In 1819, a year that many Christian denominations prohibited women from preaching, Jarena Lee became the first woman to become an authorized preacher in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. As I mentioned in my previous post, when writing about the women of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (who are the primary focus of my historical work), I write about them using their first names. As one who is committed to discovering the sources of agency for black women of the past and present, it is essential that I also commit myself to allowing them to belong to themselves and God, not to the men who were transitional figures in their lives. Women are self-defining creatures. This practice is especially important for Jarena Lee because the record has not preserved her family surname, only her husband’s last name which she adopted. What we do know for sure is that God called her Jarena.
Jarena figures prominently in my mind because her insistence upon being taken seriously as a preacher in a tradition that did not approve of female leadership is the embodiment of a black feminist ethic. She was not an overtly political figure, nor did she need to be. It was sufficient that she was a woman who demanded that she be allowed to live into the call God placed on her life. Her feminist consciousness was so powerful that she refused to turn away even when the men around her demanded that she do so. She traveled and exhorted and preached with or without the official blessing of her denomination. She drew audiences everywhere she went. Some might say that such an act weakens the church. I say, and Jarena would probably agree, that her actions proved that even human myopia does not outweigh the possibilities of what God has in store for the world. In a time in which black women were demeaned for their very presence, God called them to preach the good news of Jesus Christ with authority.
Jarena was born free in Cape Map, NJ on February 11, 1783. Her parents hired her out as a servant when she was only seven years old to a Mr. Sharp whom she writes lived about sixty miles away from her birthplace. She experienced a conversion to Christianity in 1804 at the age of twenty-one when she writes that “it so happened” that she went to “hear a missionary of the Presbyterian order preach.” The preacher’s reading of a verse from the Psalms which described the psalmist’s sinful condition spoke to her soul because she believed it mirrored her sinful state. Since she did not yet know the grace of God, she writes that her knowledge of her condition “tempted her to destroy [herself].” She decided that she would drown herself in the local brook, but as she sat there on the bank, looking down at the water swirling beneath her feet, the thoughts left her mind, she writes that the “unseen arm of God . . . saved [her] from self murder.” Jarena’s confession that she almost committed suicide because of the weight of her sin clearly communicated to her readers that, for her, sin was something worth dying over, but that with the grace of God, we can continue to live even as sinners. From there, Jarena continued to search for a cure for the anxiety in her soul. She began attending a Methodist Church pastored by an Englishman named Pilmore. As she sat in that communion, she did not feel connected to the people.
She spoke to the head cook at her home about the rules of Methodism and agreed to go with her to hear the message. That afternoon, the Rev. Richard Allen was preaching. With Allen and the African Episcopal Methodists (Black Methodists), Jarena finally felt that she was with people with whom she could unite. As she sat with that theology, colored in a shade she could comprehend, Jarena finally came to know what it was to be saved. Although Jarena did not say it explicitly, I would argue that she needed to feel social freedom in a congregation before she could receive spiritual freedom.
Three weeks after visiting Allen’s church, she experienced a joyful conversion to Christianity. In her moment of conversion, she “had the power to exhort sinners . . . During this, the minister was silent, until [her] soul felt its duty had been performed.” Allen’s choice to be silent during this new convert’s moments of ecstatic exhortation is a masterclass to contemporary clergy in allowing the space for laypeople (and especially laywomen) to express themselves theologically even at socially inconvenient times. At that moment, God blessed Richard Allen with black feminist consciousness.
After her conversion, Jarena again had suicidal inclinations. She felt her impulse was another of the Devil’s temptations, and she was terrified. Even when she attempted to pray, she saw in the corner of the room, “Satan, in the form of a monstrous dog and in a rage . . . his tongue protruding from his mouth to a great length, and his eyes looked like two balls of fire.” She writes that preaching delivered her from her dismay at what she had seen. One night as she sat by the fire crying aloud, the woman she lived with asked her what was wrong. She responded that she did not know, and the woman encouraged her to pray. Jarena’s strength left her, and she became physically ill. She met a man named William Scott who gave her further theological reflection which she felt was a great source of comfort to her. I recount Jarena’s journey through this part of her life because while she blames her emotional anguish on the Devil, we also know that black folks, especially black Christian folks, are expected to suffer silently through mental illness, overcoming it through prayer or simply through being stronger than our feelings. Prayer is certainly powerful, and we all possess inner strength, but we also must possess the courage to name our problems for what they are. We must pray while we also seek the resources we need to be healthy.
It was seven years later that she first felt called to preach. She explains that she distinctly heard a voice that told her to preach the gospel. She says that she responded aloud to the voice saying, “No one will believe me.” The voice said to her, “Preach the Gospel; I will put the words in your mouth, and will turn your enemies to become your friends.” I wonder why she thought no one would believe her. She does not explain what led her to such a conclusion, regardless, she trusted the call and prepared to preach.
Two days later, she told Rev. Richard Allen who explained to her that the Methodists did not call for woman preachers. Her entire tone of writing changed after she tells of his rejection. While before this point, she felt discouraged as a new convert, she was confident about this call to preach. She tells her reader to remember that nothing was impossible with God. She could not understand why women could not preach when Jesus died for both women and men. She also advanced a rigorous argument about women’s sources of knowledge. She argued that if unlearned fisherman could preach, why not unlearned women?
So, she began to travel as an itinerant preacher. She noted that people who had not been to church in years were compelled to believe because of the witness of this poor black woman. God calls women, but in nineteenth century America, there was something to be said about a black woman who found preaching authority. Her mere bodily presence inspires theological and social reflection. God had called even one who was considered the lowest social class in America.
In 1811, she married Joseph Lee, the pastor of a black church in Snow Hill, PA. Moving to Snow Hill made her feel isolated because she could not carry out her ministry the same ways she had in Philadelphia. Within six years, five members of Jarena’s family, including her husband, were dead. She was left to care for two children under the age of three alone. It had been eight years since she first asked to be permitted to preach the Gospel. Jarena returned to Philadelphia and approached Richard Allen. He was now the bishop of the newly formed African Methodist Episcopal Church and did not refuse her the opportunity to live into her call. She began an itinerant preaching career throughout the Mid-Atlantic states, as far North as Rochester, NY, and as far west as Dayton, OH. Her audiences were of mixed race and, she reports, the male clergy learned to accept her presence. Her ministry also lead her to join the American Antislavery Society because she believed that freedom for all people would be a great help to the spreading of the Gospel.
In 1836, Jarena self-published her spiritual autobiography called The Life and Religious Experience of Jarena Lee, A Colored Lady, Giving an Account of her Call to Preach the Gospel. I note that this was a spiritual autobiography because the purpose of her writing was not to recount the facts of her life, although she did do some of that. However, the purpose of a spiritual autobiography is to walk us through the spiritual journey of the subject. Jarena’s spiritual autobiography along with two others written by other nineteenth-century black women preachers can be found in the book Sisters of the Spirit, edited by William L. Andrews.
What does Jarena teach us today? How will you claim authority even in the spaces you have been told you do not belong? How far will you go to live into whatever call there is on your life? I hope you will carry some of the spirit of Jarena on your journey. See you next week!