Jarena Lee was the 1st woman to preach under the auspices of the AME church. The child of free black parents, Lee was born in New Jersey in 1783, & worked as a servant in the home of a white family, 60 miles from her home. Strongly affected when she went to hear Richard Allen preach, Lee determined to preach herself. At first rebuffed by Allen, who said that women could not preach at the Methodist Church, Lee persisted; & 8 years after his initial refusal, Allen allowed her access to the pulpit after hearing her spontaneous exhoration during a sermon at Bethel AME Church. Lee traveled all over the United States preaching her gospel of freedom, even venturing into the South to preach to slaves. The following is a segment of her journey written in her own words.
Jarena Lee (1783-1857), Preacher of the A.M.E. Church, Aged 60 years in the 11th day of the 2nd month 1844, Philadelphia 1844
Jarena Lee - Six Months in Maryland 1824
On the 14th April, I went with Bishop Allen and several elders to Baltimore, on their way to attend Conference; at the end of which the Bishop gave me permission to express a few thoughts for my Lord. On leaving the city of B., I travelled about 100 miles to Eastern Shore, Maryland. Brother Bailey was then laboring on that circuit, who received and treated me very kindly. We had several good meetings, and twice I spoke in Bethel Church, when the outpouring of the Spirit was truly great. In company with a good sister, who took a gig and horse, I travelled about three hundred miles, and labored in different places. Went to Denton African Church, and on the first Sabbath gave two sermons. The Church was in a thriving, prosperous condition, and the Lord blessed the word to our comfort. During the week I labored in the court-house before a large concourse of hearers. The Lord was unspeakably good, and one fell to the floor under the power.
By request, I also spoke in the Old Methodist Church in Denton, which was full to overflowing. It was a happy meeting. My tongue was loosened, and my heart warm with the love of God and souls - a season yet sweet to my memory. From there I went to Greensboro - the elder gave a sermon, after which I exhorted the poor sinner to prepare to meet the Lord in peace, before mercy was clear gone forever. The Old Methodist connexion gave an invitation for me to speak in their house, which I embraced, feeling thankful that the middle wall of partition had, thus far, been broken down. "He that feareth God and worketh righteousness shall be accepted of him" - not he who hath a different skin - not he who belongs to this denomination, or, to that - but "he that feareth God." My Master is no respecter of persons. May the partition walls that divide His sincere followers be broken down by the spirit of love.
In Whitehall Chapel I spoke to a respectable congregation, from Isaiah iii. 1. Though in a slave country, I found the Omnipresent one was with us. Dr. Clarke took us home to dine with his family - for which uncommon attention I felt highly gratified. I believe him a Christian in heart, and one, no doubt, who has read the words of the Saviour: "Whosoever shall give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only, shall in no wise lose his reward." And, notwithstanding the doctor was a Presbyterian, Mr. Buly had the privilege of baptizing two of their colored children.
I stopped next to Concord, and in the Old Methodist connexion tried to encourage the Lord's people to preserver. God displayed His power by a general outpouring of the Spirit - sinners cried for mercy, while others shouted for joy.
Spoke congregation of colored and white at Stanton Mills; and arrived again at Eastern Shore, where I spoke in Bethel Church during Quarterly Meeting. Attended their love-feast, where several joined society, and many encouraging testimonies were given by young converts that "God hath power on earth to forgive sins." May they be faithful stewards of the manifold gifts of God - and never be ashamed to confess what the Lord had done for them. Many lose the witness out of the heart by withholding their testimony from their friends and neighbors of the power of God to save. They run well for a season, but the tempter whispers "not now" - and by and by the soul becomes barren and unfruitful. May God help the young converts to "Watch," and tell around what a dear Saviour they have found.
June 10th, 1824. Left Eastern Shore for a journey to Bath, and went around the circuit with brother J.B., the elder. In the Old Methodist Church, at Fory's Neck, I had the privilege of speaking to a large congregation, which was made the power of God unto salvation. Visited Lewistown, and had a blessed meeting in the Methodist Church. The tears of the penitent flowed sweetly, which always encourages me to persevere in proclaiming the glad tidings of a risen Saviour to my fellow beings. When the heart is thus melted into tenderness, I feel assured theLord sanctions the feeble effort of His poor servant - it is a good omen to my mind that the mourner is not forsaken of God, and that he yet stands knocking at the door for admittance. Oh! that those who weep for an absent Jesus may be comforted by hearing Him say - "Thy sins, which were many, are all forgiven thee: go in peace and sin no more."
