Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Because of the highly developed religious systems of Africa, slaves transported. to the New World continued to practice their religious rites and traditions, even though they were in a strange land. The similarity of the Biblical experiences, such as prophets, visitations, and miracles, to African religious beliefs was of great interest to the slaves as they heard plantation owners talk about religion.

Africans became Christians in an African sense, not the European sense, an important distinction, because the music, idiom of worship, and hermeneutics (Bible interpretation) are direct results of their heritage and culture. The African American church that evolved is, basically, an African-dominated. fusion of faiths. The theology of the African American church is the liberating power of God. Essentially, it is the study of God and God’s relationship to the world from an African American perspective, a personal experience with the Almighty Sovereign God, emerging out of the crucible of suffering.

Because African Americans controlled their churches, the preaching style became the epitome of their uniqueness. The pattern of “call and response” was easily traceable to African culture. The African American preacher had to give strength for the current day’s journey, and guidance and vision for extended survival in an oppressive existence. Interest, too, had to be given to the immediate needs of humanity, and intellectual questions became secondary or almost nonexistent.

Women were acknowledged in the founding of the early African American churches, although not in the approved ministerial ranks. However, they have been preaching and teaching, albeit unauthor­ized, since the early nineteenth century.

Jarena Lee, the first female preacher of record permitted to preach in the African American Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church, kept a journal that offers an account of her religious calling, travels and sermons. Although this autobiography, written in the third-person, does not provide a surname, it does offer telling information. The diarist was born February 11, 1783, in Cape May, New Jersey, where her parents were in servitude. She joined Bethel Church in Philadelphia when she was employed by a Roman Catholic family residing several miles outside of the city.

Jarena Lee recorded experiencing inner messages which urged her to “Go, preach the gospel.” When she told the Reverend Richard Allen of her experiences and her desire to preach, he responded by telling her about a Mrs. Cook, a Methodist, who had been granted the privilege to preach by verbal license of the Methodist preacher-in-charge at the time. But he also advised her that the Methodist Discipline knew nothing at all about women preachers.

In 1811, Jarena married the Reverend Joseph Lee, the pastor of a society, or congregation, at Snow Hill, New Jersey (now the Mt. Pisgah A.M.E. Church of Lawnside). Within six years, two sons were born to the Lees, but the Reverend Lee died. Upon the death of her husband, Lee returned to Philadelphia and resumed attendance at (Mother) Bethel Church. Not long after, in 1817, a Reverend Richard Williams was scheduled to preach at the church. The Reverend Williams began as planned but seemed to falter, and Lee – moved by what she described only as an “ungovernable impulse”­ – arose and proceeded to expound on the text. When she realized what she had done, she grew frightened for having interrupted the service. However, the Reverend Allen was so moved by her delivery that he arose and confessed that his rejection of her request to be allowed to preach eight years earlier had now been overturned by what he had witnessed. He said he firmly believed that Jarena Lee had, indeed, been “called” to preach.

Lee received another inspiration to preach on the following Sabbath and held a meeting in the home of a friend and fellow member of Bethel Church, which was attended by five individuals. One of the worshipers offered her house for the next service; it served as a meeting place for the following six months. So began the preaching ministry of the first woman verbally “licensed” to do so in the African Methodist Episcopal Connection. Lee began to travel the countryside, conducting meetings in both houses and public places. Her audiences were reported to be racially and denomi­nationally mixed, and her services were noted for the frequent witnessing of the conviction of souls “crying for mercy.”

Although Lee retained her member­ship in the Society at Snow Hill, she made Philadelphia her winter home, residing there from November until spring, when she began traveling again. One son died and the other lodged ,in the residence of Bishop Allen and his wife while she moved about. Lee recorded many bouts of debilitating illness, yet she would cheerfully set out on her next mission as soon as her health permitted her to travel. She is known to have held many services in New (then West) Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New York.

Lee wrote that Bishop Richard Allen gave her many preaching appointments, not only at Bethel and Union Churches in Philadelphia but also at the conferences which were held as the new Connection was developing. As time went on, her territory expanded; she traveled through Maryland, Ohio, and Canada. On a few occasions she preached to Indians. She frequently recorded her texts, subjects, and the substance of her messages. She traveled with circuit elders and enjoyed many camp meetings. In addition to her active ministry, she was concerned about the education – or lack of it – among the children, wherever she traveled. She encouraged the unlearned to seek out someone to teach them and to organize schools. Lee helped establish schools in St. Davids, Brantford, Chatham, and St. Catharines in upper New York and Canada.

