February 11, 2011

Lee: Go preach the Gospel

I was born February 11th, 1783, at Cape May, state of New Jersey. At the age of seven years I was parted from my parents, and went to live as a servant maid, with a Mr. Sharp, at the distance of about sixty miles from the place of my birth.

Thus begins the autobiography of Jarena Lee, first published in 1836, fully titled The Life and Religious Experience of Jarena Lee, a Coloured Lady. Within its first few paragraphs, the text centers on the purpose of the narrative: an account of Lee's religious experience. "The spirit of God moved in power through my conscience," Lee wrote, "and told me I was a wretched sinner." She was first moved in 1804 by a psalm which reminded her she was "born unholy and unclean."

Born free but poor, Lee had few options as a "coloured lady." Her job as a servant, which ripped her from her parents at such a young age, seemed to condemn her to servitude for the rest of her life. But, she writes, she found another calling:

An impressive silence fell upon me, and I stood as if some one was about to speak to me, yet I had no such thought in my heart. But 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."

Lee worried that it was Satan contacting her, especially when he offered to "put words in [her] mouth." She acquiesced nonetheless, and began studying the Bible so much, she claimed, "I... preached in my sleep." Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Church, gave her permission to serve as a traveling preacher, making her a likely candidate as the first black woman to do so in the United States. "I traveled two thousand three hundred and twenty-five miles, and preached one hundred and seventy-eight sermons," she claimed, to integrated audiences of blacks and whites. Not surprisingly, she preached that slavery was a sin that would one day be punished by God.

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