The Spirit and Jarena Lee: Inspiration to Break Boundaries by Elise M. Edwards

elise-edwardsI am so frustrated that we are still fighting to affirm women’s place in leadership.  I’ve been thinking about this struggle in the context of church ministries (especially preaching) and social activism, seeing a stark contrast between the way institutional churches and universities promote and subvert women’s authority and the ways movements like Black Lives Matter do.

Particularly, I’ve been struck by the ways that more radical movements employ language and practices that are based in spirit more than hierarchical authority.  I have found a theme emphasizing equality in humanity’s access to spirit in both historical and contemporary movements and writings about religious experience.  I’m certainly not the first one to notice or discuss how appeals to Spirit have empowered those excluded from dominant systems of power to challenge constrictive social structures, but I would like to share how this dynamic has become more visible to me so that, together, we might find encouragement, inspiration, and food for thought.

A few days ago, I was thrilled to participate in a panel about Boundary Breaking Women at my University.  It was hosted by our Women’s and Gender Studies program. The panel featured ten faculty members talking about ten boundary breaking women and their contributions to governance, religion, science, medicine, education, and the arts.  Quite honestly, it was fun to join my friends and colleagues in learning and celebrating women who are often denied recognition for their work.  I was inspired.  I was also honored to talk about Jarena Lee and African American preacher and writer.  The event’s organizer and I made this selection months ago, but it was a fortuitous choice, as it gave me a chance to reacquaint myself with this preacher as my colleagues and I discussed other events on campus and in Waco that highlighted women’s inclusion and exclusion in Christian ministry and preaching, like this Unauthorized: Nevertheless She Preached event.

Jarena Lee was an African American woman, born free in New Jersey in 1783, during the time of chattel slavery in the US. She was an itinerant preacher and writer, renowned for being the first of two things:

  1. the first African-American woman officially recognized as a preacher by an established church; Her calling to preach was authorized in 1819 by Bishop Richard Allen of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.
  2. The first African-American woman to publish a book-length autobiography. She wrote The Life and Religious Experiences of Jarena Lee, a Coloured Lady, Giving an Account of Her Call to Preach the Gospel (1836), which she later expanded and updated in 1849’s The Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee. She had to use her own money to print both editions of her book, but we can access it for free on Google Scholar.

Jarena Lee broke boundaries by following her religious call to preach.  In her autobiography, she says she first heard the voice of the Lord commanding her to preach the gospel in her 20s (c. 1811). When she heard her call from God, Lee went to Rev. Richard Allen to tell him that the Lord revealed that she must preach the Gospel.    But at that time, Methodists didn’t allow women to preach, although women could hold prayer meetings and even “exhort” the Scriptures. In her autobiography this is when she writes:

“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.”

The Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee, p. 11

It wasn’t until 8 years later, after she was married, had children, and became a widow, that she committed her life to preaching.  She was in a church service when a visiting minister began to falter.  Lee stood up and began to preach, moving the congregation.  Bishop Allen was there to witness this, and he gave her his blessing to preach and acknowledged the error of discouraging her so many years prior.  She faced hostility throughout her preaching career because of her race and gender, but she persisted because of her religious conviction.  Her autobiography emphasizes the role of the Spirit, which in Christian thought is part of the Trinity.  At a time when some Christians still contested whether black people could even have the same salvation as whites, she proclaimed the power of God to speak directly to her, bypassing social and ecclesial restrictions.  For her, the Holy Spirit has the ultimate authority and must be followed.  This kind of religious authority transcended all social stations and religious institutions, making one’s race, gender, slave status, or even familial status secondary to the gifts of God.