Although she was generally well received because word of the manifestation of the Holy Spirit through her efforts had preceded her, and because Bishop Allen staunchly supported her, Jarena Lee occasionally encountered opposition from both laity and clergy. During one difficult encounter, her argument proved to be ironclad.

If an ass reproved Balaam, and a barn­door fowl reproved Peter, why should not a woman reprove sin? I do not introduce this for its complimentary [sic] classification of women with donkeys or fowls, but to give the reply of a poor woman who had once been a slave. Maybe a speaking woman is like an ass, but I can tell you one thing, the ass seen the angel when Balaam didn’t.

Such obstacles did not deter Jarena Lee, and her travel accelerated. In 1820, she traveled west to Pittsburgh, stopped in Washington, Pennsylvania, then continued to Steubenville, Ohio, which did not have an African American church, but where believers resided. She then traveled to Zanesville, or West Zanesville, Ohio, where her converts resolved to build a meetinghouse and subsequently did – on a ground donated by a Quaker. In winter 1822, she walked “14 miles to meet with some ministers from Philadelphia.” When it came time to worship, the minister charged with conducting the service did not appear, so Lee undertook the preaching. “From Philadelphia, she traveled 3″0 miles on foot to Downingtown in December, then walked 16 miles to Bro. Wells, where she labored among the colored and white.”

The records Jarena Lee left of her preaching document the sheer number of communities to which she traveled in her campaign to save souls. In 1830, for instance, after inspiring listeners in Pittsburgh, she worked her way eastward. In 1835, she experienced trouble gaining access to pulpits in Philadelphia, most likely because Bishop Allen, who had so vigorously supported her cause, had died.

Lee traveled a great deal on foot, once walking from Philadelphia to Lumberton (Mt. Laurel), New Jersey – a distance of twenty-one miles! Not only did she record her sermons, she also noted distances traveled. In one particu­lar four-year period she recorded that she had traveled sixteen hundred miles, of which she had walked two hundred and eleven! From July 1832 to October 1833, she preached one hundred and thirty­-eight sermons and traveled nearly twenty-eight hundred miles.

Lee’s labors seem to have encouraged A.M.E. Church women to engage in active preaching ministries. Sophie Murray, an early member of Bethel, in Philadelphia, is rarely mentioned in the records of her time, but she is described in Joseph Thompson’s account of interviews with original members of the congregation as “the first evangelist of Bethel” and a highly revered resident of Philadelphia. Thompson also described Elizabeth Cole, whose evangelistic work added greatly to the membership of Bethel, as responsible for having “held many glorious prayer meetings, and many souls were brought to the saving knowledge.”

The most well-known A.M.E. woman preacher after Jarena Lee, Amanda Berry Smith (1836-1915), was active between 1868 and 1900. She was born to slave parents living in Long Green, Maryland. Her father, Samuel Berry, was able to purchase freedom for himself, his wife Miriam and five of his children before he died in Philadelphia in 1868.

Amanda Berry Smith was introduced to formal schooling at the age of eight. Her classes were conducted in a vacant house opposite her family home, situated in the cow,try between Newmarket and Strausburg, York County, on the Baltimore and York Turnpike. Even though classes were racially mixed, she briefly endured “unkind treatment” until transferring to Rule’s Schoolhouse, two miles from her home. After a short stay, she transferred to a third school, but time spent U,ere was brief because her father, seeking better employment, moved U,e family nearer to Strausburg. Samuel Berry found few opportunities available to him in his waning years and Amanda accepted the responsibility of assisting financially by securing live-in employment.

She joined a Methodist Episcopal congregation, but as the sole African American member she was placed last in everything. This made it impossible for her to participate in class meetings and retain her job, so she stopped attending services and was considered “backslid­den.” Her father, meanwhile, decided to move his family to York and – for the first time in her life – Amanda had the opportunity to worship with an African American congregation. She joined the church and remained in York until 1856.

In March 1856, she went to work for a Quaker family in Columbia, Lancaster County. It was here that she testified to obtaining a clear and distinct witness of the Spirit that God, for Christ’s sake, had “pardoned” all her sins. In spite of her earlier conversion, Amanda retained her A.M.E. Church membership. Upon the death of her first husband, Calvin M. Devine, in July 1856, she married the Reverend James H. Smith, a deacon in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The Reverend Smith died in November 1869, leaving his widow with five children.