Elder J.B. preached in Greensboro', where I attended, and had a quickening time. Some enmity had existed among the brethren, but the spirit of love got the ascendancy, and the lion became as the lamb. The gospel is the best remedy to subdue the evil passions of men that has ever been discovered. Dear Master, let Thy gospel spread to earth's remotest bounds.
I have travelled, in four years, sixteen hundred miles and of that I walked two hundred and eleven miles, and preached the kingdom of God to the falling sons and daughters of Adam, counting it all joy for the sake of Jesus. Many times cast down but not forsaken; willing to suffer as well as love. I spoke at Harris's Mills, in a dwelling house, to a large concourse of people, from Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians, xviii.19-20. I felt much drawn out, in the Spirit of God, meanwhile from my feelings. I observed there were some present that never would meet me again. Mr. J.B., the elder, then requested me to lead the class. Much mourning, weeping and rejoicing. Four days afterwards, a man that sat under this sermon, (a shoemaker by occupation) fell dead from his bench without having any testimony of a hope in Christ. How dreadful to relate the wicked shall not live out half their days.
In Easton I spoke from the Evan. John, I chap. 45 ver., the Lord's time. Then proceeded to Dagsberry, 25 miles, preached in Bethel Church to a multitude of people, it being to them a new thing, but only the old made more manifest. Bless God for what my heart feels, for a good conscience is better than a sacrifice. Two sermons preached in said Church, I spoke from Acts 13 chap., 41 ver., - the power of God filled the place - some shouted, others mourned, some testified God for Christ's sake had forgiven sin, whilst others were felled to the floor. From thence we went to Sinapuxom, spoke on Sabbath day to a large congregation from Num. 24 chap., 17 ver - the Lord gave light, life and liberty on that portion of Scripture, Great time. The elder filled the appointment, and while preaching, there were 10 or 11 white men came and said they wanted to see the preacher; he sent for them to come into the house, but they seemed afraid or refused; after he had finished, they came to the door to know by what authority he was preaching - but it was me they were after, but I was fortified, for their laws, by my credentials, having the United States seal upon them, - they tried to get him our of the house, they said, on business. But he told them he would meet them at 9 o'clock in the morning before the magistrate, seven miles distant. Brother J. B. then took my credentials and also showed his own, and, upon examination, the magistrate said, she is highly recommended and I am bound to protect her. An under-officer, anxious to get hold of my papers, very much opposed to our being in the State, tried hard to frighten us out of it, and went to lay his hands on it, but was rebuked by the magistrate; and two days after the magistrate sent word to me to go on and preach, he did not care if I preached till I died. I never met them but before one year.
My mind led me to Salsbury and to Snow Hill - the brother, through persuasion, did not go, for fear of some difficulty, under which consideration I declined going for that time, I then returned to Easton, but my mind still led me to pay that religious visit, which was still accomplished by a sister and myself. I called on brother Massey, a preacher, who conducted us to Snow Hill and Salsbury. In the afternoon, the elder and one of the Trustees of the white Methodist Church, called on me to know of my faith and doctrine, and, while conversing, the spirit of the Lord breathed upon us - we had groans and shedding of tears - that evening the Elder gave me an appointment in the colored church to a large congregation, and we had a powerful time, sinners awakened and backsliders reclaimed. So great was the time that the meeting lasted until three or four o'clock in the morning. It was like a Camp meeting, they came seven miles distance from only three or four hours' notice.
Next morning we left for Snow Hill, the Elder sent down for the friends to take care of us all, and our board, with the horses, should be paid for, consequently we were treated with great hospitality. I preached in the Old Methodist Church to a immense congregation of both the slaves and the holders, and felt great liberty in word and doctrine; the power of God seemed without intermission. We left there and rode 16 miles, spoke to a small company of people. In the afternoon to a large congregation, chiefly Presbyterians, and at many other places too tedious for me to mention, I preached twenty-seven sermons and then returned to Easton again, where I was informed that the constable who was so enraged against me before was then dying; the other white man who came and set at the end of the table twice while I was laboring, thinking I would say something to implicate myself and wanted me arrested so bad, had been sold and his family broke up; it is thus the Lord fights for Israel.
