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To many people, the name of James E. Talmage is synonymous with the beauty and dignity of his masterful prose work Jesus the Christ. Two of his other religious books, The Articles of Faith and The House of the Lord, are almost as well known.As an early president of the University of Utah, a member of the Council of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a popular speaker and teacher, and the author of numerous scientific as well as religious works, he is an important figure in the history of Utah education and the Church. Because of the enduring significance and popularity of his writings, Talmage’s childhood—the framing and foundational years—is worth consideration.
Talmage was a product of a Victorian English family, some of whose members were making the change from the Anglican Church to Mormonism. His family, home, church, and schools nurtured his wit; his love of learning; his ability to write clear, powerful prose; and his devotion to the LDS church.
Birth and Family Background
James Talmage was the first son of Susannah Preater and James Joyce Talmage.[*** graphic omitted; see PDF ***] [*** graphic omitted; see PDF ***] He was born on Sunday, September 21, 1862, in his parents’ living quarters in the Bell Inn in Hungerford, Berkshire, England. Hungerford, a prosperous market and resort town of southwestern England, was located in west Berkshire about seventy miles west of central London. Hungerford is linked by the Kennet River with Newbury to the east and with Ramsbury and Marlborough, Wiltshire, to the west. The Kennet rises in northeastern Wiltshire and flows east to the Thames and the sea. The winding, shallow valley shared by the four towns was known as the Vale of Kennet. The river and the proximity of the four towns tied them almost inseparably together, linking them economically as well as geographically. Market days, with each town having a different day and some of them different products, were held in all but Ramsbury. The residents of the vale patronized the markets in all of the towns. The Great Western Railway line, which ran through three of these towns, tightened these natural bonds.
James’s father was the manager—and possibly the proprietor—of the Bell Inn, a hotel founded in 1494 and one of approximately fifteen such establishments then operating in Hungerford.Information about the Bell is skimpy. Despite its early origins, by the 1860s it was clearly a secondary establishment, smaller and quieter than its more successful contemporaries, the Bear, the Three Swans, and the John O’Gaunt. The Bell was located south of the Kennet and Avon Canal in upper Hungerford. Most of the larger and more prosperous hotels were situated on Charnham Street (the old stage road from London) near the Kennet River Bridge in north Hungerford. Even with the large number of travelers who stayed in Hungerford, competition was keen with inns as large and famous as the Bear.
The life of James’s parents was characterized by long hours, alcoholic beverages, noise and frivolity, hot stove and hearth, and a wide variety of guests, including some travelers of questionable moral character.The Talmages risked disfavor of some townspeople and the local clergy by earning their living as innkeepers and by dispensing alcoholic beverages at a time when the temperance movement was strong and active in the area. The Talmages also suffered under the unfavorable reaction of their neighbors to their religious views.
James’s ten younger brothers and sisters were born in the Bell Inn or in the family cottage in Eddington, a northern suburb, where the Talmages moved shortly after James’s birth. About that same time, James’s older sister, Patience, died at the age of two.[*** graphic omitted; see PDF ***]
Life in Ramsbury
When James himself was two, his parents took him to live with his grandparents, James and Mary Talmage, in Ramsbury.Under such an arrangement, James became deeply attached to his grandfather, and the old man’s influence was probably the single most important factor in James’s young life:
In later years he delighted in telling his own children and grandchildren stories of Grandfather Talmage, stories of formal and informal lessons taught and learned, of occasional stern admonitions, of joyous outings in pursuit of fish in the [Kennet and Avon] Canal that ran . . . [through] Hungerford and Ramsbury, or of waterfowl and small game in the marshes and fields—and through them all ran always the vibrant feeling of loving remembrance that invariably lights the eye and warms the voice of one speaking of someone unusually close and deeply loved, who has exerted a major influence for good on the speaker’s life.
Were there sufficient sources, we would do well to study the elder Talmage more closely. What little we know of him comes mostly from family tradition. He was a farmer and a leading citizen of Ramsbury. His roots were anchored firmly in the soil of Wiltshire, where his family had resided for over a century. Other members of his family lived nearby. With the exception of a few, such as his son and a daughter, they viewed with disfavor his acceptance of Mormonism. He was a religious man with a strong sense of fair play, and, if his relationship with his grandson is any indication, he had a knack for relating to children.
Grandfather Talmage’s initial encounter with Mormonism, probably in the early 1840s, demonstrated his courage, sensitivity, honesty, sense of fair play, and ability to influence his friends and neighbors. According to family tradition, he was at first a leader of the anti-Mormon mobs. Later, a change came over him, and when the elders came to his home attempting to escape from an angry mob, he hid them in a closet and threw the mob off the trail. His wife fed those missionaries, and he was later converted by them.
