Faust was born to George A. Faust and Amy Finlinson in Delta, Utah. As a child, he lived in this rural area. His family moved to the southern part of the Salt Lake Valley before he reached high school age. He attended Granite High School in Salt Lake City, where he won awards for track and a letter for football. He later attended the University of Utah, where he ran the 440-yard and mile relay. His college education was delayed twice. First, when he served as a missionary for the LDS Church in southern Brazil from 1939 to 1942. Then later when he served during World War II in the United States Army Air Corps where he was a First Lieutenant at the time of discharge.
On April 22, 1943, Faust married Ruth Wright, whom he had met at Granite High School. The wedding took place during a short leave during his military service, and they were sealed in the Salt Lake Temple.
Faust graduated from the University of Utah in 1948 with a B.A. and Juris Doctor. After graduation, he worked in a law firm in Salt Lake City.
In 1962, he was elected president of the Utah Bar Association, where he served for one year. The same association awarded him its Distinguished Lawyer Emeritus Award in 1996. During the 1960s, he was named to the Utah Legislative Study Committee and later to the Utah Constitutional Revision Commission.
Faust served in the House of Representatives for the 28th Utah State Legislature (1949) as a Democrat for Utah's eighth district. He also served as chairman of the Utah State Democratic Party and helped manage a campaign for Senator Frank Moss. In 1996, Faust was awarded with the Minuteman Award by the Utah National Guard.
Faust was appointed by U.S. President John F. Kennedy to the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights. He was also an advisor to the American Bar Journal.
In 1997, by legislative decree, Faust was made an honorary citizen of São Paulo, Brazil and received a national Brazilian citizenship award. "James Esdras Faust Street" in Campinas, Brazil was named in his honor by the city mayor in 2007.
In 1949, at the age of 28, Faust became a bishop in the LDS Church. He later served on a stake high council, as stake president, and a regional representative.
Faust was called as an Assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles on October 6, 1972 and served in that capacity until October 1, 1976. At that time, the position was eliminated and he entered the First Quorum of the Seventy. In 1975, he presided over the Brazil area of the church. During his tenure, the São Paulo Brazil Temple was announced.
Before the 1978 revelation reversing the priesthood ban for men of African descent, Faust was head of the church's International Mission, with jurisdiction for Africa. Spencer W. Kimball privately consulted with Faust several times leading up to the change in policy.
Faust was accepted by common consent as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles on September 30, 1978, and ordained an apostle on October 1, filling the vacancy created by the death of Delbert L. Stapley. He served in the Quorum until being set apart as Second Counselor in the First Presidency to church president Gordon B. Hinckley on March 12, 1995. He remained in that position until his death on August 10, 2007. Faust, together with Hinckley and First Counselor Thomas S. Monson, constituted the longest continuous serving First Presidency in the history of the LDS Church.
Faust and his wife, Ruth, raised five children: James Hamilton Faust, Janna R. Coombs, Marcus G. Faust, Lisa A. Smith, and Robert P. Faust. At the time of his death, they had 25 grandchildren and 28 great-grandchildren. He died on August 10, 2007, at his home in Salt Lake City, Utah, of causes incident to age. Following a funeral service in the Salt Lake Tabernacle, he was buried in the Holladay Memorial Park in Holladay, Utah. Ruth Wright Faust died February 10, 2008, at the age of 86.Faust, James E. (2004). Finding Light in a Dark World. Deseret Book Company. ISBN 1-57345-100-2.
—— (2002). True Gifts of Christmas. Eagle Gate Publishers. ISBN 1-57008-729-6.
—— (2001). Stories from my Life. Deseret Book Company. ISBN 1-57345-968-2.
—— (1990). Reach up for the Light. Deseret Book Company. ISBN 0-87579-418-1.
—— (1980). To Reach Even unto You. Deseret Book Company. ISBN 0-87747-807-4.
James E. Faust co-wrote the words to the LDS hymn "This is the Christ".
James E. Faust also authored a book; "In the Strength of the Lord: The Life and Teachings of James E. Faust" Hardcover – October, 1999