Talmage was born and raised in Hungerford, Berkshire, England. He was baptized into the LDS Church at age 10 on June 15, 1873. He moved with his family to Provo, Utah Territory, in 1877. In Provo, he studied the Normal Course at Brigham Young Academy (BYA), with Karl G. Maeser as one of his teachers; he graduated in 1880.
In 1881, Talmage received a collegiate diploma from BYA's Scientific Department, the first such diploma to be issued. His early predilection was for the sciences, and in 1882 and 1883 he took selected courses in chemistry and geology at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
Though a special student and not a candidate for a degree, during his single year Talmage passed nearly all the examinations required in the four-year course; he graduated and in 1883 and 1884 he was engaged in advanced work at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. Talmage served on the Provo City Council in 1888 and 1889.
Talmage married Merry May Booth (1868–1944) on June 14, 1888. Booth was a native of Alpine, Utah, and the daughter of immigrants from Lancashire. She started studies at the normal school connected with BYA in 1885, when she was 16. It was there she met Talmage, who was one of her instructors. While at BYA, Booth was secretary of the Polysophical Society. After completing her course of normal study, May took a job as a teacher in Kaysville, Utah. A few months later, Talmage undertook a project to study the waters of the Great Salt Lake; Talmage's main reason for this journey, though, was to pursue a relationship with Booth, and five months later they were married.
The Talmages had eight children. Among their children was John Talmage, who wrote a biography of his father. Another of their children, Sterling B. Talmage (1889–1956), followed his father's interests and became a geologist.
Talmage studied chemistry and geology at Lehigh University and Johns Hopkins University. He received a B.S. degree from Lehigh University in 1891 and a Ph.D. from Illinois Wesleyan University for nonresident work in 1896.
In the spring of 1884, while at Johns Hopkins, Talmage journaled about laboratory experiments involving the ingestion of hashish, reporting that interviews with users conducted by himself and two colleagues yielded very different accounts of the experience. Talmage noted that the ill effects of opium were very unpleasant and had been well-documented, "[b]ut the ill effects are reported very low in the Haschich or Hemp administration; and we have concluded to try effect of a small dose upon ourselves ... though I very much dislike the idea of doing such a thing, for as yet I have never known what it is to be narcotized either by tobacco, alcohol, or any drug." Thus, on three occasions, March 22, April 5, and April 6, 1884, Talmage ingested increasing doses; on the first two occasions he felt no effect, but on the third he reported simply, "[c]ontinued my experiment by taking 20 grains Cannabis Indica and the effect was felt in a not very agreeable way."
Talmage was elected to life membership in several learned societies, and for many years was a Fellow of the Royal Microscopical Society (London), Fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society (Edinburgh), Fellow of the Geological Society (London), Fellow of the Geological Society of America, Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Associate of the Philosophical Society of Great Britain, or Victoria Institute, and Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Talmage taught science at BYA both before and after he went to study in the eastern United States. He was the president of Latter-day Saints' University until 1894 and then was president of the University of Deseret from 1894 to 1897. From 1897 to 1907, Talmage was a professor of geology at the University of Utah.
In 1909, Talmage was serving as the director of the Deseret Museum. He went to Detroit, Michigan, in November of that year to participate in diggings connected with the Scotford-Soper-Savage relics craze. Talmage would go on to denounce these findings as a forgery in the September 1911 edition of the Deseret Museum Bulletin in an article entitled, "The Michigan Relics: A Story of Forgery and Deception".
Talmage was the author of several religious books, including The Articles of Faith, The Great Apostasy, The House of the Lord, and Jesus the Christ. These volumes remain in print and are still widely read in the LDS Church. Other books include treatises on the origins of the Book of Mormon, a dictionary of the Book of Mormon, and a brief history of the church.
In 1911, the church's First Presidency learned that a photographer had gained unauthorized access to the Salt Lake Temple, had taken numerous photographs of the interior, and was holding those photographs for ransom. Talmage suggested that the First Presidency commission its own photographs of the temple. Church president Joseph F. Smith authorized Talmage to write an apology on the subject of the temple to accompany the publication of the photographs. Shortly thereafter, The House of the Lord was published.
Talmage became a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1911. From 1924 to 1928, he served as president of the church's European Mission.
Talmage died at Salt Lake City at age 70. He was buried at Salt Lake City Cemetery. The vacancy in the Quorum of the Twelve created by his death was filled by Charles Albert Callis.
The Mathematics and Computer Sciences Building at Brigham Young University is named after Talmage. The University of Utah College of Science is housed in the James E. Talmage Building.First Book of Nature (1888)
The Domestic Science, a Book for Use in Schools and for General Reading (1891) online 1892 second edition
Tables for Blowpipe Determinations of Minerals (1898)
The Articles of Faith: A Series of Lectures on the Principal Doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (1899) Internet Archive Project Gutenberg Kindle/epub/other editions
The Great Salt Lake, Present and Past (1900) online
The Great Apostasy Considered in the Light of Scriptural and Secular History (1909) Google Books Project Gutenberg Kindle/epub/other editions
The Story of Mormonism (1910) Internet Archive online 1920 seventh edition Project Gutenberg Kindle/epub/other editions
The House of the Lord: A Study of Holy Sanctuaries, Ancient and Modern (1912) online
The Philosophy of Mormonism (1914) Project Gutenberg Kindle/epub/other editions
Jesus the Christ: A Study of the Messiah and His Mission According to the Holy Scriptures Both Ancient and Modern (1915) Internet Archive Project Gutenberg Kindle/epub/other editions
Latter-Day Revelations: Selections from the Book of Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Deseret Book Company (1915)
The Vitality of Mormonism, Deseret Book Company (1919) online
Sunday Night Talks by Radio (1930)
The Parables of James E. Talmage, comp. Albert L. Zobell, Jr. Deseret Book Company (1973)
The Essential James E. Talmage, Signature Books, Salt Lake City, 1997, ISBN 1-56085-018-3