Today we visit with Jarena Lee.
During the antebellum period in America, religion grew into a pietistic form of Christianity that became personal, conversion-based and bible-based in nature. The push for a religion of the heart was very important as many influential preachers, such as Lyman Beecher, hoped to transform America into an Evangelical nation that would reflect Christianity and be rid of worldly evils. In shaping America into a society that reflected European ideals, many societal problems, like alcoholism were being attacked head on. Slavery was also an issue that split hairs among the nation. Whites and blacks differed heavily on their views of the practice, which then paralleled with opinions of its use within Christianity. While blacks, were vehemently against it, evangelistic efforts by whites failed to spread Christianity in the black community, partly because of it. It was only when other blacks, such as Jarena Lee, preached the Christian gospel, that it was able to have an impact. Within an era of growing revivalism, Jarena Lee’s life as a black Christian reflected the divergence from white Christianity, with the heightened prominence of ecclesiastical sexism and the formation of a universal faith.
In trying to implement a Christian America, some of the avenues used were circuit riders, camp meetings and voluntary societies, under the revivalism umbrella. Revivalism enabled large groups of diverse peoples to gather in order to show them a need for a conversion into Christianity. Having camp meetings made it easy to entertain believers and non-believers and get thousands of people to gather to hear the Christian message. Circuit riders were able to travel to a designated location to spread the message, and voluntary societies were a way for groups of people to gather for evangelism or to fight individual and social issues that opposed the move for a Christian America. While the percentage of Americans who were churched doubled during the use of these methods, such hindrances to the movement were various moral issues, including slavery.
Many Old and New Testament scripture were used heavily to maintain the practice of slavery, which led to an immense split on views between white Christians and black Americans. In attempting to increase the amount of Christian converts, especially in black communities, the main question that persisted for blacks was, “what meaning did Christianity, if it were a white man’s religion, as it seemed, have for blacks, and why did the Christian God, if he were just as claimed, permit blacks to suffer so?” (Rabotcau, p182) For blacks, if Whites believed in a religion and a God that supported slavery, which held them to an inferior status, Christianity had no place in their lives. It was not until revivalist meetings took place, that blacks felt that they could accept the faith. Many conversions occurred at camp meetings where a universal message of ‘all people are sinners and all sinners can be saved’ was preached. That message provided a new understanding for blacks of their egalitarian spiritual status with whites. It was also helpful for black preachers, such as Jarena Lee, to spread the message to their own people as a way to make Christianity more relevant and genuine.
The universal message that blacks preached provided a sense of freedom for free and enslaved blacks alike. Despite that message, the prominence of racism in America and its infusion into church pushed many blacks to separate themselves from White Christians and form their own churches, such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), to worship the Christian God freely, and for slave states, in secret. There were also struggles to abolish slavery in the South. These religious and social issues were prominent in the experiences of many activists and preachers alike. For black women, these issues persisted, along with sexism in the church and society.
Black women dealt with racism and the restriction of traditional female roles that were defined by whites and blacks. In the home, they were the wife, mother, cook, cleaner, among other domestic roles. In church, they were exhorters and allowed to hold prayer meetings only. For someone like Jarena Lee, those restrictions would not bind her into a position that God did not call her to. As a black woman in America who also believed in Christianity and studied scripture, Jarena felt it necessary to prove “that black people were as much chosen by God for eternal salvation as whites” (Andrews, p 1). That heartfelt belief was akin to David Walker, who believed that Jesus had taught him “that his gospel as it was preached by himself and his apostles remains the same, notwithstanding Europe has tried to mingle blood and oppression with it…” (Placher, p 114) In showing equality in spirituality, Jarena risked her life to preach in the South where slavery had yet to be abolished. Jarena also joined, the American Antislavery Society- a voluntary society that in her eyes would allow the gospel to “have free course to every nation” (Andrews, p 6).
