Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Women’s History Month: Jarena Lee, A Pioneer Among Preachers

In Jean Miller Schmidt’s beautifully written book, Grace Sufficient: A History of Women in American Methodism (1760-1939), we read many accounts of sturdy Methodist women preachers.  One such woman, a true pioneer, was Jarena Lee of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.

She was born in 1783 in Cape May, NJ, the daughter of free but very poor parents.  Jarena became a Christian at age 21 under the ministry of none other than the Rev. Richard Allen, founding minister of Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia and later the first AME bishop.  She felt a call to preach at that time and spoke to Allen about it; but he explained that the rules of Methodism did not “call for women preachers.”  He did  allow her to hold prayer meetings and exhort after sermons were preached. 
Jarena married the Rev. Joseph Lee, the pastor of a black church in Snow Hill, N.J., and they had two children.  Within six years there were a number of deaths in the family, including her husband, and she moved back to Philadelphia, where she again attended Bethel AME Church. 
During one Sunday service she stood up and began preaching after the preacher in the pulpit lost his train of thought.  Rev. Allen heard her impromptu, unexpected sermon. He was so moved that he endorsed her as truly called to preach. Jarena Lee thus began her itinerant ministry, starting in local house- churches before finally taking to the road to preach in New York, Maryland and Ohio.

Sometimes Jarena traveled on foot and depended on the hospitality of those she visited.  She received no salary. At one point she was able to connect with a group of Wyandotte Indians in Buffalo, N.Y., and when she preached to them through a translator, they found faith in Jesus Christ.