Audio: Jarena Lee as Protestant Icon: A Conversation with Nyasha Junior and Catherine Brekus

November 3, 2020
Professor Catherine Brekus and Nyasha Junior, WSRP research associate
Professor Catherine Brekus and Nyasha Junior, WSRP research associate

Nyasha Junior, Visiting Associate Professor of Women's Studies and African-American Religions, and Catherine Brekus, Charles Warren Professor of the History of Religion in America, discuss Jarena Lee as Protestant icon.

Nyasha Junior's research project at the WSRP is titled, "The Resurrection of Jarena Lee." Jarena Lee was a Black Christian preacher who published her autobiography in 1836. Although she was denied ordination by the African Methodist Episcopal Church, she was posthumously ordained in 2016. This project is a biography and oral history that investigates the life and legacy of Jarena Lee within literary and religious communities.


I'm pleased to welcome you to the first Women's Studies and Religion lecture for the weirdest academic year on record that I know of so far. We are thrilled that regardless of whatever else is going on in the world, we are still going to be able to present the work of a very exciting group of research associates.

And in our first lecture today, we will hear from Nyasha Junior. Dr. Junior completed her doctorate at Princeton University and is an associate professor this year at Harvard Divinity School as a visiting scholar in Women's Studies and Religion. Her permanent appointment is as associate professor of Hebrew Bible at Temple University.

She is the author of An Introduction to Womanist Biblical Interpretation. And she's been a pioneer in the arena of reception history, particularly in the African-American reception of the Hebrew Bible. She is the author of Reimagining Hagar. And most recently, with Jeremy Schipper, she published Black Samson, The Untold Story of an American Icon.

Professor Junior is presenting her work today in conversation with our own Catherine Brekus, the Charles Warren Professor of American Religious History here at Harvard Divinity School. Their conversation is entitled Jarena Lee as a Protestant Icon, a Conversation with Nyasha Junior and Catherine Brekus.

It's so appropriate that they are having this conversation because Professor Brekus authored, 20 years ago, the landmark book Strangers and Pilgrims, Female Preaching In America, 1740-1845, in which she treated Jarena Lee as one of the 100 or so preaching women that she considered in that book. And so it's wonderful today to be able to hear her talk with a Nyasha Junior, who is going to give us a deeper and more capacious look at this fascinating figure in the first full length biography and reception history of Jarena Lee.

I'm sorry to say that due to technical difficulties, the first minute or so of this conversation is missing. So it may start somewhat abruptly, but it will soon smooth out. So bear with us and enjoy this fascinating conversation.

And as she moves forward, she talks about basically taking Christ into her life about understanding that she is a sinner who could be forgiven, and then she moves forward even to ask for sanctification. So sanctification for her is being free from sin in the sense of not committing intentional sins, being able to walk as Jesus walked and have the heart and mind of Christ.

So she's someone who experiences a lot of mental health challenges later in life, particularly poverty. Her husband dies. Her child dies. She's got child care issues. She's a woman who struggled a great deal in order to heed the call to preach.

So one of the things that has always intrigued me-- and I don't know how much you'll be able to find out about this in your research-- but the section in which she talks about her marriage is really very short. It's really only a couple of pages. And so her husband was an AME minister, how do you think about her silence about him?

Yes, so she marries Joseph Lee, and he has a charge in New Jersey at Snow Hill, today Mount Pisgah AME. And she doesn't really like the people. She misses the folks in Philadelphia where she was active. She has two children in short succession.

There is a section, so she does give him a section. There's a section in her autobiography called marriage on marriage. But she doesn't really talk a lot about the marriage. And then very quickly, he dies and the memoir continues. So it's not clear exactly what was going on in the relationship, except she wasn't happy. And this is before she feels that she has moved into her calling as an evangelist.

There's a historian, I think it might have been Elizabeth Elkin Grammer, who writes about that very short discussion of her marriage as what-- she thought it was textual revenge that he did not seem to be in favor of women in ministry. And so she dispatches with him very quickly in her memoir. And I've always wondered about the larger story there.

