He spent his boyhood at a quiet country hamlet, Gateville, New Jersey. On the ridge swung the toll-gate, and a little beyond might be heard the hum and rattle of the grist-mill. His father kept the toll-gate. John was a fine horseman, and found great sport in jumping on his horse and chasing the people who had "cheated the gate" by not paying their toll. John knew the law and was not afraid to go for them. He went to a private school under the care of a Mr. Morton at the village of Bound Brook, two miles from home, and generally stood at the head of his class.
He early became the judge and counselor among his brothers and sisters. In any little dispute which arose, John's verdict was usually accepted as correct and final.
During all his missionary career in China, he was an adviser and arbitrator whom foreigners and Chinese alike sought and from whose advice they were not quick to turn away.
In the midst of the tumult among the men of Medina when they met to elect a chief to take the place of Mohammed, who had passed away, the voice of Hohab was heard crying out, "Attend to me, attend to me, for I am the well-rubbed Palm-stem." The figure Hobab used represented a palm-trunk left for the beasts to come and rub themselves upon. It was a metaphor for a person much resorted to for counsel. John Talmage never called attention to himself, but the Arab chief must have counseled many, and well, to have taken a higher place than did this messenger of Christ at Amoy.
By the time John Talmage's school days at Bound Brook were completed he had determined to prepare for college. Preparatory schools then were few and far away. They were expensive. John made an arrangement with his senior brother, Rev. James R. Talmage, then pastor at Blawenburgh, New Jersey, to put him through the required course. Here he joined the Church at the age of seventeen. From Blawenburgh his brother Goyn and he went to New Brunswick, New Jersey, joining the Sophomore class in Rutgers College. John and Goyn roomed together, swept and garnished their own quarters and did their own cooking. Father Talmage would come down every week or two with provisions from the farm, to replenish the ever-recipient larder. Both John and Goyn were diligent students and graduated with honorable recognition from Rutgers College in 1842, and from New Brunswick Theological Seminary in 1845.
John Talmage had made such substantial attainments in Hebrew and Greek, that when some years afterward the distinguished Dr. McClelland resigned as professor of these languages in the Theological Seminary at New Brunswick, he was talked of as Dr. McClelland's successor, and but for the conviction that he ought not to be removed from the Amoy Mission, his appointment would have been earnestly advocated by the General Synod.
John Talmage had read missionary biographies when a boy in the Sunday-school at Bound Brook. He had been specially touched by the life of Henry Martyn. While at college he kept himself supplied with missionary literature. His parents were already interested in foreign missions. In secret before God his mother had devoted John to this very work. John did not know it. The determining word for him was that spoken in a missionary address, by Rev. Elihu Doty, one of the pioneers of the Amoy Mission. It was plain that he must go to the "regions beyond." He must break the news to his mother. John's love of missionary literature and his eager attendance upon missionary meetings had filled the family with a secret fear that he thought of going. One day he invited his younger sister, Catharine, to take a walk with him across the fields. He began to talk about missions to foreign lands. Finally he said, "Catharine, you must help me prepare the way to tell mother that I want to go to China." Too overcome with emotion was the sister to reply. They walked home in silence. John sought opportunity when he could quietly tell his mother. Said he, "Mother, I am going to China." In the intensity of a mother's love she replied, "Oh, John, it will kill me." But the grace of God triumphed and again she said, "I prayed to God for this, how can I object?"
In October, 1845, he applied to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, through Dr. Thomas De Witt, the Secretary for the Reformed Church. The letter is still in possession. An extract from it reads:
"I was twenty-five years of age last August, reside at Somerville, New Jersey, have been blessed with Christian parents and enjoyed an early religious education. By the assistance of friends and the Church, I have been enabled to pursue the usual course of study preparatory in our Church to entering upon the duties of the Gospel ministry. I graduated at Rutgers College in the summer of 1842, pursued my theological studies in our seminary at New Brunswick, and received from the Classis of Philadelphia, July last, 'license' to preach the Gospel.
