Jarena Lee is not a name that we often hear when we think of trailblazers in Christian history. I have often found her name missing from lists of inspiring Christian women, but the more I learn about this remarkable woman, the more I am convicted. Yes, she was a woman that beat all odds because she trusted the Lord to open all the right doors and persevered despite the barriers set before her. But she was a woman of great humility and unquestionable obedience to the God that made her in His image.
When Jarena Lee First Heard the Voice of God
Jarena’s ministry began in Philadelphia with the voice of the Lord. In an unexpected moment, she heard the words, “Go Preach the Gospel!” She was taken aback and resisting, she replied, “No one will believe me.” But God was not going to take no for an answer. Again she heard the words, “Go preach the Gospel! I will put words in your mouth and will turn your enemies to become your friends.”
That could not have possibly been the Lord asking. The Lord knew she was a woman and she was a colored woman. Jarena thought it must have been Satan transforming himself into an angel of light. So she took it all back to the Lord in prayer and this time He gave her a vision of a pulpit and a Bible. Right then, she knew it was from the Lord. Getting divine confirmation was the easy part, but approaching the leadership of local churches was a whole different story.
Jarena Encounters the First Opposition to Her Ministry
Her journey to meet Reverend Richard Allen (known today as the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church) was wrought with a lot of anxiety. She turned back several times until finding the courage to finally make it. Her fears subsided when she found herself before him, but he was not as convinced as she was of her calling. He told her Methodists didn’t allow women preachers and that was the end of that. Well, for a season, a long season.
Waiting on the Lord
Shortly after making her request to Reverend Allen, Jarena Lee married Pastor Joseph Lee and moved six miles away to Snow Hill, PA. She was unhappy with the idea of leaving her beloved congregation behind. Her fears were not unfounded. She never “found that agreement and closeness in communion and fellowship, that I had in Philadelphia, among my young companions, nor ought I to have expected it.”
However, in her autobiography, she details how the Lord convicted her of her error and confirmed the need of her husband to shepherd the souls in Snow Hill. She happily submitted herself to the will of God despite not having that strong fellowship with fellow believers in the congregation.
During that season of waiting, Jarena also became very ill and she thought it was unto death. She regretted not having the opportunity to preach and prayed earnestly before the Lord that if that was His will, to help her recover. And recover she did. But it would be some time before she came to the full purpose of her calling.
Difficulties and trials marred that season of waiting. In the space of six years, she lost five family members. The last one she lost was her husband. She entered into a new season as a widow with a toddler and a six-month-old baby.
The Day She First Preached
It was 8 years after she had originally approached Reverend Allen that her moment finally came. Although she had been sparingly allowed to exhort and lead prayer meetings, she was prevented from preaching. However, on one occasion, Reverend Allen, in the middle of his sermon, seemed unable to get the right words out. Jarena felt a “supernatural impulse” to use that opportunity. She leapt up and delivered an exhortation to the church using the passage of scripture in Jonah, the verse Reverend Allen had referenced.
In the exhortation, she shared with the church how she felt like Jonah. God had sent her to preach to the lost, but had lingered in doing so. Jarena then sat down and waited for Reverend Allen to chastised her. However, Reverend Allen confirmed that she had indeed made the request to preach 8 years prior, but he had denied her. He then relayed that he now believed that God had called her to preach.
Her Amazing Ministry
That was only the beginning for Jarena Lee. She would spend decades preaching the gospel from home to home and venue to venue, at times traveling thousands and thousands of miles. Her audiences included not only people of color, but white parishioners as well. Some of them were even slaveholders.
In her autobiography, she relates a remarkable story. A slaveholder known for his cruelty and his belief that slaves had no souls attended her sermon with the intent, it seemed, to intimidate her. But such is God and His word will not come back void. He pricked the slaveholder’s heart instead. Following the sermon, he approached her, warmly shaking her hands. She never knew if he fully converted to Christ, but was told that after her sermon, his behavior had changed dramatically for the better.
God opened many doors for Jarena, but amidst all of them, she remained humble. She always seemed amazed that God had chosen her as a vessel to reach the lost. Jarena must have brought thousands to Christ, but she always gave the glory to God.
Lessons Learned from Jarena’s Lee Story
Her Willingness to Wait on God
Eight years seems like a long time to wait to begin your ministry, but God’s timing is not always our timing. David waited over a decade before he was formally crowned as king. Joseph waited while a slave and then in prison before taking his position as second to Pharaoh. Moses waited 40 years before God appeared to him in a burning bush. There is always a season of waiting, but through it, we build patience and spiritual endurance.
