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Gift of Heaven

Black Women Mystics

Gift of Heaven
Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Jarena Lee (17831864) was the first authorized woman preacher in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Her spiritual autobiography—the first by an African American woman published in the United States—describes her childhood and her journeys across the United States. Though born to free black parents, she was hired out from the age of seven and worked far from her family and home in Cape May, New Jersey. A mystical encounter gave Lee the courage and calling to preach.

An impressive silence fell upon me, and I stood as if some one was about to speak to me . . . to my utter surprise there seemed to sound a voice which I thought I distinctly heard, and most certainly understand, which said to me, “Go preach the Gospel!” I immediately replied aloud, “No one will believe me.” Again I listened, and again the same voice seemed to say, “Preach the Gospel; I will put words in your mouth, and you will turn your enemies to become your friends.” . . .

I . . . told [the minister] that the Lord had revealed it to me that I must preach the gospel. He replied . . . as to women preaching, he said that our Discipline . . . did not call for women preachers. This I was glad to hear . . . but no sooner did this feeling cross my mind, than I found that a love of souls had in a measure departed from me; that holy energy which burned within me, as a fire, began to be smothered. This I soon perceived. 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. . . . 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. . . .

Did not Mary first preach the risen Saviour . . . and the gospel? . . . 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 . . . perhaps it was a great deal more simple then, than it is now—if it were not, the unlearned fisherman could not have preached the gospel at all. . . .

If then, to preach the gospel by the gift of heaven, comes by inspiration solely, is God straitened; must he take the man exclusively? May he not, did he not, and can he not inspire a female to preach the simple story of the birth, life, death and resurrection of our Lord? . . . As for me, I am fully persuaded that the Lord called me to labor according to what I have received, in his vineyard. . . .

Jarena Lee, Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee, Giving an Account of Her Call to Preach the Gospel (Pantianos Classics: 2017, 1836), 14, 15, 16.

Image credit: Sister Thea Bowman (detail), TheArthur Wright. Used with permission of the artist.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: God is present in everything. In the universe, in creation, in me and all that happens to me, in my brothers and sisters, in the church, and in the Eucharist—everywhere. —Thea Bowman, FSPA
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