Women Mystics Series – Jarena Lee, 19th Century African American Preacher
The time feels right to add to my Historical Women Mystics series, and what a joy it has been to research the woman I am profiling this time – Jarena Lee, a pioneering 19th century African American preacher whose powerful conversion experience inspired her to travel the country, overcoming both the gender and racial barriers of the time. She was also the first African American woman to publish an autobiography, an eloquent account of her spiritual and preaching experiences (the picture of Jarena to the left was painted for the cover of her autobiography.)
I came to Jarena in a roundabout way: I knew that I wanted to feature a woman preacher from the Second Great Awakening of the United States. Spanning from about 1790 through the 1830’s, this period was characterized by large Protestant revival gatherings at which many thousands of individuals converted to existing Protestant faiths or joined new ones that were born at this time. These revivals birthed evangelical Christianity in the U.S., and had a wide-ranging impact on our history. For one thing, women converted in much greater numbers then men, and took an active role in religious life in a way they had not done so before, expanding their role for the first time outside of the domestic sphere and into the public domain. In later decades, this would evolve into women’s social action groups, most of which were originally grounded in religion, fueling both the abolitionist and suffragist movements.
There are many interesting things to say about this phase of history, and how the seeds planted then are still at work in the spiritual and social movements of today, but my interest in this series is more personal – how have individual women throughout history and from varying cultural and religious backgrounds, experienced spirit? Jarena’s own words are a goldmine from this perspective. As with the stories of the other women featured in this series, if we pull back from the specific language of the time (common to most conversion narratives of the period) and look at her actual experience, we find so many similarities to the spiritual experiences of other mystics from other times and traditions (and perhaps also to our own experiences.)
Born in New Jersey in 1783, Jarena was not a slave, but was placed in a home as a servant girl at the young age of 7. She had no formal religious instruction from her parents, but learned about religion from her co-workers, and at 21 went with a friend to a Presbyterian meeting, during which she began to feel the ‘weight of her sins.’ In the coming days, she became consumed with the idea that she was a ‘wretched sinner’, eventually becoming suicidal, and walking to a river with the intention to kill herself. She doesn’t go through with it, and feels that spirit played a role in saving her from this fate, but afterwards still does not know how to go about releasing herself from what she still believes to be her essentially sinful state.
This kind of obsession with sin and self-judgment is always difficult for me to read about in historical Christian spiritual narratives, but in the context of the time and tradition, within Jarena’s story it really signals the birth of her self-awareness, and I think it is a phase of the spiritual journey to which many of us can relate. Often we embark upon a deep spiritual quest for one of two reasons: Either we have suffered a great loss or tragedy which has shaken our worldview, or something in our life has triggered an acute self-awareness, in which we are suddenly aware of the self-centeredness and superficiality of our dominant thoughts and emotions, and feel there must be more to life and ourselves. It is the latter really, that seemed to trigger Jarena’s search and subsequent experiences.
Whatever it was, after several months of suffering in this way, Jarena eventually found herself at Richard Allen’s Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. In a sermon there, she felt herself touched in a new way by spirit:
“The text was barely pronounced, which was ‘I perceive thy heart is not right in the sight of God,’ when there appeared to my view, in the centre of the heart, one sin; and this was malice against one particular individual, who had strove deeply to injure me, which I resented. At this discovery I said, Lord I forgive every creature. That instant, it appeared to me as if a garment, which had entirely enveloped my whole person, even to my fingers’ ends, split at the crown of my head, and was stripped away from me, passing like a shadow from my sight – when the glory of God seemed to cover me in its stead.”
Ah, the power of letting go, of forgiveness! This sudden experience catapults her into alternating states of bliss and despair. In the coming weeks, she at times feels a oneness with spirit that transports her, and at other times feels entirely separate and unworthy. She describes weeks of crying spells and prayer, fervently trying to find her way back to this sense of peace and union. She begins to doubt her initial experience, and sees acutely her “pride, anger and self-will.” She vows to devote herself to praying until this feeling returns to her. One day after hours of prayer and contemplation, she is ready to give up when she hears a voice say ‘Ask for sanctification.’ Once she does so, she describes her next experience:
“…spirit said, ‘Bow down for the witness – I received it – thou art sanctified !’ The first I knew of myself after that, I was standing in the yard with my hands spread out, and looking with my face toward heaven…I now ran into the house and told them what had happened to me, when, as it were a new rush of the same exstacy came upon me, and caused me to feel as if I were in an ocean of light and bliss…During this, I stood perfectly still, the tears rolling in a flood from my eyes. So great was the joy, that it is past description.“
From this point forward, her doubts were dispelled, although she acknowledged the need for vigilance throughout her spiritual life (something she preached of often.) Her conversion brought her an amazing fearlessness – fearlessness in the face of the established church hierarchy, who initially told her women could not preach, and fearlessness in the face of danger on the road, once she began traveling to revivals. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that her conversion brought her an amazing level of trust, because her fearlessness was born of a certainty that she would be taken care of no matter what, if she followed spirit.
What spirit eventually asked her to do was preach:
“…to my utter surprise there seemed to sound a voice which I thought I distinctly heard, and most certainly understood, 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 will turn your enemies to become your friends.“
Initially, Reverend Allen rejected her request to preach. However, eventually the drive for her to do so rose up so strongly that she found herself bursting forth during a service, speaking from her heart words that afterwards she could barely remember. Whatever she said, it was so inspiring to those present, including Allen, that he blessed her efforts, and from that point forward became one of her staunchest supporters.
As an African-American woman preacher, Jarena was defying both the gender and race restrictions of the time. Often traveling alone or with another woman through remote countryside from revival to revival, she faced the very real danger of attack. At revivals, she preached to racially mixed gatherings (another reason the revivals are considered so historically relevant, and why many believed they were an important part of the lead up to the abolitionist movement.) Often there was resistance to her speaking, although always once she spoke, this seemed to dissolve. One can only imagine what a powerful and inspiring presence she must have been for this to have been the case.
In her autobiography, Jarena says she “traveled two thousand three hundred and twenty-five miles, and preached one hundred and seventy-eight sermons” during one period, including in Maryland, a slave state. She describes slaves who walked 20-30 miles to hear her preach, knowing they would have to walk the entire way back before dawn. Jarena was pioneering in the content of her preaching too, making biblical arguments against slavery, and in her own way predicting the Civil War, or at the very least great conflict over this ‘greatest of sins.’
In her personal life, Jarena faced struggles typical of women mystics throughout the ages: She married but her husband did not approve of her preaching and so she stopped for a time, returning to preaching after her husband died six years into their union. She bore a daughter and often had to leave her daughter with friends while she traveled. Although conflicted about this, she felt her work was not about her, and that ultimately this sacrifice was necessary.
In her autobiography, she tells many touching stories of individuals she encountered in her preaching travels, and how they were impacted. Here’s a link to excerpts from her autobiography:
Or for the full version try:
Sisters of the Spirit: Three Black Women’s Autobiographies of the Nineteenth Century, edited by William L. Andrews
I have not found a history of the Great Awakenings that I can recommend, mostly because the ones available are centered solely on their role in the development of Christianity, but if you are interested in mystic traditions of all types that have shaped the development of spirituality in America (including the three ‘Great Awakening’ periods), try:
Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation, by Mitch Horowitz
Many blessings to you, and may Jarena’ story, and the story of other seekers throughout the ages, inspire and empower you to follow your own path with trust and hope.