James E. Talmage, B. H. Roberts, Joseph Smith and the Phase and Group Velocities of Mormon Thought

Ok, if I could have placed a really big smiley in the title, I would have.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the eyewitnesses to Joseph Smith’s administration and public instruction had all but disappeared. Church leaders began to feel a theological drift, with church members holding a variety of views on issues like faith, grace and works, the Godhead, polygamy, nature of man, etc., etc. At the same time, two large intellects were at work in Utah.

One was James Edward Talmage (1862-1933), a Johns Hopkins educated geologist who received his Ph.D. from Illinois Wesleyan. Talmage was a respected scientist and educator, a fellow of a number of European and American learned societies. That and his staunch faith in Mormonism gave him a real cachet with church leaders, particularly Joseph F. Smith. Talmage consulted for mining firms in the intermountain west and was professor of geology at the University of Utah and director of the “Deseret Museum.” Talmage was a friend of then Church President Joseph F. Smith, who regarded him as a kind of theological point man well before he appointed him an apostle in 1911. Talmage’s theological views were more or less uncluttered by the speculations of the 19th century. Indeed, his “Articles of Faith” and his later “Jesus the Christ” make virtually no reference to the “oral” tradition. They appealed in some degree to the uniquely Mormon scriptures, but essentially ignore the theological excursions of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, the Pratts, etc.[1]

The other was Brigham Henry Roberts (1857-1933). Roberts had a colorful youth, but eventually found great joy in intellectual pursuits. Part of the same population cohort as Talmage, he was nevertheless partly the product of an earlier era of thought. For example, Roberts was an enthusiastic polygamist, while Talmage was not. In addition to editing the 7 volume History of the Church, Roberts authored roughly 22 books having to do with Mormon history and theology as well as a large number articles in LDS periodicals. Roberts’ perspective was naturally directed from history, and the history of Mormonism in particular. By 1904, Roberts’ thinking had become heavily dependent on the surviving records of Joseph Smith’s sermons and published history of his life. He saw Joseph Smith as a seminal thinker and to the end of his life would count Smith’s thought as one of his guiding stars.[2]

Both men were dependent on Joseph Smith in their contributions to LDS literature, but Talmage would come to be seen as normative in Mormon theology. Talmage held views of Mormon cosmology/ontology in sharp contrast to Roberts’ ideas in some cases, colored as they (Roberts’ positions) were by Joseph’s late Nauvoo discourses. Talmage for the most part confined his religious writings to Mormon scripture and quoted frequently from certain portions of the Pearl of Great Price, but mostly from the Bible itself. But Talmage had little use for the discourse record of Smith, and even less for the early Utah reports. Church leaders of the early 20th century saw this as a strength, and used Talmage to produce a number of documents that made the Mormon views of the Godhead and other issues entirely based on elementary deductions from scripture passages.[3]

Roberts on the other hand became an irritant. His hope of systematizing Joseph Smith’s thinking and making it the foundation of a Mormon theology was uncomfortable for a number of his colleagues. Not only did Smith’s reported remarks on occasion seem to radicalize Mormon doctrine, but contrasted with some on-the-record remarks of current leaders.

The outcome was that Talmage’s work would become the juice from which new Saints were nourished. Roberts’ thinking would nevertheless be perpetuated because of his church history work, and partly because some of his ideas found there way into such standards as “Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith” in footnote form. But Talmage’s approach was put in front of every new LDS missionary for many years. Each was encouraged to read “The Articles of Faith” and “Jesus the Christ” as a part of their background gospel study. Roberts on the other hand was nowhere to be found in such venues, the irony being especially thick because Roberts spent most of his adult life in missionary service.

In the end, Talmage was the future, Roberts was the past. Talmage was the unifier, Roberts was the verifier. Talmage became the phase velocity of Mormon views, a single simple message which would lead proselytes to baptism and onward. Roberts was, and in some ways still is, the group velocity of Mormon ideas. A packet of not necessarily consistent notions that still carries on in Mormonism, to the joy of the independent I suppose. All in all, it makes the discussion of Mormon fundamentals all the richer because we had them both.

And this all does connect with Joseph’s funeral sermons. Both men had a profound effect on how their contemporaries valued or devalued the King Follett sermon in particular, much of it behind the scenes. To see how it all worked out, you’ll have to wait for the book. (smiley)

[1] Pursuing the first edition of the “Articles of Faith” (1899) shows that Talmage appealed to the Bible for the large majority of his text on the Godhead for example, and moreover took a distinctly Protestant view of God in terms of absolutist properties (of course the nature of the Trinity is contrasted with Nicene pronouncements). Talmage does make a brief reference to Orson Pratt’s “Absurdities of Immaterialism” and some to Taylor’s “Mediation and Atonement” but by far his references to material outside scripture amount to theological dictionaries, and historical works produced well outside the pale of Mormonism. Talmage makes various references to science and parallels he saw between the views of some scientists and materialist views of Mormon scripture. He quotes as much perhaps from the “Lectures on Faith” (then a part of the Doctrine and Covenants) as from the Book of Mormon.

[2] Roberts was preceded and possibly inspired by Franklin D. Richards, and the perspective Richards took with his “Compendium” of the 1880s. Richards put Joseph Smith’s teachings on par with his scriptural contributions.

[3] A pattern followed by church president Joseph F. Smith.

8 Responses to James E. Talmage, B. H. Roberts, Joseph Smith and the Phase and Group Velocities of Mormon Thought

  1. Michael Towns says:

    Excellent post! I enjoyed reading this a great deal. Eagerly look forward to the book.

    Question though: to which side of the Talmage-Roberts continuum do you tend to drift?

  2. matt w. says:

    Interesting. Wasn’t Widtsoe a follower of roberts but a pal of talmage. I think Talmage appreciates such longevity due to his conservative stance on source use.

  3. WVS says:

    Michael, I find a bit of both in my own thinking, but I wouldn’t know exactly how to quantify it. Matt, yes Widtsoe agreed with Roberts in a number of ways. And I agree, Talmage owes his longtime sponsorship to his very short reach. Joseph F. Smith was fond of a version of the Medieval saying, “Unity in essentials, liberty elsewhere, charity in all.” Certainly he found Talmage’s vision of essentials to be his own.

  4. J. Stapley says:

    Though not read like Talmage, Widtsoe’s Priesthood reform writings have an enormous imprint on the modern Church.

    Thanks for another great post, WVS. I think I speak for all when I say how much I’m looking forward to the publication of the book. Now, when was it that you said it was going to be available? (grin)

  5. W. V. Smith says:

    Agreed, J. Widtsoe’s priesthood writings guided priesthood policy and bureaucracy. If I could just get rid of the day job!

  6. Nitsav says:

    Excellent stuff. I’m a fan of both of them, and had never seen their thought characterized this way. Other than that by his son, is there a bio of Talmage anywhere?

  7. W. V. Smith says:

    The one by John R. Talmage (the son), “The Talmage Story.” 1972 Bookcraft, is the only one I know of. Talmage gets mentioned in places like Alexander’s book. I read through all of his papers at CHL once upon a time. The letters are interesting, his journal is not robust in terms of details of his interaction with church leaders.

  8. danithew says:

    That was some good reading for someone who still has a lot to learn about Church History. Thanks.

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