An African American woman born in the late 1700’s, Jarena Lee was parted from her parents at the age of seven and sent to work as a domestic servant at a wealthy estate. Hers is the story of an extraordinary woman—chosen by God to be a preacher—who conquered all odds to live out her God-given calling.
Sitting in the front pew of the old church, Jarena Lee fanned herself with a scrap of paper, waiting for the service to start. The sweltering heat of a humid Pennsylvania summer clung to her skin like a damp garment. Staring up at the pulpit a few feet in front of her, she couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that she was supposed to be the one up there speaking tonight.
The Lord had called her to preach, and this she knew deep within her bones. But it had been eight long years since the Lord had told her this, and eight long years since she’d gone to Bishop Richard Allen—head of the African Methodist Episcopal Church—and told him what the Lord had called her to do. With a look of surprise on his face, Bishop Allen had politely told her that it would be impossible to have a woman preach; the Methodist tradition simply didn’t allow it. And for Jarena, his refusal meant ‘that was that;’ for she had always honored the leaders of the church and sought to be an upstanding member. “Besides,” she thought, trying to quiet her conflicted soul, “what would a colored woman, with no formal education, have to offer from up in that pulpit anyways?”
But as brother Williams walked up to the pulpit to preach that night, the strangest thing began to happen. First, brother Williams began to stutter a bit, like his mind was forgetting all of his words. Then, he trailed off altogether, and stood there dumbfounded, as if he couldn’t remember how to preach at all. It was like a holy hush from heaven had settled on him, keeping him from speaking. After a few moment of this, the room began to stir. Everyone was looking around for what was going to happen next, for it seemed that they all somehow knew that the Lord was up to something.
A fire had started burning in Jarena’s chest so hot that she could ignore it no longer. After a few moments of agonizing indecision, a holy gumption surged inside of her and she rose to her feet. Once standing, she realized that she had no idea what to say, but it was too late; every face in that room had turned to look at the unschooled housekeeper who had just stood up in the front row—everyone including Bishop Allen who was seated just one row over. Without leaving her seat, Jarena turned around to face the audience, still having no idea what to say. But as soon as she turned, the Spirit loosed her tongue and passionate preaching began to flow out like a rushing stream of living water. She had never felt the power of the Holy Spirit like that before—she surged with divine energy as exactly the right words poured out like poetry from her lips and straight into the hearts of the people, many of whom were moved to either tears or shouts of praise as the Spirit worked in their hearts.
When she had finished preaching, she felt the Spirit’s release and sat right back down in her pew. An entire room of stunned faces—none more stunned than that of Bishop Allen—stared. Those next few moments were the longest of her life. No one moved a muscle, and no one dared speak a word, yet every eye was fixed on her as she sat in the front row, silently facing the pulpit. Her face flushed, and her neck grew hot as she sat there waiting for what seemed like an eternity. Would they throw her out of church for her impertinence, she wondered. Would they run her out of town? Her mind was reeling: What had just come over her? She had never seen God do that to a person before; had she just plain lost her mind?
Breaking the awful silence, one of the wooden pews creaked. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Bishop Allen rising to his feet. With a voice loud enough for the whole crowd to hear, he boomed, “I have never, in my life, seen a preacher preach with that much authority, nor have I seen the presence of God come down and fill a room like that, Jarena Lee.” He paused as she looked up to meet his gaze. “So the way I see it,” he continued with a softer tone, “you are called to preach just as much as any man here ever was. And I am sorry that I didn’t pay you no heed eight years ago when you came to me. You truly are a preacher!”
She scarcely could believe what she was hearing, but somehow managed to stand to her feet and meet his outstretched hand for a handshake. Then, one by one, every soul in that old church lined up to shake her hand as joy erupted inside of her and a smile of relief burst onto her face. God had shown his mighty right hand—God had called her, empowered her, parted the waters for her, and now confirmed her for all to see that she had been chosen by Him for the ministry of preaching.
And so it began, the ministry of the African Methodist Episcopal church’s first woman preacher. In a single year of her itinerant circuit, Jarena Lee traveled 2,325 miles—much of it on foot—and preached 178 sermons to black and white, slave and free congregations alike. Her autobiography chronicles her extraordinary journeys, both the opposition she faced—not only as one of the very first woman preachers, but as a black woman and former domestic servant in the 1700s—and the many stories of welcome and support she encountered along the way. Though she was refused ordination during her lifetime, in 2016, Jarena Lee was posthumously ordained by the African Methodist Episcopal Church in honor of the legacy that she left, and the road she pioneered, for future generations of women preachers to come.
To learn more about Jarena Lee, read her autobiography: Religious experience and journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee, giving an account of her call to preach the gospel. Also check out Sisters of the Spirit: Three Black Women’s Autobiographies of the Nineteenth Century by William Andrews (Indiana University Press, 1986).
About the Author: Laura Garverick is a graduate of Indiana Wesleyan University and is a current MDiv-MATS student at Asbury Theological Seminary. After graduation, she hopes to pursue a PhD in systematic theology, and sees this as a part of her calling to serve and empower the local church. She is an active leader and preacher at Indy Alliance Church in downtown Indianapolis, where she lives with her husband, Paul. In her free time, Laura can usually be found kayaking, cycling, or indulging an inordinate love for Mexican food.