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. 

She experienced a good bit of “push-back” for being a woman preacher, but she never gave up.  Sometimes she would use humor to counter her detractors.  When confronted by a particular elder who objected to women in the ministry she said:

“And there let me tell that elder that as far back as Adam Clarke’s time, his objections to female preaching were met by the answer, ‘If an ass reproved Balaam and a barn-door fowl (rooster) reproved Peter, why should not a woman reprove sin?  Maybe a speaking woman is like an ass, but I can tell you one thing: the ass seen the angel when Balaam didn’t.’”

Throughout her long life and ministry Jarena Lee offered support to other women preachers and exhorters and even financed the publication of her own book, when her denomination’s book committee would not do so.  Because of her witness and determination many women followed in her footsteps, including Sophie Murray, Elizabeth Cole, Rachel Evans and Harriet Felson Taylor.  She never lived to see the General Conference of the AME Church finally license women to preach; but nothing stopped these women from proclaiming God's word. They just kept on following God’s call.

Oh beloved, why are we so often found to be in the business of blocking people from fulfilling their call to ministry?  We are like Joshua who complained to Moses that Eldad and Medad, two of the elders of Israel, were preaching to the people at an un-prescribed time and place. “My lord, Moses, stop them!” he said.  But Moses answered wisely “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”  (Numbers 11:29b) 

I thank God for the relentless and undeterred ministry of Jarena Lee, and I call upon all who feel disenfranchised and unappreciated by denominational rules and structures to preach the gospel to whosoever will listen.  Depend on God, and don’t become discouraged or bitter. 

Obedience to God takes many forms, and God will always equip those whom God has called. Jarena Lee’s life is a powerful, living testimony to that truth. During Women’s History Month in March let us hear once again the clarion call to obey God and not let anything stand in our way. 

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