To celebrate International Women’s Day, CCJ staff have reflected on inspirational Jewish and Christian women.
“If the man may preach, because the Saviour died for him, why not the woman? seeing he died for her also.”1
Jarena Lee, the first female African-American preacher, never wanted to preach. The act of speaking about her faith to others terrified her, and yet she would travel to areas where slavery was legal – narrowly escaping arrest on several occasions – to preach to slave owners. Despite her fear, Lee remained convinced that she was called to preach, and listening to her speak moved many people to change their perspective of black women.
Lee’s early experience of religion was very negative. She first heard about Christianity when she was separated from her family at just seven years old to be a servant to a white Christian household. She attended a segregated Church where she never felt she belonged. “It appeared that there was a wall between me and a communion with that people, which was higher than I could possibly see over, and seemed to make this impression upon my mind, this is not the people for you”2. During this time she struggled with severe depression and suicidal thoughts. Later, she discovered the African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded by a former slave after its members had been forcibly removed from their previous church for praying in seats reserved for white members.
Lee was frightened when she first felt called to preach. On hearing God’s voice saying “Go preach the Gospel!” Lee’s immediate response was “No one will believe me.”3 She was relieved when her minister told her there was no call for women to preach. Instead, Lee moved away to marry and raise children.
Several years later her minister was forced to re-evaluate his dismissal of Lee’s call, when a widowed Lee returned to his congregation. Part way through the service the visiting preacher was unable to continue and Lee stood up and finished the sermon. Her minister declared she was called and she was granted permission to preach that very day.
So began her work as an itinerant preacher, breaking down stereotypes that existed about the infamous ‘woman preacher’. There was staunch opposition to female preachers, and several ministers and church elders tried to discredit her to their congregations and locked their church doors so she could not enter. But she would find a nearby house or hall and continue to preach. Where she was met with ridicule she changed their opinion through the power of her preaching. She recounts several occasions where church elders refused to shake her hand or pray for her before a service, only to apologise afterwards having realised her worth as a preacher.
Throughout her life Lee would be forced to defend her right to preach. To those that sought to bar her from preaching on theological grounds she responded, “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?”4
Lee soon started travelling to places where slavery was still legal, using a Christian perspective to argue against slavery: “as we are all children of one parent, no one is justified in holdings slaves”5. Seeing a black woman preaching so eloquently caused several slave owners to re-evaluate their opinions. She recalled one man, known for his cruel treatment of slaves, who completely changed after realising his slaves were people equal to himself. Lee was often invited to stay with slave owners who would invite their families and slaves to listen to her together. Several slaves were inspired by Lee to educate themselves further by setting up Sabbath schools to teach themselves to read and write.
Lee faced much opposition to as a preacher due to her race and gender, but she was determined to persevere. Perhaps most remarkable was her resolve to carry out her calling with love, praying for those who opposed her and asking God to forgive them.
Campus Leadership Manager
1Lee, Jarena, 1849 Religious experience and journal of Mrs Jarena Lee giving an account of her call to preach the gospel http://www.umilta.net/jarena.html
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