Catherine Brekus on Jarena Lee
|Resource Bank Contents|
Q: What was Jarena Lee's relationship with Richard Allen after he gave her permission to preach? What do you think this traveling would have been like for a woman evangelist? What would Lee's biblical argument against slavery be?
A: Richard Allen became one of Jarena Lee's greatest admirers. And he often arranged preaching appointments for her. He took her to Methodist conferences with him. And I think most extraordinary of all, he took care of her son for two years, while she was out of Philadelphia, preaching. So their lives were very closely intertwined. They seem to have been very, very close friends. She seems to have looked up to him almost as a father. And as long as he was alive, he protected her, and he made sure that she had places to preach, and that she had enough money. After he died in 1831, she found it was much more difficult for her to find places to preach. She no longer had his protection.
I think she was incredibly courageous to [travel around]. Often, she traveled with another woman. But still, two women traveling across the country by themselves, two black women, often preaching to mixed congregations of blacks and whites, they must have felt very vulnerable. And I know from reading other female preachers' memoirs that some women were afraid that they'd be assaulted, sexually assaulted or robbed. This is another example of how strong Jarena Lee felt in her faith, that she was willing to do this, that she was willing to subject herself to all kinds of possible dangers. But she believed that God was with her, wherever she traveled. There's probably no example that illustrated this better than her willingness to go to Maryland, which was a slave state.
At one African Methodist camp meeting, she wrote in a very poignant passage in her memoir that there were huge numbers of slaves who had walked 20 or 30 or even 70 miles to hear her preach, that they had heard that there was a free black woman who would be preaching at this camp meeting. And even though they would have to walk that entire distance back at night, to be in their slave quarters the next morning for work, they were willing to do that to hear her and to see her.
...She identified slavery as a sin. And it was a sin that God would punish. God was not going to let this happen. So she predicted that some day there might be a sort of millennial apocalypse. And in fact, she mentioned very briefly Nat Turner, not by name, but it's clear that she meant Nat Turner. And she says, perhaps he's right; perhaps there will be an apocalypse at the end where two armies, a black army and a white army, will clash. So I think she had this sense, in a way that is hard to imagine, years before the Civil War, that this sort of strife was coming.
Associate Professor of the History of Christianity
University of Chicago Divinity School
Part 3: Narrative | Resource Bank Contents | Teacher's Guide
Africans in America: Home | Resource Bank Index | Search | Shop
WGBH | PBS Online | ©