On the first Sunday in September 1868, in Green Street Methodist Episcopal Church, New York, Amanda Berry Smith, received final assurance that God had bestowed upon her “the blessing of perfect love.” She began her preaching ministry and prayed for the church to grant her the official authority to do so. The Reverend Nelson Turpin, pastor of Sullivan Street African Methodist Episcopal Church, also in New York, gave her a letter of recom­mendation to be presented to any pastor willing to accept her services. However, the evidences of her calling were so obvious that she had little need for such recommendation. Smith worked primarily in New York and in New England, but as her fame spread throughout the Middle Atlantic states, she began receiving invitations to travel westward, beginning in Cincinnati, Ohio, and extending as far as Minnesota. In 1879, she began working abroad in India, England, and Africa, returning stateside in 1890. She died twenty-five years later in Harvey, Illinois.

In 1889, Harriet A. Baker (1829-1913) was “appointed by the Philadelphia A.M.E. Conference to take charge of St. Paul’s Church on Tenth Street, in the city of Lebanon, Pennsylvania.” Baker had converted in 1842, at the age of thirteen, when she attended a “band” meeting, mistakenly believing it to be a dancing event. She was married in October 1845, and two years later she and her husband and one child moved from Maryland to Lancaster County, settling in Columbia. In November 1850, the Bakers moved to New York, stayed eight weeks, then returned to Columbia.

Baker had long believed that God had an important task for her. She had a vision of being stranded in deep water, with a cord swinging back and forth overhead, accompanied by a voice saying “lay hold.” This persuaded her to acknowledge the call to spread the gospel through preaching, even though she faced opposition from her husband, her pastor, her friends, and fellow members of her church. Two of her daughters died and she herself became deathly ill three times. After her third recovery she vowed she would follow wherever God led. After two years of inaction, she realized that the open opposition to her entering the preaching ministry had ceased. Baker experienced another vision so strong that both friends and foes believed they recognized the power of God in her life. The resounding cry the next day was universal: “Loose the woman and let her go!”

In winter 1872, Baker packed, left her three young children at home, and boarded the train for Acton Station. She found a ride to Brownstown and met the pastor of the Evangelical Church. After two years of fruitful labor among white churches, the way was finally cleared for her to work among the churches of her own people and she was granted a license to preach. Baker was first listed in the Philadelphia Annual Conference Records on June 13, 1888, as a female evangelist of Columbia, along with Elizabeth Ralls, Maria Harris, and Melinda Cotton (1834-1910) of Philadelphia. On May 23, 1889, when Cotton and Hannah Barrett were named evangelists in the Philadelphia Annual Conference, Baker was assigned as pastor in Lebanon. In July, she was listed among the ministerial delegates to the Lancaster District Conference. She was the only female pastor in the Lancaster District. Her work was endorsed by A.M.E. bishops John Brown, Richard Cain, Jabez P. Campbell, T. M. D. Ward, and Henry M. Turner, from each of whom she received the authority to preach. Harriet A. Baker also opened a mission in Allentown, Lehigh County, about 1900. In 1914, the year following her death, her Allentown residence became U,e home of the St. James African American Episcopal Zion Church.

The official reports of the Philadelphia A.M.E. Annual Conference of the 1890s tell of the preaching of a number of women. Notable among these was Melinda M. Cotton, a member of Class Number Three of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in West Chester. The Annual Conference records reveal that Cotton and Harriet A Baker, both formally recognized as evangelists, presented reports of their endeavors in 1895, but only the report of Mary C. Palmer who assisted in Philadelphia area churches was printed.

The Union Church of African Members, incorporated in the state of Delaware in September 1813, made clear in 1859 its decision on the question of women preachers. “Concerning women preachers, the Quaker Friends have always spoken for us, that their way the [women] shall always preach for us when they have a mind, and none but them.” Although the number of women who applied for licenses to preach in the pre­-Civil War years remains uncertain, it is known that women – including Mother Ferreby Draper, Mother Lydia Hall, and Annes Spencer – performed duties traditionally associated with ministry.

