The parable of the two lamps

Elder James E Talmage
Elder James E Talmage

One of the greatest ‘Mormon Blokes’ in history was James E Talmage. He was born 21 September 1862 in Hungerford in Berkshire. He was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and is probably best known for his highly influential book, ‘Jesus the Christ’ which was published 100 years ago (September 1915).  However, in January 1914 Elder Talmage began publishing a series of nine parables. Given Elder Talmage’s expertise as a chemist and geologist, it is perhaps not surprising that his parables tend to have a scientific flavour to them.

Three of the parables were reprinted in the Ensign in 2003 (  and each is an enjoyable read. I think that my particular favourites are ‘The parable of the defective battery’  (  and ‘The parable of the two lamps’.

In the parable of the two lamps Elder Talmage describes a time when he was a student and was sitting outside his lodgings one evening and was approached by a stranger who turned out to be a lamp salesman. The salesman offered to show the young James Talmage the lamp he was selling. James replied that he already had a lamp, a very fine ‘Argand’ lamp which he offered to show to the salesman.

Argand lamp
Argand lamp

Young James lit his lamp and the salesman enthused over it.  He then asked permission to demonstrate his ‘Rochester’ lamp. Elder Talmage records:

‘It had a chimney which, compared with mine, was as a factory smokestack alongside a house flue. Its hollow wick was wide enough to admit my four fingers. Its light made bright the remotest corner of my room. In its brilliant blaze my own little Argand wick burned a weak, pale yellow. Until that moment of convincing demonstration, I had never known the dim obscurity in which I had lived and labored, studied and struggled.’


Rochester lamp
Rochester lamp

James immediately bought the lamp and on testing it found that it could emit 48 candle power compared to the 12 candle power of the Argand lamp. Two days later, James met the lamp salesman again, but this time about noon time. When James asked him if he was working that day he replied:

“Do you think that I would be so foolish as to go around trying to sell lamps in the daytime? Would you have bought one if I had lighted it for you when the sun was shining? I chose the time to show the superiority of my lamp over yours, and you were eager to own the better one I offered, were you not?”

Elder Talmage then proceeds to set forth ‘a part, a very small part’ of the meaning of the parable:

“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” [Matt. 5:16]. The man who would sell me a lamp did not disparage mine. He placed his greater light alongside my feebler flame, and I hasted to obtain the better. The missionary servants of the Church of Jesus Christ today are sent forth, not to assail or ridicule the beliefs of men, but to set before the world a superior light, by which the smoky dimness of the flickering flames of man-made creeds shall be apparent. The work of the Church is constructive, not destructive. As to the further meaning of the parable, let him that hath eyes and a heart see and understand.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s