JAMES BALDWIN died Dec. 1 in southern France. On Dec. 8, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, his family and friends gathered at his funeral to grieve, to remember and to celebrate. Baldwin's insistent, passionate voice - as an essayist, novelist and playwright - helped to inform and transform the debate on civil rights for Afro-Americans; his deeply generous spirit nourished a generation of writers, black and white, who benefited from his personal warmth and were inspired by the incisive, articulate anger that distinguished his writings.

At the service, three of Baldwin's friends and colleagues -the writers Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou and Amiri Baraka -gave tributes which appear on the following pages (Mr. Baraka's is excerpted). A fourth tribute is offered by the novelist William Styron, a friend for more than 20 years.

Baldwin was born in Harlem in 1924; by the time he reached his early 20's his reviews and essays were being published in magazines and journals including The Nation and Partisan Review. His first novel, ''Go Tell It on the Mountain,'' was published in 1953; at least partly autobiographical, it depicts a poor boy's coming of age in 1930's Harlem and the boy's conflict with his tyrannical father, a minister. But it was Baldwin's essay collections - ''Notes of a Native Son'' (1955), ''Nobody Knows My Name'' (1961) and ''The Fire Next Time'' (1963) - that thrust him into the spotlight as an intellectual spokesman for the civil rights movement. It was a title he consistently rejected; he often said he wrote simply to ''bear witness to the truth.'' These four pieces bear witness as well - to the legacy of James Baldwin, and the meaning of his loss.

Photo of James Baldwin (Ruby Washington)