Jarena Lee and Julia Foote
They were two women preachers during a time when only men preached. They were black preachers who preached to both slaves and slave-holders. They were black women preachers who inspired men and women, believers and ‘backsliders,’ Methodists, Episcopalians, Baptists and Presbyterians, lawyers, doctors and magistrates.
Their names were Jarena Lee (1783–1855?) and Julia Foote (1823-1901), two of the first African American women to achieve the right to preach in the newly formed nation. Overcoming both gender and racial barriers, both women preached widely over great distances. A widow and mother of two children, Lee traveled 2325 miles, walking many of them, to preach 178 sermons. Defying her husband and parents, Foote was a deacon and minister for five decades, traveling to the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic region, California, the Midwest, and eventually Canada.
“I had nothing to do but open my mouth and the Lord filled it.”Jarena Lee
Both were healers of anxious souls. Lee writes about preaching to jailed men (“2 white and 2 colored”) condemned to hang, to the sick and afflicted on their death beds, to slaves who walked 20-30 miles to hear her preach, despite having to return to work by dawn. Foote outspokenly criticized racial hierarchies, capital punishment and corporal punishment of children, while unequivocally advocating African American education.
Both women often preached at camp-meetings, gatherings lasting 2-3 days where sometimes thousands of people, from all walks of life, would gather to pray, sing hymns and listen to itinerant preachers. Lee writes about attending one camp-meeting where “we had a most melting, sin-killing, soul-reviving time!” Lee also preached under trees, in schoolhouses and private homes (black and white), and in a graveyard and town halls. Both women even ventured into the slave state of Maryland, where some scholars believe Harriet Tubman might have heard them preach.
They were often denounced for being women preachers. Lee was actually accused of not being a woman but a man in female clothes! When Foote’s mother first heard that her daughter had become a preacher, she said that she would rather hear that her daughter had died. A white man who vehemently opposed female ministry first walked out on Lee at a church in Chillicothe, Ohio. But then he returned to hear her preach, and ended up apologizing the next day, adding that “now he believed that God was no respecter of persons, and that a woman as well as a man, when called of God, had a right to preach.”
Both women were mystics. Lee writes about her visions, insights, and inspirations. Foote describes her visitation by angels. Despite having a minimal education, both were self-taught and have described their mystical and worldly experiences in their spiritual autobiographies.
What struck me when reading both accounts was how each seemed to experience the four stages of spiritual crisis as described by Assagioli. Both are spiritually awakened during a prayer meeting and then soon afterwards plunged into a profound crisis. Lee and Foote were both immediately consumed with the idea of being a ‘wretched sinner’ and eventually became suicidal. Both acknowledged that the holy spirit played a role in saving her from such a terrible fate.
“My prayer was that nothing but love might appear in my ways, and activate my heart”Jarena Lee
Nevertheless, they continued to inwardly struggle with oscillating feelings of elation and despair. Lee describes weeks of crying spells and prayer, fervently trying to find her way back to this sense of peace and perfect union. Both women initially resisted the inner calling to preach against all convention. Both spend hours in prayer.
But then the final stage occurred when they were lifted up toward the Higher Self. Lee describes it as:
“It felt as if I were in an ocean of light and bliss…During this, I stood perfectly still, the tears rolling in a flood from my eyes. So great was the joy, that it is past description.”Jarena Lee
And Foote wrote:
Perfect love took possession, I lost all fear. The days that followed were full of peace – peace flowing as a river, even to overflowing its banks… I forgot all toil and care.Julia Foote
From this point forward, both women seemed to gain an inner fearlessness. Fearlessness of the established church. Fearlessness of the dangers on the road. And fearlessness of the constant resistance they encountered all their lives.
Both women were fervent abolitionists. Upon Foote’s arrival in Baltimore, Maryland, she was closely questioned as to her freedom, and carefully examined for marks on her body that might identify her as a runaway. During Black History Month, let us celebrate these women mystics and spiritual ministers. Let us sing of their fearlessness. Let us raise up their voices that were once denied, then heard and now, for the most part, forgotten.
You can download Jarena Lee’s and Julia Foot’s autobiographies below.