19 Mar

Jarena Lee, The Life and Religious Experiences of Jarena Lee (1835)

Jarena Lee was the first woman ordained to preach in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. In 1835, Lee published her autobiography, The Life and Religious Experiences of Jarena Lee. The book was published in 3 editions and distributed at camp meetings, Christian societies, and on the street. Lee’s autobiography describes her encounters with Christianity, and her emotional conversion experience and sanctification.

Lee was born free in New Jersey on February 11, 1783. Her parents did not introduce her to religion. Growing up Lee felt the spirit of God and realized she was a “wretched sinner.”[1] Nonetheless, Lee did not experience conversion as a child. Lee came to religion in her twenties. In 1804, she heard a Presbyterian missionary preach at a local school and read the Psalms. Over the next few months, Lee experienced an illness that she attributed to “fearful oppressions of a judgment to come.”[2] Lee moved to work for a Roman Catholic family outside of Philadelphia. She attended an English church in the city, but realized it was not the church for her. Lee began attending a Methodist church in Philadelphia where she experienced her conversion to evangelical Protestantism. Lee recorded the ecstasy she felt while listening to Reverend Richard Allen preach: “Great was the ecstasy of my mind, for I felt that not only the sin of malice was pardoned, but all other sins were swept away all together. That day was the first when my heart had believed, and my tongue had made confession unto salvation—the first words uttered…was glory to God.”[3] Despite these feelings, Lee wrestled with her faith and doubted that she could find happiness in this world. After contemplating suicide for a second time, Lee had a vision of hell and Satan. One night she wept and cried aloud. Lee became ill again and went to stay with a physician. Soon, she came to accept her conversion and was baptized in the Methodist church in 1807. After her baptism, Lee also experienced sanctification. She asked the Lord to sanctify her soul and “That very instant, as if lightening had darted through me, I sprang to my feet, and cried, ‘The Lord has sanctified my soul!’ There was none to hear this but the angels who stood around to witness my joy—and Satan, whose malice raged the more.”[4] Lee’s autobiography reminds scholars that for many nineteenth-century Americans conversion experiences were long and emotional processes filled with visions, words, songs, crying, doubt, the heart, and the supernatural.

Four or five years after her conversion and sanctification, Lee felt called by God to preach. During the Second Great Awakening, more than 100 women served as itinerant preachers. Women preachers were white and black. They preached in barns, schools, and at camp meetings, but rarely, if at all, in churches. Denominations that supported women’s preaching included the Quakers, Freewill Baptists, Christian Connection, northern Methodists, African Methodists, and Millerites. In 1811, Jarena married Mr. Joseph Lee, the “Pastor of a Colored Society at Snow Hill.”[5] Lee preached less while married, but by 1819 resumed her itineracy. Rev. Richard Allen heard Lee preach and recognized her abilities. Rev. Allen ordained Lee as the first woman preacher in the AME Church in 1819. Lee preached to black and white audiences, and often meet with hostility in the field. Lee recorded one incident in her autobiography. Once a white man told her that “he did not believe the coloured people had any souls.”[6] Thus, the man tried to undermine Lee’s profession as a black, female preacher. Lee’s calling was far from easy, but she continued to carve out space in black and white circles to preach. In fact, in one year Lee traveled 2,325 miles and preached 78 sermons.

Lee expanded her Christian calling in 1838 by joining American Antislavery Society. Like many other nineteenth-century women, Lee challenged the notions of “Republican Motherhood” and “True Womanhood.” Lee was a black, female preacher. She preached outside the home in the public sphere. She became a woman author. And, she joined Christian voluntary associations. Jarena Lee carved out a space for herself in American Protestantism.

[1] Jarena Lee, Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee, Giving an Account of Her Call to Preach the Gospel (Pub. for the author, 1849), 3.

[2] Ibid., 4.

[3] Ibid., 5.

[4] Ibid., 10.

[5] Ibid., 13.

[6] Ibid., 19.

2 thoughts on “Jarena Lee, The Life and Religious Experiences of Jarena Lee (1835)

  1. I am doing research on Jarena Lee for a Black Print Studies course. Could you tell me where you got the information about the distribution of her autobiography?

    • For distribution info see: Early African American Print Culture, p. 50. You can view it on GoogleBooks. The edition information obtained from looking at the 1835, 1836, and 1849 editions.

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