Who Is Jarena Lee?
Image from BlackPast.org. http://www.blackpast.org/aah/lee-jarena-1783
History is full of amazing women. In fact, this woman in the image above had an impact on my character Emily Johnson. Before I tell you why and what, here’s some background on Jarena Lee.
Born in 1783 in Cape May, New Jersey, Jarena (whose birth surname is not known), was part of a free, black family. They were poor, and this helps explain why at the age of seven, the family sent Jarena to live with a and work for a white family. It is more than possible that all hands needed to work so Lee’s family could survive.
By the time she was in her teens, Lee was in Philadelphia working as a domestic. It was here that she was converted at Bethel Church while hearing founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Bishop Richard Allen preach.
In 1807, when she was in her mid-twenties, Lee received a call from God to preach. At that time, and in most Christian denominations, women were not allowed to preach. For example, in Saint Maggie, Frankie stands up at the 1860 camp meeting worship service and says some words. A small controversy then arises: did Frankie preach (usually understood to mean that she was interpreting God’s Word for the congregation)? Or did she merely exhort (usually understood to mean that she was encouraging the congregation to attend to the preacher’s words)? You may say, “so what?” But the difference was crucial. Authority and who held that authority was a big deal. Men had authority. Women did not. Men proclaimed and interpreted. Women encouraged. Or so most people believed.
So, what was Jarena Lee to do? God had called her to preach the Word, but she was a woman.
Confused, she went to Bishop Allen and asked his advice. This put Allen in a difficult position. He ended up telling the young woman that he couldn’t officially allow her to preach because such a thing was against church law. Women simply could not be ministers or preachers.
After that, Lee followed a more traditional path. She got married, although she did something that I believe many women called by God did: married a pastor. His name was Joseph Lee. They had two children. Sadly, Joseph Lee died in 1818.
Suddenly finding herself in a new circumstance, Lee’s desire to preach returned with a vengeance.
It’s my theory that if God wants you to do something, God will keep at it until you give in. Theory? Oh, heck, it’s no theory. It’s my experience. LOL
Once again, Lee was attending worship at Bethel Church. Once again, she heard a man preach. But this time, instead of unleashing a powerful sermon, the man had trouble finding his words and eventually fell into silence.
And that is when Lee stood, picked up the preacher’s thoughts, and finished the sermon for him.
Rather than being annoyed or shocked at Lee’s behavior, Bishop Allen was so moved by her words that he authorized her to peach. And that is how Lee became the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s first authorized female preacher.
After that, Lee began traveling and preaching in cities, and gathered a following as well as praise for her preaching. Lee also joined the abolitionist movement and in 1839 became a member of the American Antislavery Society.
Toward the end of her life, she wrote her autobiography, The Life and Religious Experience of Jarena Lee.
Lee died sometime in the mid-to-late 1850s. The exact date of her death is disputed. Some records say 1855, others say 1857.
So, what does Jarena Lee have to do with my character Emily Johnson?
In Seeing the Elephant, Emily reveals that she is pregnant again. The baby girl is born early in The Good Community, my current work in progress.
Nate brings the baby down to the Greybeal House kitchen to introduce her to the rest of the family, and the following brief conversation ensues after Maggie says:
“She’s lovely! And Jarena Lee, what a beautiful name.”
“Well, a long time ago Emily heard a woman named Jarena Lee preach.”
Frankie sat up straight. “Emily heard a preacher woman?”
“Yes. Why, Miss Lee traveled all over, speaking the Gospel to whoever would hear and wherever she could gather a crowd.”
Emily, a feminist? I’m shocked.
Okay. I’m not shocked at all.
Given Emily’s age (she was born in 1825), it is possible and probable that she would have heard Jarena Lee preach. If she was moved by Lee – and, apparently, she was – Emily would have kept the name in her heart to give to a daughter.
All of which raises questions. Does Emily have high hopes for her baby girl? Does she hope to raise a preaching woman? Or does she want to bless her daughter with the name of a strong, inspired, and inspiring woman?
At this point, we don’t know. But it’s fun to speculate.
If you’d like to know more about Jarena Lee, start with the short article by Teisha Wilson in BlackPast.org (it is where I got the information for my blog). Wilson offers a bibliography at the end of her article.
Of course, you also can read Lee’s autobiography, which is still available as a paperback.
Teisha Wilson, “Lee, Jarena,” BlackPast.Org.
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