I then made an appointment at a place called the Hole in the Wall, it was a little settlement of coloured people, but we had no Church, but used a dwelling house, and had a large congregation. I had no help but an old man, one hundred and odd years of age; he prayed, and his prayers made us feel awful, he died in the year 1825, and has gone to reap the reward of his labor; freed from the toils and cares of life, no more to labor under a hard task master, but to rest where the slave is freed from his master. I strove then to fill the appointment at 11 o'clock in the morning, from Daniel 5 chap. 27 ver. the declaration was, there is no other way under heaven that men can be saved only through Jesus Christ; the Lord gave me great light on this subject. At 3 o'clock, in the afternoon, we stood in the open air in the woods, and I spoke from 12 chap. 2-3 ver. I felt greater liberty on this subject than the other; the Lord was with me; of a against the power of God? We had people of all descriptions, from the true Christian to the Devil, and from slave-holder to slave. We two white men and two colored; one of the white men, by the name of Sharp had killed all his family, except his oldest daughter; she conversed with them. Sharp treated it with contempt, but the other answered with a degree of humility; but they were hung according to the laws of their state.
I was invited by one of the Trustees of the Old Methodist Church to pay them a visit on the ensuing Sabbath morning. I made the appointment for said day. I left Georgetown on the morning early, half past ten o'clock we arrived in Milford; Church bell was ringing. We were conducted into the Church; a local preacher was in the pulpit and had prayed, but was asked to come down by another who invited me there. I spoke for them and afterwards they gave out for another appointment at night, but it caused a controversy among themselves, and they threw it on him to come and see if I would fill it. Previous to this coloured preachers told me there was controversy about woman preaching. But he came and asked me how long I had been preaching the Gospel. I answered, rising, 5 or 6 years. He said it was something new. I told him it seemed to be supposed so. I referred him to Mrs. Fletcher, of England, an able preacher and wife of Mr. Fletcher, a great and worthy minister of the Parish. He asked why I did not go to the Quakers. I told him I if he had a sister in the Church, and she witnessed a Christian life, and was called and qualified to preach, do you think you would be justified before God, to stop her? He has not answered me yet. I found it was prejudice in his mind. He talked as if he had not known what the operation of the Spirit of God was. We many say, with propriety, he had not tarried at Jerusalem long enough. When about to part, he asked me if I would come, but I could not then promise. At night, the people came in their carriage from the country, but were disappointed, for I spoke in a colored Church. The doors and windows were opened on account of the heat, but were crowded with people; pride and prejudice were buried. We had a powerful time. I was quite taken out of myself - the meeting held till day-break; but I returned to my home.
They told me that sinners were converted, backsliders reclaimed, mourners comforted, and believers built up in the most holy faith. Then they wished us to stay until next night to preach again; but I thought it best to leave them hungry. Previous to this I was sent for by a slave-holder to come to his house to preach three funeral sermons, all at one time, two grown persons and one child; they had been dead about a year, but their graves were only filled up even with the earth. I spoke standing in the door of his dwelling to a great congregation, from the 2 Book of Samuel, 12 chap. 23 very - dwelling much on the certainty of the child's happiness, through the redemption of Christ - shewing how men might be saved living in accordance with the truth. When finished we fell in procession and moved to the graves of the departed. Brother Massey rehearsed the funeral ceremony, then the graves were raised and made oval, as usual, a most affecting scene, one of the deceased being the mother of two little girls there present. They were so affected, it seemed they would go in fits; several persons tried to pacify them, but in vain. It was a solemn time; many were deeply affected that day at the graves, and mourning of the whites in the house, but they treated us kindly, and we left them, visiting my places too tedious to mention.
I met a Camp meeting of the African Methodist Episcopal Church at Denton. the Elder was much encouraged in commencing the Camp. Although in a slave State, we had every thing in order, good preaching, a solemn time, and long to be remembered., Some of the poor slaves came happy in the Lord; walked from 20 to 30, and from that to seventy miles, to seventy miles, to worship God. Although through hardships they counted it all joy for the excellency of Christ; and, before day, they, or a number of them, had to be at home, ready for work; nut some aid they came as sinners before God, but went away as new creatures in Christ; and they could not be disputed. My heart glows with joy while I write; truly God is inscrutable.
