Preacher Jarena Lee: Praise in the Meantime
Jarena Lee was born free in Cape May, New Jersey, in 1783 during the Second Great Awakening. This revivalist period of 19th-century American history was marked by intense, emotional religious conversions and changing beliefs on who was able to experience salvation. As the burgeoning, albeit flawed, democratic project of the United States continuously developed, democratic ideas of human nature and religion gained traction in public thought. Common people became the focus of revivalists during the Second Great Awakening, and religion, social reform, and the status of women became interconnected as American society grappled with questions of morality.
Around 1803, Jarena Lee moved to Philadelphia and began looking for a church. It was during this search that she first heard the preaching of the famed Bishop Richard Allen. She was baptized in 1807 at the age of 24, and sometime later, felt called upon to preach. However, tradition dictated that women were not permitted to be ordained ministers, and she was reminded of this by Bishop Allen after asking his permission. Yet Jarena Lee did not relent. In 1811, she moved back to New Jersey as a newly married woman, but over the next six years, she became widowed and lost four of her six children. She returned to Philadelphia and again sought out Bishop Allen, who, by then, had founded the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. Lee was again met with the same refusal.
an old man said he did not believe the coloured people had any souls . . . I labored on in the best manner . . . looking to God all the while . . . After I had done speaking, . . . [the old man] . . . said that my preaching might seem a small thing, yet . . . I had the worth of souls at heart.
Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee, Giving an Account of Her Call to Preach the Gospel, 1836
Despite Bishop Allen's refusal, Lee still felt called upon by God to preach, and she began delivering sermons without permission. Lee even interrupted Sunday morning service at Bishop Allen’s church to give her own testimony. Bishop Allen was so moved by her preaching that he publicly endorsed her. Soon after, Lee was ordained, becoming the first female preacher in the AME church. Lee wrote of her call to preach and three-decades long evangelical career in her autobiography, published in 1836. Not only did her preaching span 30 years, but she delivered 178 sermons to innumerable listeners, both Black and white. Jarena Lee died in 1849, but her legacy as the first African American female preacher in the United States remains an important story of a Black woman defying social barriers and touching the hearts, minds, and souls of many.