In 1836, during the Second Great Awakening, Jarena Lee published the first spiritual autobiography written by an African American woman, The Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee.
It sold like hotcakes. The words and spirit were fresh and struck right to the heart. With invigorating words, her memoir tells the story of her call to preach the Gospel during a time when slavery was legal and there were no woman preachers.
She became the first Black woman preacher in America. For twenty years she traveled throughout NJ, PA, NY, and MD preaching in small and large churches, one-room schoolhouses, homes, fields, and forests. In one year alone, she traveled 2,300 miles on foot or horseback and preached 178 sermons. She ministered to mixed audiences of men and women, Blacks and Whites, slaveholders and slaves, city-dwellers and farmers. These people were from diverse religious backgrounds: Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Wesleyans, Quakers, Native Americans, deists, and atheists.
Her message united people who were at odds. “Oh, I long to see the day when Christians will meet on one common platform — Jesus of Nazareth — and cease their bickerings and contentions about non-essentials — when ‘our church’ shall be less debated, but ‘our Jesus’ shall be all in all” (p. 35).
No one could have imagined what great things God did with Jarena’s life. The same is true for you and me.
Her Salvation and Sanctification
Though she was born free, at the age of seven she was parted from her parents and was forced to work as a servant maid, sixty miles from her home. She didn’t even have three months of schooling and the lady she worked for wouldn’t let her read the Bible and hid it from her. As a young person, she was haunted by demons and depression and was tempted by suicide.
But the Lord pursued her. When she was 21-years old, she heard a missionary preach. She recalled, “At the reading of the Psalms, a ray of renewed conviction darted into my soul… yet I knew not that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, the second person in the adorable Trinity… but I knew the Lord’s Prayer; this I uttered with a loud voice, and with all my might and strength… I felt within me a living principle, an immortal spirit, which cannot die, and must forever enjoy the smiles of the Creator… forgiveness flowed sweetly on; day and night, my joy was full” (pp. ix-xi).
A pastor paid her a visit and upon learning that she’d prayed to receive Christ, he asked if she’d been sanctified. She wanted this deeper experience of being set apart for the Lord alone, growing in holiness. She kept seeking God and waiting in prayer, but could not find the intimacy with God and impartation of the Spirit that she longed for.
Then one day when she was praying, she recalls, “When I rose from my knees there seemed to be a voice speaking to me, ‘Pray for sanctification.’ I again bowed in the same place… and said, ‘Lord, sanctify my soul for Christ’s sake.’ That very instant, as if lightning had darted through me, I sprang to my feet and cried, ‘The Lord has sanctified my soul!’”
“There was none to hear this but the angels who stood around to witness my joy — and Satan whose malice raged the more… No sooner had I cried out, ‘The Lord has sanctified my soul!’ than here seemed to be another voice behind me saying, ‘No, it is too great a work to be done.’ But another spirit said, ‘Bow down for the witness… thou are sanctified!’”
“The first I knew of myself after that, I was standing in the yard with my hands spread out, and looking with my face toward heaven.”
“I now ran into the house and told them what had happened to me… a new rush of the same ecstasy came upon me, and caused me to feel as if I were in an ocean of light and bliss.”
“During this I stood perfectly still, the tears rolling in a flood from my eyes. So great was the joy that it was past description” (pp. xii-xiii).
Jarena Lee’s experience was extraordinary! But we may all experience less vivid experiences of the Holy Spirirt’s leading at different times in our journeys.
Her Marriage and Grief
Jarena married a pastor, which meant she had to move from her own church where she felt so much care and spiritual nurture. This loss of community probably triggered her grief over being separated from her parents as a young girl.
She wrote, “None but those who have been in sweet fellowship with such as those who really love God, and have together drank of the bliss and happiness from the same fountain, can tell how dear such company is, and how hard it is to part from them.”
“At Snow Hill, as was feared, I never found that agreement and closeness in communion and fellowship, that I had in Philadelphia” (p. 18).
Tragically, just six years after getting married, her husband died, and she was left alone with two little children.
Dark times so often follow our calling by God and precede a new stage of Spirit-filled ministry. I am encouraged by her story of perservereing with God through these times of desolation.
Her Call to Preach
She was 26-years old when she wrote, “An impressive silence fell upon me. I stood as if someone was about to speak to me… to my utter surprise there seemed to sound a voice… which said to me, ‘Go preach the Gospel!’ I immediately replied aloud, ‘No one will believe me.’ Again I listened, and again the same voice seemed to say — ‘Preach the Gospel; I will put words in your mouth, and you will turn your enemies to become your friends.’”
