"I now began to think seriously of breaking up housekeeping," Jarena Lee wrote, looking back on a pivotal moment in her life, "and forsaking all to preach the everlasting Gospel." In 1804, when Lee was in despair over her sins and on the brink of suicide, she heard the future African Methodist Episcopal bishop Richard Allen preach a sermon. That day, Lee found a people with whom she wanted to unite, and over the next several weeks she gained confidence in God's forgiveness and her own salvation.

Several years later, Lee began to preach, which upset Allen and other church leaders, who allowed women to serve as exhorters but restricted the ministry to educated, ordained men.

"Did not Mary first preach the risen Saviour?" Lee responded to her critics. Undeterred by critics, Jarena Lee relentlessly itinerated around the northeastern United States for three decades, calling on men and women, white and black, to confess their sins, accept divine salvation and seek the perfecting work of the Holy Spirit.