So the first time that she tells Richard Allen that she has a call to preach, he says no. So tell us about when he says yes. And why do you think he changed his mind?

Yes. So Jarena Lee, as I mentioned, has these experiences of depression and thinks about killing herself. She really, in her heart, feels that she is called to preach. She has a vision, and this is something that is really placed in her heart. She goes to Richard Allen, who later becomes Bishop of the AME Church, and expresses what she's feeling to him. And he basically says, listen, we don't do that here. The discipline does not permit women to be ordained in ministry. Prayer meetings and things like that, you can do that kind of thing but not ordained ministry.

She struggles with this. And moving forward years later, she and Allen are both at a service and the minister falters. He seems to be having trouble. And without regard for decorum, Jarena Lee hops up and basically takes the mic from him and begins to preach. And she does so in such a compelling way and such a moving way that Allen and those present are forced to acknowledge that she is gifted. They are forced to acknowledge that whatever it is that she has and however it is that she's conveyed it, that they really cannot deny that she is someone who has been gifted by God.

And so from that point forward, she has a relationship with Allen. Allen and his wife babysit for her. They take care of her child. They travel together. So he's someone who becomes one of her supporters, although she's not at the time ordained.

I've always found that an almost cinematic scene. You and I have talked about this. I would love the next thing to be Jarena Lee the movie. We could decide which actress we want to have play Jarena Lee. But it's just such a dramatic moment. And the way that she describes it is she's filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, and she's almost not-- well, she isn't in control of herself.

And I think it's a really key moment for understanding some of her theology and the power of the Holy Spirit in her theology. So could you say a little bit more about her beliefs, and also about how she justifies herself. So Allen allows her to preach, but she meets skepticism wherever she goes. So what kind of biblical argument does she make on behalf of her ministry?

Yes. So Lee faces opposition at every turn. But keep in mind that we're talking early 19th century, social convention does not even permit women to speak in mixed audiences of men and women. So this is really something very unusual that she's doing. And part of what she does in order to justify it, as she goes through her mental health crises, part of what she says is it's the devil. The devil is coming against her. The devil is trying to keep her from doing what the Lord has intended for her to do.

Beyond that, she also uses biblical texts in order to argue that she should be able to preach. So in a variety of ways, she talks about, for example, is it not a woman who preaches of the risen Savior, speaking of Mary and John. She talks about herself as a type of Jonah because she was trying to get away from her initial calling, although she knew that God was calling her to preach.

She uses the story of Balaam's Ass to talk about, can't women do things too? If miraculous things can happen, then certainly it should be both men and women that God calls. She talks about, for example, the disciples as unlettered fisherman. And if they can be called and pressed into service by our Lord, then certainly she, a woman who is without formal education, can also be called.

So she does a number of different things in order to justify her call to ministry. In talking with my students in the class, they were struck by how many of these arguments they still hear today with women seeking perhaps not ordination in circles but greater inclusion of women. So she does a number of different things to try to argue for what she feels she really has to do. She really feels compelled to do this. This is not something that she thinks of as just a personal choice.

As you're talking about your students hearing resonances in their own time, one of the things that really struck me when I started reading her memoir and the memoir of other early 19th century women preachers was what a rich, feminist theology they were creating that I think then got completely lost.

So that when you look at feminist theologians in the 1960s and 1970s, they're making arguments about women in the Bible that you can find in Jarena Lee that had really just been forgotten because she herself was forgotten. And other women were also forgotten. I mean, forgotten, but also, in some ways, deliberately not remembered because these denominations were embarrassed, or maybe even ashamed, of the fact that they had allowed women to preach earlier in their histories.

One of the extraordinary things about her is that she's traveling all over the Northeast, and even into Maryland, as I recall, which was a slave state at the time, which I think must have taken extraordinary courage, and especially as a free Black woman who could have been kidnapped and sold into slavery, and there is very little that anybody would have done to help her. Can you reflect a little bit on her as a Black woman living in the free North, which of course is characterized by segregation, at a time of slavery?