“During the night following, I took a text and preached in my sleep… there stood before me a great multitude… So violent were my exertions and so loud were my exclamations, that I awoke from the sound of my own voice, which also awoke the family of the house where I resided” (p. 14).
Two days later, she went to see the Rev. Richard Allen, her pastor and the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) churches. “I now told him that the Lord had revealed it to me, that I must preach the gospel… But as to women preaching, he said that our Discipline knew nothing at all about it…
But “it should be remembered that nothing is impossible with God. And why should it be thought impossible… or improper for a woman to preach? Seeing the Savior died for the woman as well as for the man… Did not Mary first preach the risen Savior… the disciples, though they were fisherman and ignorant of letters too, were inspired [to preach]… May [God] not inspire a female to preach the simple story of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of our Lord, and accompany it too with power to the sinner’s heart.”
She made an official application with the AME church, but she was only allowed to exhort in prayer meetings. Jarena kept waiting on the Lord — eight years she waited. She says, “it was as a fire shut up in my bones” (p. 21).
Have you ever had the fire of God shut up in your bones for years and years? I have.
Then she was at Bethel Church. After the hymn, a guest preacher began to preach about how Jonah was stuck in the whale, but God had called him to preach that “salvation is of the Lord” (Jonah 2:9).
She writes, “But [the preacher] seemed to have lost the spirit; when in the same instant, I sprang… to my feet, when I was aided from above to give an exhortation on the very text which my brother Williams had taken.”
“I told them I was like Jonah; for it had been then nearly eight years since the Lord had called me to preach his gospel to the fallen sons and daughters of Adam’s race.…”
“I now sat down, scarcely knowing what I had done, being frightened… for this indecorum… I should be expelled from the church. But instead of this, the Bishop [Richard Allen] rose up in the assembly, and related that I had called upon him eight years before, asking to be permitted to preach, and that he had put me off; but that he now as much believed that I was called to that work, as any of the preachers….”
“These remarks greatly strengthened me… giving place to a sweet serenity, a holy joy of a peculiar kind, untasted in my bosom until then” (pp. 23-24).
Bishop Allen and his wife believed so strongly in Jarena’s call to preach that they took her two children into their home so she could travel.
“[But] dear reader, think not that I am going to heaven as in golden slippers, for I have various trials to encounter while traveling over this world so wide, but I feel willing to suffer for the cause of God, after which I shall (if faithful) meet many of my friends that have communed with me in the spirit, where we never never shall partake of the parting hand” (p.94).
I appreciate that she pauses in the midst of recounting her mountain-top experiences with God to remind us that her journey has not been without suffering.
Her Persecutions and Trials
People told her that women could not preach. A White man told her that Black people did not have a soul. She was poor and had to travel on foot from one city to another, through rainstorms, swamps, freezing cold, and sleepless nights. Often she got sick and was weak. But she kept preaching the Gospel, anyway.
In Philadelphia, a church elder was quite averse to a poor Black woman, who had once been a slave, preaching the Bible. He compared her to an ass. She replied, “Maybe a speaking woman is like an ass — but I can tell you one thing, the ass seen the angel when Balaam didn’t” (p. 31).
She writes, “At times I was pressed down like a cart beneath its shafts — my life seemed as at the point of the sword — my heart was sore and pained me in my body. But the Lord knows how to deliver the godly… While relating the feelings of my mind to a sister who called to see me, joy sprang up in my bosom that I was not overcome by the advisory, and I was overwhelmed with the love of God and souls. I embraced the sister in my arms, and we had a melting time together. Oh how comforting it is to have the Spirit of God bearing witness with our spirits that we are his children in such dark hours!” (p. 33).
Times of discouragement came in Jarena’s life repeatedly. Yet, she reflected Jesus’ way: “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (1 Pet 2:23). She looked to God to uplift and strengthen her!
Her Anointed Preaching
One time at a camp meeting revival in Delaware, Jarena stood under a large tree before a vast sea of people and before she even started to preach, people fell to the ground under the power of Holy Spirit. She recalls, “My heart beat, my limbs trembled, and my voice was faint… After I took my text [from the Bible], it appeared to me as if I had nothing to do but open my mouth, and the Lord filled it…” (pp. 60-61).
Reading Jarena’s journal is like reading the Book of Acts. Her words fly from her heart with Holy Spirit fire:
- “I spoke in a schoolhouse to a large congregation… Here we had a sweet foretaste of heaven — full measure and running over, shouting and rejoicing — while the poor errand-bearer of a free gospel was assisted from on high. I wish my reader had been able to share with us the joyous heavenly feast” (p. 34).