Most of the women who belonged to the original Union Church of Africans broke away between 1851 and 1856 to become members of the Union American Methodist Episcopal Church. This new denomination continued to welcome women as licensed preachers and, by the turn of the century, a significant number of women had become widely recognized preachers. Some became pastors of small congregations, some served as pastoral assistants, others assumed the role of local preachers or evangelists. Today, at least twenty women serve as ministers.

In 1876, the General Conference of the A.M.E. Zion Church voted to strike out the word “male” in its Book of Discipline. At the seventy-third session of the New York Annual Conference in 1894, Julia Foote, a conference missionary, was ordained a deacon. The following year, Mrs. J. Small, the wife of a bishop, was ordained a deacon at the sixty-seventh Session of the Philadelphia and Baltimore Conference. She was the first Methodist woman to be ordained an elder. Her ordination took place in 1898, but she had been licensed to preach six years earlier.

The Women’s National Evangelistic and Missionary Conference was founded in Philadelphia in 1911, by Alice V. J. Winston. A brochure, printed in 1934, explains its origins.

This Conference is the result of a vision. And the Lord carried me upon a high mountain, and said to me, “Call the woman preacher, the singing evangelist, the Slum workers, the cottage workers.” And after I had called, thousands responded to the call, from all corners of the earth, representing all denominations: some came crying, some came shouting, some came laughing and then the Lord said to me, “tell them to go forward, and Lo, I am with you always” and so in obedience to the Great Creator of Heaven and earth, 1 go forward leading them and “if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16). Our object is to cultivate, foster and further the cause of Christ along all missionary lines; to help struggling women where they may not have the chance to work as they feel God has called and chosen them; or if possible, where they may be hampered by lack of proper credentials or support; to stimulate Christian fellowship and to adopt as our motto the words of the Apostle wizen he said, “Study to show thyself approved unto God; a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of Truth.” (II Timothy 2:15)

The Women’s National Evangelistic and Missionary Conference set as its goals the founding of “a home for the aged and decrepit Evangelists and Missionaries irrespective of the location of their various fields” and “to do educational, home, foreign missionary and slum work.” The Reverend Winston, an ordained A.M.E. Zion minister, died in 1928 in New York, but her vision lives on today in nearly two dozen chapters on the East Coast and in Africa.

But how did the venerable A.M.E. Church arrive at the decision to officially accept preaching women?

At the General Conference of 1844, delegate Nathan Ward of the Indiana Conference presented a petition calling for women to be permitted or authorized to preach. It failed. The 1848 General Conference proposed to license women to travel as preachers, but the measure lost on the second vote. The Philadelphia Annual Conference of 1850 received a proposal recommending that women be permitted to form their own Connection and appoint their preachers, but little is known of this attempt. In his address to the General Conference two years later, Bishop Paul Quinn asked the delegates to give thought to the subject of licensing women to preach. On May 13, 1864, while the General Conference was in session, delegate Henry Davis offered a preamble and resolution to obtain permission for females to preach. His resolution was tabled, but on May 24, the Reverend Davis called for the tabled resolution. His request was “laid over” in order to hear the newly ordained bishops’ inaugural addresses. The Reverend Davis made a second request for recalling the petition, but he was ignored.

The number of women engaged in a preaching ministry in the A.M.E. Church without Connection recognition contin­ued to grow, and by the mid-twentieth century women had been officially permitted in the local ministry. In 1948, the thirty-third General Conference convened in Philadelphia, during which delegates enthusiastically voted to ordain women. But this was to apply only to the rank of local deacon. The question of women pastors caused such controversy in the Philadelphia Annual Conference that one bishop announced that he would raise the question at the 1958 session of the Council of Bishops. Within two years, the General Conference approved legislation admitting women to the order of itinerant deacon. Women who served as pastors were considered candidates for elders’ orders.

At the General Conference of 1976, held in Atlanta, the Reverend Jacqueline Grant asked fellow women ministers to meet with her to discuss their status in the church. The group presented a position paper requesting an authorized committee to address the needs and concerns of clergywomen. The request was presented during the 1977 Summer Session of the Council of Bishops, and an ad hoc Committee on Women in Ministry was formed. During the General Conference held three years later in New Orleans, the Reverend Grant again attempted to determine the status of clergywomen. The women met several times during the Conference and began planning a Conference on Women in Ministry, the first of which was convened in Atlanta in 1983. Women and men representing thirteen Episcopal Districts met to articulate and address the needs of women in ministry in the A.M.E. Church. In workshops and seminars, women began to work in an organized manner to sensitize the church to what may be called “benign sexual oppression.”