"Owing doubtless in great measure to the religious advantages I have enjoyed, my mind has been more or less under religious impressions from my earliest recollection. About eight years ago I united on confession of faith with the Church (Reformed Dutch) at Blawenburgh, New Jersey, of which my brother, Rev. James R. Talmage, was then and still is pastor. Was living in his family at the time, and studying with him preparatory to entering college. I am unable to decide when I met with a change of heart. My reason for believing that I have experienced such a change are the evidences within me that I love my Saviour, love His cause, and love the souls of men.
"My reason for desiring the missionary work is a desire for the salvation of the heathen. My mind has been directed to the subject for a long time, yet I have not felt at liberty to decide the question where duty called me to labor until the last month. In accordance with this decision I now offer my services to the Board to labor in my Master's service among the heathen. As a field of labor I prefer China."
Owing to deficiency in funds the Board could not send him that year. He accepted an invitation to assist Dr. Brodhead, then pastor of the Central Reformed Church of Brooklyn. Dr. Brodhead was one of the great preachers of his day. In Philadelphia, an earlier pastorate, "he preached to great congregations of eager listeners, and with a success unparalleled in the history of that city and rare in modern times." John Van Nest Talmage might have been his successor. But no sooner was the Board ready to send him than he was prepared to go. The day for leaving home came. Father Talmage and the older brothers accompanied John. They left the house in three carriages. A younger sister (Mrs. Cone) recently said: "When we saw the three carriages driving down the lane it seemed more like a funeral than anything else." Silent were those who drove away. Silent, silent as they could constrain themselves to be, were mother and sisters as they stood by the windows and got their last look of the procession as it wound down the road. To go to a foreign land in those days signified to those who went, lifelong exile, -- to those who tarried, lifelong separation. The only highways to the far East were by way of the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn. The voyages were always long and often perilous.
When on board the ship Roman, bound for Canton, David Abeel wrote: "To the missionary perhaps exclusively, is the separation from friends like the farewell of death. Though ignorant of the future he expects no further intercourse on earth. To him the next meeting is generally beyond the grave."
The hour of departure was not only saddened by parting from parents and brothers and sisters, but the young woman in Elizabethtown, New Jersey, to whom he had given his affection, could not join him. Once it had been decided that they were to go together, but during the last days the enfeebled widowed mother's courage failed her. She could not relinquish her daughter to what seemed to her separation for life. Mr. Talmage had to choose between the call of duty to China and going alone, or tarrying at home and realizing his heart's hopes. He went to China. By a special Providence it was not much more than two years after he set sail that he was again in the United States. The mother of Miss Abby Woodruff had died, and the union was consummated.
Mr. Talmage kept a diary of the voyage. A few extracts will prove interesting.
"Left Somerville April 10, 1847, via New York to Boston. Sailed from Boston in ship Heber, April 15th. Farewell services on board conducted by Bishop Janes, of the Methodist Episcopal Church. The Heber is a ship of 436 tons, 136 feet long, 27 wide. Among the passengers are Rev. E. Doty and wife, and Rev. Moses C White and wife, and Rev. I. D. Collins. The three latter are Methodist missionaries bound for Foochow (China)." They were the pioneers of Methodist missions in China.
On Thursday evening, the cay of sailing, he writes: "I am now upon the bosom of the mighty deep. But I cannot as yet feel any fear. I am in the hands of the Being 'whose I am and whom I serve.' In His hands there is safety. I will not fear though the earth be removed. Besides, there are Christian friends praying for me. Oh, the consolation in the assurance that at the throne of grace I am remembered by near and dear friends! Will not their prayers be heard? They will. I know they will. The effectual fervent prayer of the righteous man availeth much! When I took leave of my friends, one, and another, and another, assured me that they would remember me in their prayers. Yes, and I will remember them."
April 17th. Speaking of Mr. Collins, he says: "I think we shall much enjoy ourselves. We shall study, read, sing, and pray together, talk and walk together. From present appearances we shall feel towards each other as David and Jonathan did." Mr. Collins was a man of intense missionary convictions, who declared if there were no means to send him to China he would find his way before the mast, and work his way there.