Grandfather Talmage participated in local politics and community affairs. The full extent of his involvement is not known, but the esteem in which he was held by his fellow citizens is evidenced to some degree by his election as a member of the annual Hocktide Jury in Hungerford in 1867 and 1869. Hocktide, a local holiday celebrated since feudal times on the second Tuesday after Easter, was marked each year by the election of new town officials and a jury of leading citizens to oversee the annual financial accounting to the citizenry. The jury examined the town records and certified that they had been accurately kept and that the financial accounts were true and balanced. When all was reported and in order, the jurors signed the report page in the high constable’s record book. James E. Talmage’s signature was as big and bold in the record—although a little shaky in 1869—as was that of his grandson on Utah and Brigham Young Academy documents many years later.
During the three years he lived in Ramsbury, James was also undoubtedly influenced by his grandmother, Mary Joyce Talmage. Unfortunately, we know little of her during that time. James did not mention her in his journal until they were both living in Utah, and family records reveal little about her beyond her birth in Hampshire. However, it is inconceivable to think of James living in her home in his early years and being around her for the rest of his young adult life without having been influenced in a major way. James was impacted by other members of the Talmage family in Ramsbury as well. When he was twenty-nine, James wrote that his cousin Ada “was as light-hearted and winsome as she used to be, when as a boy, I gazed upon her as my ideal of gentle womanhood.”
James resided in Ramsbury approximately three years, attending infant school from time to time.Infant schools, also called dame schools, were sponsored by the National Society of the Church of England. They were attended by children ages two to seven and were usually taught by women. The schools were very common in the 1860s in the country as well as the towns although “on the whole dame schools were little more than baby-minding establishments and . . . the education which they gave was extremely rudimentary.” These schools could hardly have been otherwise as they consisted of a group of twenty or more children at widely varying stages of development, all entrusted to the care of one elderly woman. The weekly fee of a few pence she received for each pupil would have been well earned in simply maintaining order and assisting the smaller children with their personal needs. Depictions of life for the children in the dame schools are usually either grim or idyllic, the quality of a child’s experience usually depending on the disposition of the teacher. That James attended only intermittently and was given formal lessons by his grandfather suggests that the quality of his early education left something to be desired.
Not only was Ramsbury the Talmage ancestral home, with all its natural ties and emotional attractions, but it also offered a somewhat contrasting environment to Hungerford for the rearing of a child. Hungerford was a prosperous market town situated at the crossroads of southwest England. Ramsbury, on the other hand, was a large villagewith a small pottery industry and several tanners, shoemakers, glovers, brewers, and collar makers. Ramsbury’s inhabitants were a conservative, rural people who frowned on noise at night and drunkenness. In the 1860s, frequent letters were written to the editors of local newspapers from citizens irate over intemperance. About the only excitement that occurred in Ramsbury during Talmage’s boyhood resulted from the annual meat (stock) show at Christmas, the fall hiring fair, an occasional brass band concert, and the unrest of the laboring classes.
Ramsbury boasted several churches, including the Anglican, the Primitive Methodists, the Congregationalists, and the Independent Baptists.Christian service was evident. For example, on March 26, 1863, a fire destroyed eight cottages in Ramsbury. Within two weeks, the Reverend J. Hawkins, one of the local clergy, collected nearly thirty pounds in currency and distributed it to the victims of the fire. In a related vein, local businessman E. Meyrick sponsored an annual Christmas dinner for the indigent in Ramsbury.
The Talmages and the Church
It is not clear how early Talmage was exposed to the tenets and principles of Mormonism,[*** graphic omitted; see PDF ***] a faith viewed with general disapproval, derision, and hostility in Hungerford and most of England in the 1860s. In his journal, he later recalled the many times he had attended St. Savior’s Anglican Church in Eddington, “when a very little boy, . . . before Father had become a member of the Mormon Church.” Neither do we know precisely when Mormonism first entered Hungerford and Ramsbury. Apparently missionaries were active and successful in the immediate area in the early 1840s as a part of the early burst of missionary work in England. By June 4, 1843, nearby Newbury had twenty-two members, including one elder and two priests. In September of that year, a disturbance in Hungerford was attributed to the Mormon elders. In response, Hugh Bourne, a founder of Primitive Methodism and an ardent preacher at open-air camp and revival meetings, “had to rush to Hungerford,” despite his seventy-one years of age, because “the society [of the Primitive Methodists] had been disturbed by the influence of the Latter-day Saints.”
Steady growth continued in the LDS church thereafter. Four years later (1847), when the first companies of Mormons were arriving in the valley of the Great Salt Lake, Newbury had 93 members—an increase of 71 members—and one year later the total had grown to 123 members, and they were called the Newbury Branch in the Millennial Star for the first time.Conversions in England reached a peak in 1851 when 2.8 percent of the Mormons in England—some 840 out of 30,000—resided in Wiltshire, most of them apparently from the poor and laboring classes. After 1851 the number of conversions and members fell steadily as the result of both emigration and unfavorable publicity spread by the critics and enemies of Mormonism who were increasingly active after the public announcement of the doctrine of polygamy.
