NJ2.gif (3754 bytes)

   Cape May County ...
   New Jersey

Mrs. Jarena Lee was the first black woman preacher in the A.M.E. church. She was born in Cape May (well, maybe Goshen, Cape May) and returns to South Jersey many times in her preaching travels. The woman was absolutely amazing!! To say she traveled extensively does not do justice to the extent of her travels. She began preaching in 1820 and preached throughout PA, NJ, NY. She traveled to Ohio, at least 2 times, to preach in Cincinnati, Dayton, Urbana, Chillicothe... She made an extensive trip to preach her way through Canada.

"I commenced my journey of Canada, in 1832. From the second day of July to the fifteenth day of October, years following, 1833, I had preached 138 sermons, and travelled between 27 and 28 hundred miles."

 She even preached in Maryland and Virginia. She was born to a free black family in 1783, yet, she was inspired by her faith to preach and speak the word of God, not just in her home church, but to venture out, even to slave states to spread the word of God.

Mrs Jarena Lee , Preacher of the A.M.E. Church,
Aged 60 years in the 11th day of the 2nd month 1844,
Philadelphia 1844


                 I am copying some excerpts from the autobiography, items that particularly interested me or some descriptions of her visits to South Jersey. I really encourage you to read the whole little book. I guarantee you will gasp with amazement at the depth of her belief, her courage and fortitude.

Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee
Giving an Account of her Call to Preach the Gospel, Philadelphia, 1849

Opening lines:

I was born February 11th, 1783, at Cape May, State of New Jersey. At the age of seven years I was parted from my parents, and went to live as a servant maid, with a Mr. Sharp, at the distance of about sixty miles from the place of my birth.

She describes her religious unrest and the beginning of her conversion at a Presbeterian Church Service in 1804. Several months later, while listening to a sermon by Rev. Richard Allen the spirit came upon her freeing her from sins.

That instant, it appeared to me as if a garment, which had entirely enveloped my whole person, even to my fingers ends, split at the crown of my head, and was stripped away from me, passing like a shadow from me sight -- when the glory of God seemed to cover me in its stead.

- I found myself very moved by her conversion experience. I hope you can take a minute to read it. I am not clear when she relocated to Philadelphia, but sometime after her conversion.

In 1811, she married Mr. Joseph Lee, pastor of a Society at Snow Hill, about six miles from the city of Philadelphia. She seems to have had a difficult time in adjusting, but persevered. She was there for 6 years when her husband died and she was left a widow with 2 small children. One 6 months old and one 2 years old.

She approached Rev. Richard Allen again about preaching, he had become the Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He could not give her permission to preach, but did approve of her extorting. (extorting, seems to be responding and speaking in response to the spirit moving you during a service)

Several years later, During a service being led by Rev. Richard Williams at the Bethel Church.

The text he took is in Jonah, 2d chap. 9th verse,-- "Salvation is of the Lord." But as he proceeded to explain, he seemed to have lost the spirit; when in the same instant, I sprang, as by altogether supernatural impulse, to my feet, when I was aided from above to give an exhortation on the very text which my brother Williams had taken.

I told them I was like Jonah; for it had been then nearly eight years since the Lord had called me to preach his gospel to the fallen sons and daughters of Adam's race, but that I had lingered like him, and delayed to go at the bidding of the Lord, and warn those who are as deeply guilty as were the people of Ninevah.

 I feared it might be called. I should be expelled from the church. But instead of this, the Bishop (Rev. Richard Allen) rose up in the assembly, and related that I had called upon him eight years before, asking to be permitted to preach, and that he had put me off; but that he now as much believed that I was called to the work, as any of the preachers present.

In 1819, she finally received the blessing of Bishop Allen and began to officially preach for the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

According to her autobiography, her first journey as an itinerant preacher was back to her birthplace in Cape May, NJ. One of her stated reasons for going back to Cape May was to visit her mother. She does mention that she left her son in her mothers care (I have, also, read that Richard Allen cared for her son for a couple years, while she was away preaching.) She preaches in Cape May, Cape May Court House and discusses the conversion of a mean spirited slave holder.

At Dennis Creek Meeting house: "... My tongue was cut loose, the stammerer spoke freely; the love of God, and of his service, burned with a vehement flame within me-- his name was glorified among the people."

She says she had her son with her and was strapped for money, not knowing how she would get home (meaning Philadelphia). To raise some money, she opened a small school for 11 students and taught for many weeks. She was very happy on Nov. 12, 1821, when she arrived back in Philadelphia.

Jarena Lee, again, preaches in NJ, between February 1822 and November 22, 1822.
If you live in one of the towns she mentions, please let me know if you can find any additional information about her visits. Thanks.


About the month of February, (1822 ?) my little son James, then in his sixth year, gave evidence of having religious inclinations....

In November (1822 ?) I journeyed for Trenton, N. J. At Burlington I spoke to the people on the Sabbath, and had a good time among them, and on Monday the 12th, in a school house. Sister Mary Owan, who had laid aside all the cares of the world, went with me. We had no means of traveling but on foot, but the Lord regarded us, and by some means put it into the heart of a stranger, to convey us to the Trenton bridge. ...

I now returned to Philadelphia, where I stayed a short time, and went to Salem, West Jersey. I met with many troubles on my journey, especially from the elder, who like many others, was averse to a woman's preaching. ...

Not withstanding the position, we had a prosperous time at Salem. I had some good congregations, and sinners were cut to the heart...

