The following is a biographical sketch of James E. Talmage’s baptism where he recounts in writing the unusual event he and others remembered that night. Besides himself, two other individuals present at that time signed the account Talmage gives here, dated 23 April 1922, and who swore to its validity. The original signed document is a typescript MSS, presumably made out by James E. Talmage himself, but within a few weeks Talmage’s sketch was also printed in the Improvement Era, vol. 25, no. 8 (June 1922): 675-676. The account presented here was taken from the original MSS, which is housed at the Church History Library, and compared with the printed version. The published account does not appear to have been edited at all as the text is identical with the original typescript.
Full Text of Talmage’s Manuscript
During my eleventh year, in the Spring of 1873, I was stricken with a very 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 Father afterward told me, he made 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. Our house was within a stone’s throw of one end of the great bridge that spans the Kennet River, an important tributary of the Thames. A mill race paralleled the river for a quarter of a mile or more, and between the two streams was a roadway for pedestrians. Because of possible interference by persecutors of the Latter-day Saints it was necessary that baptisms be attended to only in the night-time.
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. Ellen Gilbert, now Mrs. Andrew L. Hyer, is living at Lewiston, Cache County, Utah, and her brother, Elder Elijah Gilbert, is at present a resident of Fairview, Idaho. I well remember the circumstances of the double baptism, and of the particular incident connected therewith.
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 too much 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 affrighting noise had sounded to us as loud enough to he 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 Hyer, in Lewiston; and when mention was made of the unusual incident associated with our baptisms, I requested her to relate in detail the circumstance as she remembered it, for I had often wandered 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 detail, 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 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.
We know that the foregoing account, entitled “An Unusual Accompaniment to a Baptism,” is correct and true in all particulars.
Signed at Fairview, April 23, 1922, Mrs. Ellen Gilbert Hyer
Signed at Fairview, April 23, 1922, Elijah Gilbert
Signed at Salt Lake City, April 25, 1922, James E. Talmage