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"I Went Down to Saint James Infirmary"

Updated on October 26, 2013

The Strict Principles of Saint James

An Apostle Writes His Advice to Jewish Christians

Saint James, the author of a letter contained in the New Testament of the Bible, was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus. There was another, older, apostle also named James.

The younger James, author of the Letter (or epistle) was believed to be Jesus' cousin, who later became the first Christian bishop of Jerusalem. His letter appears intended for his fellow Jews living abroad, but also has general application to all religious people.

The first "Christians" really were Jews like Jesus, James, and the rest of the apostles and disciples who saw and heard of Jesus during his life in Roman-occupied territory which we now know as the country of Israel and surrounding areas we call the Middle East. Much of James' letter assumes readers are Jews familiar with the part of the Bible we now call the Old Testament.

There is evidence that James angered the high priests of Jerusalem by preaching Christianity in the temple for many years and finally was murdered by their agents about 30 years after Jesus' death. If true, then James was a Jew by religion and nationality, and was attempting to steer the Jewish religion in the direction of Christianity.

But this would be an understatement if Jesus really were the Son of God, resurrected from the dead after teaching mankind the principles by which God the Father wanted us to live. If James and the other apostles and disciples really witnessed miracles, then they weren't just revising the Jewish religion; they were starting a revolution.

Unlike the letters of Saint Paul, the Letter of James states that it is not enough just to have faith in God, but that good deeds are required as well. Hundreds of years later, Martin Luther would take issue with this opinion and preach that faith in God was what really mattered.

James was more exacting than Paul. There was no room for doubt in the faith demanded by James, who wrote that God would give us wisdom if we asked, but only if we had a faith that was free of any doubt.

In our present age of Internet availability and sophistication, it's hard to believe that anyone, atheist or religious zealot, really can be certain of anything. Research yields very little proof of the important things related in the Bible. All major religions acknowledge that God is invisible.

But if James saw the miracles and resurrection of Jesus, there would be no wonder he was so adamant about perfect, certain faith in God. He would have possessed this faith himself; yet he'd be incapable of showing proof, as incapable as we are still to this day.

Another strong point made repeatedly by James was that rich people who focus only on the things of this world and their own comfort eventually will fade away to nothing unless they have faith in God.

James did not believe in a God that could be so cruel to humans that He'd deliberately place temptations in our way. It is our own desires, James wrote, that tempt us to do wrong.

Be doers of good deeds, James advised, not just hearers of God's word. James was an activist preacher, not merely a philosopher.

Continuing with two main points (that rich and poor deserve equal respect, and faith is not enough without deeds) Saint James became even more demanding in his letter, stating that if someone breaks one commandment, he breaks them all.

Saint James believed that the words we speak can be dangerous and evil. It is better, he reasoned, to do good deeds than to talk too much.

Wars and fights come from wanting things too much, observed James. We should submit to God and be humble, never judging others and accepting the will of God. The type of action and deeds James advocated were not ones of violence, but good deeds. He gave examples of comforting widows and orphans in distress.

The rich who live in luxury should fear the coming of their deaths, said James, noting that people of faith should wait patiently for the coming of the Lord. James reminded his Jewish readers of the story of Job in the Old Testament, who suffered greatly but maintained his faith to the end.

James is noted for writing, "The prayer of faith will save the sick," and for advising us to "confess" our trespasses to one another in order to bring about psychological healing.

"The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much," wrote Saint James.

With this strong belief in the power of prayer so evident in James' letter, we can guess logically that Saint James' emphasis on good deeds was merely his advice and not such a mandatory commandment as it seems at times. If the power of prayer was so strong in his belief, then Saint James did have great respect for people who prayed silently to God, even if they were not actively engaged in saintly works and deeds.

The power of faithful prayer to heal the sick, another point made by James in his letter, brings to mind not only the Christian Science Church's belief in faith healing, but also the famous blues song "Saint James Infirmary" based on a religious hospital of that name founded in London in the 16th Century for the purpose of healing leprosy, thought to be incurable.

Having read the letters of Saint Paul directly before the one letter of Saint James, it was obvious to me that the tone changed completely in James' letter. Paul's letters have a kindly, peaceful tone whereas James definitely seems angry and very demanding of perfection.

There is very little about forgiveness and mercy in James' letter. He was a social critic, a pessimist about many types of people, and an impossible taskmaster, if taken literally.

However, I would like to think that James used hyperbolic exaggeration for effect and could not have expected reasonably to see people become devoutly religious overnight.

Another distinct trait of James' letter is that it did not dwell as heavily on Jesus as did Paul's letters. James was writing more in general terms about God the Father, Who was and still is the common ground between Christians and Jews.

Depending on someone's personality, there would be those favoring James' approach over Paul's, or vice versa. Peaceful, gentle people might prefer Paul; active, hard-driving types might like James more. But that's just an opinion of someone who's more the gentle type.

The Real Saint James Infirmary

Buried Under the Sands of Time

Wherever the real St. James Infirmary lies is still a matter of debate. There are two possibilities, one is less likely. It involves a hospital by that name (Saint James Hospital in London) but this is not very probable because the hospital disappeared and ceased to operate centuries before the blues song (sung by Louis Armstrong and others) made "St. James Infirmary" a popular title. That hospital, which specialized in treatment of leprosy, ceased in 1532.

But the more likely "real" infirmary was the place where workers were treated. It was part of the premises where they worked, called the "workhouse" in St. James Parish, London. It operated into the late 1800's and therefore should have been the logical choice for the setting of the narrative lyrics.

Although there is a clinic of that name in modern San Francisco, USA, it would not have been the scene of the ballad describing the sorrows of the blues song, which was a 19th Century creation based on an old English tale from the 18th Century, and therefore most likely reminiscent of the clinic for the workers in London inside the workhouse where they labored the long hours under unhealthy conditions that prompted the British publication of Karl Marx's "Communist Manifesto" in the 18th Century.


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