Yes. This would have been a very difficult time for a Black woman to travel. Sometimes she traveled with companions and sometimes alone in very difficult conditions by wagon, by boat, sometimes by foot. So there's no Amtrak zipping her up and down the Northeast Corridor. She does work a little bit in Canada, as you mentioned, and as far as Maryland.

So traveling would have been very difficult. This is before the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act that she's really active. But still, even without that, she was in danger. As you say, if someone had grabbed her, snatched her off the street, there would have been very little that anyone could have done about that.

In traveling in the second edition-- so in her 1849 autobiography-- she talks more about her travels, and it's a bit more of diary entries where she explains all of the places where she's gone and the people that she's talked to. So all of this would have been difficult for her. It was challenging for her, again, finding someone to care for her child as she travels as well. So all of this was extraordinarily brave.

As you mentioned in later periods, theologians and historians begin to uncover and rediscover the work of women in the 19th century. And so the story of Jarena Lee has been really important within womanist approaches to religious studies and to biblical studies. Part of what I'll be talking about in the book is how she is recovered and how she becomes so important in later periods.

So despite Allen not ordaining her, in 2016, the AME church does posthumously ordain Jarena Lee. So she is the Reverend Jarena Lee. And part of the project is going to be an oral history talking with various folks in the AME church, leadership as well as lay persons, to talk about how this process comes about and how and why Jarena Lee became so important.

Yeah, I definitely want to hear more about that because I know that this project has two parts. And one part of it is a recovery of Jarena Lee's life, but the other is Jarena Lee in historical memory and in contemporary memory. So she was really forgotten after her death.

When I first was trying to do research on her, I took completely the wrong approach. And I started looking at AME histories from the early 20th century, thinking that for sure there would be more information about her. And there was almost nothing, and it seemed clear that by the time that she died that the leadership did not want to commemorate her or remember her. And it seems like it really wasn't until the 1980s that she was rediscovered and has become a major figure for scholars of American religion, and also for womanist theologians.

I'm really curious how it is that she ends up being ordained posthumously, which is not something that the AME church, I think, has ever done before. I could be wrong, but this seems quite unusual for someone to be posthumously ordained. How much do you know at this point about how this happened? Who made this decision? Is this women in the church pushing for this? How did this happen?

These are great questions. I will know a lot more later, as I'm early in the project. But in part, it's AME women. It's AME women in ministry, who had been pushing for women to be ordained. So women aren't ordained in the AME church until the 1960s, but women had been pushing for greater inclusion all along.

So part of what I'll be doing is talking with people in leadership. For example, Dr. Teresa Fry Brown, who's part of the AME church, who's at Emory University, the historiographer, she is responsible for writing up the proclamation. And so I'll be talking with her with other women in leadership, with women bishops, to talk about the process and see if I can piece together how this happens and if we find elements of this at earlier stages, of women being concerned about uplifting Jarena Lee as an ancestor.

So again, part of what I think makes her story so compelling to contemporary women is, again, she's dealing with a lot of the things that they are still dealing with, with feeling called and having both men and women deny their call, with having to be twice as good as the men, with having to know their stuff, know their texts, know the discipline better than the men, with having to justify their call, dealing with child care issues, money troubles, those types of things that so many women are still struggling with.

So part of the oral history will be to see if I can figure out what's happening in the church, and then, likewise, talking with scholars, such as yourself, about how this rediscovery process happens, how her work ends up in edited volumes, and then how it is-- it starts to show up on syllabi, it starts to show up in more dissertations, and in the work that people do both in literature, as well as in religious studies in history. So I'll know more later about how all of this happened.

So I'm going to be fascinated to hear about all this. I personally found Jarena Lee really inspiring. There were also parts of her memoir that were difficult for me to understand initially, especially the intense self-abnegation. She's clearly an extraordinary woman, but she keeps telling us that it's not her that speaking, it's God speaking through her.

You gave us some of these examples. She's like Balaam's Ass. And I'm thinking, couldn't you come up with a different comparison than that? But I did come to understand that her claim is actually an extraordinary claim that when she's speaking, God is speaking through her. And this is probably the greatest possible assertion of her own authority that she could make.

