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One The Prophesying Daughters Biographical and Historical Background Three times between 1804 and 1808 Jarena Lee, a young black maid, contemplated killing herself.1 First she was “tempted to destroy [herself]” by drowning.2 Her intention to carry out this act was diverted just as she poised herself to jump into a “deep hole, where the water whirled about among the rocks” (Experience, 5). Although this time her “thoughts were taken entirely from this purpose,” they reemerged four years later, when she notes that she “was again tempted to destroy [her] life by drowning” (Experience, 6). Again, inexplicably, she dismissed the idea. Shortly after this second incident, Lee “was beset to hang [herself] with a cord suspended from the wall enclosing the secluded spot” (Experience , 6). A young boy who was playing nearby distracted her, and she abandoned the thought once again. Prior to each thought of suicide, Jarena Lee had been to church and had felt an overwhelming sense of religious conviction; she did not know exactly how or where to channel the intense emotion it spurred. Jarena Lee was born on February 11, 1783, in Cape May, New Jersey. At the age of seven, she began work as a servant away from her poor parents. Living during the aftermath of the Second Great Awakening, 1. In her autobiography, Jarena Lee does not reveal her family’s last name. Consequently , she is referred to by her married name throughout this book. 2. Jarena Lee, The Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee: Giving an Account of Her Call to Preach the Gospel, 4. Quotations from Lee’s narrative are from the 1988 Oxford University Press reprint edition. Hereafter citations of this work will be made parenthetically, with the abbreviation Experience followed by the page number. 1 2 Prophesying Daughters she was surrounded daily by the religious fervor it aroused. She was also living in an era where women’s experiences with religion and their roles for performing within religious contexts were clearly defined. Women usually served the church in some type of domestic position as members of the congregation, benevolent aid organizers, or Sunday school teachers. Blacks were considered spiritually inferior and often were described as not even having souls. Thus, the first time that “a ray of renewed conviction darted into [her] soul,” Lee had trouble negotiating feelings that obviously contradicted these views (Experience, 3). Suicide seemed the best way out. After she decided against it, she suppressed her strong religious convictions. Months later, while attending another church service—this one presided over by Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church—Lee leaped to her feet and began to testify about how God had delivered her soul. She felt that she had the “power to exhort sinners, and to tell of the wonders and of the goodness of [God]” (Experience, 5). Shortly afterward, she thought of attempting suicide again. For quite some time, though, Lee continued to struggle internally about her religious conviction. This dilemma was partially resolved after a visit from a black man named William Scott, who introduced Lee to the notion of sanctification, which he described as the “progress of the soul from a state of darkness” (Experience, 9). Sanctification was thought of as a state of complete spiritual purification and perfection. Three months after Scott’s visit, Lee felt that she had achieved sanctification, and about five years later, she was convinced that she had been called by God Himself to preach. Despite her own certainty—which was informed by visions and spiritual confirmations by God—Lee knew that in that day and age, no one would believe that she, a black woman, was called to preach the gospel. If anyone could provide some direction about how and where to channel such conviction, it would be the leader and founder of the church, Richard Allen. She met with him and impressed upon him her belief that God had called her to preach. His response was that their discipline, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, “did not call for women preachers” (Experience, 11). Lee admits that she felt relieved of this burden. In 1811, she married Joseph Lee, a minister, and she moved with him to Snow Hill, Maryland, where he had a church. For six years, Lee still experienced dreams and visions, which she interpreted as reinforcement of her call by God. Unfortunately, during the course of just three years, The Prophesying Daughters 3 Lee lost...


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