Jesus the Christ: The Story behind the Story

In the century since its publication, Jesus the Christ has become a classic work among Latter-day Saints. For 100 years, the book has never been out of print, going through numerous reprints and editions in multiple languages and formats. It has been used as a course of study for priesthood and Relief Society classes, is one of the texts in the approved missionary library, and has contributed to readers’ doctrinal understanding of the Savior the world over. It is a unique book not only in terms of its content and influence but also in terms of its own story, a story that deserves retelling during this centennial anniversary.

The Author

Long before he wrote Jesus the Christ, James Edward Talmage was a man committed to the Lord. As a young man, he was offered a well-paid position with the Provo public schools. At the same time, he was asked to teach at Brigham Young Academy, a “missionary institution” that would yield little pay. He prayerfully sought the will of the Lord, and when the answer came to teach at the academy, he obeyed.1 He followed this pattern of seeking the Lord’s will and obeying throughout his life.

Talmage was first asked to write a book about the life of Christ in the summer of 1905 at the age of 42. The previous September, he had agreed to teach a course on Jesus Christ to the University Sunday School, an organization similar to the Church’s current institute program. On July 18, 1905, the First Presidency, which at the time included Joseph F. Smith, John R. Winder, and Anthon H. Lund, wrote Talmage a letter requesting that he convert his lectures into a book, “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.”2

Nearly 10 years passed before Talmage was able to focus on the project. These were not idle years, however. “Work on this appointment has been suspended from time to time owing to other duties being imposed upon me,” he wrote.3 Among those other duties were family, Church, and professional obligations. During this time, he wrote and published The Great Apostasy and The House of the Lord. On December 7, 1911, he was called as a member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles.

All the while, he had been pondering and preparing and looking forward to the day when he would be able to write the requested book.4 That day finally came in September of 1914, when the request was again made, this time specifying that he should write the book “with as little delay as possible.”5

The Text

In order to work on the task uninterrupted “and in view of the importance of the work,” Talmage was given space in the Salt Lake Temple, where he could work on the book with less distraction.6 He was also relieved of some, though not all, of his apostolic responsibilities. He still traveled to stake conferences and attended meetings with the Quorum of the Twelve, but he dedicated every spare moment to working on the manuscript. In order to teach his course on Christ years before, Talmage had prepared lecture outlines for each session.

As he worked in the temple, he drew from these outlines and the research he had conducted for the class to write the book. On April 19, 1915, just over seven months after beginning his draft, he completed the manuscript. “Had it not been that I was privileged to do this work in the Temple it would be at present far from completion,” he wrote. “I have felt the inspiration of the place and have appreciated the privacy and quietness incident thereto.”7 His son John R. Talmage wrote, “James’ first words as he entered his home that night were to tell Maia [his wife] that the basic writing was finished, and to tell also his feeling that this was the outstanding book of all he had written, or would ever write.”8

With the writing complete, the editing process began. Chapter by chapter, Talmage read the manuscript to the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. The reading took place over 18 sessions, the last chapter being read on June 24, 1915. When the manuscript was approved by the Brethren, it was sent to the printer, who then sent the proofs back to Talmage to make any final changes. This editing was often done on the train, while traveling for his Church assignments. At least two sets of proofs were reviewed,9 and final revisions were completed in time for the first copies of Jesus the Christ to come off the press on September 9, 1915, just under one year after he began writing.

The Legacy

The history of Jesus the Christ is a remarkable story for a remarkable book. Jesus the Christ is the first study on the life of the Savior to be written by a Latter-day Saint. It was written by request of the First Presidency and is the only book to be written in the temple. It is unique in its scope, covering not only the mortal life of the Savior but also his premortal and postmortal existence. It has contributed to doctrinal understanding and increased faith in Christ among its readers. In the official announcement of its upcoming publication, the First Presidency wrote, “The sacred subject of our Savior’s life and mission is presented as it is accepted and proclaimed by the Church that bears his Holy Name. We desire that the work, ‘Jesus the Christ’ be read and studied by the Latter-day Saints.”10 One hundred years after it was first published, that invitation still stands.

In celebration of the anniversary of the book’s publication, the Church History Library is hosting an exhibit titled Jesus the Christ: 100 Years from September 8 through October 5. The exhibit features Talmage’s handwritten manuscript, a first edition copy of the book, and significant artifacts related to its creation.

The Library is open Monday–Friday 9–5, Thursday evenings until 9, and Saturdays 10–3.