But I found her personal story really riveting, also tragic because she does disappear. And the 1849 edition of her memoir, I believe she publishes that at her own expense because the AME Book Concern is not interested in her anymore. And so there's something really poignant about her life story. What has been your own personal experience of reading her words and reflecting on her life and just thinking about what she means to you?

She means a great deal as an AME foremother, as someone who becomes this iconic figure. Alice Walker talks about the importance of going in search of our mother's gardens. So many people may be familiar with Virginia Woolf saying, in order to write, a woman needs money and a room of her own.

And what Walker says is, if we're talking about Black women, if we're talking about Black women's genius, you've got to look in a lot of different places. That these are largely women who didn't have access to the same kinds of tools, the same instruments, the same canvases. So you might not find it in a painting, but it might be in a quilt. You might not find it as a written composition, but it might be in a song. So Walker talks about the importance of looking in these places for Black women's genius.

And part of what I'm trying to do in this project is uplift the people who have done the work of recovering Jarena Lee, and also consider how their work is a form of Black women's activism to bring her story to light, to make sure that other generations know about her. Part of the reason why women have such trouble, I think, some historians said, is we keep reinventing the wheel.

So as you were mentioning, people still are finding out about this, finding out about her, finding out about what she's going through. So I'm hopeful that the work is something that, especially AME women but lots of other people will appreciate her story, as well as the struggle of later generations of women to make sure that we continue to speak her name.

Thank you so much. I think that puts it really eloquently, that this kind of scholarship has so much meaning for people in the church today, but also people in the future who are searching for models, who are searching sometimes for comfort. They want to know that other people have faced challenges like this. And I think, especially in the context of churches where women, even when they are allowed to be ordained, they usually do not ascend to the same heights as men, these stories become really important in helping women get a sense of other people have been there before, other people have fought these battles, and that they're sort of company along the journey.

So I'm so glad that there is going to be a book about Lee that people can pick up in those moments of discouragement to take strength from her own story. I think this might be a good place because it's about 3:40 to open up for conversation. I have so many more things I'd like to ask you about, but we have such a great crowd here. And I know that they must have a lot of questions. So Tracy, are you in charge of the Q&A? I can already see--

This is Ann. I was planning to moderate the Q&A. However, I'm unable to start my video. So I may ask you to do this Catherine. We have a lot of questions coming in. I'm so sorry that I'm unable to start my video, let me try one more time.

I think the question is whether Tracy is going to be able-- if I call on someone, I can see questions coming in. I can see the questions, but will Tracy be able to make those people visible?

I don't think she will.

I think we have the option of answering live. So I would imagine that we will either hear Eric or see him. I can click that button, and we can see. Do you want to start that way?

OK, so Eric Gerard has a question.

Before we turn to the Q&A, I just got chills while you were talking, Nyasha. And I just want to take a moment before we really get into the conversation to acknowledge our visionary leader, Constance Buchanan, who passed away last week. I can't think of a project that she would be happier about and feel is completing and continuing the work that she wanted to see more than this project.

She really wanted the research of women historians and scholars to become accessible, so that we would have the benefits of our mother's gardens and that would be accessible to contemporary women and fuel their activism in changing their churches and their worlds. And this project encapsulates that vision perfectly. So I just want to thank you for that, Nyasha. And I will let Catherine moderate the Q&A, since you can see her.

OK, so Eric, I am going to-- Eric Gerard, I'm going to try to make you visible. If not, I see that there is a button where I can allow you to speak. So let's try this first, answer live, OK. All right, you are on screen.

Can you see me? Can you hear me?

We can see you and hear you.

OK, so thank you both for this. I asked the question in the Q&A, but I'm curious about some of the primary sources, Professor Junior. If you're able to glean a sense from them about Lee's intersectional identity, which is to say her self-awareness of what we would now call intersectional identity, how she understands her race and her gender affecting her life and the combination of those two, so separately and together.

