Essay, Research Paper: Jarena Lee

Religion

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Jarena Lee felt imbued with a religious mission in life, and because of this,
she bravely defied the conservative sex biases of the church to become, as she
contended, the “first female preacher of the First African Methodist Episcopal
Church”. As an evangelist, Mrs. Lee sometimes traveled on foot to spread her
religious message and would walk as far as 16 miles to preach. When over forty
years old, the unordained minister logged 2,325 miles on the Gospel circuit. She
preached up and down the Eastern Shore and traveled into sections of Illinois
and Ohio, converting blacks as well as whites to the Christian faith. Believed
to have been born free in Cape May, New Jersey, February 11, 1783, to parents
who were “wholly ignorant of the knowledge of God,” she left home at the age
of seven to work as a maid sixty miles away. Her first religious experience
occurred relatively late in life--in 1804 when she was twenty-one. Listening to
a local Protestant missionary who was holding services in a schoolroom, she
became overwhelmed by the “weight of my sins”. Afterward, she contemplated
committing suicide and credited the “unseen arm of God” with preventing her.
After moving to Philadelphia, she was inspired by the preaching of the Reverend
Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and became
“gloriously” converted to God. Five years later, she experienced a religious
sanctification of mind and spirit and was moved by a vision to preach. She went
to see the Reverend Allen, who informed her that she could hold prayer meetings,
but that his discipline did not call for women preachers. Later writing in her
journal, she reflected on the decision, noting, “O how careful ought we to be,
lest through our by-laws of church government and discipline, we bring into
disrepute even the word of life. For as unseemly as it may appear now-a-days for
a woman to preach, it should be remembered that nothing is impossible with God.
And why should it be thought impossible, heterodox, or improper for a woman to
preach? seeing the Savior died for the woman as well as for the man. If the man
may preach, because the Savior died for him, why not the woman? seeing he died
for her also. Did not Mary first preach the risen Savior, and is not the
doctrine of the resurrection the very climax of Christianity--hangs not all our
hope on this? Then did not Mary, a woman, preach the gospel? for she preached
the resurrection of the crucified Son of God.” In 1811, she married Joseph
Lee, a pastor of a congregation in Snow Hill, a town six miles from
Philadelphia. Feeling that she did not fit into the community, she became
discontented the first year and told her husband she wanted them to move. But
because he felt that his obligation as a minister came first, he refused. Jarena
Lee’s passionate but stifled desire to preach caused her morbid suffering and
ill health. Tragedy beleaguered the family, and five members died within six
years, on of whom was her husband. Two children survived, a two-year-old and a
six-month-old baby. her suppressed calling to preach was miraculously released
in the church of Reverend Allen, where she went to hear the Reverend Richard
Williams give a sermon. In the same course of his preaching, she suddenly
discerned that he had “lost the spirit”. At that moment, she spang to her
feet and gave a stirring exhortation, writing in her journal later, “God made
manifest his power in a manner sufficient to show the world I was called to
labor according to my ability. Immediately following her sermon, the Reverend
Allen, now bishop of the African Episcopal Methodist Church, rose to sanction
her right to preach. From that time on, Jarena Lee’s life was dedicated to
evangelizing, and as she did so, she challenged the prejudices against women as
ministers of God. To tell others of her work, she had printed in Philadelphia a
pamphlet of twenty-four pages entitled The Life and Religious Experience of
Jarena Lee, a Colored Lady, Giving an Account of Her Call to Preach the Gospel.
She kept a journal while traveling which she combined with her autobiography,
and this expanded version appeared in 1894 as Religious Experience and Journal
of Mrs. Jarena Lee, Giving an Account of Her Call to Preach the Gospel. She sold
her book at church meetings to meet expenses. One source has categorized it as a
“narrative of her pilgrimage with exhortations to the faithful and to those
who might be falling away, designed, it appears, to make the story of her life
an extension of her preaching.” Mrs. Lee published the journal herself in
Philadelphia after the A.M.E. Book Concern hesitated on the grounds it was
“written in such a manner that it is impossible to decipher much of the
meaning contained in it.” Since the book questioned sexism in the church, this
could have influenced the all-male book committee’s balking at publishing it,
as well as their request that “Sister Lee...favored” the members with an
explanation of portions they could not understand. This enlightening
autobiography of a black nineteenth-century female minister left a literary and
spiritual pattern for other women who followed her. I could not find a record of
her death, but there is a questionable listing of another work by a Jarena Lee
in Daniel Murray’s Preliminary List of Books and Pamphlets by Negro Authors,
for Paris Exposition and Library of Congress (1900). This entry indicated that
Jarena Lee published a ninety-three-page work. The Color of Solomon (1895), in
Philadelphia. At the age of 112?
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