While doctrines about the Holy Spirit may be distinctive to Christian thought, the notion of spirit as an animating divine force is not.  As I mentioned above, appeals to spirit can be found in many religious and social movements that challenge existing restrictive powers.  I have found that Spirit has become increasingly important to me over the past few years as I’ve adopted new spiritual practices, spiritual direction, and spiritual disciplines. This shift comes from seeking a connection with the divine that embraces ways of being over ways of thinking.  I earn a living in the world of ideas and I revel using my critical mind to engage and develop Christian thought. But Spirit moves me out of my head. Wisdom comes from not only intellectual knowledge, but being able to appropriately interpret our experiences and rightly be and act in the world.  Like Jarena Lee, I believe that Spirit is what will enable me to move forward in a divinely guided path, even when I encounter texts and systemic powers that would restrict me or guide me elsewhere.

Ultimately, I believe the Spirit is essential to faith and wisdom because God still speaks to us.  I do give the Christian Scriptures and authoritative place in my own faith practice and teaching, but they are more to me than a collection of old texts.  They are narratives, poems, sermons, lists, teachings, and–yes–troubling theological statements that God uses to engage readers and hearers in the present moment. I don’t have a call narrative like Jarena Lee’s, in which God has commanded me to preach the gospel. But with sincere humility, I can proclaim that the Spirit that guided her to boldly preach actively guides me, too.


I found these resources about Jarena Lee helpful and encourage you to read them, too, for more information about her:

Lee, Jarena. Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee, Giving an Account of Her Call to Preach the Gospel. Pub. by the author, 1849.

Andrews, William L., et al. Sisters of the Spirit: Three Black Women’s Autobiographies of the Nineteenth Century. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.

“Lee, Jarena.” In Encyclopedia of African-American Writing, edited by Shari Dorantes Hatch. 2nd ed. Grey House Publishing, 2009.

Escher, Constance, and Carolyn De Swarte Gifford. “Lee, Jarena (b. Feb. 11, 1783; d. date unknown).” In Encyclopedia of New Jersey, edited by Maxine N. Lurie, and Marc Mappen. Rutgers University Press, 2004.

Elise M. Edwards, PhD is a Lecturer in Christian Ethics at Baylor University and a graduate of Claremont Graduate University. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or

Categories: Academy, Activism, American History, authority, Bible, Black Feminism, Books, Christianity, Church Doctrine, Community, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Foremothers, Herstory, Justice, Major Feminist Thinkers in Religion, meditations, power, Race and Religion, Scripture, Spirituality, The Black Church, Theology, Women and Ministry, Women in the Church, women of color, Women's Agency, Women's Ordination, Women's Power, Women's Rights, Women's Spirituality, Women's Voices

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12 replies

  1. Educational and inspiring essay.

    “While doctrines about the Holy Spirit may be distinctive to Christian thought, the notion of spirit as an animating divine force is not.

    As a not almost white Indigenous person, I have found that Native (American) practices help keep me living a path that is mindful. The word “spiritual” has developed some negative connotations for me because of the new age movement, but at every turn of the wheel, and every day of my life as a woman, writer and naturalist, I walk that path. Nothing is more important.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m glad you had fun on the panel. And thanks for telling us about this brave and intelligent woman.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for this rich unfolding of wisdom.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I appreciate you sharing this inspiring life story!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Looking forward to reading the ebook about Jarena. Thank you for the link, Elise. Her experience is so familiar, not only for women, but for anyone who preaches without hierarchical approval. The infection seems to go back to the almost beginnings of Christianity when Mary of Magdala and the other women were pushed aside and discounted. (I’m sure women had/have the same problem in other faith traditions)

    Maybe it’s the continuing conflict between oppressive power and liberating Spirit, between hierarchy and community, between lived experience and religious dogma. When I see a cross or crucifix I remember – Jesus’ teaching got him executed as a traitor to the Empire.


  6. Much too often, we use the word ‘boundaries’ when we really mean encased prisons. Prisons that those with ‘power’ place the marginalized voices of our past and present in. We use the word ‘boundaries’ to really mean our need to simply move on from past discrimination, rejection, and subjugation. But those who have faced these things can’t simply move on. For a whole is now in the place where a human spirit once thrived. The only way for that hole to be spiritually filled is by continuing the witness suffering and injustice… and to come alongside those who experience that same. Here’s to the faint voices of past and present who must be heard for a change.

    Liked by 1 person

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