Yes, thank you for your question. I think the clear answer is yes. Even in her 1836 version, the title is The Life and Religious Experience of Jarena Lee, a Colored Lady, Giving an Account of Her Call to Preach the Gospel. So she's very clear that she is a Black woman and that she's struggling in very unique ways.

She does talk about being able to preach to audiences of men and women, also speaking to mixed race audiences. So she's someone who has a message that extends beyond just the AME church. But still, she understands her position very clearly as a Black Christian woman.

Thank you so much, that's fantastic.

OK, Kenashia Thompson.

OK, can you hear me?


OK, and it's actually Kenashia Thompson, but--

Sorry about that.

It's all right. Hey, Dr. Junior. For everyone else, I'm in Dr. Junior's Black women class, so this has been exciting for me. I just had a question about, do you think Lee had a mental illness? I've talked to some other people who are aware of her story, and they don't think that she necessarily had a mental illness. And I'm speaking on the line of her attempting to commit suicide multiple times. And if so, what impact do you think that had on her ministry life?

Hi, Kenashia, thank you for your question. I'll see you tomorrow in class. Of course, it's always difficult when we try to determine someone's medical diagnosis historically. So the difficulty is that, as you mentioned, she has multiple suicide attempts. And the way that she frames it, this is not so much what we might think of as mental illness. She thinks this is the devil. She thinks that Satan has come against her.

So I am willing to think more about it, but I do think that this kind of crisis that she has multiple times could be understood partly as relating to mental illness. But thank you for the question, and I will think more about it.

We have an anonymous question, so I will read it. The question is, "do you know what Jarena Lee's role was in the abolition movement occurring at the time? Did she practice any sermons similar to Sojourner Truth in preaching about the abolition of slavery?"

Thank you for your question. Yes, Jarena Lee is in favor of abolition. She is part of an abolitionist society. She says very clearly in her autobiography that there is no justification for enslavement. She also talks in veiled terms, probably, about Nat Turner. So she mentions that 1831, which is ding, ding, ding, that's Nat Turner and the Southhampton rebellion. But she mentions a righteous man who is fighting for rights and God's judgment will be done. So she doesn't mention him directly, but she seems to be very much in favor not only of abolition but of insurrection in order to move the cause of abolition forward.

If I can just build on that question, do you know what text she preached on when she went to Maryland? Because I believe she was preaching to, at least partially, an audience of the enslaved there.

I'm not sure of the specific text in Maryland, but you're right. She does mention at various times, she is preaching to audiences of people who are enslaved and who are not. She mentions this also in that they were so excited to hear her, that many of the enslaved people walked for miles and miles and miles to hear her preach, even though they understood that they'd then, on the return journey, had to walk all of those miles back and be ready to labor in the morning. So she does talk to different groups. I'm not sure of the specific text that she takes with that audience.

Yeah, one of the challenges of studying these preaching women is that there are no extant sermons, partially because she always said she was speaking by the power of the Holy Spirit. So sometimes she'll give you the text, but you can only imagine what it was that she said. Of course, she would had to have been extremely careful on imagining because these meetings, I'm sure, would have been monitored by other people. So I can only imagine that she'd have to be very cautious about what she said to them. The next person in line is Dan McKanan.

Hello, everybody. Thank you so much for this wonderful event, and thank you, Professor Junior, for undertaking this really important project. You said at the beginning that you didn't hear much about Jarena Lee as a child in the AME church, and I wonder how much things have changed for young girls who are growing up AME today. And if they have, how do the stories about Jarena Lee they're hearing compare, are similar or different, to those that we hear in the Academy? Thank you.

Thanks for your question. Yes, I didn't hear much about her. As I mentioned, I heard more about Richard and Sarah Allen. I'm not going to tell you how old I am, but this was largely before a lot of the research that was being done in recovering her had trickled down or trickled out to your ordinary, regular AME Church.

Today, lots and lots of people know who Jarena Lee is. I'm pretty sure nearly everybody in the AME church has heard of her. February 11 is celebrated as a holiday. There was also a hashtag recently, #JarenaLeetaughtme. People wear t-shirts with Jarena Lee. So I think many, many more people know of her. In the class that I'm teaching this semester, many of my students had heard of her. They had not, however, read her work. So I think now we're at a point where people-- she may have more name recognition, but it may be the case that not everyone has actually read what she's written.

