October 20, 2008

Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee

Here are links to two sound files I recorded of the article, each 30 minutes or a bit less.

First half of article:
Download file

Second half of article:
Download file

First, a little background: This account was published in 1849, and covers much of Jarena Lee's life. She tells us she was born in 1783 in New Jersey. The photo on the opening page shows her at 60 years old in 1844, so she was 65 when the book was published. She was still hoping at that time that she could write and publish a more extensive and reflective account of her ministry, but didn't succeed in doing so. To refresh your minds, the Civil War took place between 1860 and 1865. This means that slavery was a part of the society that Jarena lived in throughout her life. The section you have copies of takes you from her girlhood, through her conversion, her marriage, and her call to preach. It ends in the early days of her formal preaching ministry. The account goes on from there, recording extensive travel and an active preaching ministry through the remaining decades of her life. She relied on the kindness of the people in the communities where she came, not earning much money from this labor.

The Journal was published again in 1988 as part of a collection titled Spiritual Narratives, brought together from the Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers by African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who has spent much of his illustrious career discovering and helping to get republished the forgotten writings of African Americans.

This sort of spiritual autobiography has a long history in Christianity, and played a particularly strong role in the waves of Christian revivalism that have swept the United States. The Quakers in particular published many spiritual accounts. The authors of such works are testifying to the work of God in their, and serving as a role model for the reader in following the Gospel call. For a woman, and particularly an African American woman in the United States during the period of slavery (she was born free, but spent much of her childhood serving as a servant to a white family), entering into the traditions of Christian preaching and writing is to lay claim to equal dignity and worth in the sight of God. This radical equality of believers is a deep strand in Christian scriptures, in contrast to the way that Christian organizations have many times reinforced social inequalities (many churches of Jarena's own day preached that the Bible supported slavery, as an example, and justified the inequalities suffered by the slaves as a result of the punishment by God of Ham, who mocked a drunken Noah). At the end of the selection we have of Jarena's story, she describes an encounter with a slave-owning man who believes that African-Americans did not have souls, until he heard her preach.

Jarena was largely self-taught, so even though she was clearly extremely bright, her writing style is sometimes tangled, overly-formal, and hard to follow. Her main literary model is the Bible. Also, her purpose in writing this account shaped her style: to show how God had directed her career in preaching, not her own ambition, and to serve as a role model and inspiration to others.

This text also follows some of the conventions of similar accounts of the day of an individual's spiritual autobiography, and also the conventions of testifying (verbally witnessing publicly to the workings of God).

It appears that, as Jarena first felt called to preach, women could testify to their own experience of conversion, or pray with others, but not preach - which was to expound on Bible passages. Notice the point at which this changed for Jarena, when she felt impelled to stand and expound on the passage about Jonah, and how (as she described it) her bishop was moved enough by the power of her words to reverse his earlier prohibition and finally authorize her to preach. But she had taken a real risk.

Here are some reading discussion questions to look over and talk about concerning the Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee.

1. What does this account reveal of Jarena's social situation? Were you surprised about any of her circumstances or experiences? Why?

2. Trace out the stages of Jarena's spiritual development, as she understands it. In particular, go back to the descriptions of the three stages of spiritual development as Jarena understood them: conviction, conversion, and sanctification. What is involved here? What do you think of this understanding of spiritual development? How does this understanding of progress on the journey compare to the understandings we have from reading Buber (mystical Judaism), Black Elk (Native American-Sioux) and Thich Nhat Hanh (Vietnamese Zen Engaged Buddhism)? How does her account compare to your understanding of Christianity from your own background or other sources?

3. In what ways did Jarena position herself by means of her religious experience and her articulation of what this experience meant to challenge the social roles she was put in as an African American woman with limited education and financial resources during the time of slavery in this country? What did you think of the religious experiences (visions, dreams) that Jarena described?

4. What do you think accounts for Jarena's strength of purpose and persistence in overcoming resistance to her call to preach?

5. The Bible - discuss how it shaped Jarena's experience, positively or negatively - and shaped social relations in her life (within the church community, the family, shaping gender relations, shaping relations between social classes and races).

6. Look at the role of psychological or physical illness in Jarena's spiritual journey. How does this connect with the illness Black Elk experienced when he had his visions?