In a single year Jarena Lee, unordained female preacher, traveled 2,325 miles and delivered one hundred and seventy-eight sermons. Two thousand miles of travel in 1827 was a significant amount for a black woman over 40. If Jarena Lee always felt “it better to wear out than to rust out,” it was for the reason that she believed herself a servant of the Lord’s will to whose work she had irreversibly been called. The destiny of fellow blacks moved her; however she was more dedicated to their souls than to their bodies.
Thus far to truly reach her racial kinsmen was to save them. Salvation forged a protective armor shielding them from ills to which they were presently subject, and preparing them for a future life of which she told them.Most likely born free at Cape May, New Jersey, in 1783, she went to live as a servant about 60 miles from her home. The distance meant separation from her family. She was merely seven when this break occurred.
Her parents encircled the heart of her life and she made contact with them whenever she could. After an absence of 14 years she returned to Cape May to visit her aging mother, as she did again 11 years later. In accordance with her own log book of contact, there were two more reunions. Consequently she saw her mother 4 times after she was 7 and one of her sisters, “long lost,” twice in 42 or 43 years.The consolations of religion substituted for the consolations of the family.
She was 21 in 1804 when, moving in church groups in the area of her employment as a house servant, she was uplifted by the preaching of a local minister. The Reverend Richard Allen, founder plus leader of the African Methodist Episcopal Church movement, turned out to be the fixed center of her Philadelphia period. An overjoyed religious experience and a subsequent vision brought her back to Allen of whom she requested permission to preach. He was not reluctant to women leading prayer meetings; however he drew the conservative theological line against female preaching.
Without the firm resolution she later developed, she accepted the judgment. Soon thereafter, in 1811, she married Joseph Lee, pastor of a society located a short distance from Philadelphia.There were tragic incidents in her private life. Lee survived but 7 years after their marriage; in addition, four other members of her family died. She was left with a child of two and a six-month infant.
After these events she started to preach, first on occasions when the pastor “lost the spirit.” Richard Allen, now Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, endorsed her desire to preach and she was soon, rightly or wrongly, to express herself as “the first female preacher of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church.”Her ministry was now her entire existence. Her thorough journal catalogs the years and miles and meetings.
Each episode confirmed Mrs. Lee in her calling. She could hardly write too frequently of the people she affected, “tears rolling down their cheeks, the signs of contrition and repentance towards God.” Even her keenness for abolition bore the stamp of evangelism.
Her concern with the earthly oppression of the slaves was outshined by her desire that they have access to the Christian gospel.Jarena Lee’s two autobiographical narratives offer the most thorough records of her life. Like writings by Zilpha Elaw, Julia Foote, and Rebecca Cox Jackson, Lee’s narratives thematically emphasize Christian conversion experience and, as scholars have pointed out, fall within the tradition of spiritual autobiography in the United States. The Life and Religious Experience of Jarena Lee consists of 20 pages or so.
An introductory chapter offers sketchy details regarding Lee’s personal background and, along with the spiritual autobiography genre, focuses on her conversion to Christianity and following sanctification. Three chapters follow, entitled “My Call to Preach the Gospel,” “My Marriage,” as well as “The Subject of My Call to Preach Renewed.” Embedded in this text is a delicate argument for consecration of the soul as a final step in spiritual maturation in the sense outlined by Methodist John Wesley. In the text’s epigraph, Lee’s alteration of Joel 2:28 through a prominence of the word “daughters” immediately sets forth one of the vital thematic concerns of her spiritual narrative discourse: the assertion of her authority to preach the gospel.In addition, Lee stages a general critique of church injunctions against women preachers: “O how careful ought we be, lest through our by-laws of church government and discipline, we bring into disrepute even the word of life.
For as unseemly as it may appear now a-days for a woman to preach, it should be remembered that nothing is impossible with God. And why should it be thought impossible, heterodox, or improper, for a woman to preach? seeing the Savior died for the woman as well as the man” ( Andrews36).Fundamental to Lee’s narrative methodology is the amalgamation of biblical Scriptures from books such as Psalms, Isaiah, and Romans. At times, she likens herself to biblical figures for instance Paul, Belshazzar, the disciple Mary, and Jonah. This work is often read as an intertext or conflated with Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee.
Though, that it was published just a year later than the first set of Maria Stewart’s writings appeared and that it is a sample of spiritual writing from the period in the United States when the abolitionist movement was gaining ground are just two factors that make The Life and Religious Experiences of Jarena Lee commendable of engagement on its own terms.Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee implants within this prior text an extended narrative that is more thematically attentive to Lee’s public life as an “incessantly traveling” preacher. Since scholars have noted, this volume highlights repetition and nonlinearity as significant aspects of Lee’s narrative discourse.
Black narratives produced within the spiritual autobiography genre manifest what Wilson Jeremiah Moses calls the black Jeremiad by not prioritizing a narrativization of blacks as fundamentally moral or messianic. Although there is an expression of racism and slavery as evils, these narratives usually extend the sin problematic to blacks and whites alike. Frequently, Lee entails that divine retribution has befall “enemies of the cross”, or more particularly, those who have attempted to hinder her preaching. For instance, she notes that James Ward, a black preacher in Reading, Pennsylvania, who had obstinately refused to let her speak in his pulpit, “was in a few weeks after I left there, turned out of the church”. Several passages lay bare the evangelical purposes of this text.
Captivatingly, Lee’s metaphorical tropings of concepts describe in the Declaration of Independence for instance life and liberty have been virtually ignored in critical discussions. Lee archives moments when “the word had its more perfect effect” on people to whom she ministered and a few disappointing times when “I shook the dust off my feet and left them in peace”. This narrative exposes her as a person who enthused the growth of schools and churches in the communities that she encountered, as a spiritual mentor for other women, and as one for whom family was at times a criterion.
Thus Jarena Lee constitutes one example of African American women in the antebellum period who sought to achieve leadership positions within the black community as well as in the process insisted on a reconfiguration of the ideology of social spheres that attempted to regulate their behavior. Called by God to the task of saving souls, Lee moved from the domestic sphere into public spaces whose access was usually prohibited to women of the period–the pulpit and, more generally, a traveling ministry that took her up and down the eastern coast and into the Midwest.Given her powerful religious fervor, though, Lee transcended geographical place so as to inhabit the spiritual monarchy of mystical ecstasy. Turning to writing, finally, both to undermine the hierarchies established by institutionalized religion and to look for legitimation from them, Lee reinscribed these experiences in, and of, heterogeneous sacred space in her two spiritual autobiographies. In the process, she permitted her imagination to reach back–however unconsciously–across the rupture of the Middle Passage to traditions of her African homeland and make a hybrid discourse that attests to the presence of a vital African diasporic culture in the early 19th century.