Modernism and Mormonism: James E. Talmage's Jesus the Christ and Early Twentieth-Century Mormon Responses to Biblical Criticism

By Ford, Clyde D. | Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Modernism and Mormonism: James E. Talmage's Jesus the Christ and Early Twentieth-Century Mormon Responses to Biblical Criticism


Ford, Clyde D., Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought


During a Sunday School class I was teaching, a question came up about the lineage of Mary, mother of Jesus. A knowledgeable and respected class member answered that Mary was a descendent of David. I observed that Mary's genealogy is not given in the scriptures; and, therefore, it would not be unreasonable to hold another opinion or to keep an open mind on the question. The classmember responded that his answer should be accepted on authority because "Elder McConkie1 had so stated." I saw no benefit to continuing the discussion. Later, he delivered the following note documenting his evidence:

Your discrediting of my comment . . . about Mary . . . was incorrect. "A personal genealogy of Joseph was essentially that of Mary also, for they were cousins." Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, p. 94.

P.S. See Bible Dictionary p. 717-"Joseph . . . espoused Mary, the daughter of his uncle Jacob." [Emphases mine].2

The assertions that Joseph and Mary were cousins and that Mary was the daughter of Jacob, which are reproduced in these frequently used Mormon sources, are not found in the scriptures. In fact, the former may be questioned as Mary was the "cousin (or relative)" of Elizabeth (Luke 1:36) who was said to have descended from a different tribe than David (Luke 1:5); and the latter is unscriptural, since, according to Matthew 1:16, Jacob was the father of Joseph. Then how did such teachings find their way into commonly accepted Mormon beliefs? The answer is a highly influential work on Mormon doctrine, James E. Talmage's Jesus the Christ (1915).3

In 1904-06 Talmage delivered a popular series of forty-two Sunday lectures on the life and mission of Jesus. During this time, the First Presidency (Joseph F. Smith, John R. Winder, and Anthon H. Lund) requested Talmage to publish these lectures. Progress on the task was slow until September 1914 when Talmage received a second request from the First Presidency urging him to finish as soon as possible. From this time, Talmage spent every spare moment in writing, secluding himself in the Salt Lake Temple to avoid interruptions. The urgency of the second request and Talmage's response suggest that a new crisis had appeared. Historian Thomas G. Alexander has hypothesized that "discussions of the nature of the Godhead and of the relationship between God and Jesus Christ" may have been the impetus.4 Alternatively, James Harris, Talmage's biographer, has suggested that the book was intended as a response "to . . . the methodologies and conclusions of an emerging higher biblical criticism." 5 As both were among the challenging issues of the time, it is likely that Jesus the Christ was written with several objectives in mind.

This study will examine Jesus the Christ as a response to early twentieth- century biblical criticism. I first review some history of criticism, discuss its impact upon early twentieth-century Mormons, summarize Talmage's approaches to some of the major problems, and examine what appears to be the relative demise of Talmage's works among Mormons during the last quarter of the twentieth century.

Modernism and Biblical Criticism

Modernism6 was a movement during the decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century that included liberal American Protestants and Catholics who sought to adjust traditional Christianity to conform to modern culture. Harvard historian William R. Hutchison (1930-2005), has demonstrated that modernists emerged in virtually all American religions. 7 Their "modernisms," some or all of which might have been the focus for a given individual, included the theological liberalism of Albrecht Ritschl (1822-89) and his school, biblical criticism, the philosophy and theories of modern science, and others. The University of Chicago modernist Shailer Mathews (1863-1941), defined modernism as "the use of the methods of modern science to find, state and use the permanent and central values of inherited [Christian] orthodoxy in meeting the needs of a modern world. …

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