Her Obedience to the Lord
Because she was a trailblazer, we might make the mistake to think that her courage and boldness were a result of stubbornness or grittiness in character. Those may have played a role, but what is clear to me is that her boldness was born out of obedience. Jarena didn’t want to be a preacher. She didn’t think herself capable and she certainly didn’t want to face the social barriers before her as a woman and as a person of color. She just wanted to be obedient to the Lord.
Her submission and obedience to God’s will became evident in her story of how uncomfortable she was in the midst of her new congregation, after her marriage. Initially, she resisted it, but once she received confirmation from God that He wanted her husband there to take care of the sheep, she joyfully submitted to God’s will. “…I was convinced of my error, and immediately, with a glad, heart, yielded to the right spirit in the Lord.”
It was the season for her husband to pastor and preach. Not hers. And it was never about what was comfortable for her, but what was best for those in that new congregation. But when her turn came, she bulldozed through social barriers because she allowed God to go before her. Her true strength was not in her ambition, but knowing that her strength came from the Lord.
Jarena Lee never saw herself as something great. She always saw herself as a “feeble instrument” of God’s. Countless times in her biography, she praises God for His victories when people would come to Christ because of her sermons. In her mind, it was never about her. It was about Him and the lost souls that needed saving.
In the same way, when we think about our own ministries, we have to remember that it is never about us. It is about what we can accomplish for God and for His kingdom.
Jarena knew suffering in a way that those of us in the West have never known. For starters, she dealt with the opposition to her ministry not only because of the color of her skin, but because she was a woman. She also lost her husband and numerous family members. And she was never rich and many times found herself penniless. Yet, the power of God fueled her evangelism.
It is a reminder that God does not promise riches nor clear sailings in this life. We must be thankful for every moment and be eternally minded.
My heart sighed when memory brought back the image, and the reminiscences of other days crowded upon me. But why, my heart, dost thou sigh! He has ceased from his labor, and I here see his works do follow. It will be enough, if these, the people of his care, press on and gain the kingdom. It wilt be enough, if, on the final day, “for which all other days were made,” we pass through the gates into the city, and live again together where death cannot enter, and separations are unknown. Cease then, my tears — a little while, my fluttering heart! and the turf that covers my companion, perchance, may cover thee — a little while, my soul! If faithful, and the widow’s God will call thee from this valley of tears and sorrows to rest in the mansions the Saviour has gone to prepare for his people. ” Good what God gives — just what he, takes away.Jarena Lee upon remembering her deceased husband. From her autobiography, Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee.
She Let the Holy Spirit Teach Her
Jarena’s story reminds me a lot of the women leading the underground church in Iran. They are women of prayer who seek the Holy Spirit’s wisdom with every decision–just like Jarena.
That does not mean that she was not well versed in the scriptures. She knew her Bible well and that in itself is incredible seeing that she was self-taught with only three years of formal schooling. In reading her autobiography, her command and love of scripture are evident. But we have a lot to learn from her reliance on the Holy Spirit.
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.I John 16:13
Listening to the Holy Spirit’s guidance is lacking in much of Christianity, especially Christianity in the West. For example, reading our Bible becomes an intellectual exercise if we don’t partner with God for our understanding. Even more pronounced, is the lack of intentional effort of letting the Holy Spirit guide our every move. May women like Jarena and the Iranian Christian leaders inspire us to seek His guidance more often!
One Final Thought
Many might find themselves uncomfortable with the idea that Jarena Lee was a preacher. Is that not the purview of men? I know that many today might take issue with the fact that she taught men by preaching from the pulpit. Is that not in contradiction to 1 Timothy 2:12? It is curious that Jarena herself appeared to think that initially and why she at first believed the vision was from Satan himself. It is certainly worth discussing in further detail, but I will leave that for another blog. But what one cannot deny is the fruit that she bore and the thousands that came to Christ because of her evangelism.
I leave you with one final quote with Jarena’s thoughts on the matter of women preaching.
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?From her autobiography, Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee.
If the man may preach, because the Saviour died for him, why not the woman seeing he died for her also? Is he not a whole Saviour, instead of a half one? As those who hold it wrong for a woman to preach, would seem to make it appear.
Did not Mary first preach the risen Saviour, and is not the doctrine of the resurrection the very climax of Christianity — hangs not all our hope on this, as argued by St. Paul ? Then did not Mary, a woman, preach the gospel? for she preached the resurrection of the crucified Son of God. But some will say that Mary did not expound the Scripture, therefore, she did not preach, in the proper sense of the term. To this I reply, it may be that the term preach in those primitive times, did hot mean exactly what it is now made to mean; perhaps it was a great deal more simple then, than it is now— if it were not, the unlearned fishermen could not have preached the gospel at all, as they had no learning. …………….As for me, l am fully persuaded that the Lord called me to labor according to what I have received, in his vineyard. If he has not, how could he consistently bear testimony in favor of my poor labors, in awakening and converting sinners?