James E. Talmage was a scientist, not a bible scholar. Yet he wrote one of the most enduring works ever published by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. To celebrate the centennial year of “Jesus The Christ,” two BYU religion scholars will examine the book — chapter by chapter — during the annual campus Education Week.
“If you don’t count the Standard Works, it’s probably is the no. 1- selling book in church history, with over 1 million copies sold,” said Richard Holzapfel, Ph.D., BYU religion professor and former mission president. Holzapfel said it is hard to determine the total number of copies sold because other publishers continued to print the book after its copyright expired.
“Jesus the Christ” was first published in September 1915. It sold out quickly, along with a second edition. Talmage continued to publish new editions of the book throughout his life as new academic research and church revelations became available.
“What he wanted to do was to produce a volume on the life of Jesus the Christ that was different from everyone else’s because everyone else basically began with the birth and ended with the ascension,” Holzapfel said. “He wanted to go all the way back in time from the LDS perspective as Jesus Christ is the Son of God, is Jehovah of the Old Testament, and to continue after the ascension of Christ.”
Though he was born in England, Talmage eventually moved to Provo where he attended Brigham Young Academy under principal and teacher Karl G. Maeser. Talmage was the first student to complete a college degree at BYA and went on to do graduate studies at Johns Hopkins University and Lehigh University.
“Talmage was clearly one of Maeser’s star pupils,” BYU history professor Spencer Fluhman said. “A lot of students experienced his personal mentoring. But Talmage was clearly one of his stars and he remained close to (Talmage) all the way through his educational experience.”
Talmage’s studies focused on chemistry and geology. His departure to the East Coast for graduate education was a gamble and an experiment, said Fluhman. Church leaders worried about possible corrosive effects of secular education on the faith of church members who left the Utah Territory and often gave priesthood blessings to those who were leaving.
“Talmage went ‘out from the hive’ as he said in his journal,” Fluhman said. “What Talmage got was cutting edge academic training in the sciences. This was exceedingly rare for Saints of his generation.”
Fluhman said other historians think Talmage was one of the first members of the church to get a Ph.D., if not the first, but his studies have not yet confirmed the claim. Talmage received his Ph.D. from Illinois Wesleyan University in 1896, the same year that Utah gained statehood.
He acquired world recognition for geological studies and was elected to prestigious scientific societies in America and Britain. He was also the president of LDS College and the University of Deseret and a geology professor at the University of Utah.
Holzapfel said although Talmage didn’t learn Bible languages, he applied his training as a scientist to attempt to find the best scholarly works on the New Testament. He read predominantly English Protestant works and balanced them with the revelations and existing scripture of the church.
Talmage initially presented a lecture series on the life of Christ at LDS College in Salt Lake City from 1904 to 1906. This was a time of massive interest in the “historical Jesus” and understanding the secular world and character of Christ. This exposed a massive fissure within Christian scholarship.
“He is writing in a moment when liberal Protestants and conservative Protestants are fighting over the person of Jesus,” Fluhman said. “Liberal Protestants are saying that Jesus must be understood in terms of the man . . . Conservative Protestants are saying Jesus must be understood in terms of the supernatural.”
According to Fluhman, “Jesus the Christ” is an LDS bridge that models concern for Christ as a man interacting with the world and as the Son of God, and is deeply respectful to revelations of modern prophets and apostles.
The First Presidency approached Talmage to publish his lecture series, but he didn’t do so until years after he was called to be an apostle in 1911. He had been intermittently working on this manuscript to turn his lectures into a book for about 10 years after originally giving the lecture series. He started writing the manuscript for “Jesus the Christ” in September 1914 and completed his manuscript in April 1915.
Talmage was given supplies, materials and a room in the Salt Lake Temple to dedicate his efforts totally to completing his manuscript. He wrote the text in longhand with a pencil. The original manuscript can be viewed via the Church History Library.
“The reason that he wrote it in the temple wasn’t so much spiritual as it was simply to protect him so he won’t be disturbed by home or by work,” Holzapfel said.
As Talmage completed chapters of the manuscript, he would read them to the members of the Quorum of the Twelve and First Presidency that were present in Salt Lake City. He also read a revised copy of the manuscript to both the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve.
“It’s really a fascinatingly unique volume . . . in not only the apostolic writing, of the location of the temple as the place of writing, but this incredible investment of time on the part of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve during the review process,” Fluhman said. He said he sees “Jesus the Christ” as uniquely authorized.
Both Fluhman and Holzapfel made it clear that “Jesus the Christ” is not considered doctrine by the LDS Church and may not represent the church officially today. But both said the church leadership’s authorization and strong hand in review, Talmage’s apostolic calling, its writing in the temple and the church publishing it on its presses with its marks gives the work a unique endorsement.
“It is as quasi-official as it can get without without being the scriptures,” Holzapfel said.
Talmage continued to update and edit the text of “Jesus the Christ” until his death in 1933. This demonstrates Talmage’s dedication to rigorous scholarly research. Today, most copies published by the church are impressions of the eleventh edition of the text.
“Certainly if he was alive today he would change, adapt and adopt material that has come since 1915,” Holzapfel said. “There is just no question, watching his trajectory of making changes, that he would continue to make them.”
Today, “Jesus the Christ” is an articulate testimony of Christ’s life and divinity. While it is no longer an up-to-date volume of LDS thought on Christ, it is still used widely throughout the LDS Church and remains a major part of LDS studies, including official inclusion in the missionary reference library. That library includes four publications that are officially sanctioned for study by the church’s full-time missionaries: “Jesus the Christ,” “Our Search for Happiness,” “Our Heritage” and “True to the Faith.”
“It is a thoughtful, articulate, historically aware testimony of Christ’s divinity, of his atoning sacrifice, of his resurrection,” Fluhman said. “That’s why I think it has endured.”
Holzapfel and BYU religion professor Thomas Wayment co-authored “James E. Talmage’s Jesus The Christ Study Guide.” The two will present several chapter-by-chapter lectures on the book from 9:50-10:45 a.m. on Tuesday through Friday (Aug. 18-21) in the Joseph Smith Building Auditorium and from 8:30 a.m. to 12:05 p.m. on Monday (Aug. 17) in 3220-3224 of the Wilkinson Student Center.