Mormon Rumors – Talmadge and Einstein

Here’s another excerpt from the latest Sunstone issue I thought people here might appreciate:

“A Place for Every Truth”

This regular Cornucopia column features incidents from and glimpses into the life and ministry of Elder James E. Talmage as compiled by James P Harris, who is currently working on a full-length biography of this fascinating Mormon apostle. The column title is adopted from the statement inscribed on Elder Talmage’s tombstone: “Within the Gospel of Jesus Christ there is room and place for every truth thus far learned by man or yet to be made known.”

WHENEVER I SPEAK ABOUT JAMES E. TALMAGE in firesides or other gatherings, I almost always get a question about Albert Einstein’s supposedly having said that Talmage was the smartest man he’d ever met. On one occasion, a brother became very upset with me when I told him the rumor was not true. He had heard the story from his mission president who is now a temple president, so in the man’s mind, that made the story true no matter what I said.

Here’s what I know: There are no references in Talmage’s journals suggesting that he and Einstein ever met. I have made queries at Princeton and Rutgers, where a great number of Einstein papers are housed, and the librarians know of no references to a James E. Talmage. The closest thing to an Einstein reference in the Talmage journals comes on 12 July 1924:

I had an interview with President Heber J. Grant on important matters; and he advises that I should attend the approaching meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, to be held in Toronto, Canada, next month.

Talmage arrived in Toronto for the science convention on 9 August 1924. While there, he met with LDS missionaries, and in the evening, he and mission president Joseph Quinney “attended an evening meeting at which the Einstein Theory of Relativity was the subject of discussion.”

In October 1996, I had the opportunity to interview John R. Talmage, then the last living child of James and May Talmage. We had a wonderful discussion that lasted more than three hours. John was very lucid despite his being eighty-five years-old. Near the end of our discussion, as we looked at an enlarged picture of his father in his college laboratory, I asked John about the Einstein rumor and if it was true. He shook his head “no” and said that to his knowledge, his father and Einstein had never met. John also expressed his bafflement over how that rumor might have ever started.

I first heard the Einstein/Talmage rumor in 1976 while serving as a missionary in Brazil. Since that time, I have learned that we Latter-day Saints love our faith-promoting rumors. I have also learned that James E. Talmage was an amazing man—an educator, a scientist, a father and husband, and an apostle. As one who has benefited greatly from studying the life of Dr. James E. Talmage, I can state without hesitation that neither his intellect nor any other character trait needs an endorsement from Albert Einstein or anyone else.


I'm a college professor and, well, a professional X-Mormon. Thus, ProfXM. I love my Mormon family, but have issues with LDS Inc. And I'm not afraid to tell LDS Inc. what I really think... anonymously, of course!

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19 Responses

  1. A very fascinating article. I have personally never heard of this particular “faith promoting rumor”. It is not likely to resurface, as the reality is the majority of world-wide Latter-day Saints have never heard of Talmadge. It is a pity, as he was one of the greatest scholarly minds in the history of the church.

  2. Seth R. says:

    We Mormons seriously need our own version of

  3. Guy Noir Private Eye says:

    ‘you know those crazy Mormons; once the ball starts rolling, it doesn’t Stop until it rolls over Someone or Something…
    was Hofmann the ‘best’ example? another poster said LDS,Inc. redacted his pic shown with GBH from the online edition of the Ensign…
    How fitting.
    To us cynics, it’s as though ‘the Whole Thing’ is built on B.S.

  4. Guy Noir Private Eye says:

    Oh Yeah:
    Being articulate isn’t exactly the same as being intelligent, is it?
    I liked & bought Jesus the Christ, I was enamored of it while a mish, it’s a Great book.
    As I look at it a bit more mature (?), I’m not sure it’s as deep as I originally thought. It was definately written in another era, and reflects that directly.
    As far as being intelligent (compared to Einstein, anyway) my response would be an ‘unknown’ if not questionable.
    aside: Didn’t JET suggest that Christ visits the modern apostles in the SL Temple ‘regularly’?

  5. green mormon architect says:

    “I have learned that we Latter-day Saints love our faith-promoting rumors.”

    I agree. I remember one of the first things my missionary trainer did was to photocopy a whole bunch of stories for me to use. Of course these were handed down to him, and of course all the members loved the stories. Looking back, they are the equivalent today of email chain stories and my guess is that none of them actually happened.

  6. Seth R. says:

    “‘you know those crazy Mormons; once the ball starts rolling, it doesn’t Stop until it rolls over Someone or Something…”

    Of course, no one else acts like this. Right Guy?

  7. Matt says:

    As usual, snopes is only good as a ref for those who lean towards skepticism … aka, not TBMs. Oh, and it’s also good for referencing in mixed company and pissing people off.

    Yeah, Mormonism needs its own Snopes like UFO-ology needs Carl Sagan …. like the YFZ Ranch needs Child Protective Services … like you know.

    PS. Thanks, profxm! I’d forgotten about that one and my impression of and esteem for A. Einstein just went up a notch … if that’s even possible. Yes, it is.

  8. Seth R. says:

    “As usual, snopes is only good as a ref for those who lean towards skepticism … aka, not TBMs.”

    Yeah, that’s us. The dumb hicks.

  9. Matt says:

    Sorry, Seth. Who is “us”? And what do you think a Snopes article of 1820 or so on the claims of Mormon missionaries look like? I mean, it wouldn’t really be snipes if it only called bull on the unofficial claims.

  10. Seth R. says:

    “TBM” Matt.

    Meaning alternatively “True Believing Mormon” or “True Blue Mormon.” Both of which could easily describe me.

    And apparently, to you, it’s a synonym for “retard.”

    Love you too.

  11. Matt says:

    Seth, darling, TBMs are not retarded, just a but confused and uber-credulous. Unlike the retarded, many have shown that it’s possible to cease being an TBM. A good place to start is being equally critical of the official and unofficial.


  12. Seth R. says:

    “Seth, darling, TBMs are not retarded, just a but confused and uber-credulous.”

    I fail to see any distinction in that statement Matt. My point was that you show a great deal of contempt for people who honestly believe in Mormonism. You assume that no one could possibly believe all that stuff and still be an intelligent person.

    Very juvenile approach to a group of people Matt. Hopefully you’ll grow out of it eventually and learn to treat human beings with a bit of respect.

    Again Matt, I’m a “TBM.” Does that make me incapable of spotting a bogus chain email story?

  13. Gary says:

    While this is a well written article, it does not address the central question.

    The quetion is about something Einstein -said-, not who he met.

  14. profxm says:

    And why would Einstein say that someone he had never met was the most intelligent person he EVER MET?

  15. Gary says:

    I heard the rumor as “…when asked who was the smartest man on earth, he replied Talmage”.

    So lets see if we can work up a good argument here about the mode and manner of something that probably wasn’t said anyway. 🙂

  16. Suzanne says:

    Just heard the supposed quote today in Relief Society. I was very interested and so googled it. I would have been amazed to find out that it was true.

  17. rick says:

    it happens all the time, in all religions, i dont really know if talmage was smarter than einstein, but this is what i know, talmage was a special witness of christ, and having that knowledge put him in a level that even einstein will never accomplish unless he was called from our lord just as elder talmage was…

  18. Floria says:

    The further I read, the more the better your substance is.

  1. November 19, 2010

    […] Talmage smarter than Einstein – Heard the one where someone asks Talmage what it feels like to be the smartest man alive and he quips, "I don't know. Ask James E. Talmage?" Unverifiable at best, and very likely false. […]

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