Jarena was active in social movements, as well as her own individual movement to follow her call at all costs. In doing so, she not only left her children in the care of others to preach, she preached to whites as well. In her journal, The Life and Religious Experience of Jarena Lee, Jarena recalls a time where she preached at a house meeting where an old white slave owner joined, all the while believing that colored people did not have a soul. Despite his differing views, Jarena preached the gospel and afterward the man, as she put it, “shook hands with me, saying he hoped God has spared him to some good purpose” (Andrews, p 47). Though adversity was possible in the various circumstances encountered by Jarena, such as racism and criticism, she persevered and kept doing what she felt God had initially called her to.
That initial call to preach came after Jarena was convicted at a camp meeting, converted to the faith and justified within the Methodist tradition. In being justified, Jarena stated in her journal that the “whole person…was stripped away from me…when the glory of God seemed to cover me in its stead” (Andrews p 29). Her experience of justification was similar to what Martin Luther described in his view of imputed righteousness where one is cloaked in a garment that covers sin. Yet it was at the final step that John Wesley called Christian Perfection, or sanctification, that eventually led to Jarena’s call. In being sanctified, Jarena believed that she recovered her “true, pristine identity in Christ…to be faithful to that renewed and purified self” (Andrews, p 15), in which she was able to cry out “The Lord has sanctified my soul!” (Andrews, p 34) Several years after being sanctified, the inner call to preach the Gospel was placed on Jarena’s heart from her continued practice of pietism, where she developed a relationship with God, often praying in her closet.
In seeking to act out her call to preach, Jarena met resistance among male clergy, including Richard Allen, founder of the AME church. Women were prohibited to become licensed preachers in the white and black Methodist traditions, but were able to exhort with permission- the lowest level of preaching. As Jarena recalls, Richard Allen told her that their “Discipline knew nothing at all about it- that it did not call for women preachers” (Andrews, p 36), which only temporarily stopped Jarena, as marriage shifted her focus. Despite an eight-year hiatus, Jarena continued to feel that “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 the man” (Andrews, p 36). The exclusive authority from male preachers was impossible for Jarena to accept. As a widow molding herself into the female roles of the church, Richard Allen eventually acknowledged Jarena as having the call to preach. Afterward, she preached the gospel to whites, blacks, slaves and freeman, often traveling by foot. It was as an unlicensed traveling preacher, that she was able to become a revivalist in a movement that sought a Christian America, helping many blacks convert to a faith that was once thought to oppress them.
Within her faith tradition, Jarena practiced a relationship of the heart, and was therefore sanctified, receiving a renewed life in Christ. At a time when evangelical Christianity was on the rise, despite its oppressive nature, Jarena found the essence of herself in God. That life birthed in her a desire to preach the gospel to all in order to spread the Christian faith. In doing so, she risked her life to preach in revival settings, home meetings and in her own home to people who were racist, sexist and potentially violent. Those roadblocks caused her to work harder at fulfilling her goals of fighting traditional female roles and creating a universal faith along the way. Though racism was at the foundation of the black experience, separating beliefs and splitting blacks and whites into separate church bodies, Jarena became an activist against slavery and the discriminatory practices of women, wherever God’s work was hindered (Andrews, p 16). Often discussed from the standpoint of black men, the black experience exhibits a two-fold struggle for women (being black and female), such as that of Jarena that often gets ignored. Jarena Lee was sure that despite the evils going on in the church and society, she was selected by God “to be his spokesperson to the unsaved and the spiritually recalcitrant of the white as well as the black race” (Andrews, p 3). Jarena Lee helped to open the door for blacks to find freedom in faith, where they did not have it in their personal lives, to be evidence for whites that black people were not inferior, and to demonstrate that women were spiritually equal to men in their spiritual gifts from God.
____________________Andrews, William L. Sisters of the Spirit. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986. Placher, William C. Readings in the History of Christian Theology, Vol. 2. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1988. Rabotcau, Albert J. “The Black Experience in American Evangelicalism: The Meaning of Slavery.” The Evangelical Tradition in America. ed. Leonard I. Sweet. 181- 197. Mercer University Press,1984.
Thanks for your attention.