One source states that “in the early 19th century several houses in Ramsbury were registered for worship by dissenters. One may have been that used by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in which 30 attended the service held on Census Sunday in 1851.”Branches were organized in Ramsbury and Hungerford on January 1, 1852, at which time they were placed in the Reading Conference. A few years later they were changed to the Wiltshire Conference, and by Talmage’s eleventh year there was a single branch, which was headquartered in Ramsbury and was part of the London Conference.
James’s father was president of the Ramsbury Branch for a time although the exact dates of his service are not known.James later stated that his mother’s house in England “was opened to the elders and not a few of them learned to call her ‘Mother’ from the kind treatment they received from her hands,” no doubt a reference to the years when she was a branch president’s wife. James recalled his own deep attachment to his mother:
Mother and I were close and confidential companions. She shared my boyish troubles, heartened me in failure, rejoiced in every little success, and was a loving friend in my youth and early manhood. It was a joy to tell her, by word and deed, of my thankfulness and appreciation while yet she lived in mortality; though no expression of gratitude could be adequate.
Return to Hungerford
When James returned to Hungerford to live with his parents at age five, it is likely that the purpose of the three-year visit had been achieved. Certainly, his grandparents were still able to care for him, since his grandfather, at least, was actively involved with James right up to the month before the old man’s death in 1874. But James was old enough to help around the hotel at age five, and there were younger children who also needed attention. He almost certainly helped care for them. Moreover, he needed to receive a quality education, and the Ramsbury schools were inferior to those of Hungerford at that time.
That James was probably helping with the hotel and the younger children is implied in a journal entry which states that he attended school only “at irregular intervals” for the next three years. He also may have missed some school because of his parents’ inability to pay the weekly fee or his own need to escape periodically from the daily inculcation of Anglican dogma. The latter two possibilities are unlikely, however, since the fee was only a few pence, and children with frequent absences were required to pay even higher fees. This penalty was to encourage high attendance in order for the school to pass inspection at the annual visit by a royal inspector.
A high absence rate was normal for most of the children attending the national school during the same time period, and night school was held for those twelve and over (including adults) whose daily work prevented their attendance. All over Victorian England, children were an important part of the economic structure, and Talmage was probably no exception to the general rule. He was needed at home. Except for occasional visits to Ramsbury and some schooling there during his tenth year, he spent his fifth to twelfth years in Hungerford.
Life in Hungerford
Agriculture was the mainstay of Hungerford and its neighboring towns, and many of the services rendered and events held were an outgrowth of an agrarian and pastoral society. The soils of the Vale of Kennet were among the most fertile in England.In most years, the vale was lush and green from abundant rainfall. During the dry years, the farmers irrigated the meadows and fields from the waters of the river.
Barley was the principal crop of the area. Some of it went to support the local brewing industry—Hungerford was famous for its beer. Some barley was consumed locally by the citizenry and used for livestock feed, and the remainder was shipped by rail to London, along with wheat, oats, beans, peas, and occasionally potatoes. By 1874 haymaking “became general” in the neighborhood of Hungerford.
Cows and horses were kept, of course, as a necessity for daily life, but sheep were especially plentiful and supported a thriving industry. The annual Hungerford Sheep Fair was held in August, attracting several thousand entries and exciting all with a myriad of related festivities, including races at Hungerford Downs and nearby Lambourn.[*** graphic omitted; see PDF ***]
Nearly as important as agriculture in the economy of Hungerford and Ramsbury were the Kennet River and the fishing industry. Hungerford was “a towne famous for its Troutes” as early as 1654. In 1688 no less a personage than Samuel Pepys commented on the “good trouts, eels and cray fish” after eating dinner in Hungerford. In its descent from the hills of Wiltshire to Hungerford, the river fell four hundred feet, its swift pace providing an excellent habitat for trout, salmon, grayling, and perch.A principal reason that the fish thrived was the abundance of crayfish, which was a favorite trout food.
Equally important was the fishery maintenance and preservation program implemented by the town authorities, who regularly destroyed trash and predator fish such as carp and stocked the stream with trout.By limiting the length of the season, by limiting bait to artificial flies, and by limiting fishing to the commoners with a vested right and to those visitors with tickets purchased at a reasonable cost, the Fishing Committee insured a future for the fishery and the revenue it generated. Visitor revenues, whether from fishing or from purchases made in the shops and hotels, were important to the local economy.
