throwing its rider heavily into the ditchbank.

Dazed, bruised, bleeding, and humiliated, Dr. Talmage was not convinced that the difficult maneuver was beyond his skill. Rather, he was stubbornly determined to prove that he could and would master the difficulty.

For the next hour, the president of the University of Utah might have been observed trundling his bicycle fifty yards or so down the road from the bridge, mounting and riding furiously toward the plank crossing, turning onto it with grimlipped determination-and plunging off it in a spectacular and bone-shaking crash into the rough ditchbank. Uncounted times this startling performance was repeated, but in the end mind triumphed over matter, will power over faltering reflexes, and the crossing was successfully made. Not just once, but enough times in succession to convince James that he was capable of performing the feat without mishap at any time he might desire to do so. From then on, he never again dismounted to cross the bridge, albeit he never made the crossing without experiencing deep-seated qualms which he kept carefully concealed from any who might be watching.

I do have one small quibble with the book, but perhaps I’m expecting too much from a family biography. I recently read another book The Mormon Jesus by historian John G. Turner. In it, he mentions Talmage several times because Talmage was a central figure in the theology surrounding the figure of Christ in LDS doctrine in his writing of Jesus the Christ. Turner attributes to him several threads in Mormon thought including:

  • Talmage solidified the identification of the pre-mortal Messiah with the Jehovah of the Old Testament. Before that time, the identification of Jehovah as Christ wasn’t a given.
  • Optimism about the next life suggesting the possibility of advancing between kingdoms after this life (what Bruce R. McConkie would later call one of Mormonism’s seven deadly heresies): “in accordance with God’s plan of eternal progression, advancement from grade to grade within any kingdom, and from kingdom to kingdom, will be provided for.” Higher-ranking leaders urged Talmage to express this idea more cautiously; some later Mormon leaders would reject it entirely. More often, church leaders have taught that whichever kingdom individuals attain at the time of the resurrection will be their eternal station.
  • The quiet rejection of Brigham Young’s Adam-God theory that slowly left Mormon consciousness.
  • The magnification of Gethsemane in the Mormon conception of the Atonement.

What John Talmage’s biography lacks is some of this level of analysis of his father’s life. And perhaps that’s not what a biography is for. After all The Mormon Jesus is written by a historian to trace the development of Mormon thought on Christ. He can go into depth into Talmage’s contributions there. But a biography of a man whose life spanned so many areas– it would be hard for a single person to be able to explain the significance in theology, in practice, in academia. What John does add that perhaps a more scholarly work would miss are the small personal touches. For instance, the little gifts he would give his kids while he was busy writing Jesus the Christ at the temple:

They both vividly remember some lighter and more physical incidents, such as Father’s reaching into his pocket and producing handfuls of inch-long pencil stubs-he had employed a patent holder to permit him near-maximum use of each pencil-which provided fascinating playthings for months thereafter.

An excellent biography of a man, and I hope we can get some more writing on his life in the future.

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