Jarena Lee: Patient in her calling

Be still before the Lord

   and wait patiently for him;

do not fret when people succeed in their ways,

   when they carry out their wicked schemes. (Psalm 37:7)


She was the first female preacher in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

She was the first African-American woman to have her autobiography published in the United States.

And, sadly, most Christians have probably never heard of her.

Jarena Lee was born a free, poor black family in Cape May, New Jersey in 1783. She left her family at age 7 to become a servant, but not much is known about those years.

Her path to salvation was rough. At a young age, she started to feel oppressed by sin, and thought about drowning herself. Even after she leapt to her feet and proclaimed to an astonished congregation that God had forgiven her, she continued to feel harassed by Satan, and once again attempted suicide.

After a time, she became first assured of her salvation, and then doubting, until she heard a voice tell her, “Thou art sanctified!”

In 1811, she married, but her husband died only six years later.

Jalena also believed she had a calling that was unheard of in her day, as she wrote in her journal:

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 will turn your enemies to become your friends.”

When she told Bishop Richard Allen, the founder of the AME Church, about her calling he told her there was no place for women to be preachers in the church.

Jarena lived with that rejection for eight years – until the day a visiting preacher seemed to falter in the pulpit. Her autobiography tells us what happened next:

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.

And so she began to preach, covering thousands of miles through the United States and Canada. Her compulsion to preach the gospel, paired with her utter trust in the Lord’s protection, gave her the courage to go to Maryland to preach in a slave state. Her journal tells the story of slaves walking more than 20 miles to hear her preach.

Sadly, there is no record of Jarena’s death. Sources have suggested she died in 1849 after an expanded version of her autobiography was published. Others have placed the date of her death in 1855 or 1856.

There are a number of lessons that we can take from the life of Jarena Lee. We can learn from her determination to work through the issues that took her several times to the brink of suicide. We can learn from her dedication to evangelism that gave her the confidence to risk her freedom, or perhaps her life, to preach to slaves in the years just before the Civil War.

But, the lesson that rises above these is her patience in the face of disappointment. Imagine what it must have been like to be utterly convinced of your calling only to have someone in authority tell you there was no place for you.

Unfortunately, for many women in the church, it still happens.

Jarena didn’t give up on her calling to preach. Her unplanned takeover of the pulpit may not have been the most diplomatic way to make her point, but it was effective and paved the way for her to live out her calling for the remainder of her life.

God may have you in a season of waiting. You may have heard his call, and may even have been told that it couldn’t happen.

But it will.

If God has called you, he will make a way.

Keep waiting. Stay faithful. Pray. Learn as much about your calling as you can.

The day will come.

And you will step into what God prepared for you before you were even born.

This is the 19th post in my Write 31 Days series for 2017 in which I am taking a devotional look at key women in Christian history. For more information, or to start the series from the beginning, visit the introductory post.

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