Jarena Lee

(b. 1783)

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(1783–?), itinerant preacher and autobiographer.

Born free in Cape May, New Jersey, on 11 February 1783, Jarena Lee became both the first African American woman to write an extended account of her own life and the first African American woman whose right to preach received official acknowledgment from church authorities. Her autobiography, The Life and Religious Experience of Jarena Lee (1836), begins with a few brief references to her family, whom she left at the age of seven to work as a maid, and then quickly focuses on the steps she took to attain Christian salvation. Three sections follow this account of her spiritual awakening and clearly demonstrate her belief in female equality. The second section, titled “My Call to Preach the Gospel,” describes the call to preach she received around the year 1807. She sought permission to answer this call from the Reverend Richard Allen, head of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, who upheld the church's ban against women preachers. The third section of her autobiography, “My Marriage,” tells of her union with Joseph Lee, the pastor of a church outside Philadelphia, whom she married in 1811. In about 1818, Joseph Lee died, leaving her with two small children to support. While married, Jarena Lee did not pursue her call to preach, though her autobiography intimates her frustration with the subordinate role of wife. The last section of her work, “The Subject of My Call to Preach Renewed,” recounts the final steps she took toward becoming a preacher. Eight years after she first approached Bishop Allen with her request to preach, Lee asked for-and received-his permission to hold prayer meetings in her home and “of exhorting as I found liberty”. Soon after acquiring these limited privileges, Lee unexpectedly found herself the last-minute replacement for the minister who had been scheduled to preach. Allen, who happened to be among those who heard her spontaneous sermon, acknowledged her right to preach, enabling her to embark on a career as a traveling minister. Lee wrote another, longer version of her autobiography, Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee (1849), the last record we have of her life. Lee's autobiographical writings offer invaluable insight into one woman's efforts to overcome the limitations imposed on her by a racist and sexist culture and show the significance of the church to African American literature.

Jarena Lee, The Life and Religious Experience of Jarena Lee, 1836; rpt. in Sisters of the Spirit: Three Black Women's Autobiographies of the Nineteenth Century, ed. William L. Andrews, 1986.Nellie Y. McKay, “Nineteenth-Century Black Women's Spiritual Autobiographies,” in Interpreting Women's Lives, ed. The Personal Narratives Group, 1989.Carla Peterson, Doers of the Word: African-American Women Speakers and Writers in the North (1830–1880), 1995.

Candis LaPrade

Subjects: Literature.

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