Review: James E. Talmage

In writing this review, I fear that some of my Mormon friends may feel that I am attacking them and their religion. This is not the case. I am attacking James Edward Talmage’s 1909 work entitled The Great Apostasy; Considered in the Light of Scriptural and Secular History, and taking him to task for shoddy historical method, a general ignorance of his subject matter, and poor conclusions. I do not encourage you to try to defend him, for his work is seriously flawed in a multitude of ways.

After reading the introduction, I had high hopes for this work. Talmage starts off in the right spot, by stating, “if the alleged apostasy of the primitive church was not a reality, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not the divine institution its name proclaims.” This is the crux of the entire work, but unfortunately, it rapidly spiraled down from there. After a short historical introduction, he goes on to make the wild assumption that the true church of Christ can only exist with legitimate priestly succession. I suspect that this topic (given the overall geographical generalities Talmage would go on to discuss) is not really about historical scholarship at all, but rather an attempt to invalidate the Roman Catholic Church’s claim of apolostolic succession from St. Peter. This fails to account for the ‘priesthood of all believers’ that may be from I Peter 2:9, but it also fails to demonstrate any believable parallels between the ancient church and what the LDS believe today. Talmage argues that since the Roman Catholic Church changed the means of the ordinances they are thus apostate. One could claim that he fails to take into account the changes to the Mormon ordinances, but that is not the issue here. The issue is simply that Talmage failed to create any plausible case of discontinuity between the early church and the later, better-sourced, post-Constantinian church. It also entirely fails to account for Jesus’ emphasis on the spirit of the law. Where exactly does Jesus teach the need for proper priestly succession done according to ritual, Mr. Talmage?

Talmage then goes on to an inane discussion of Biblical prophecy. This section is a fine example of what happens when one chains up the scriptures and leads them around like tame beasts – they say whatever he wants them to say, despite flying in the face of context and academic reasoning. He uses Paul’s warnings to the churches that the Gospel would be perverted to claim that this was some sort of prophecy that Paul had made, however, he nowhere is able to make any sort of link between the alleged perversion of the Gospel, and his own pre-conceived notions of a Great Apostasy. Another example is what he does with the seven churches in Anatolia in Revelation. Talmage claims that these were the last seven non-apostate churches (completely without evidence, as per usual). This really shows nothing other than a strong desire to make the evidence suit his preconceived conclusions, for even a superficial reading of Revelation will reveal that John’s use of the number seven is a sign of completeness.

The next section discusses disputes in the church and its persecution. He claims that persecution killed the strong members of the church, forced the weak to flee, and put the unworthy in positions of honour. The problem with this thesis is quickly made manifold. Talmage is unable to back up his statement with any sort of evidence, which he isn’t going to find due to the fact that most persecutions of Christians were localized (these are remarkable similar to persecutions of Jews in the middle ages – they were a visible minority, and while they generally made good neighbours there was still something subversive about them) and very half-hearted. Despite the lack of evidence for his previous thesis, Talmage doesn’t seem to be concerned at all, and continues to push for this somehow representing his Great Apostasy. Dispute in the church apparently means apostasy for Talmage as well, but it shouldn’t for any critical reader. Talmage needs to demonstrate that the early church possessed the doctrines unique to Mormonism were later lost, but he does not even try. This is rather surprising, since all of Mormonism hinges on this: it can only be Jesus’ true restored church if some of the original teachings were lost in the first place.

About halfway through the book, Talmage finally gets on to his criticism that Judaistic and Hellenistic ideas permeated the early church. It is true that various ideas crept into Christianity, but nowhere does Talmage demonstrate that they overrode the original message. He goes on to cite a highly-developed form of Gnosticism, but fails to account for the fact that the church viewed this as a heresy. One cannot argue that all of the Christian creeds were corrupt and abominable based on the fact there have been many splinter groups.

He blames the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity on Neo-Platonism, but this also stumbles. He cites similarities between Neo-Platonist ideas and the opening few verses of the Gospel of John. It is certain that John was using Hellenistic concepts to illustrate Jesus’ divinity here. There is nothing inherently wrong with this – Luke changes details in his Gospel all the time to make it more amenable to Gentile readers, and Paul adopts Hellenistic rhetoric to better reach his audience at the Aeropagus in Athens. What is wrong with this is Talmage’s assumption that John is primarily Hellenistic, when in fact the noted Anglican scholar N.T. Wright has demonstrated that it has more in common with Sirach, an apocryphal Old Testament book than it does with Platonism. The second issue is that the Neo-Platonics did not yet exist in the form that he claims, since it wasn’t created until the third century, whilst most scholars believe that John was written sometime around 90 A.D. The third and final problem here is that Talmage believes the doctrine of the Trinity to be a later creation. Technically, this isn’t a huge flaw, for the doctrine of the Trinity itself emerged later, but he fails to account for the early church’s predilection towards worshipping Jesus as God, not to mention the Trinitarian statements that were made by pre-definition Christians!

The final section reveals the same quality of research as the rest of the book. He lists off various crimes of the (apparently apostate) Catholic Church. We can all agree that these crimes were certainly not in the vein of what Jesus taught and set out to establish on Earth, and we should also be able to agree that this in itself means nothing. First, he only discusses the Catholic Church, and fails to discuss the others. Second, poor behavior on the part of believers does not invalidate a religion, it just demonstrates that humans follow it.  Third, he provides no convincing [and usually just no] evidence that what Joseph Smith restored was ever taught by Jesus and lost in the early church. This last part is the ultimate crux of where he started; those teachings, ordinances and doctrines must have been lost in the first place in order for them to be restored, but Talmage cannot point to anything that suggested that what the Mormon Church teaches today is what Jesus taught. On that basis, this book is a miserable failure. The fact that the Deseret Book Company does not currently print this book emphasizes Auden’s quote: “Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered.”

All the same, I hope that my Mormon friends do not view this as an attack upon their faith. However, I do hope that it will lead to some meaningful discussion.

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2 Responses to Review: James E. Talmage

  1. Gerry Anderson says:

    Nicely done, Luke. Praise God for the truth of His word. Gerry

  2. Steve says:

    So, after damning this book for poor scholarly methodology, what alternative sources do you propose (other than the fleeting mention of N.T. Wright)? Simply panning a book is pointless unless you suggest alternatives that you consider superior. Otherwise, it sounds more like an attack rather than a constructive dissection.

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