James Hampton (April 8, 1909–November 4, 1964) was an African-American janitor who secretly built a large assemblage of religious art from scavenged materials. He has rightly been described as a modern visionary and a latter-day mystic.1
James Hampton was born in Elloree, South Carolina in 1909. His father was a gospel singer and a traveling Baptist preacher. In 1928, Hampton left for Washington DC to join his elder brother Lee. They shared an apartment. James Hampton worked as a short-order cook until 1942 when he was drafted into United States Army Air Forces. He served as a carpenter with the noncombatant 385th Aviation Squadron around the Pacific theatre, was honorably discharged in 1945 and returned to Washington DC.
In 1946, Hampton became a night janitor with the General Services Administration. In 1950 he rented a garage in northwest Washington. His brother Lee died in 1948. Hampton died of stomach cancer on November 4, 19642 at the Veteran's Hospital in Washington DC. He never married.
A month later Meyer Wertlieb, owner of the garage, came to find out why the rent had not been paid. He knew that Hampton had been building something in the garage. When he opened the door, he found a room filled with many symmetrical, glittering objects surrounding a central throne. For 14 years, Hampton had been secretly creating a multitude of religious art.
Hampton's Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly is probably best described by S J Marshall:
The central, winged throne and attendant altars and pulpits, though initially looking solid, were, on inspection, constructed from old light bulbs, electric flex wrapped in silver kitchen foil, cardboard, gold foil from cigarette packs and wine bottles, discarded furniture, hollow cardboard cylinders, metallic strips cut from coffee cans, mirror fragments, and other scavenged materials. Green pieces came from discarded desk blotters. The result looks like ancient Chinese bronzes of the Shang dynasty, belying the fact the work is actually fragile and held together with glue, tacks, pins, and tape. Because the pins were sometimes too short to penetrate all the layers, all that holds the work together in places is the tin foil wrapped around it.3
The text 'The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly' was written on the objects in Hampton's handwriting. He had emblazoned the words 'Fear Not' above the central throne. The garage contained a total of 177 objects, many of which were inscribed with words taken from the Book of Revelation. The objects on the right side of the central throne seem to refer to the New Testament and those on the left side to the Old Testament.4
Hampton had attached labels to many of his objects, revealing that he had something of an obsession with chapters 20 and 21 of the Book of Revelation. As Marshall points out, verse 20:4 of the Book of Revelation reads: “And I saw thrones, and they that sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them.” He goes on to state that "many people seem to miss the placement of the genitive apostrophe in the title of Hampton’s work, reading it in the singular and supposing that the “Nation” is America; it is actually in the plural, referring to all the nations of the world."5
It is unknown whether Hampton considered himself to be an artist. His work would generally be considered as an example of folk or naïve art6 though it is clear that there is much more to the creations of James Hampton than can be encompassed by the term 'art'.
Hampton had also kept a 112-page notebook, titled St James: The Book of the 7 Dispensation, written in his personal code, still undeciphered. He referred to himself as St James and ended each page with the word "Revelation". The number 7 features prominently throughout the Book of Revelation and the theological creed of Dispensationalism is centred upon the notion that God’s dealings with mankind are divided into seven distinct ‘dispensations’, or periods of history, in which humans are tested as to their obedience to the will of God. The seventh and final dispensation is the 'Great White Throne (Millenium)'.7, the Millennial Age after the Second Coming. The 'great white throne' is a phrase which appears in Revelation 20:11. It seems clear that Hampton was constructing the throne in readiness for what he believed would be the imminent Second Coming of Christ and the beginning of the seventh dispensation. Exactly when Hampton expected this final chapter to open is, as yet, unknown.
Considering the current interest in the doomsday predictions revolving around the end-date of the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar on either December 21 or 23, 2012, is it, perhaps, time to take a closer look at the collective works of James Hampton with respect to millennialism, for as Revelation 20:12 maintains: "And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne; and books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of the things which were written in the books, according to their works."
After His Death
James Hampton's story became public in the December 15, 1964 issue of the Washington Post. He had kept his project secret for 14 years; his relatives first heard about it when his sister came to claim his body.
Wertlieb sold the throne to two people who anonymously donated it to the National Museum of American Art of the Smithsonian Institution (now the Smithsonian American Art Museum) in 1970. As Mike Walsh notes, "it's worth noting that recognition of the Throne ultimately came from the artistic community, not the religious community."8
Hampton's sense of dedication and faith can only be attributed to someone who has transcended the nagging concerns of a normal human existence. This man was a visionary, to whom creativity and unfailing dedication became the salvation not only for himself, but for all men. Who has the strength of such conviction and faith? A lunatic? Probably not. The Throne contains too much order and structure. A saint? Perhaps. Saint James? Saint James the Throne Builder. Saint James of the Visions. Saint James of the Nations General Assembly. "Where there is no Vision, the People Perish."9