National Museum of African American History and Culture
(Black PR Wire) The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is proud to present the next page from Our American Story, an online series for Museum supporters. We offer these stories to honor and celebrate the African American experience, share an immensely rich history and culture, and inspire and sustain our community as we move toward the future together.
The Second Great Awakening, an early 19th-century religious revival in the United States, marked an era of transformation for America and a new path forward for Jarena Lee. Born into a free Black family in Cape May, New Jersey, in 1783, Lee navigated the intense religiosity and social reformation of her time to emerge as the nation’s first African American woman preacher and the first woman to be recognized as an evangelist in the male-dominated African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.
Lee’s journey to Christianity began when she moved to Philadelphia as a young adult in 1807. Like many Americans of her time, Lee struggled with changing cultural beliefs on human nature, morality, and the path to salvation. In search of answers, she sought out a personal connection to the gospel and heard the teachings of Bishop Richard Allen, a renowned preacher in Philadelphia. Inspired by his powerful sermons, Lee decided to join the church and get baptized.
But Lee’s journey of faith would be difficult. Lee struggled to find a place for herself and her passion for the gospel within the male-dominated church—a battle that brought on depression and even thoughts of suicide. She also wrestled with the inherent conflict between her spirituality and a desire for “the vanities of this life.”
Despite these challenges, Lee remained determined to go beyond the church and share her faith in Christ with the world, a conviction that she carried back to New Jersey, where she moved with her new husband, Methodist Pastor Joseph Lee, in 1811. While in New Jersey, Lee was able to serve in an African Methodist congregation and nurture her faith—but she still couldn’t practice what she believed was her true calling: preaching.
Seven years into her marriage, Lee became a widow. The grief that followed her husband’s death only strengthened Lee’s conviction to “preach the word of God.” She returned to Philadelphia soon after, determined to advocate for women in the ministry.
Bishop Allen, who by then had founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church, initially refused to grant Lee permission to preach because of the church’s ban on female ministers. But Lee, driven by the intensity of her faith, began delivering sermons wherever she could—in open fields, town squares, and her home.
One day, while attending a Sunday worship service at Bishop Allen’s church, Lee heard a guest preacher struggle with the delivery of his sermon. She sprang into action, picking up where he left off, and presented her own testimony. Bishop Allen was so impressed by Lee’s preaching and boldness that he publicly endorsed her. She was soon permitted to preach, and later became the first ordained woman preacher in the AME Church.
Lee’s evangelical career spanned multiple decades and intersected with her advocacy for equal rights and powerful leadership in the abolitionist movement. Lee also was the first African American woman to publish an autobiographical memoir, The Life and Religious Experience of Jarena Lee, a Colored Lady, Giving an Account of Her Call to Preach the Gospel, which was first released in 1836.
“For as unseemly as it may appear now-a-days for a woman to preach,” Lee wrote, “it should be remembered that nothing is impossible with God. And why should it be thought impossible . . . or improper for a woman to preach?”
The relentless persistence of Jarena Lee, who died in 1864, helped break down barriers and pave the way for African American women to enter the ministry. Her achievements were especially remarkable, given that they occurred during a time when women’s contributions were often overlooked, ignored, or forgotten.
Like so many pioneers of her time, Lee’s story is one of resiliency, optimism, and spirituality—values that are deeply rooted throughout African American history and culture. Although Jarena Lee’s history is not widely known, her legacy as the first African American woman preacher represents an important example of women defying social barriers, transcending traditional gender roles, and touching the hearts, minds, and souls of many.
If you’d like to learn more about Jarena Lee’s incredible journey—or if you are interested in exploring other powerful but lesser-known stories in African American history—please visit our online Searchable Museum today. This groundbreaking—and 2022 CIO Award-winning—initiative by the Museum brings innovative, immersive digital experiences and evocative content directly into the homes of supporters like you.
The Museum’s exhibitions and digital collections help connect individuals with a deeper understanding of the African American story by sharing the lives of pioneers like Jarena Lee. Please help the Museum continue this critical work by joining the Museum or making a donation today.
To learn more about Jarena Lee and other influential figures in African American history, please visit our Searchable Museum.