Hungerford was a popular resort and holiday spot. From earliest times, it had been a gathering place for visitors—some who while en route to other places simply stopped to enjoy a day of rest on the banks of the Kennet and others who came specifically for the fishing or the climate of Berkshire. The air was pure and bracing on the downs and mild in the valleys. No equally level country in England could compare with the Vale of Kennet for picturesque scenery. Its meadows, heathlands, chalk hills, pinewoods, and royal park and forest attracted many visitors each year.
Within Hungerford, “there were the carriers’ carts, the ‘Sociables,’ and the four, six, and eight-horse waggons,”and a large fleet of yellow-and-blue horse cabs called flys. The flys ran between the hotels, the business district, and the railway station. In the busy streets with the market traffic and the flys going back and forth to the trains a dozen times a day, horse and cart accidents were a regular occurrence.
One example of the nature of the local tourism industry is the following advertisement run by the Bear Hotel in an 1877 guide to Berkshire:
A very Old-established family, Commercial, and Posting House. Situated on the London, Bath and Bristol Road. Flys to and from every train.
Among those who had responded to the enticements of such advertisements and enjoyed the pleasures of Hungerford were some of the most famous names in English history, including Henry VIII, Queen Ann of Cleves, Queen Elizabeth I, Charles I, and William of Orange.
When James was not in school, at work in the hotel, at the cottage in Eddington, or by the canal fishing, he strolled the streets of Hungerford with his friends. The town’s surprisingly cosmopolitan air, high level of activity, medieval traditions, and mixture of the urban and rural made Hungerford a vivid and interesting place to spend one’s boyhood. Especially exciting was market day, when the streets were alive with people. Every Wednesday the farmers brought their produce, livestock, flour, and bread to town to sell or trade. The many shops did a thriving business.
Captivating for James and his friends was the wide variety of offerings in the many shops and cottage industries. Always available were foodstuffs produced locally. The smell of fresh-baked bread and pastries mingled with the scent of fresh meat at the butcher’s (lamb chops, kidney, and salmon or trout from the Kennet), the rich bouquet of leather from the glover’s and the saddler’s, the fragrance of kiln-dried oak and beechwood at the lumber dealer, and the clean, medicinal smell of the chemist’s shop (drugstore). Cheese, milk, and vegetables were available at the grocer’s along with imports from Crosse and Blackwell in London. Imports included exotics such as pickles, orange marmalade, calves’ feet in jelly, spices, and mushroom catsup.[*** graphic omitted; see PDF ***]
The people of Hungerford provided many additional activities and annual events that were sheer heaven for a boy—even a studious boy or one with no pence to spend. There were celebrations on most holidays, with a special two-day affair on New Year’s Eve and Day which included bell-ringing, Church services, and a pigeon shoot “for a fat pig.”(Due to a shortage of pigeons, the latter was canceled the year James was twelve.) There were bicycle races, horse races, cricket matches, flower shows, and fairs in the summer and fall; ice skating on the canal in the winter; and concerts and circuses year round. Hungerford had a brass band (as did Ramsbury), a drum-and-fife band, a singing class, a choral society, and numerous choirs, including the boys’ choir from the national school. There were many clubs, including a chapter of the Order of Foresters, which sponsored an annual fete in Hungerford Park. A parade, music, a cricket match, much food and drink, hurdle racing, flat racing, jumping in sacks, dancing, and quoits (ring toss) marked the all-day affair. In James’s eleventh year, the fete was attended by over two thousand visitors, and the park was cleared at 8 P.M. “after a most successful day.” The Annual Hiring and Pleasure Fair in 1862 was
the usual heterogeneous collection of gingerbread stalls, penny shows, shooting targets, etc., which are the invariable concomitants of a statute fair, . . . and had many patrons. Nor did the various public houses lack patronage, judging from the numerous specimens of inebriated rusticity to be seen in the evening.
There were regular excursion trains to Kensington Station in west London to visit the Great Exhibition and the Crystal Palace; in short, there was no dearth of diversionary activities.
One highlight of the year for all the children of Hungerford was Hocktide Court. On the second Tuesday after Easter, the townspeople gathered at the sound of “the Hungerford Horn, presented to the corporate body by John O’Gaunt. It . . . [was] blown every Horn Tuesday, to assemble the inhabitants for the election” of the high constable and other officials for another year.Hocktide was also a holiday, hearkening back to an annual renewal of feudal pledges between the Lord of the Manor and his serfs. Anciently, “before the days of policemen, two tithingmen were appointed annually to keep a watch over the inhabitants and property of Hungerford; and on Hock Tuesday were entitled to demand a penny a head from the townspeople for services rendered during the past year.”
