(This is an excerpt from A Beginner's Guide to Talmage by Calvin R. Stephens
James Edward Talmage was born on Sunday, September 21, 1862, at Hungerford, Berkshire, England, a third-generation member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He and his family left England May 24, 1876, arriving in the Salt Lake Valley on June 19. The Talmages soon afterward moved to Provo. There, at the age of thirteen, James enrolled in Brigham Young Academy, where he received instruction from Karl G. Maeser and others.
An avid student, James had obtained his early schooling in his home district in England, where he became an Oxford diocesan prize scholar in 1874. After arriving in Utah, James continued his education at Brigham Young Academy from 1876 to 1879, although it was interrupted at times for various reasons.
On June 15, 1879, his name was enrolled as one of twelve candidates for a normal (teaching) diploma. He had had to take theoretical examinations that lasted five days. “At the end of those five days, James emerged with an official grade of 99 per cent in efficiency and 100 per cent in standing” and received a certificate for 100 percent efficiency for composition (Talmage Story, 12).
Two months later, at the age of sixteen, James was hired to teach at Brigham Young Academy. The first year he taught grammar, penmanship, drawing, physiology, Latin reading, and phonography (shorthand). A year later geology, philosophy, and chemistry were added to his teaching responsibilities.
Desiring further education, James approached President John Taylor for counsel. President Taylor encouraged him to enter a university in the East and laid his hands on the young man’s head to give him a blessing, which was fully realized.
In 1882–83, James took courses in chemistry and geology at Lehigh University, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. “Though a special student and not a candidate for a degree, he passed during his single year of residence nearly all the examinations in the four-year course and was later graduated; and in 1883–84 he was engaged in advanced work at John Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland” (Jenson, Biographical Encyclopedia, 3:788).
In the fall of 1884, James returned to Provo and Brigham Young Academy, where he became professor of geology and chemistry. At the same time he served in Provo City as councilman, alderman, and justice of the peace. In 1888 he moved to Salt Lake City to become the principal of the Salt Lake Stake Academy, later called the Latter-day Saints College. He held that position until 1893.
In 1894, the University of Deseret was renamed the University of Utah, and James became both professor of geology and president of the university. In 1896 he received the degree of doctor of philosophy from Illinois Wesleyan University. His thesis for the doctorate was entitled “The Past and Present of the Great Salt Lake.” In 1897 he resigned as president of the University of Utah but continued there as a professor of geology for ten more years. In 1907 he resigned to pursue a private practice as a consulting mining geologist.
Meanwhile, in 1888, while serving as principal of the Salt Lake Stake Academy, James courted Merry May Booth, at one time his student and by then a teacher in Kaysville, Utah. The courtship lasted five months, and the young couple was married June 14, 1888, by President Daniel H. Wells in the Manti Temple. James and May, as she was called, became the parents of eight children—four boys and four girls. May was a devoted companion to her husband and served faithfully in various callings in the Church, including forty years as a member of the general board of the Young Women’s Mutual Improvement Association.