Born in Cape May, New Jersey, the early years of Jarena Lee were spent working as a domestic servant. In her twenties, she was converted, sanctified, and received a call to preach. When her request for approval to preach was rebuffed by the African Methodist Episcopal Church, she married an AME minister. His death within a few years of the marriage left Lee a widow with two young children. In order to support her family she renewed her request to the Rev. Richard Allen, the Bishop of the African Methodist Church who then granted her official church approval to preach.
Lee’s evangelistic meetings took place in her home city of Philadelphia and also throughout New England, Canada and west into Ohio. She recounted her meetings in her autobiography, the first to be published in the United States by an African American woman. In that autobiography, Lee frequently mentions the denominational and racial composition of her audience, which, in both cases, was quite inclusive. Between 1849 and 1857, there is no recorded history about her. The last known event in her life was a visit she made to the home of Rebecca Cox Jackson, a Shaker leader, on New Year’s Day in 1857. After that occasion, at the age of 73, nothing is known about her life or death.
Jarena Lee, The Life and Religious Experience of Jarena Lee, A Coloured Lady (1836) and Jarena Lee, Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee (1849); Priscilla Pope-Levison, Turn the Pulpit Loose: Two Centuries of American Women Evangelists (2004).
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