And, today, after more than a century, African American women are well represented in the clergy.

Elder Ida Robinson, pastor of Mt. Olive Holy Church, United Holy Church of America, Philadelphia, inspired by the Holy Spirit, withdrew from the denomination and established a new organization in 1924. Chartered by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as Mount Sinai Holy Church of America, the organization flourished under Bishop Robinson. Women assumed leadership roles – almost unheard of in those days.

Women ministers, for the most part, were not recognized by Baptists of either gender. In Baptist churches, both black and white, the participation of female members was circumscribed. The ordained ministry in genera I and the pastorate in particular, remained unattainable for women, a position supported firmly by both men and women. Then, in 1978, the Reverend Prathia Hall Wynn was called to pastor Mount Sharon Baptist Church in Philadelphia, which had been founded by her father, the Reverend Berkeley Hall, in 1938. The Reverend Wynn was also the first ordained woman admitted to membership in the area Baptist clergy associations.

During the National Baptist Convention in Detroit in 1981, participants were told that the time had come for clergywomen to organize and form an independent convention. Since the National Baptist Convention’s inception, clergy­women had been regularly attending the annual meetings, but without recognition. The following year, Michigan Baptist Clergywomen became the first to organize and, in 1983, several states joined together to create the National Baptist Women Ministers, U.S.A., Inc. This organization received the endorse­ment and support of the National Baptist Convention and members have been registered as clergywomen since 1983.

Several attempts to organize black clergywomen in Philadelphia have been made. In 1976, the Reverends Jeane B. Williams of the A.M. E. Church and Lucy Bolds of the United Methodist Church, held several meetings, but opposition from several determined Baptist women ministers discouraged them. However, Women in the Clergy Fellowship of Philadelphia and Vicinity was formed two years later, and the Interdenomi­national Women Ministers’ Conference and the National Women’s Fellowship of Philadelphia for Ministers and Missionaries were organized in 1985.

The most recent addition to the black church denominational family, the African American Catholic Congregation, founded by Bishop George A. Stallings in 1989, has not hesitated to accept black clergywomen. The Reverend Rose Vernell was ordained priest by the African American Catholic Congregation and appointed to head the West Philadelphia Isani Temple in September 1991.

It took years of hard – and at times heart-breaking – work by many African American women to ensure that they would have a unified voice and a recognized role in their churches. They encountered challenge after challenge. They suffered unbridled criticism. They survived outright rejection. They even faced opposition from friends and family. Nevertheless, they persevered and today their voices ring out in African American churches throughout Pennsylvania and far beyond, spreading the gospel of the Lord.

Loose the woman and let her go!


For Further Reading

Cone, Cecil F. Identity Crisis in Black Theology. Nashville: A.M.E.C., 1979.

Handy, James A. Scraps of African Methodist Episcopal History. Philadelphia: A.M.E. Book Concern, 1900.

Hull, Gloria T., Patricia B. Scott, and Barbara Smith, eds. But Some of Us Are Brave. Old Westbury, N. Y.: Feminist Press, 1982.

Mitchell, Henry H. Black Preaching. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1970.

Payne, Daniel S. History of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Nashville: A.M.E. Sunday School Union, 1891.

Smith, Charles S. History of the African Methodist Episcopal Church: Appendix, Minutes of the 1844 General Conference. Philadelphia: A.M.E. Book Concern, 1922.

Taylor, Marshall W. Amanda Smith, Or the Life and Mission of a Slave Girl. Cincinnati: Cranston and Stowe, 1886.

Walker, Clarence E. Rock in a Weary Land. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.


The Reverend Jeane B. Williams, D. D., who served as pastor of the historic Bensalem African Methodist Episcopal Church in Bensalem, resides in Wayne. Born in Philadelphia, site attended Allegheny College, Immaculata College, Drexel University, and the University of Pennsylvania. A librarian by profession, she has worked in public and academic institutions. The author is an ordained elder in the Community Church and an itinerant elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. She is the former historiographer of the First Episcopal District and the Philadelphia Annual Conference of the A.M.E. Church. Site is currently researching the African American Episcopal Church in Pennsylvania and African American women preachers.