Jarena Lee: The Pioneering Female Preacher You Never Heard About

Of all the women who most embody the fight for equality within Christianity for gender equality in the pulpit, one of the most important and fascinating examples might also be one you have never heard about.

Her name was Jarena Lee, and she was an African American preacher from the early 1800s, long before Pentecostalism’s Aimee Semple McPherson blazed trails or Methodist allowed (and then rescinded) women’s right to preach in the at the turn of the 20th century. And long, long before Episcopalians got around to doing justice on this issue in 1979.

But instead of being a white man interpreting a black female’s experience, I thought it best to let Ms. Lee speak for herself.

I think you’ll agree she needs no man to explain herself. She is eloquent and powerful, and in this, she reminds me of another woman fighting for equality, one Rachel Held Evans.

From her autobiography on her call to preach:

“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 — hands 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.”

Jarena Lee then waited another eight years since applying to become an official preacher. At that time, she attended a service where a man was preaching from the book of Jonah, but she perceived that he had “lost the spirit.” So, she took over.

“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 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 now he as much believed that I was called to that work, as any of the preachers present.”

May Jarena Lee be a candle — a torch — for women fighting for religious equality everywhere.

 

About David R. Henson

David Henson received his Master of Arts from Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, after receiving a Lilly Grant for religious education for journalists. He ordained in the Episcopal Church as a priest. He is a father of two young sons and the husband of a medical school student.

  • http://benirwin.wordpress.com/ Ben Irwin

    Stan Gundry once wrote about the strong connection between theological arguments used to justify the oppression of blacks in the 19th century and those used to justify the subordination of women today:

    http://www.cbeinternational.org/?q=content/bobbed-hair-bossy-wives-and-women-preachers

    (It’s a long article; the part I’m referring to comes near the end.)

    How fitting that Jarena Lee defied both forms of oppression long before it was culturally “acceptable” to do so.

    • http://www.facebook.com/unorthodoxologist David Henson

      I admire her courage and eloquence, wishing I had an ounce of what she possessed.

      Thanks for that link. I was only vaguely familiar with CBE. Nice to know they exist.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1299740607 Diane Ollie

        I just finished doing an essay on her for my class in seminary. The professor had never heard of her, and thanked me for introducing him to her.

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