The Gospel According to James

In a Washington garage, the patron saint of things thrown away created an unlikely masterpiece.

| March/April 2002

St. James didn’t think of himself as an artist. His intentions went far beyond art. He didn’t think of himself as a "folk" or "outsider" or "grassroots" or "visionary" artist. He didn’t consider himself any of the things scholars have called him since his death in 1964. He didn’t even know what those names meant, not in the way they used them, anyway. "Folk"? That’s what he called his people down in Elloree, South Carolina, where his sister sat on a splintered porch thanking Jesus for the daylight, where the farmland stretched right out to the hem of the sky, where "The Best Pork Barb-B-Que in the World" was made out behind the Stop-N-Go. And "outsider"? Man, that one was easy: every nigger in America.

When he began The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly, a 180-piece sculpture made from the refuse of a dying world, in that old rented garage in northwest Washington, D.C., where poverty could beat your soul into some new shape, where a man might rather put a bullet into you than shake your hand, he never would have imagined that one day it would be displayed in a museum, under fancy lighting, against a backdrop of majestic purple, where a janitor—just like him—would come by at night to dust it.

He built The Throne to prepare the world for the End Time, the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, our Savior, as prophesied in the Revelation. He worked nights as a janitor in various government buildings in the District, mopping floors and singing hymns from his childhood in Elloree, where he first saw the face of God when he was just a boy—not a shadow falling down in a corner or something smoldering at the edge of vision, not a feeling tickling in his spine or cloaking him in the Spirit’s heat, but the real face of God—shining there in front of him one night like an explosion on a drive-in movie screen. It was at that moment that he knew he was chosen, knew he was a saint, knew that he had been granted life, this terrible, beautiful life, to serve God.


James Hampton Jr. arrived in his family’s kitchen in Elloree in 1909, slick and shiny with birth, face aimed skyward, screaming like a true Southern Baptist. He was named after his father, a gospel singer and self-proclaimed Baptist preacher who would later abandon his family (a wife and four children, including James) in the early 1920s to travel through the rural South and preach.

In 1928, at the age of 19, after a childhood of farm work and family and strict religion, James moved to Washington, D.C., to join his older brother, Lee. The city was a new world—bigger, yet somehow claustrophobic, harsher, but beautiful, too, with the great monuments of America rising up into the sky, almost as if they somehow grew right out of the ghetto James and his brother lived in.

For more than a decade, James worked as a short-order cook in various diners around the city, keeping to himself, hearing faint voices, taking prayer breaks instead of smoke breaks, when he took a break at all. At the end of a 12–14 hour day, he walked home, slope-backed and exhausted, past men sleeping in alleys and boys hanging on corners like packs of young wolves; past prostitutes saying, Hey, little man, hey, Jesus, what I got make you see angels, baby. He kept his eyes aimed at the ground—grass sprouting in cracks, cigarettes, bottle caps, a bullet.

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