SALT LAKE CITY — In LDS literature, there’s nothing quite like the enduring classic "Jesus the Christ" by Elder James E. Talmage.
In this, the 100th-anniversary year since the book was first published on Sept. 15, 1915, it remains an essential element of most well-stocked Latter-day Saint libraries, having never gone out of print.
Millions of copies have been sold, and scholars regard it as the best-selling doctrinal work in LDS Church history, next to the standard works themselves.
Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, a Brigham Young University professor of church history and doctrine, said five elements combine to give "Jesus the Christ" its unique character: Elder Talmage was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the First Presidency asked him to write it, he wrote the manuscript in the Salt Lake Temple, the church published it, and it was immediately used as part of the church’s curriculum in its Sunday classes.
“Those five things make it what it is today: an incredible, enduring and classic book,” he remarked.
Holzapfel’s colleague, Thomas A. Wayment, a BYU professor of ancient scripture, said Talmage was not yet an apostle at the time he first received the commission from the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to write the book, but was already well-known among Mormon leadership.
A teacher and principal at church schools, he had distinguished himself as a scientist, educator and author by 1900. President of the University of Deseret (now the University of Utah), he left that position in 1897 to be a geological and mining consultant but continued on as a professor of geology at the university until 1907.
“The genesis of 'Jesus the Christ' is in a series of public lectures that the First Presidency asked him to do on the life and ministry of Christ, and I think he had really thrown himself into the project wholeheartedly, but maybe hadn’t anticipated the large success, the deep interest in the project,” Wayment said.
From 1904 to 1906, he conducted the lectures at the University Sunday School, a forerunner to today’s college-level Institute program. Each lecture would become an outline for one of the 42 chapters in the book, Wayment said.
A letter from the First Presidency — President Joseph F. Smith and his counselors, Presidents John R. Winder and Anthon H. Lund — dated July 18, 1905, reads: “Dear Brother: We should be pleased to have you print and publish in book form the course of lectures being delivered by you before the University Sunday School on the subject, Jesus the Christ, believing that they will prove a valuable acquisition to our Church literature and that the proposed work should be placed within the reach of Church members and general readers.”
Six years later, the call would come to him to serve in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles; it would not be until after that call that Elder Talmage would get to the task in earnest of writing the book the First Presidency had commissioned.
“He’s got a ton of things going on, and the church had other issues,” Holzapfel said.
“Somebody had snuck in, taken some photographs of the Salt Lake Temple interior, and threatened to publish them if the church didn’t pay them money. If you know about Joseph F. Smith, you know he isn’t going to play that kind of game.”
To preclude the blackmail, the church hired professional photographer C.R. Savage to make high-quality photos of the rooms in the temple and published them in its own book, with Elder Talmage assigned to write the text. This became his well-known book "House of the Lord."
In 1914, three years after his call to the Twelve, Elder Talmage began an earnest effort to finish "Jesus the Christ."
In a journal entry of Sept. 14, 1914, he recorded: “Experience demonstrated that neither in my comfortable office nor in the convenient study room at home can I be free from visits and telephone calls. In consequence of this condition, and in view of the importance of the work, I have been directed to occupy a room in the (Salt Lake) Temple where I will be free from interruption. I began work in the Temple today and hope that I shall be able to devote the necessary time thereto.”
Writing in longhand using pencil, he completed the manuscript by April of the following year.
“He’s also reading chapters — as he finishes them — in front of the First Presidency and the Twelve,” Holzapfel said. “And it’s a give-and-take. People ask him questions. There are some issues and questions about the meaning of ‘the Son of Man.’ There are feelings about his interpretation of this or that passage.”
As an example of the give-and-take, Wayment said, he wrote a chapter about early Christian polygamy that did not make it into the book.
“That might be one of the things that makes it so great,” Wayment said. “It is more than him, it’s the quorum saying let’s refine this. Let’s not make this an eclectic work. Let’s make it broadly representative of our views. And I think that’s why they come out in October or September of ’15 and say this will be used in the curriculum of the church.”
Because of the sacred setting, and perhaps because of the direct commission from the First Presidency, some have tended to assume incorrectly that Elder Talmage wrote the book under direct revelation. Though he wrote of feeling the spirit of the temple, it seems it was mainly for him a place of refuge from other pressures, freeing him to devote his full attention to the work, a scholarly treatise on the ministry of the Lord, informed by latter-day scripture and doctrine.
“He will go the temple on holidays,” Holzapfel said. “He will enjoy the family Christmas party or Fourth of July stuff and then head off to the temple. So he really is trying to take advantage of that place where he can write.”
It should be remembered, Holzapfel said, that at the time Elder Talmage wrote the book there were no LDS reference works on the life and ministry of Christ to which he could refer.