- “I next attended and preached several times at a camp meeting, which continued five days. We had Pentecostal showers — sinners were pricked to the heart, and cried mightily to God for succor from impending judgment” (p. 38).
- “I spoke before a congregation of White and colored in a barn, as there was no other suitable place. I felt happy when I thought of my dear Redeemer, who was born in a stable and cradled in a manger…” (p. 41).
- “Though in a slave country, I found the Omnipresent One was with us… God displayed his power by a general outpouring of the Spirit — sinners cried for mercy, while others shouted for joy” (p. 47).
- “While preaching [in slave country] 10 or 11 White men came… it was me they were after, but I was fortified… Brother J.B. then [showed] my credentials… and upon examination, the magistrate said, ‘She is highly recommended and I am bound to protect her” (p. 49).
- She preached at a camp meeting and “Some poor slaves came happy in the Lord; walked from 20… to 70 miles to worship God. Although through hardships they counted it all joy for the excellency of Christ; and before day… a number of them had to be at home, ready for work… My heart glows with joy as I write; truly God is inscrutable” (p. 52).
- “I felt myself… like a poor pilgrim… wandering through this world so wide; having to travel among strangers, and being poor and destitute; I was sorely tempted. My money was gone, my health was gone, and I was… without a home. But I rested on the promises of God, ‘They that put their trust in the Lord shall never be confounded’” (p. 82).
- “The Lord touched my tongue as with a live coal from his altar, and we had a good time as from the hand of the Lord, and the Amens… helped to swell the theme of rejoicing” (p. 95).
- “I preached and felt joy in my soul… My mind was cleared and the Scriptures opened themselves to my mind and I felt strengthened; some shouted, others wept… The fire kindled… The prayers of God’s people helped me, and the power of God, like the dew of heaven, was let down upon us” (p. 101).
- “… they caught the Hallowed Flame, and some shouted, while others were convicted and reclaimed, and I was lifted up in the Word and doctrines of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (p. 105).
- “Three persons were arrested under the power of God and fell to the floor at once… there was a general rumbling of the dry bones” (p. 105).
- “I endeavored to speak as God gave ability… I felt free, the tongue was loosed, the lip was touched, and the heart was warm… The Lord owned the word, and the hearty Amens that went up caused the woods to echo” (p. 123).
Her own words are such a testimony to the power and work of the Holy Spirit in a soul yielded to God!
Her Dependence on Holy Spirit
Jarena Lee died penniless but spilling over with the love of Jesus. She ends her journal by explaining her mystical experiences of God’s loving presence and power:
“As to the nature of [my] uncommon impressions, which the reader cannot but have noticed, and possibly sneered at in the course of these pages, they may be accounted for in this way: It is known that the blind have the sense of hearing in a manner much more acute than those who can see, also their sense of feeling is exceedingly fine… So it may be such as I am, who have never had more than three months schooling; and wishing to know much of the way and law of God, have therefore watched the more closely for the operations of the Spirit, and have in consequence been led thereby. But let it be remarked that I have never found that Spirit lead me contrary to the Scriptures of truth” (p. 129).
Jarena Lee led such a remarkable life of faith. I was overwhelmed reading her biography- as I mentioned earlier, at times it was like reading the Book of Acts!
During this time period in our history, it was almost inconceivable that a woman, let alone a former Black slave, would commit themselves to a life of preaching the Gospel- and be received and responded to! And yet, she was faithful to God and obedient to his calling on her life. Knowing the weaknesses of her earthly education, she depended wholeheartedly on the Spirit to fill her mouth and her understanding.
Reading about her life, I am encouraged to yield my life even more to the Spirit, and step out in greater faith, knowing Christ’s power and love will propel me!
1.) Jarena Lee’s journey of faith was unique, but showed many of the same stages we all pass through- times of consolation and desolation, mountain-tops and dark nights of the soul. Did any of her stages encourage you in your own journey? How?
2.) A theme that comes through again and again in her life is leaning on the Holy Spirit’s power rather than her own strength. Is there an area of weakness in your own life that you might consider a “disqualification”? How might you be invited to submit that to the Spirit’s power as Jarena did?
3.) A beautiful part of Jarena’s story is the empathy and love she received from a sister in Christ at a time when she desperately needed a reminder of God’s love? Recall a time when you experienced Jesus’ love tangibly through another person, or offered that love yourself to someone in need.