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People & Ideas: Jarena Lee

Jarena Lee

Jarena Lee was likely one of the first African American female preachers in America. Born in February 1783 to free but poor black parents, she was sent to work as a live-in servant at the age of 7. After hearing a sermon by Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Church (AME), Lee underwent an intense and protracted conversion. Yet she had doubts. She later wrote:

But to my utter surprise there seemed to sound a voice which I thought I distinctly heard, and most certainly understand, which said to me, "Go preach the Gospel!" I immediately replied aloud, "No one will believe me." Again I listened and again the same voice seemed to say "Preach the Gospel; I will put words in your mouth and will turn your enemies to become your friends."

But women weren't allowed to preach. Lee sought permission from Allen to preach. First he refused, then changed his mind, granting her permission to preach on an itinerary circuit and to hold prayer meetings in her own home. For a woman of any race to be granted such authority was highly unusual.

Accompanied by a female companion, Lee later wrote that she "traveled two thousand three hundred and twenty-five miles, and preached one hundred and seventy-eight sermons" to mixed gatherings of blacks and whites. Vulnerable and subject to danger, she seemed confident that God was with her. That confidence took her to Maryland, a slave state. Her diary records one camp meeting where slaves had walked 20 miles and more to hear her preach.

For Lee, slavery was a sin -- one that God would one day punish. In the years leading up to the Civil War, she seemed to share the apocalyptic hope of Nat Turner and Frederick Douglass.

Her date and place of death is unknown, but her spiritual autobiography remains an important record of a woman whose faith allowed her to break and defy the social conventions and racial barriers of her day.

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Published October 11, 2010

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