The Rev. Jarena Lee was a Black history trailblazer, who was the first woman to be authorized to preach by Richard Allen, the founder of the AME Church, and the first Black woman to have an autobiography published in the United States.
Jarena was born in 1783 to free, but poor, Black parents. She was sent to work as a live-in servant at the age of 7 and was later exposed to Christian teachings. Jarena came to Philadelphia as a teenager and was changed after hearing a passionate sermon delivered by Allen. As a result, she united with Mother Bethel AME Church in 1804.
In 1811, Jarena married Joseph Lee, who was a pastor of a church in Snow Hill, which was located six miles from Philadelphia. Joseph did not want Jarena to preach, so she put her spiritual needs on hold. After Joseph Lee died in 1817, Jarena returned to Philadelphia and became fully devoted to her spiritual growth.
She soon started hearing voices telling her to, “Go preach the Gospel! Preach the Gospel; I will put words in your mouth.” Jarena told Bishop Allen that God had spoken to her and commanded her to preach, but Allen said that there was no provision for women preachers in the Methodist Church. Yet, this did not stop Lee from pursuing her call.
She said, “If the man may preach because the Savior died for him, why not the woman seeing He died for her also? Is He not a whole Savior, instead of half of one? Did not Mary first preach the risen Savior?”
However, Allen still refused. But eight years later during a Sunday service at Mother Bethel, Allen seemed to tire. Lee stepped up and began to preach and the crowd was very receptive. So, in 1819, at a time when women were forbidden to preach by social and religious customs, Jarena Lee was the first woman that Allen authorized to preach.
Being a Black woman in the United States, she still faced hostility in her ministry, despite Bishop Allen’s blessing. But, she became a traveling minster, and in one year alone, she travelled 2,325 miles, and preached 178 sermons.
Rev. Lee also wrote two autobiographical memoirs called “The Life and Religious Experience of Jarena Lee” and “Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee.” Unfortunately, Jarena Lee died penniless in Philadelphia in 1864.
In 2016, the AME Church posthumously ordained Jarena Lee posthumously during the 50th Quadrennial Session of the General Conference.
Rev. Jarena Lee’s work as a preacher broke a social barrier that had excluded women, especially Black women, from religious leadership. Her fight for women and religion inspired African American women and men, then and today.