By Talmage’s day, the tithingmen were no longer limited to two and were composed chiefly of tradesmen of the town (thus James’s father was eligible). Their duties had long ceased, but the tradition was perpetuated. After receiving from the high constable a staff gaily decorated with flowers, surmounted by an orange, and bedecked with blue ribbon, the tithingmen began their progress through the town. First they went to all the schools, requesting a holiday for the children, who were immediately released from school. The children then accompanied the tithingmen from house to house, with the officials requesting a penny from the men and a kiss from the ladies. The day’s festivities were concluded with a grand distribution of oranges to the children.
On the following Friday,
a court called Court Baron [was] . . . held, at which the officers elect [were] . . . sworn in; every resident in the Borough above fourteen years of age [was required to] . . . attend or be fined one penny. . . . A banquet [was] . . . served in the evening [probably at the Bear Hotel] in honor of the new constable. The “immortal memory of John O. Gaunt” [was] . . . drunk in solemn silence, and a breakfast on the following morning [terminated] . . . the Hocktide revelry.
Abundant cultural events and activities also occurred in Hungerford.In addition to the national school, which offered night classes and the use of its facilities to clubs and community groups, there were several smaller church-related schools. Frequent lectures, some in a religious vein, were sponsored in the Corn Exchange and Town Hall by the churches and various clubs and lodges. For example, “An Evening with the Poets” was held in the Congregational School on January 31, 1874, and in the spring of the same year, several foreign missionaries spoke on Sierra Leone, Madagascar, and other African countries.
There was no free library as such, but James had no dearth of reading material. He was able to draw upon half a dozen local newspapers, four published in Marlborough and two in Newbury, and, if he desired, papers from Reading, Oxford, and London. He could also listen to the cracker-barrel-type discussions of the contents of those papers which took place at the Bell Inn. The local papers covered world events through excerpts from the Times, providing ample coverage of world news—including such events as the U.S. Civil War, the settlement of the American West, an occasional sensationalistic article on the Mormons—and of national and regional news, including descriptions of the activities and beliefs of Victorian social reformers. James was taught Anglican doctrine in school, and he had ready access to the standard works of the Mormon faith as well as related works such as the Millennial Star and missionary tracts. In no sense of the word was he a sheltered boy.
Compared to many of his contemporaries in the psychologically depressing slums of the large cities, James E. Talmage’s childhood was idyllic.Children in the back-to-back houses of the great, industrial towns experienced inadequate sanitation and water supplies as well as little familial time and attention. After spending long hours in the sweat shops of the manufacturing districts of industrial England, parents were too tired to care at the end of the day, and the children, who all too often joined them as members of the work force, were too tired to play.
Between the ages of five and eight, James was enrolled in the Infant School of the Hungerford National School. It carried that name because the local board, in order to obtain outside funding, was willing to subscribe to the “terms of union” of the National Society of the Church of England. (The infant school that James had attended in Ramsbury was part of the same system.) These terms of union required that the children be instructed in the holy scriptures and in the liturgy and catechism of the established church, with such instruction supervised by the parochial clergyman; that the children be regularly assembled for the purpose of attending service in the parish church; and that the masters and mistresses be members of the Church of England.
The National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church—its full name—was formed in October 1811 as an arm of the Church of England. In order to accomplish its purpose of educating the poor throughout England and Wales, the National Society provided financial support to schools at all levels, from infant schools to training schools for teachers, disbursing funds by diocese. Hungerford Parish, as a part of the Diocese of Oxford, was one of 242 places receiving part of a total of £19,970 prior to December 1868 for the purpose of constructing local school buildings.
The school day began with a roll call for which a form was provided with spaces to indicate whether the student was “Present,” “Absent with leave,” “Absent without leave,” “Absent-ill,” or “Absent-weather.”Following the daily roll and, on Fridays, the payment of weekly fees, there were devotionals and prayers and then two religion lessons. The religion lessons, one lasting twenty-five minutes and the other twenty minutes, included memorization of hymns, scriptures, and the Lord’s Prayer. Children under age nine were given picture lessons on the Old and New Testament. This morning routine was followed Monday through Thursday. Friday was examination day. By age eight, the child was expected to have mastered step I, which consisted of proficiency in the following: accurate recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, some knowledge of God the Father as creator, some knowledge of God the Son as redeemer, some knowledge of God the Holy Ghost as sanctifier, knowledge of simple hymns, and a short and very simple form of private prayer.
Because hymns were required for graduation, Talmage sang them along with the other children. The National Society printed the hymns on large 18″ × 30″ posters for the teachers to use in leading the students. Some of the theology of the hymns ran counter to Mormon doctrine, but there was much that was familiar and consistent, such as “Hymn to the Blessed Trinity” which sang praises to “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; Godhead one, and Persons Three.”There were also the comforting words in such hymns as “Visitation of the Sick,” and “Hymn For Evening”:
Our changeful lives are ebbing to an end,
Onward to darkness and to death we tend;
O Conqueror of the Grave, be Thou our Guide,
Be Thou our Light in Death’s dark Eventide;
Then in our mortal hour will be no gloom,
No sting in Death, no terror in the Tomb.