"April 22. We have now been one week on our voyage. We commenced our studies today. Mr. Doty, Collins, and myself have organized ourselves into a Hebrew class. We expect to have a daily recitation in Hebrew, another in Greek, and another in Chinese."
"May 8th. Saturday evening. We have been out 23 days. We have had our worship as usual in the cabin. Since then we have spent some time in singing hymns. Have been led to think of home. Wonder where and how my many friends are? Are they happy? Are they well? Are they all alive? Is it strange that sadness sometimes steals over my mind, when I think of those whom I love, and remember their weeping eyes and sorrowful countenances at the time of bidding them farewell, perhaps never again to see them in this world."
He had decided to take a text of Scripture for daily meditation, following the order in a little book published by the American Tract Society entitled "Dew Drops."
"The text for today is 1 Pet. ii.21. 'Christ suffered for us, leaving us an example, that we should follow his steps.'
"Why should the Christian tremble at the prospect of suffering, or be impatient under its existence? 'The servant is not greater than his Lord.' The 'King of Glory' suffered, and shall a sinful man complain? Besides, the Christian should be willing to suffer for the welfare of others. If he can benefit his fellow-men by running the risk of losing his own life, shall he hesitate to run that risk?"
"May 11. Since Sunday noon have made little progress."
On examining the record of the voyage which Mr. Talmage kept faithfully every day, we find that the ship had made only twenty seven knots in two days.
"June 18. For the last month we have not made rapid progress. We have experienced much detention from head-winds and calms. About a week ago we were put on an allowance of water, one gallon a day to each one on board. This includes all that is used for cooking, drinking and washing."
"Have had quite a severe storm this afternoon and evening. The waves have been very high, and the wind -- severe almost as a hurricane. This evening about 8 o'clock, after a very severe blow and heavy dash of rain, 'fire balls,' as the sailors termed them, were seen upon the tops of the masts, and also on the ends of the spars, which cross the masts. They presented a very beautiful appearance.
"Brother Collins and myself have this week commenced the study of Pitman's System of Phonography." That Mr. Talmage became proficient in the use of it is evident from the fact that much of his journal was written in shorthand.
"On the Sabbath Brother Collins and myself spend two hours in the forecastle instructing the sailors. Many of them seem perfectly willing, some of them anxious to receive instruction."
"July 17. Saturday evening. Today passed to the eastward of Christmas Island (an island in the Indian Ocean). It is a small island about ten miles square. This is the first land seen since we left Boston. Of course, we gazed with much interest."
"July 22. About nine o'clock Tuesday evening we anchored off Angier. This is a village off the island of Java, bordering on the Straits of Sunda. Remained at Angier until Wednesday afternoon. Capt. Patterson laid in a good supply of pigs, geese, ducks, chickens, yams, turtles, water, two goats, and fruits of various kinds in abundance."
"Aug.6. Friday. Wednesday evening arrived at Macao. This morning set sail for Whampoa, twelve miles below Canton."
After a few days at Canton and Hongkong, Mr. and Mrs. Doty and Mr. Talmage embarked for Amoy on the schooner Caroline.
"Aug 21. The Caroline is a small vessel of about one hundred and fifty tons burthen. She was built, I suppose, for the opium trade. Our passage from Hongkong was not very pleasant. Our quarters were close and our captain was far from being an agreeable companion. He drank freely and was very profane."
"We left Brother Collins and Brother White and wife at Hongkong. We had been so long in company with these brethren, that it was trying to part with them. On Thursday, the day before yesterday, we arrived safely at Amoy. The brethren gave us a very hearty welcome. The missionary company at this place consists of Brother Pohlman, of the A.B.C.F.M.; Mr. Alexander Stronach and wife, and Brown, of the Presbyterian Board. Mr. John Stronach also belongs to this station. He is at present at Shanghai."