"If they persecute you in one city, flee into another," was the advice I had resolved to take, and I hastened to Greenwich, where I had a lively congregation, had unusual life and liberty in speaking, and the power of God was there..

On second day morning, I took stage and rode seven miles to Woodstown, and there I spoke to a respectable congregation of white and colored, in a school house. I was desired to speak in the colored meeting house, but the minister could not reconcile his mind to a woman preacher --...

Nov. 22, 1822, I returned to Philadelphia, and attended meetings in and out of the city... "

Continuing in the narrative are accounts of her many years of preaching in DE, PA, NY and even MD.

I could go on and on quoting from the book, but will instead list some of the visits and approx dates in South Jersey. She, also traveled and spoke in North Jersey, but I was most interested in her South Jersey travels.

At length I started on my journey for Cape May, West Jersey, in the following way: By Steam Boat to Salem, N.J., and 62preached in the African M.E. Church to a good congregation, and we had a comfortable waiting upon the Lord. Some signs followed the preaching of the Cross of Christ; the people were very kind. From thence by Stages to Greenwich, and spoke with the Elder to a very humble people; a great display of God's power, six joined the Church, seven were baptized, and others fell to the floor and cried for mercy; thank God for it.

On Monday morning I left for Bridgeton; we having no Society there, I preached in the Court House to a large assembly of different denominations. I felt a degree of liberty in speaking, and I then stopped a few days with them, and was kindly received and entertained. I then proceeded on to Fair-field, and endeavored to labor for them at 11 o'clock, Sabbath morning, and at 3 o'clock, P.M. to crowded houses of respectable and quiet congregations, and the Lord poured out his spirit upon us and we had a solemn waiting in his presence, for which my soul rejoices even now.

I next went on to Port Elizabeth, which was very thinly inhabited, some two or three very respectable families there with only three persons belonging to Church; among them a Sqr. Brick, a man of ability. Through him the Church was opened for me, and I preached two Sermons to large congregations of respectable inhabitants of the place, .."

"... I next proceeded to Goshen; there I found my aged mother, who I had not seen for eleven years, well in health and very active....

... But my work soon again commenced. I preached in a dwelling house the next; in Goshen School-house, to both white and colored; and was assisted by the prayers of some humble souls, and felt both life and liberty. My colored brethren held a protracted meeting. some were Baptists and some Methodist. But all one in Christ. I think I never saw a greater display of God's eternal power; it was somewhat inexpressible: Glory to God for it. Four miles from there I preached in the Court House to a congregation of different denominations, and the house was crowded. Text--28th Chap. of St. Matt. 18th and 19th verses. On the following Sabbath I spoke in a School-house to a white Methodist congregation. We had a weeping time in the afternoon of the same day. Spoke to my own people, and the Lord blessed several souls. It was a time long to be remembered. Truly a sword that is so often whetted, must keep sharp, but in the midst of difficulties it appeared the word had its more perfect effect. After feeling I had discharged my duty towards God in that part of his vineyard, I returned home and spent the winter in Philadelphia, but very much afflicted. But in the midst of it my peace was like a river."

In the summer of 1832, she gives a lengthy account of being in Newark, NJ and helping with the Cholera Epidemic. She talks about the President's Proclamation for Fasting on account of  "Judgment of God." (Really it was the Governors proclamation.)  She mentions how all the denominations come together to fast and pray.

In 1837, she again travels to Goshen, Cape May to see her mother who is now aged 78.

March 1842

She returns to Philadelphia. after 2 years absence she finds her son well, but her Granddaughter has died. She laments the death, but, "Let the Lord's will be done.

Almost the end of the narrative we find these interesting paragraphs:

My health being very much impaired, I knew not but that I should be the next one called away, but the Lord spared me for some other purpose, and upon my recovery I commenced traveling again, feeling it better to wear out than to rust out--and so expect to do until death ends the struggle-- knowing, if I lose my life for Christ's sake, I shall find it again.

I now conclude ---by requesting the prayers of God's people everywhere, who worship in His holy fear, to pray for me, that I ever may endeavor to keep a conscience void of offence, either towards God or man--for I feel as anxious to blow the Trumpet in Zion; and sound the alarm in God's Holy Mount, as ever;--

Though Nature's strength decay,
And earth and hell withstand-
To Canaan's land I'l urge my way,
At HIS Divine command.

I recently came across a reference, to Jarena Lee being buried: Small Towns exhibits several of these churches, including Mt. Pisgah AME Church in Lawnside, the burial site of Jarena Lee (1783-1849) who was the first woman to preach from the pulpit of both Mother Bethel and Mt Pisgah.

I will try to go and get a picture of the gravesite and check out the museum there



Mrs.. Jarena Lee, Daughter of Cape May County

I went to the Cape May County Historic Society and was disappointed that they did not have a file on her.

I would love to find someone with more information on Jarena. Who were her parents? When and where did she die? She sold her little book to help raise funds for her travels, is it embellished or accurate description of her trials and travels?

I have an urge to know more. I am hoping that someone will contact me and let me know, if there is a book about her or someone who has done local research. Please contact me, if you have any ideas.


               Susan Ditmire

"History Belongs to All of Us"
Help it come alive,  participate in your local Historic Society.

Site created and maintained by Susan Ditmire, comments & suggestions, always welcome.

The American Local History Network - This site generously hosted by USGenNet(tm)