Saturday, November 16, 2013

Forgotten Women in Church History: Jerena Lee (1783-1860?)

Jerena Lee was the first female African-American preacher and evangelist in the United States.  Born in New Jersey in 1783 to free but poor black parents, she traveled in her lifetime over 2300 miles and preached nearly 200 sermons to gatherings of men and women, blacks and whites.  Everywhere she went the power of her preaching overcame the considerable prejudices of her era against both her sex and her race.

Most people today have never heard of her.

Though not a slave, Jerena Lee was separated from her parents at the tender age of seven, becoming a live-in maid for a white family.  She didn't see her own family again until she was 21.  In her early 20s she was converted to Christianity through the preaching of Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.  When she was 28 she married a black preacher, Joseph Lee, who died only a few years later, leaving her to raise two small children on her own.

According to the pamphlet form of her autobiography, which is available online, Ms. Lee experienced a "call to preach the gospel" several years after she had become a Christian, but before her marriage.  She described it like this:
[O]n a certain time, an impressive silence fell upon me, and I stood as if some one was about to speak to me, yet I had no such thought in my heart. - But to my utter surprise there seemed to sound a voice which I thought I distinctly heard, and most certainly understand, 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 freinds." [sic] 
At first I supposed that Satan had spoken to me, for I had read that he could transform himself into an angel of light for the purpose of deception. Immediately I went into a secret place, and called upon the Lord to know if he had called me to preach, and whether I was deceived or not; when there appeared to my view the form and figure of a pulpit, with a Bible lying thereon, the back of which was presented to me as plainly as if it had been a literal fact.
When Ms. Lee told her pastor, Richard Allen, that she felt called to preach, he responded that "our Discipline knew nothing at all about it-- it did not call for women preachers."  Jerena Lee felt a certain relief, but she also "found that a love of souls had in a measure departed from me; that holy energy which burned within me, as a fire, began to be smothered."

Nevertheless, Lee submitted to Rev. Allen and did not try again to preach.  Instead she married, birthed two children, and was widowed.  Eight years after her initial call, she was in church listening to the minister (Rev. Allen, by then a bishop, was also present) when the call came again:
But as [the minister] proceeded to explain [give the sermon], he seemed to have lost the spirit; when in the same instant, I sprang, as by altogether supernatural impulse, 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, but that I had lingered like him, and delayed to go at the bidding of the Lord, and warn those who are as deeply guilty as were the people of Nineveh. 
During the exhortation, God made manifest his power in a manner sufficient to show the world that I was called to labour according to my ability, and the grace given unto me, in the vineyard of the good husbandman. 
I now sat down, scarcely knowing what I had done, being frightened. I imagined, that for this indecorum, as I feared it might be called, I should be expelled from the church. But instead of this, the Bishop 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 present. These remarks greatly strengthened me, so that my fears of having given an offence, and made myself liable as an offender, subsided, giving place to a sweet serenity, a holy joy of a peculiar kind, untasted in my bosom until then.
Leaving her children in the care of her mother and other family members, Ms. Lee began to travel and preach, even going into slaveholding states, where many slaves walked miles to hear her and then walked all night afterwards to return to their plantations before being missed.  Consulting no man and guided only through prayer and the invitations she received, she preached her way across the United States and Canada. Prejudice and resistance to her preaching was overcome by the power of the Holy Spirit over and over again throughout Jerena Lee's preaching career.  Here is one representative example:
L. W., a respectable brother from Chillicothe, had never heard a woman preach, and was much opposed to it. An appointment was given me, and when I went into the desk and commenced reading the hymn to commence the worship, he looked at me a while, then got up and went out and stood until I had nearly got through the hymn, and then he came in, when I asked him to pray for us but he refused. I prayed myself, after which I took my text, and felt much liberty in speaking in the spirit indeed. And after meeting he came and shook hands with me in the spirit of a Christian, and next day he came and confessed to me his prejudices had been so great, so much like his father, that he could not unite with me, but now he believed that God, was no respecter of persons, and that a woman as well as a man, when called of God, had a right to preach. He afterwards became a licensed preacher, and we parted in peace.
Lee's autobiography also details her arguments justifying her calling:
O how careful ought we to be, lest through our by-laws of church government and discipline, we bring into disrepute even the word of life. For as unseemly as it may appear now-a-days for a woman to preach, it should be remembered that nothing is impossible with God. And why should it be thought impossible, heterodox, or improper for a woman to preach? seeing the Saviour died for the woman as well as for the man. 
If the man may preach, because the Saviour died for him, why not the woman? seeing he died for her also. Is he not a whole Saviour, instead of a half one? as those who hold it wrong for a woman to preach, would seem to make it appear. 
Did not Mary first preach the risen Saviour, and is not the doctrine of the resurrection the very climax of Christianity - hangs not all our hope on this, as argued by St Paul? Then did not Mary, a woman, preach the gospel? for she preached the resurrection of the crucified son of God. . .
If then, to preach the gospel, by the gift of heaven, comes by inspiration solely, is God straitened: must he take the man exclusively? May he not, did he not, and can he 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. As for me, I am fully persuaded that the Lord called me to labor according to what I have received, in his vineyard. If he has not, how could he consistently hear testimony in favor of my poor labors, in awakening and converting sinners?
Jerena Lee disappeared from public life at the age of 66, having ended her preaching career and completed and published her autobiography.  The date and place of her death are unknown.  But I can't help thinking of Acts 10:9-48, where Peter was shown in a vision that his understanding of God's work had been too limited, and that he must not call the Gentiles unclean or refuse to associate with them, for God's Spirit could fall on them as well as on Jews.  Peter had to let the evidence of the power of the Spirit overcome his understanding of the "biblical" way he thought things were supposed to work.  He couldn't deny that despite what looked like the "plain meaning" of the Scriptures that only Jews could be God's people, the Spirit of God had fallen on a bunch of uncircumcised Gentiles.

