Latter-day Saints were stunned in 1911 to learn that the interior of the Salt Lake temple had been secretly photographed and that perpetrators were demanding a $100,000 ransom for the photos. As church leaders considered their options, former University of Utah president James E. Talmage proposed that the First Presidency commission its own photos, which they did, authorizing Talmage to write his landmark House of the Lord. As the manuscript and photos were being readied for press, the presidency appointed the forty-nine-year-old educator to the Quorum of Twelve Apostles. This was not the first time that Talmage had been of service to his church. As a geology professor, he was consulted about underground ventilation options for the Salt Lake Tabernacle and about the scientific evidence for organic evolution, which he cautiously promoted. At the church president’s request, Talmage also delivered a series of lectures on church theology which would form the basis for his later influential books.
Not that Talmage was unaccustomed to controversy. When his book, The Articles of Faith, first appeared, he was accused of “apostasy” and narrowly escaped church sanction. When he read from an advance text of Jesus the Christ in general conference, some leaders objected to the doctrinal content and had the offending paragraphs excised from the published conference proceedings.
Scholars have noted that much of Talmage’s work reflects the thinking of his day, particularly in his reliance on Frederick Farrar’s Life of Christ and in his portrayal of a so-called “Victorian Jesus.” But as James P. Harris observes, Talmage also “supplemented the biblical narrative with modern revelation” and produced “a source of information and inspiration to church members worldwide.”
The Essential James E. Talmage includes some of the apostle’s lesser-known works. For Talmage’s more popular writings, the editor has included relevant diary entries and material omitted from later editions. Readers will appreciate the process by which these seminal works were produced and the character of the man who composed them.