Thou, Who in Darkness walking didst appear
Upon the waves, and Thy Disciples cheer,
Come, Lord, in lonesome days, when storms assail,
And earthly hopes and human succours fail;
When all is dark, may we behold Thee nigh,
And hear Thy Voice, “Fear not, for it is I.”
Victorian schoolboys were taught to be proud of the British empire and to emulate the heroes of England’s climb to the pinnacle of world dominance. The “success story was the favorite Victorian fiction.”Heroes of such stories included not merely military men, explorers, and adventurers, but also businessmen and industrialists such as china king Josiah Wedgwood and railroad builder Sir Daniel Gooch, and social reformers such as Robert Owen. In Talmage’s geography notebook and in his examination paper for standard six, the heavy emphasis on Britain’s worldwide possessions testify that he was indeed taught to be proud of the British Empire. Also, the manner in which the notes were arranged and the emphasis on dates and other specific facts in James’s history notebook, suggest that Dickens’s description of Victorian education can be generalized and applied to Talmage.
Dickens contended that Victorian education engaged in “taking childhood captive, and dragging it into gloomy statistical dens by the hair.” Victorian school children, he wrote, “had been lectured at from their tenderest years; coursed, like little hares.” In the classroom, “it hailed facts all day long, so very hard.” The children were an “inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.” “The schoolmaster seemed a kind of cannon loaded to the muzzle with facts, and prepared to blow them out of the regions of childhood at one discharge.” “You are never to fancy,” instructed the government inspector, as he sternly lectured the students of Dickens’s schoolmaster, Mr. Choakumchild, on the first day of school:
Fact, fact, fact! . . . You are to be in all things regulated and governed . . . by fact. We hope to have, before long, a board of fact, composed of commissioners of fact, who will force the people to be a people of fact and of nothing but fact. You must discard the word Fancy altogether. You have nothing to do with it. You are not to have any object of use or ornament, what would be a contradiction in fact.
There is ample evidence in Talmage’s surviving school records and papers and in his speaking and writing of later years that he was a capable memorizer and that he developed a good head for facts at an early age. However, he never lost his appetite for “fancy,” as may be seen in this combination of fact and fancy from his geography notes:
Cape Colony, Africa. The climate is on the whole healthy. The worst defect is the irregularity of rain which either falls in torrents or is absent for very long periods. Sometimes long droughts, or heavy rains or stifling hot winds come and make the settlers wish they were at home in Gt. Britain again. . . . The summit of Table Mountain is often covered by a cloud which people call the Table-cloth, when the Table-cloth is spread then stormy weather may be looked for.
The school’s afternoon was occupied by the teaching of secular subjects. The content of the curriculum varied with the individual school and depended upon what each school could convince the crown inspector to approve. Five subjects were standard fare in all elementary schools—reading, writing, arithmetic, grammar, and geography. Other subjects offered in some elementary schools of the time were algebra, geometry, natural philosophy, natural sciences, political economy, English history, English literature, French, Latin, German, singing, and military drill. In addition, the boys of Hungerford regularly met the boys of Ramsbury in cricket matches.
No record has turned up of how well James performed in infant school, but on May 8, 1874, at age twelve, he passed the examination of the Oxford Diocesan Association for a second-class certificate, which meant that he had completed the requirements for “graduation” from elementary school. Second-class certificates were the highest offered at that stage in a child’s education. He was then eligible to earn a first-class certificate through “good service” and go on to enroll in a training school for teachers.
In order to prepare himself for the examination to earn his second-class certificate and to qualify as an Oxford Diocesan Scholar, James had undergone four years of stringent schooling. From age eight to ten, he had attended the Hungerford National School, and from age eleven to fourteen, he had probably attended both the new board school in Ramsbury and the Hungerford National School. His progress, and that of all the students, was checked periodically—at least annually—by a church/crown inspector. For example, the Marlborough Journal reported that “children of the National School were examined on Monday by the Rev. DuPort and Mr. Pierce. The children passed successfully and a favourable report will be given on Wednesday.”
When we analyze James’s extant schoolwork, the picture that emerges is one of an earnest, hardworking child who was not without his foibles and who did not lack a sense of humor. A history notebook written at age ten and geography notes and an examination written between the ages of eight and twelve reveal firm, clear handwriting, in ink, complete with Spencerian flourishes and embellishments, a characteristic of much of his later work. He wrote with the earnestness of a typical ten- to twelve-year-old child, with occasional spelling errors and some problems with verbs—for example, he tended to pluralize at the wrong time. Periodically, the serious and almost parrot-like recitation of facts was interrupted with an expression of his own feelings or with a snappy comment. His notes include the following:
Australia. The natives are black or sooty brown very lean and very lazy but they are clever at hunting the kangaroo and other animals and can well use the weapons needful to kill or catch them.
