The General Epistle of James is well known among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for the significant passage in James 1:5 that led young Joseph Smith to seek for truth from God. Throughout his epistle, James emphasized that we are to be “doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22). Studying this book can help students understand the importance of manifesting their faith through their “works,” or actions (see James 2:14–26), and inspire them to seek a “crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him” (James 1:12).
The epistle states that it was authored by “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1).
Christian tradition has held that this James, like Jude, is one of the sons of Joseph and Mary and hence a half brother of Jesus Christ (see Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3; Galatians 1:19). The fact that James is mentioned first in the list of Jesus’s brothers in Matthew 13:55 may indicate that he was the oldest of the half brothers. Like the Lord’s other half brothers, James did not initially become a disciple of Jesus (see John 7:3–5). However, after Jesus was resurrected, James was one of the individuals to whom Christ appeared as a resurrected being (see 1 Corinthians 15:7).
Later James became an Apostle and, according to early Christian writers, the first bishop of the Church in Jerusalem (see Acts 12:17; 21:18; Galatians 1:18–19; 2:9). As a leader in the Church, he played a prominent role in the council held in Jerusalem (Acts 15:13). His influence in the Church was no doubt strengthened by his kinship to Jesus, yet James showed humility in introducing himself not as the brother of Jesus but as a servant of the Lord (see James 1:1).
It is unknown when James wrote this letter. Since James lived in Jerusalem and watched over the affairs of the Church there, he likely wrote his epistle from that area.
The fact that James did not mention the Jerusalem conference of about A.D. 50 (see Acts 15) could indicate that this letter was written before it took place. If this letter was indeed written before the Jerusalem conference, it is one of the first epistles in the New Testament to have been written.
James addressed his letter “to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad” (James 1:1), meaning all the house of Israel; he was inviting them to “receive the gospel … [and] come into the fold of Christ” (Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3 vols. [1965–73], 3:243). James instructed Church members to live their lives as expressions of their faith in Jesus Christ.
The General Epistle of James has sometimes been classified as wisdom literature similar to the Old Testament book of Proverbs. The text of the letter consists of short explanations of principles for Christian living. In addition, there are close parallels between the Savior’s Sermon on the Mount recorded in Matthew 5–7 and the words of James. Some similar themes include enduring persecution (see James 1:2–3, 12; Matthew 5:10–12); becoming “perfect,” or spiritually mature (see James 1:4; 2:22; Matthew 5:48); asking God (see James 1:5; Matthew 7:7–8); doing the will of God (see James 1:22; Matthew 7:21–25); loving others (see James 2:8; Matthew 5:43–44; 7:12); knowing good and evil by their fruits (see James 3:11–12; Matthew 7:15–20); being a peacemaker (see James 3:18; Matthew 5:9); and not swearing oaths (see James 5:12; Matthew 5:34–37).
James 1–2 James greets his readers and introduces some major themes of his epistle, including enduring trials, seeking wisdom, and living consistent with one’s professed faith. Hearers of God’s word are also to be doers of the word. James defines “pure religion” as caring for the fatherless and widows and seeking to live free from sin (see James 1:27). Saints are to love their neighbors and to manifest their faith through their works.
James 3–4 James illustrates the destructive nature of uncontrolled speech and contrasts it with the fruit of righteousness of those who make peace. He cautions his readers not to become friends with the world but to resist the devil and draw close to God.
James 5 James warns the rich who are wicked. He concludes his epistle with brief items of counsel about the Saints’ responsibilities toward other members of the Church. He counsels the Saints to patiently endure until the coming of the Lord and be truthful in all their conversations. James encourages the sick to call on the elders to anoint them with oil.