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 (1783-1857) - Do coloured people have souls? - Returning to Cape May, NJ
Shortly after she impulsively stood up in the Bethel AME Church to preach a sermon which was lauded, Jarena Lee began to think about devoting her life to preaching.
I now began to think seriously of breaking up housekeeping, & forsaking all to preach the everlasting Gospel. I felt a strong desire to return to the place of my nativity, at Cape May, after an absence of about fourteen years...
When within ten miles of that place, I appointed an evening meeting. There were a goodly number come out to hear. The Lord was pleased to give me light & liberty among the people. After meeting, there came an elderly lady to me & said, she believed the Lord had sent me among them; & then appointed me another meeting there two weeks from that night.
The next day I hastened forward to the place of my mother who was happy to see me, & the happiness was mutual between us. With her I left my poor sickly boy, while I departed to do my Master's will.
In this neighborhood I had an uncle, who was a Methodist, & who gladly threw open his door for meetings to be held there. At the first meeting which I held in my uncle's house, there was, with others who had come from curiosity to hear the woman preacher, an old man, who was a Deist, & who said he did not believe the coloured people had any souls - he was sure they had none. He took a seat very near where I was standing, & boldly tried to look me out of countenance. But as I labored on in the best manner I was able, looking to God all the while, though it seemed to me I had but little liberty, yet there went an arrow from the bent bow of the gospel, & fastened in his till then obdurate heart.
After I had done speaking, he went out, & called the people around him, said that my preaching might seem a small thing, yet he believed I had the worth of souls at heart. This language was different from what it was a little time before, as he now seemed to admit that coloured people had souls, as it was to these I was chiefly speaking; & unless they had souls, whose good I had in view, his remark must have been without meaning.
He now came into the house, & in the most friendly manner shook hands with me, saying, he hoped God had spared him to some good purpose. This man was a great slave holder, & had been very cruel; thinking nothing of knocking down a slave with a fence stake, or whatever might come to hand. From this time it was said of him that he became greatly altered in his ways for the better. At that time he was about seventy years old, his head as white as snow; but whether he became a converted man or not, I never heard.
The week following, I had an invitation to hold a meeting at the (Cape May) Court House of the County... It was a solemn time, & the Lord attended the word; I had life & liberty, though there were people there of various denominations. Here again I saw the aged slaveholder, who notwithstanding his age, walked about three miles to hear me.
This day I spoke twice, & walked six miles to the place appointed. There was a magistrate present, who showed his friendship, by saying in a friendly manner, that he had heard of me: he handed me a hymnbook, pointing to a hymn which he had selected.
When the meeting was over, he invited me to preach in a schoolhouse in his neighborhood, about three miles distant from where I was. During this meeting one backslider was reclaimed. This day I walked six miles, & preached twice to large congregations, both in the morning & evening. The Lord was with me, glory be to his holy name.
I next went six miles & held a meeting in a coloured friend's house, at eleven o'clock in the morning, & preached to a well behaved congregation, of both coloured & white. After service I again walked back, which was in all twelve miles in the same day. This was on Sabbath, or as I sometimes call it, seventh day; for after my conversion, I preferred the plain language of the Friends.
On the fourth day, after this, in compliance with an invitation received by note, from the same magistrate who had heard me at the above place I preached to a large congregation, where we had a precious time: much weeping was heard among the people.
The same gentleman, now at the close of the meeting, gave out another appointment at the same place, that day week, Here again I had liberty, there was a move among the people.
Ten years from that time, in the neighborhood of Cape May, I held a prayer meeting in a school house, which was then the regular place of preaching for the Episcopal Methodists, after service, there came a white lady, of great distinction, a member of the Methodist Society, & told that at that same shool house ten years before, under my preaching, the Lord first awakened her. She rejoiced much to see me, & invited me home with her, where I staid till the next day. This was bread cast upon the water, seen after many years.
From this place I went to Dennis Creek meeting house (in New Jersey), where at the invitation of an elder, I spoke to a large congregation of various & conflicting sentiments, when a wonderful shock of God's power was felt, shown everywhere by groans, by sighs, & loud & happy amens. I felt as if aided from above. My tongue was cut loose, the stammerer spoke freely; the love of God, & of his service, burned with a vehement flame within me - his name was glorified among the people.
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.