Malta. The poor speak Arabic and can beg in English. The polite tongue is Italian.
Gibraltar. It has been denominated, the ‘Key of the Mediterranean,’ which means that through holding it the British can if they please keep any ship from entering, or coming out of that sea.
Comments such as this one at the end of the section on Gibraltar—“Englishmen in Spain have to endure many an uncivil act because we keep that rock”—demonstrate a plucky forthrightness on his part, no matter what the origin or authorship of the comment may have been.The style of the exam questions, “Describe the British Possessions in Europe,” “Describe India,” “Describe the South Coast of England,” required the student to write a clear essay at an early age. Needed were a thorough knowledge of the facts, an organized mind, and the ability to write clearly. Talmage seems to have had all three. Seeing these qualities in him at age ten to twelve helps us understand more fully how he could become a member of the Brigham Young Academy faculty at age seventeen and a member of its governing board before he was thirty.
A final indication of his seriousness and the quality of his schoolwork is found in his practice of transcribing notes. While teaching in the Brigham Young Academy in 1880, he copied his notes from an English history course taken in 1872 into a larger more permanent notebook at no small effort and with minimal changes. By way of comparison, this task would be comparable to a college freshman of today copying his fifth-grade notes into his college notebook to use in his job as a tutor to high-school students.
The abuses to children generally present in Victorian Society were not practiced in the Talmage household. If Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid[*** graphic omitted; see PDF ***] had called on a given Friday to check on James’s welfare during his later school years, the only person she would have found guilty of ill-using the boy was the schoolmaster. Mr. James Newhook found nothing strange or unusual in the thrashings he gave James and indeed would have been quite appalled to have been challenged; a common belief was that a boy needed a few belts each day for general purposes. It was not uncommon to knock a boy down “in order to teach him (as young gentlemen used to be taught at public schools) that he must be an extra good boy that day.” Newhook taught only the upper classes, meaning that he encountered James Talmage after the boy’s introduction to Mormonism and possibly after his baptism in 1873. Aggravating the situation was Mr. Newhook’s hearty condemnation of Mormonism. James was harassed, thrashed, and beaten by Newhook, possibly as a result of his faith rather than for any school-boy infractions.
James’s later schooling may have been more formative in his development because it was broader and deeper. In all likelihood, it still included a generous dosage of Anglicanism. The absences of his fifth to seventh years were probably not repeated because by his eighth birthday the Education Act of 1870 was made law.One of its provisions empowered local school boards to pass laws for compulsory attendance of all children ages five to thirteen.
In the spring of 1873, his eleventh year, James became violently ill and was near death. His father, for an unexplained reason, attributed the illness to his own failure to have James baptized prior to that time. He solemnly promised the Lord in prayer that if James recovered he would promptly baptize the boy. Shortly thereafter James did recover and plans for the baptism were made. James later described that important event as follows:
During my eleventh year, in the spring of 1873, I was stricken with a severe illness; and, as my parents afterward informed me, my life appeared to be near its close. My father associated this illness with the fact that my baptism into the Church had been deferred beyond the time at which it should have been attended to. At that time, father was president of the Hungerford and Ramsbury Branch of the Church.
As my father afterward told me, he made a solemn covenant with the Lord that if my life should be spared he would lose no time in having me baptized after my recovery. We were then living at Eddington, a suburb of Hungerford, Berkshire, England.
Ellen Gilbert, also in the eleventh year of her age, a faithful daughter of a devoted mother, was to be baptized at the same time. Ellen Gilbert’s brother, Elijah, was then a deacon in the Branch. On June 15, 1873, my father and Elijah Gilbert left our house shortly before midnight, traversed the Kennet bridge back and forth, looked around the neighborhood, and returned to the house telling us that all seemed clear, and that Ellen and I were to prepare to enter the water. In the interest of caution they went out once more, and returned with the same report. Ellen and I accompanied father and Brother Elijah to the place selected in the mill race for our immersion.
I was to be baptized first. As father stood in the water and took my hand, I being on the bank with Ellen and her brother, we were veritably horror-stricken by a combined shriek, yell, scream, howl—I know not how to describe the awful noise—such as none of us had ever heard. It seemed to be a combination of every fiendish ejaculation we could conceive of. I remember how I trembled at the awful manifestation, which had about it the sharpness and volume of a thunderclap followed by an angry roar, which died away as a hopeless groan.
