Understanding Talmage

This regular Cornucopia column features incidents from and glimpses into the life and ministry of Elder James E. Talmage as compiled by James P. Harris, who is currently working on a full-length biography of this fascinating Mormon apostle. The column title is adopted from the statement inscribed on Elder Talmage’s tombstone: “Within the Gospel of Jesus Christ there is room and place for every truth thus far learned by man or yet to be made known.”


One of the challenges in reading any book written by James E. Talmage is grappling with the difficult vocabulary. He uses big words. Really big words. Words like “tesseradecads,” which refers to the arrangement into “groups of fourteen individuals each.” The word occurs in Talmage’s Jesus the Christ in the discussion of the genealogies of Jesus (see Matthew 1:17; Jesus the Christ, 89). Some of my favorites include: casuist—someone skilled in judging right from wrong; palliate—to cover with excuses; stultify—to cause another to look foolish.

Words such as these flowed naturally from Talmage, as he was schooled in Latin and German while a student at Brigham Young Academy. Most likely he also learned German from his mentor Karl G. Maeser. A great many of the difficult words Talmage uses, especially in The Articles of Faith and Jesus the Christ, have a Latin or German root base.

In 1996, I had the opportunity to interview John R. Talmage, who was then, at age 85, the last living child of James and May Talmage. I asked John if his father brought a dictionary to the Salt Lake Temple when he was writing Jesus the Christ. He replied, “Father didn’t use a dictionary. If he didn’t know the meaning of a word, he didn’t use it.”

Not everyone who wanted to benefit from the books Talmage wrote was blessed with his huge vocabulary, however. Recognizing this, and in response to Jesus the Christ’s having been chosen as the course of study for Melchizedek Priesthood quorums for 1963 and 1964, several missionaries serving under President J. Leonard Love in the Northern California Mission in 1963 undertook a project to make things easier for readers who tripped on those strange words conjured from memory or concocted fresh by Elder Talmage. It was a booklet they titled Understanding Talmage, subtitled “A Conceptual Dictionary to Supplement the Study of Jesus the Christ and Articles of Faith by Elder James E. Talmage.” Readers today sometimes have trouble locating Understanding Talmage because it’s commonly referred to as “The Talmage Dictionary.” Also, Understanding Talmage has been long out of print, but copies can occasionally be found at used and rare bookstores or for sale on the Internet.

Another difficulty in using Jesus the Christ as a reference guide is that Talmage provided no scripture index. Thus, if you wanted to find out what Talmage had to say about Amos 8:11–12, you would have to do some research. In 1963, a couple by the name of J. Marlan and Christina Vella sought to remedy this lack by compiling the “Scripture Index to Jesus the Christ.” Their index may have been meant for publication, but it never got that far. For those interested in obtaining one, Special Collections at BYU’s Harold B. Lee Library has been willing to make reprints available for purchase on demand.