Jarena Lee (February 11, 1783 – 1864) was a 19th-century African-American woman who left behind an eloquent account of her religious experience. The publishing of her autobiography made Lee the first African American woman to have an autobiography published in the United States. She was also the first woman authorized to preach by Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, in 1819. Despite Allen's blessing, Lee continued to face hostility to her ministry because she was black and a woman. She became a traveling minister, traveling thousands of miles on foot. In one year alone, she "travelled two thousand three hundred and twenty-five miles, and preached one hundred and seventy-eight sermons." Lee’s importance is threefold. First, she exemplifies the 19th-century American religious movement’s focus on personal holiness and sanctification. Second, she left a detailed account of her life of faith that serves as a valuable primary source. Third, she became an eloquent witness to her faith and a pioneer for women seeking license to preach in the Methodist traditions.
Jarena Lee was born free on February 11, 1783 in Cape May, New Jersey and went to live as a servant maid at a young age. Although she states that her parents did not provide religious instruction, she was later exposed to Christian teachings and felt herself to be a "wretched sinner." She recounts that she struggled with suicidal thoughts and fantasized about drowning herself on at least several occasions. Through prayer, she finally felt justified and was baptized. After three months of constant prayer, she felt that she had been fully sanctified by the Holy Spirit.
Call to preach
She soon started hearing voices telling her to "Go preach the Gospel! Preach the Gospel; I will put words in your mouth." Lee soon told Allen that God had spoken to her commanded her to preach, but Allen said that there was no provision for women preachers in the Methodist Church. This did not stop Lee from pursuing her call. "If the man may preach, because the Savior died for him, why not the woman, seeing he died for her also? Is he not a whole Savior, instead of half of one?" Allen still refused, but eight years later during a Sunday service at the Mother Bethel the preacher seemed to lose spirit. Lee stepped up and began to preach, the crowd was very intrigued to what she had to say. Religious belief, especially in God's divine protection, became a source of self empowerment for Lee. In rebuttal to questions on a female ministry, she responded, "Did not Mary first preach the risen Savior?".
Converting a non-believer
In the Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee there is a story she tells of young man who would ridicule her for what she preached, because he did not believe in God or religion. He was a colored man who would regularly attend her meetings. As time passed he grew ill. The young man's sister, who was a part of the society, called upon Lee to not help him to recover, but in hopes that the Lord would enter into his mind. When Lee went to visit she saw the young man in a very low state. She asked him if he wanted her to pray for him and he replied yes. Although he never recovered, the young man continued to ask for her to be at his bed side to pray for him.
Lee came to Philadelphia as a teenager and was changed when she heard a passionate sermon given by Richard Allen. She married Joseph Lee in 1811, seven years later since joining Philadelphia's Mother Bethel. Joseph Lee was a pastor of a Society at Snow Hill. Snow Hill was six miles from Philadelphia. Lee moved to Snow Hill with her husband, but was unsure because she knew no one there besides her husband. She found at Snow Hill that she did not find the same closeness that she had in Philadelphia. During their marriage her husband did not want her to preach, so she felt forced to put her spiritual needs on hold for her marriage. It is said that her not being fully committed to her spiritual needs resulted in Lee becoming ill and a sense of discontent. Joseph Lee died six years into their marriage. Soon after Lee was fully devoted to religious concerns, but her ill health never recovered.
What is known of Jarena Lee's life is scattered. She has been compared to influential African American women of her time, such as Maria W. Stewart and Sojourner Truth. In Lee's two autobiographical memoirs,The Life and Religious Experience of Jarena Lee and its expanded version, Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee. Extensive archival research by Dr. Frederick Knight has revealed that Jarena Lee died penniless in Philadelphia sometime in early 1864; despite this inauspicious end, her fight for women and religion inspired African American women and men then and today. Lee broke a barrier women did not get to at that time in church work.
- Knight, Frederick (January 2017). "The Many Names for Jarena Lee". Pennsylvania Magazine of History & Biography. 141 (1): 68. ISSN 0031-4587.
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- Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee. pbs.org
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- "American Religious History", ed. Amanda Porterfield, 2002, Blackwell Publishers, Malden, Massachusetts ISBN 0631223223.
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- Peterson, p. 56
- Harvey, Paul. (2011). Through the storm through the night: a history of African American Christianity. Landham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers. p. 43. ISBN 9780742564732
- Lee, Jarena. "Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee".
- "My Marriage". Retrieved 6 December 2012.
- Peterson, p. 73
- Peterson, pp. 56, 73
- Peterson, Carla L. (1995). Doers of the Word: African American Women Speakers and Writers in the North (1830–1880). New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0813525144.
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