I remember a former pastor of mine once saying something similar after visiting China in the early 1990s. When he had seen the congregations and heard the preaching of several different young women (all of whom said they were called into ministry, and through whom many people's lives had been changed), my pastor said, "Who was I to argue with God?  I could no more deny the truth of their callings than I could deny the truth of my own."

In a time and place bent more strongly against her than is even conceivable today-- a time and place where black people were considered inferior, and black women even more so-- Jerena Lee walked in power from the Holy Spirit that could not be repudiated.  To Christians and non-Christians, leaders and laypeople, white and non-white, men and women, free people and slaves, she spoke with authority the call to repent, believe, and live a holy life. As she wrote:
[B]y the instrumentality of a poor coloured woman, the Lord poured forth his spirit among the people. Though, as I was told, there were lawyers, doctors, and magistrates present, to hear me speak. . . the Lord scattered fire among them of his own kindling. The Lord gave his hand-maiden power to speak for his great name, for he arrested the hearts of the people, and caused a shaking amongst the multitude, for God was in the midst.
The only way around it is to forget it ever happened.  And we've done a pretty good job of that.

But the time has come to remember Jerena Lee.

I'm not saying Ms. Lee was perfect.  I'm not saying she was right in every doctrine or that she never acted unspiritually.  But I am saying God chose her-- and He never lets imperfections bother Him when He chooses a man, so why should imperfections disqualify a woman?

But if the Bible is really "clear" that God forbids all women everywhere to ever teach or exercise authority over men, then when God chose Jerena Lee and sent her out on her own, without even a "male covering," He acted in contradiction of His own word.

Either that, or a "poor coloured woman" who loved God with all her heart, brought people to Christ by some unholy power.  But didn't Jesus have something serious to say to those who believed the same thing of Him?  Matthew 12:26-28.

What if God actually acted exactly in keeping with His own word?  "God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful." (1 Corinthians 1:27, NLT version)

Maybe what's really clear is that church hierarchies and the gatekeepers of doctrine sometimes think they're wise when they're not, and hold onto power when they shouldn't.  Maybe God can and does do things that just don't fit into restricting, limiting "biblical" boxes, and when we read the Bible that way, we're doing Him and ourselves a disservice.

Let's let the witness of Jerena Lee speak to us once again.  The gifts and callings of God are for all.



Pamphlet version of Lee's Religious Experience and Journal, published online

University of Minnesota's Voices from the Gaps

PBS's Africans in America Resource Bank

PBS's God in America

Susan Ditmire's History of Cape May County, New Jersey

Daughters of the Church by Ruth Tucker and Walter Liefeld, pp. 259-60.

1 comment:

J. K. Gayle said...

Thank you so very much for recalling and posting on Jerena Lee.

It's hard for us, I think, on this side of church-endorsed slavery in the USA to appreciate how extremely marginalized she and her sisters were. And her own agency, her authority, in the pulpit and in print, is just incredible, simply incredibly brave. She helps pave the way for so many who are silenced to speak up. She authorizes others by looking at how Jesus authorized first a woman, a would-be forgotten Miriam of Magdala, to "preach" good news.