The fearsome sound seemed to come from a point not more than fifty yards from us, near the end of the great bridge. The night was one of bright starlight, and we could have seen anyone on the bridge, which was built of white stone with low walls. Elijah Gilbert, with courage unusual for so young a man, started to investigate, but father called him back. Father, who was also trembling, as were the others, then asked me if I was too frightened to be baptized; I was much too terrified to speak, so I answered by stepping into the water. I was baptized, and Ellen Gilbert was baptized immediately afterward.
As we started back to the house, not more than three hundred yards from the spot at which we had been immersed, father and Elijah went toward the bridge, surveyed the immediate vicinity, but failed to find any person abroad besides ourselves.
The frightening noise had sounded to us as loud enough to be heard over a great area; but none except ourselves seemed to have heard it, as not even a window was opened by anybody in the neighborhood, and no mention or inquiry concerning the matter was later made by others. Neighborly gossip was quite the order of the time; and surely, if that blood curdling shriek had been heard by others than ourselves it would have been the subject of talk for many a day.
But we heard it, as we shall never forget.
Sister Ellen, Brother Elijah and I have spoken together on the matter as we have occasionally met. On January 20, 1912, I was a visitor at the home of Bishop and Sister [Ellen Gilbert] Hyer, in Lewiston, Utah; and when mention was made of the unusual incident associated with our baptisms, I requested Sister Hyer to relate in detail the circumstance as she remembered it, for I have often wondered whether the distance of time had in any way distorted my view and rendered my remembrance inaccurate. I was struck by the strict agreement, even as to minute details, between her recital and my recollection. On July 20, 1919, I was again in the home of Sister Hyer and made a similar request; but as Sister Hyer wisely suggested that as her brother Elijah was present, he should be the one to tell the story. This he did, and his account agreed with our remembrance in all details.
Blinding of Talmage’s Brother
This was but one of several significant events which transpired in James’s boyhood and left a profound emotional and spiritual impression upon him. A second occurred a few months after his baptism. He was working with a digging fork on a very dark night. His brother Albert, then about five years of age and six years his junior, came quietly towards him without giving notice of his approach. James later wrote that
until he screamed I had not an idea he was near me; then to my horror I discovered that while in the act of pitching with the fork I had struck him with the tool, one grain piercing the ball of his left eye. This organ was finally removed, though not before the right had become sympathetically affected and he was almost absolutely blind, being only enabled to distinguish very bright colors and then only when within a few inches of the eye . . . I need say nothing in regard to my feelings and reflections at this mishap; . . . my relief lies in the promise pronounced on him by the priesthood of God that he shall recover.
Albert never fully recovered, and James was deeply solicitous of his welfare into their retiring years.
Events such as his baptism and the accident with Albert suggest that James had ample reason to be serious and spiritually oriented while yet a boy. Talmage’s son John wrote of the injury to Albert’s eye as follows: “More than any other event, or series of events, this awful occurrence may account for the deep, almost fanatical dedication to work, to Church duties and to all the serious adult responsibilities that marked the life of young James E. Talmage from that terrible day forward.”
Grandfather Talmage’s Death
A third event occurred the following spring. James had just returned from a month-long tour of Hampshire and Berkshire with his grandfatherwhen the old gentleman became quite ill. The old man died on July 16, 1874, after four weeks of illness, during which time James remained with his grandmother helping her to nurse his grandfather. Again James recorded his feelings:
Having been very closely attached to him his death affected me severely; and the more so as I never before lost a near relative to my knowledge. I began to reflect seriously on his actions, as brought up by memory to note them very closely, and at length to meditate on his present lot; fully knowing he died in the possession of the priesthood and a firm belief and faith in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day-Saints. One night while meditating in this manner I received a very curious dream concerning him, which had the effect of so firmly imprinting on my mind the conviction that his lot was “allright,” that not the slightest doubt in that respect has ever been entertained.
Following that account was the final boyhood entry in his journal:
My father was making calculations to emigrate with his whole family to Utah, America, at the time of my grandfather’s demise; then however he was necessitated to remain in England until affairs were settled. He moved with his family from Hungerford to the family estate at Ramsbury where all remained until a sale was effected. We left Ramsbury and enrolled as Mormon emigrants set out on our journey to America, May 22nd 1876. Set sail on board the Steamship “Nevada” of “Guion lane of Steamers” from Liverpool, May 24th 1876.
Overall, mid-Victorian southwestern England was a stimulating environment for a boy and an idyllic inculcator of the character traits James E. Talmage would exhibit as a man. The bucolic countryside; the romance and adventure of the river; the bustle of business; the discipline of school; the diversions of fun and frolic; the love and companionship of family; the stimulation of culture and travel; the wisdom and joys of religion; the sobering influence of persecution and sorrow—all of these James knew as a boy. And all of these he drew upon as a man. In his adult life, James Talmage responded as faithfully to the call of duty as the River Kennet answers gravity’s pull to the sea.