The Eler, J.B. then appointed a Camp meeting within five miles of Easton, too near the town, but it was done to glorify God. Yet it seemed there was not that general good done like the previous time. He gave me an appointment on Sunday afternoon; to myself I appeared lost thought I was doing nothing, but the south wind from the hill of the Lord began to blow upon the spices of his garden. The power of God arrested a person who started to run, but fell in the flight, and begged God for mercy and obtained it. After the sermon, which was the first of my being apprized of it, but no merit to me, but all glory to God for mercy and obtained it. After the sermon, which was the first of my being apprized of it, but no merit to me, but all glory to God, for the good done at Camp meetings, though much persecuted, but they are a glorious meeting to me. I pray God to protect the camp-meetings while I think him for the invention. Various are the operations of the Sprit of God on the human family. We must believe in the truth of God, and then we can behold the mysteries and enjoy the truth of them with joy and thanks giving. I went to speak about 10 miles from Centreville at early candle light - warm weather - in a dwelling house, the largest congregation being out-of-doors. I felt an open mind, the power of God fell upon the assembly in open air, and I heard an awful cry. A woman had started, jumped over the fence and run, but fell and rose again; that woman contended until she found redemption in Jesus Christ.
I went to a place called Beaver Dams and spoke there; left there for Hillsborough, and spoke there to a large congregation; from there to Greensborough, and preached in white Methodist Church. The visit not so prosperous; from there to Boomsborough. We were much favoured and approbated by the people, and blessed with the presence of the Lord in power. I then preached at Cecil Cross roads in an old meeting house, almost down, to a large congregation, and it was warm. I was informed a gentleman rode fourteen miles to attend that meeting. Previous to this the Methodists had almost died away, a very few excepted at that place, but from that time they took a rise as I was informed by two young ladies from there. In about 5 years after I left they built a large Church on that same spot where the old one stood, and had a fine congregation; from there brother J. B. appointed a Quarterly Meeting on Mr. John Peaker's Island, for a society of 60 members, which was composed altogether of the said gentleman's slaves. We were entertained in the best of style, had a powerful meeting, and a great manifestation of the power of God. From there we returned to Easton a second time, and were entertained by the overseer very highly at Mr. John Peakey's Island.
Went to Baltimore, from there I visited Hales' Mills, and preached three sermons, much favored the sermons, much favored of the Lord by his presence, after which I returned to Baltimore. The elder gave me an appointment and collection, and I returned to Philadelphia. And on Sunday morning collection, Bishop Allen gave me an appointment in Bethel church, and we had a shout in the Camp of Israel. I had spent six months in Maryland and I only remained in this city three or four weeks, during which time the Lord was with me, and opened my way through opposition, but I felt willing to suffer cheerfully.
From - Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs Jarena Lee, Giving an account of her call to preach the Gospel. Revised & Corrected from the Original Manuscript, written by herself Philadelphia, Printed & Published for the Author, 1849 Entered according to the Act of Congress, in the year 1836
Jarena Lee (1783-1857) was an evangelist for the AME church in the first half of the 19th century. In 1816, Richard Allen (1760-1831) and his colleagues in Philadelphia broke away from the Methodist Church and founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which, along with independent black Baptist congregations, flourished as the century progressed. Richard Allen allowed women to become evangelists and teachers but not church leaders. Jarena Lee was the 1st female to preach in the African Methodist Episcopal denomination. Born in Cape May, New Jersey, she moved to Pennsylvania, when she married in 1811. She had felt called to preach as early as 1809, & revealed her wish to church leader Richard Allen, who responded symapthetically, but explained that the AME Church was silent on the question of women preachers. In 1817, an "ungovernable impulse" led her to rise in Bethel Church & deliver an extemporaneous discourse that so impressed Bishop Allen; that he publically apologized for having discouraged her 8 years earlier. With this verbal liscense from the bishop, Lee began her evangelical ministry, traveling hundreds of miles, often on foot, to preach before all races & denominations, at churches, revivals, & camp meetings. She traveled as far west as Ohio. Although she was never officially licensed & never organized any churches, her ministry aided in the rapid growth of the AME Church before the Civil War. By 1846, the A.M.E. Church, which began with 8 clergy & 5 churches, had grown to 176 clergy, 296 churches, & 17,375 members.