OK, so now I want a Jarena Lee T-shirt. But it's a little alarming how quickly this becomes commercialized, right? Did you look at the hashtag, #whatJarenaLeetaughtme, what are people saying?

It's largely Black women and sharing basically how Jarena Lee is an inspiration, that she is revered as a woman who, as I've said, has gone through so many challenges, a woman who basically dies penniless and alone. And I think she is a source of strength for many women, both within the AME church and outside.

So this connects to another question in the chat. How does Lee's story empower other women in ministry?

So far in talking with women, I think that what they see is their struggle is part of a longer struggle, that they're not the first ones to have these problems, that there are women who have come before them, and that they can see themselves in history. So they don't have to look to women outside of their tradition but can understand that there's someone, a Black woman, a free Black woman, who could read and write, who told her story.

And in the AME church, I mean, Richard Allen, that's top of the line here. Richard Allen is the man. And so to have a woman stand up to him, someone who was turned away initially, and then to have her in this dramatic scene stand up and go up to the mic and preach in a man's stead is really, really remarkable. So I think for many people, she's a trailblazer and someone that they look up to.

Yeah, I have been wondering about what the effect of this recovery might be on Richard Allen. I mean, in some ways, he comes out very well because he does eventually allow her to preach, and he even takes care of her children. But his initial response, of course, is disdainful. Let me see, I have a question from Renita Ward. And let me see if I can-- OK, Renita.

Hi. Can you hear me?

Yes, we can hear you.

I was all prepared for you to read my question, but thank you for this opportunity. I was just wondering if the Professor could talk to us about how her work has been received in the Academy and if she has faced any challenges or resistance to the legitimacy of her work, I guess, related to the sources that you have used or not used, if you could talk to that a little bit. And if you haven't faced any resistance at all, if you could talk about the advocacy and support that you've received and from where.

Thank you, that's a great question. So first, in terms of support, I wouldn't be able to do this, this year, without the support of Harvard Divinity School and the Women's Studies in Religion Program. So this year is a year of wonderful support for me to be able to focus on this research.

In terms of resistance, I haven't faced any yet. I am a member of the AME church, that helps a lot. So I think that people understand that I'm someone who cares about this tradition and wants to share this legacy. I'm in early stages, and so part of the oral history is having preliminary conversations with people to inform them about the work, let them know what I'm doing. I've talked, for example, with the pastor of Mother Bethel AME here in Philadelphia, Reverend Dr. Mark Kelly Tyler, talked to people about the research and what I'm trying to do. And thus far, everyone has been very supportive, and they are looking forward to the project.

I just have to say, thank you very much. As a female preacher pursuing ordination in the United Church of Christ, your scholarship is phenomenal and is well received. Thank you.

Thank you.

So we have a comment from Pamela Walker. And I'm going to have you make the comment because I think it's an interesting one. I could read it out loud, but I'm going to I'm going to bring you up.

My comment was just that my own reading in 19th century British women, who were interested in the right to preach, interested in ordination, questions of ordination, women's authority in the church, they were aware of Jarena Lee. And I know that they quoted her and cited her and were aware of her as a pioneering figure who they took great interest in. So that's just a comment in terms of her reach. That would be the 1850s to 1880s.

Excellent, thank you.

If there is anybody out there-- and there are a lot of talented people on this call. If there are people who have research leads, I'm sure that they would be much appreciated, especially at the beginning of a project like this. So it is 4 o'clock, and so I think, Ann and Tracy, this is probably a good place to stop.

I just want to say thank you so much to Professor Junior for sharing her work with us today and just to reiterate how excited I am about this book, about this research, which I really find not only fascinating as a historian but personally inspirational. So thank you so much for being with us today. And thank you to all of you who have come from so many places around the country for this conversation today. This might be one of the only good things about the pandemic, that so many of us have been able to gather for this conversation. So thank you everybody.

Thank you.