“All the research he had done for the lectures, that becomes the foundation basis and he’s going to try to update it," Holzapfel said. "And at the time there is a debate on the meaning and reliability of the New Testament. He’s aware of that debate. It starts in German scholarship, spreads throughout continental Europe, England and eventually it comes to the U.S. So he is positioning himself in that debate about whether the New Testament is reliable and who is the historical Jesus.”
He drew upon the work of prominent biblical scholars of the day, including Frederic W. Farrar, Cunningham Geikie, Alfred Edersheim, Charles F. Deems and Samuel J. Andrews.
But Holzapfel and Wayment wrote in the introduction to their study guide for "Jesus the Christ" published last year: “A characteristic feature of the work is the guidance afforded by modern scripture and the explication of the Holy Writ of olden times in the light of present-day revelation, which, as a powerful and well-directed beam, illumines many dark passages of ancient construction.”
Thus, while it had been common for narratives on the life of Christ to begin with the annunciation of his birth and end with the Ascension, Elder Talmage in effect, said, “We can do better than that,” Holzapfel commented. “He goes to the beginning of time, with Jesus as Jehovah, the great I Am, and goes beyond his Ascension to his visit among the Nephites and Lamanites, the Restoration and his appearances to Joseph Smith, through the Second Coming and then the final winding-up scene.
“So he basically takes the standard narratives that are being published in English and goes back in time and forward in time using the Restoration as his window.”
True to the expectation the First Presidency expressed in its letter of assignment to Elder Talmage, the book has proved “a valuable acquisition to our church literature” whose worth endures to this day.
“It goes through a series of editions and just sells like hotcakes,” Holzapfel said, including use as a priesthood course manual in 1916 and again in 1963.
Because the book has long been in the public domain, it is impossible to precisely gauge its sales “because there are so many publishers using it besides the church,” he said. “It has to be, by my estimation, if you don’t count the LDS scriptures, the top best-seller of a church book in history,” Holzapfel said.
Does it have the relevance today it once did?
“In my generation and earlier in the church, if you really spent time studying the life of Christ, this is probably where you started,” Holzapfel said. “I think the current generation has shifted a little bit from previous generations in which 'Jesus the Christ' was the first book, the touchstone. It’s probably because we have so many other great books that are focused on Jesus’ life and ministry.”
As a missionary in the 1970s, Holzapfel was encouraged to read the book from cover to cover. But by the time he was called as president of the Alabama Birmingham Mission in 2010, though the book was still a standard part of the portable missionary library, “it wasn’t on the front burner,” he said.
He compares it to the Bible Dictionary in the current edition of the LDS scriptures as “subject to re-evaluation as new revelation or research comes to light.”
In their study guide, the authors have a heading in each chapter, “Since 1915,” giving updates to the respective chapters in "Jesus the Christ."
“Think about it: The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947; that changes our whole view of first-century Judaism,” Holzapfel said. Older New Testament manuscripts have been discovered. President Joseph F. Smith received his vision of the redemption of the dead in 1918 (Doctrine and Covenants 138). And the Prophet Joseph Smith’s inspired translation of the Bible is accessible to Latter-day Saints today in a way that was not possible when Elder Talmage wrote "Jesus the Christ."
As an example of content in need of updating, he cited a note in Chapter 13 of the book that cites Charles F. Deems’ "Light of the Nations" to the effect that “we shall probably never be able to know” the precise location of Capernaum.
“No scholar today believes we don’t know where Capernaum is,” Holzapfel said, adding that archaeological investigation has unearthed the foundations of Capernaum “back to the first-century level. If Talmage were alive today, he would obviously change that.”
Still, the book is a classic, Holzapfel said. “It is the testimony of an apostle, and that powerful voice can be read and can uplift, inspire and bring you into the world of Jesus’ ministry. That’s what its purpose is.”
The original longhand manuscript of the book is preserved in the archives of the church and is featured as part of a temporary exhibit in the Church History Library in Salt Lake City through the end of September.
Also through the end of the month, an exhibit in the Special Collections section of the Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University displays documents pertaining to the writing and publication of "Jesus the Christ."
The printer’s manuscript, typewritten, was found about 15 years ago, and is now in the possession of Brent F. Ashworth. He purchased it after learning it had been found in a box among the possessions of John R. Talmage, Elder Talmage’s last living child and his biographer.
Displaying the printer’s manuscript, Ashworth pointed out what Holzapfel and Wayment both noted: that Elder Talmage was making amendments and additions right up to the moment of the book’s first printing. If he were alive today, the author would likely see the need for a revision, Holzapfel surmised.
Ashworth prizes the printer’s manuscript and said he will eventually donate it to the church. His words express what many church members have felt over the past hundred years: “I love this book; I think it’s a great book. To me, it has helped explain the Savior’s life about as well as anything outside the scriptures themselves.”