Jarena Lee (1783-185?)

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Have you heard of Jarena Lee? She was the first African American woman to write an autobiography and the first black woman preacher. In this blog I want to give an overview of her story and record the powerful rationale she gave for why women should be able to preach just like men.

Jarena tells her story in The Life and Religious Experience of Jarena Lee, A Coloured Lady, Giving an Account of her call to preach the Gospel. She recounts that she was born in New Jersey a hundred years prior to the civil war. At the age of seven she was separated from her parents and sold as a servant to a white christian family. Here she learned about God. As a young girl the intense nature of her conviction of sin led her on several occasions to come to the brink of suicide. But she recounts that each time she would be overwhelmed by suicidal thoughts, God would intervene.

The highlight of her “spiritual autobiography” is the story she tells about her call to the ministry. She says that God spoke to her to “go preach the Gospel!” As a marginalized minority she, of course, retorted “no one will believe me.” But, the voice came again. So she went to tell her minister about her experience. She recounts that he asked her where she wanted to preach exactly. The minster was wondering if she wanted to just give instructions at gatherings of other pious women. She responded “among the Methodists” clearly implying that she wanted to preach at church. But the minster said as far as women preaching went, “our Discipline [Methodism] knew nothing at all about it—that it did not call for women preachers” (36). Her reflection on this conversation is worth recording verbatim.

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 Saviour died for the woman as well as the man.

If a man may preach, because the Saviour died for him, why not the woman? Seeing he died for her also. Is he not a whole Saviour, instead of a half one? As those who hold it wrong for a woman to preach, would seem to make it appear. Did not Mary first preach the risen Saviour, and is not the doctrine of the resurrection the very climax of Christianity—hangs not all our hope on this, as argued by St. Paul? Then did not Mary, a woman, preach the gospel? For she preached the resurrection of the crucified Son of God.

But some will say that Mary did not expound the Scripture, therefore, she did not preach, in the proper sense of the term. To this I reply, it may be that the term preach, in those primitive times, did not mean exactly what it is now made to mean; perhaps it was a great deal more simple then, than it is now:-if it were not, the unlearned fishermen could not have preached the gospel at all, as they had no learning.

To this it may be replied, by those who are determined not to believe that it is right for a woman to preach, that the disciples, though they were fishermen, and ignorant of letters too, were inspired so to do. To which I would reply, that though they were inspired, yet inspiration did not save them from showing their ignorance of letters, and of man’s wisdom; this the multitude soon found out, by listening to the remarks of the envious Jewish priests. If then, to preach the gospel, by the gift of heaven, comes by inspiration solely, is God straitened; must he take the man exclusively? May he not, did he not, and can he not inspire a female to preach the simple story of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of our Lord, and accompany it too, with power to the sinner’s heart. As for me, I am fully persuaded that the Lord called me to labor according to what I have received, in his vineyard. If he has not, how could he consistently bear testimony in favor of my poor labours, in awakening and converting sinners? (36-7)

Jarena not only preached, but she seemed to have been good at it. The power of her preaching is evident in a story she relays about the changed heart of a crotchety white slave owner who came to hear her preach simply out of curiosity (it was a rare sight to see a woman preaching, let alone a “colored” one). And it seems that she did not disappoint. Jarena recounts that the man was a deist and told her outright that he believed colored people didn’t have souls. Can you imagine having the nerve to get up and preach after a comment like that? Even though she was deeply put off from his remarks, it did not deter her from preaching. Upon the conclusion of her sermon, the white slave owner approached her and declared that he had changed his mind. He informed her that her preaching had caused him to believe that black people must have souls after all!

Jarena Lee’s story fills me with courage and hope. As a black female servant (basically a slave) living during a time when America didn’t advocate racial or gender equality, she crossed all sorts of barriers to fulfill God’s calling in her life. I want to encourage you to go and read her story for yourself.

For further reading:
William L. Andrews, editor., Sisters of the Spirit: Three Black Women’s Autobiographies of the Nineteen Century, 1986.
Thomas A. Robinson & Lanette D. Ruff, Out of the Mouths of Babes: Girl Evangelists in the Flapper Era, 2012.

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